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Broaching Burke 

James Lee Burke talks about his new book, his two home states and juggling a pair of popular detective series.

Q: Do you enjoy juggling books between the Dave Robicheaux series and those involving Billy Bob Holland?

A: I've written about the Holland family for 35 years. They're based on my mother's family. My daughter, Alafair, who's also a novelist, was named for my grandmother, Alafair Holland. There's one titled Two for Texas, it's an historical story about the Texas Revolution. It was made into a film by the Turner network. And I wrote a number of short stories about the Hollands, as well as a novel called Lay Down My Sword and Shield. Billy Bob, though, didn't appear until Cimarron Rose (1997). It's been pretty successful going back and forth.

Q: Your new novel has subplots such as terrorism and its links to global corporations, as well as an interesting set of problems for Billy Bob Holland. How did the book come about?

A: The title comes from the Oglala way of telling the seasons of the year by indicating natural events, animals, allusions to animals. One of the main characters is Johnny American Horse, a descendant of Crazy Horse, the Lakota Sioux Indian who was a visionary as well as a brilliant tactician.

Q: Johnny American Horse is a classic character who suffers greater injustice and cruelty the more he tries to fight for what he believes is right. What do you make of him?

A: He's a troubled man. Ultimately he's the altruist who's going to be crucified. He's the Christ character in the book, no question about it.

Q: Is his character or the theme of the book a departure for you?

A: All my books eventually go back to Mount Golgotha. They all deal, in one way or another, with the same story: The fact that society rejects, with murderous intention, those who try to redirect us away from ourselves. History doesn't just repeat itself, it's the nature of human beings. The drama is inside ourselves. We recreate the past in our world constantly.

Q: What were you able to do differently in this book that you hadn't done before?

A: It deals more, thematically, with the earth and the plight of a desperate man who believes evil forces are in our midst. It deals with the Iraqi situation, with Saddam Hussein, with the American companies who sold him his biochemical agents, because that's what, indeed, occurred.

Q: This book is set in Montana and your Robicheaux series is set in your other home state, Louisiana. What sort of juxtaposition exists between those two places?

A: A place like Montana is as close to heaven as you're going to get. John Steinbeck put it this way. He said, "Montana's a love affair." But it's just one beautiful place on the earth. The earth is a beautiful playground that God gave us, but we're in danger of ruining it.

And Louisiana, which at one time was a tropical paradise, is under tremendous environmental stress. It's a tragedy. I can only compare it to rape. It's not hyperbole. It's rape on every level, with the petrochemical plants, the litter, the systemic pollution of everything in the ecology of that state.

These are the statistics: Louisiana (ranks among the worst places for) infant-mortality rates, respiratory problems, heart and blood disease. It's among the highest in the nation in traffic fatalities, you can go on and on. Forty-six percent of the children are born to single mothers. Only Mississippi's rate was higher. Louisiana still has many beautiful places, but it's going under if we don't change. Louisiana is a tragedy: The erosion of the coast, the cutting of the live oaks. It's sad.

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