Helena native James Sallis’ career has run the gamut of styles and modes — crime noir, science fiction, poetry, translation, journalism, gritty novellas and more. His bibliography includes two books on jazz guitar, a biography on crime fiction author Chester Himes, several books of poetry and six novels about a New Orleans professor, poet, novelist and sometimes private eye. Yet it was the recent film adaptation of the 2005 novel “Drive,” a stark, brutal and stylized take on his work, that’s brought him wider recognition and acclaim.
“I think the film is brilliant, from Hoss’ (Hossein Amini) screenplay on through the music and photography to every performance,” Sallis, 70, said in an interview with the Times. “Discrete from my novel? Yes, differing, but equivalent, vocabularies. Yet, the heart and soul of my novel beat away in Nicolas Refn’s film.”
A literary life with stops in London, New York, Boston and now Phoenix, began in the Delta. His father worked for Arkansas Power & Light Co., and his mother was the Helena city clerk. His elder brother, John Sallis, a well-known philosopher and a prodigious author as well, introduced James to the world of literature as well as other lifelong interests.
“I stole the first books I ever read off his shelves, read ‘The Stranger’ for the first time when he brought it home from college, inherited my love of classical music from hearing him play it,” he said.
The science fiction of Robert Heinlein, C.M. Kornbluth and Richard Matheson first sparked his imagination. The writings of Theodore Sturgeon propelled him to write and gave him faith that he could become a writer.
“Even then, what’s become a cornerstone of my criticism and of my own writing, I didn’t differentiate, didn’t throw writers, stories or books into wee bins that had ‘literary’ or ‘mystery’ or ‘genre’ on them,” he said.
As early as he can remember, Sallis said he was writing short plays and stories.
“Sometime around the 10th grade I started realizing that I couldn’t get away from it, that literature was going to hunt me down and eat me,” he said.
Like many writers born in the South who have sought work, experiences and professional life elsewhere in the world, Sallis’ birthplace continues to loom large. He said the rhythms and mood of the Delta have been a guide throughout his literary journey.
“There’s definitely something more than cliche to that whole ‘Southerners are storytellers’ thing,” he said. “And to the richness of language, much of it derived from the blacks among whom we lived. As a child I’d listen to my grandfather coming up the hill to our house reciting ‘Snowbound’ or ‘Thanatopsis,’ the whole of these long, long poems.”
It was his youth in the Delta and years later spent in New Orleans that inspired the disenfranchised characters living on the fringes of society that inhabit many of his stories.
“I became firmly attuned to a prototypical reverence for individuality, even widely divergent individuality,” he said. “A respect, even a protective instinct, towards the marginalized, those living far off center, out on the edge.”
His predilection for shifting styles and genres as he moves about a literary landscape as best he sees fit is not lost on fans, critics and friends, with one acquaintance once asking him if he had yet to decide on what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“I still write in all those modes and manners,” he said. “I publish science fiction and ‘arealist’ short stories, contribute a regular books column to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. My latest novel is “Others of My Kind,” an oddly-shaped crime novel set in a near-future dystopia, with ‘Black Night’s Gonna Catch Me Here: Selected Poems 1968-2012’ set for publication next year.”
Old family friends and any physical connections to his youth in the Arkansas Delta have long since passed on, yet Sallis said he still feels tied to this land of his kinsman and earliest memories.
“My uncle, until he died, donated a copy of each of [my and my brother’s] books to the library in the tiny town of Marvel, Arkansas, where his mother, our grandmother, lived,” he said. “I love the notion of all those heavily intellectual philosophy books and all those gritty novels sitting there looking out mournfully on cotton and soybean fields.”