Houston born and Louisiana raised author James Lee Burke was born on December 5th, 1936. The author of 35 novels, Burke has lead an interesting life. We celebrate him and his literary achievements with a few facts.
He didn't do so well in school
By his own admission, he was not the best student in high school or in college. He credits an English Professor, Lyle Williams, for his turn around:
“Freshman year I had an epiphany. An English professor named Lyle Williams gave me a D-on every paper. I went and asked her why. She said, ‘Your spelling is an assault upon the eyeballs. Your penmanship makes me wish the Phoenicians had not developed the alphabet. But I couldn’t give you an F because you have so much heart.’ Every Saturday I went with her and rewrote the essay for the week. I got a B and made the dean’s list. Lyle Williams changed my life.”
He has a pretty interesting family
Burke's cousin is writer Andre Dubus. The two of them had a bit of a competitive streak, Burke claims. After Dubus won the Louisiana College Short Story contest, Burke entered and got honorary mention the following year, starting this love of writing.
His wife and four children are pretty special as well. Pearl Pai Chu had escaped communist China in 1949 and met him at the University of Missouri where he courted her.
“Jim shared his books with me, because I had no money,” says Pearl, who studied English at the University of Taiwan and was a flight attendant with a Flying Tigers affiliate before coming to the U.S. for a graduate degree. “He typed my term papers. He cooked me meals.”Of his four children, two work in the literary field. Pamala runs his website and his social media while Alafair is a successful novelist.
He worked a lot of jobs
Throughout his life, he has worked many jobs to provide for himself and his family. He was a caseworker for parolees in Los Angeles, a police reporter in Louisiana, a recorder of music in Angola Prison, and a teacher at various colleges for creative writing and English. He also drove trucks for the Forest Service and was a landman for Sinclair Oil.
He's an award winner
Burke has two Edgar Awards, awards given from the Mystery Writers of America, for Black Cherry Blues and Cimarron Rose.
Burke has also been awarded a Breadloaf fellowship, 1970; Southern Federation of State Arts Agencies grant, 1977; National Endowment grant, 1977; Pulitzer Prize nomination, 1987, for The Lost Get-Back Boogie; Guggenheim fellowship, 1989; Edgar Allan Poe Award nomination for best novel and Hammett Prize nominee, North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers, both 2003, both for Jolie Blon's Bounce.
He's a collector
Burke has had various collections in his life, ranging from coins to minie balls (a type of muzzle-loading spin-stabilized rifle bullet from the Civil War). One of his most prominent collections is on display in his Montana home, his various guns from Civil War models and the same type of .45 Thompson Dillinger used.
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Image from jamesleeburk.com