Hollywood has helped many novelists find a greater audience, from Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson to Elmore Leonard and Patricia Highsmith. James Sallis can stand with them for both his skill as a prose stylist and his reinvention of the crime genre. Last year at this time, Sallis was one of the best unread writers in America when his novel The Killer is Dying received excellent reviews. But it was the movie adaptation of Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, that brought Sallis and his work greater attention. This month comes the sequel, Driven, set in the city of Phoenix, where Sallis currently lives. It is a city that he half-jokingly describes as a place that shouldn’t exist.
What did you think of the film Drive, and was there anything that really struck you that was changed or adapted in a way you didn’t think they should?
I think it’s a great movie, one that will be talked about and referenced for years. And I think what Nic [Winding Refn] has done is take my book, an homage to paperback novels of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and reimagined it into a film that pays homage to classic films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, translating my novelistic devices into an equivalent visual vocabulary. After seeing it I told my agent: You know, this is the movie I might have made, were I a filmmaker, with those tools, rather than a novelist, with mine.
Have movies had an influence on your work?
As my major influences I often claim bad science-fiction movies of the ‘50s. After that, a steady decade or three of foreign films, especially French. Films made me realize how atmosphere can be created in so many ways—mist rising from a grating, a casual glance, rain running down a window—and how much can be passed to the viewer, or to the reader, nondiscursively; how much space one might leave around the story, the characters, the setting.
How did you end up writing a sequel to Drive?
One day my agent Vicky Bijur called. The producers were asking if there’d be a sequel to Drive. Of course not, I harrumphed—being an artiste and all. I hung up the phone and sat there with the image of a woman leaning against a wall, bleeding out. I wrote the first page and was hooked.
Driven feels very similar to Drive in that it’s a very taut, brutal book which at the end opens up to something bigger, almost mythic. Was that always your intent?
This time out, yes. Driven needed to echo, to ring against the original. But with Drive, that ending came as a surprise even as I wrote my way into it. I had worried over how I could end the book. Then when I got there, that ending—that opening onto the mythic—was waiting for me, just kind of hanging around on the street corner. “Hey, good to see you, man.”
Why did you end up setting the book in Phoenix? Coming out right after The Killer is Dying, which was released last year and also set in the city, they make the case for the city as a great noir setting.
If you remember, Driver’s early years were spent in this area. It seemed only natural and right that, attempting to construct for himself a normal life, he’d return.
You’ve lived in Phoenix for many years now, but what is it that has prompted you to set novels here?
In a recent profile for The L.A. Times, Scott Martelle started off: “James Sallis lives in a place that really shouldn’t exist.” That, of many things, may be what most fascinates me about Phoenix. On the one hand, everything about the city is made, a triumph of brute will and engineering over good sense. And this peculiar Camelot is set down in a vast natural desert, forbidding, unknowable. Something about the juxtaposition—this huge chunk of civilization, hemmed in by a natural world so alien and spare—not only appeals to the surrealist within me forever struggling to get out, it also seemed to chime with what my novel was turning out to be about, what was going on beneath its surface.
How much of Driven and The Killer is Dying represent your take on life in Phoenix, where people are largely isolated and the cityscape is largely featureless?
Certainly I was trying to represent what life is like here, in this very specific city, just as I tried to do the same with New Orleans in the Lew Griffin books. Not the external city so much, the office buildings and bank sites, the foreclosure signs and luxury resorts, but the lived city. "Let’s see," the little angel on my left shoulder says. "We’ve got a place that’s featureless, impossible to define, a place no one can get a hold on. Perfect!" The little devil on my right shoulder shouts: "Let’s do it!"
In each of your books you really use structure to tell the story and illuminate the characters’ lives in interesting ways.
The lives are what’s important, right? Fiction is a corrective to history, it tells us not what the grand claims and wars and changes were, but how people live their lives from day to day, despite or through all those things. One great attraction of crime fiction, of genre fiction as a whole, is that it offers implicit structure, a scaffolding, a skeleton—an infrastructure that can support all kinds of bridges and roads and turnoffs and overpasses.
Do you think that crime fiction is important because it so often is about the down and out and the marginalized?
Was it Chandler who said that Hammett took murder away from the manor houses and gave it back to the people who actually commit it? I’ve never understood the celebrity thing, the fascination with the rich and famous. The guy hanging on by his fingernails—that’s an interesting life, and one likely to tell us far more about the society around him.
You wrote a great biography of Chester Himes, who you argue was not just a great writer but also a key writer in 20th century American literature. He’s also a writer largely forgotten. Knowing that you can create great work, important work, and it can be ignored while you’re alive and forgotten soon after, does it affect what you do and what you chose to work on?
You get on with your work, that’s all you control. Tend to what’s in the headlights, this line, this scene, this page. Not much you can do about what’s ahead or beside you in the dark. You just keep trying to write better, more fully—to grab a few more fireflies.