The novelist talks James Lee Burke, New Orleans, and his ideal crime fighting team.
What books are on your nightstand?
Right now I’m reading a novel called Skippy Dies by an Irish writer named Paul Murray, and next on deck is James Lee Burke’s latest, The Jealous Kind. I’m looking forward to a couple of autobiographies just out, too. Springsteen’s Born to Run, his ideas about writing and storytelling are amazing, and Abby Wambach’s Forward. Because she’s awesome.
We know you’re a James Lee Burke fan. How did his work influence you?
I don’t even know where to start. I started reading him after I visited but before I moved to New Orleans, his books helped convince me. So there’s that. And he’s proof you don’t have to dumb down your writing to write in a genre. Neither your language nor your ideas. Yeah, he’s done a lot of crime writing, but he’s used the format to write some of the best, most beautiful, most insightful American literature of the past few decades. He’s living proof there’s no reason to limit how you write or what you write about. And I like that his books always have both immediate and existential threats; he explores the difference between venal criminality and real evil, which I find fascinating. He’s the reason I write crime; he showed me what a perfect template it is to explore things that matter to me. I do everything I can to learn from and be like him.
Your character Maureen Coughlin moves from your hometown, Staten Island to your adopted hometown, New Orleans. What sorts of street smarts apply in both places?
The same basic city street smarts apply, I think. Be careful who you trust, mind your surroundings. Pretty much nothing good happens on the street between 3 and 6 a.m. Have your car keys in your hand before you get to your car, that kind of thing. The basics. I’ve found New Yorkers and New Orleanians very similar. People in New Orleans are more approachable, maybe, but they’re truth-tellers in the same way.
If Maureen decided to move, are there any other cities you’ve considered? Are there other locations you’d like to explore, perhaps with a different character?
I don’t know, it’s not like one ever runs out of material writing about New Orleans. And I don’t know that there’s any type of story or novel that you couldn’t set here. I think Maureen is like me: she’s a lifer. I hope she’ll be around for a while, but I can’t see writing about her exclusively forever. I imagine I’ll write about New York again in the future. I could see myself writing about the service industry again. I lived on the Jersey Shore for a few years before New Orleans, in a real beach town, not like the show. I always thought I’d write about the beach, the ocean one day. Maybe Maureen will end up a charter captain in the Keys or the Outer Banks.
Audubon Park plays a big role in your new novel, Let the Devil Out. In researching for the book, what drew you to the park?
I try to work some new slice of the city into each book. I love the park. Every time I go I wonder why I don’t spend more time there. I ride my bike there. My wife and I got married there. The huge old oaks and the Spanish moss really remind me how different this place is from where I come from. It holds a lot of New Orleans in it: some wildlife, some old New Orleans history and money, lots of ordinary folks. At sunset, the light can get romantic and spectral. With Maureen being a runner, it seemed an easy setting to incorporate into a book.
You have a crime to solve in New Orleans. Who are the four people—living or dead—you ask to join your team?
Raymond Chandler, for sure. I would just want to watch him absorb New Orleans. Hunter S. Thompson for security. Lauren Bacall because she could get the answers that the rest of us couldn’t. And Jarret Lofstead, for the running commentary. This team has raunchy graphic novel written all over it.
Bill Loehfelm discusses Let the Devil Out at the Louisiana Book Festival
on October 29, 2016 at 2 p.m. in the State Capitol, Senate Committee Room C.