James Sallis recently finished his 15th novel. Within these tightly written, critically acclaimed masterpieces you will find guns, violence, detectives and brooding lines such as “As he struggles, he looks down. An ingot of bloody flesh, his flesh, drops on to his chest.” You will know him as the man who wrote Drive.
ShortList meets the 68-year-old author in the refined setting of the British Library over a cup of tea. The softly spoken American may not seem like the type of man to write the book that made Ryan Gosling an A-list actor, but as we hear gripping stories about finding discarded ears under bar stools (“It looked like a shrivelled, dried fruit”) it’s clear that, behind the grey beard and oval glasses, Sallis has lived a life less ordinary.
How do you come up with the initial ideas for your books?
I’ve always been an improviser. I never have an outline. I start with an image, which tends to come out of nowhere, then ask myself questions about that image, and by answering those questions the story narrates itself. I spend a lot of time just watching the cursor blink at me thinking, “Oh Lord, what am I going to now?”
Have you had an image for every book you’ve written?
Almost every book. Drive started with what is the first page – the bodies and Driver trying to figure out what to do. That was first scribbled on a legal pad in New Orleans four years before I picked it up and started writing. The only exception is [upcoming novel] Others Of My Kind. I was out walking and the voice just fell into my ear. It was the main character talking about being abducted and put in a box. I rushed home and typed it almost exactly the way it appears in the book.
At what point do you come up with a book’s title?
Often I have the name when I start. Drive I didn’t know until I’d finished it. I came up with all sorts of fanciful names. I used Blue At The Back Of My Head one time, which is from a Robert Creeley poem. I love the quote, but it’s a bit uppity for a book like Drive. Eventually, my wife said, “It’s Drive, you idiot!”
What advice do you give to new writers?
When in doubt, cut. We all tend to overwrite, and nothing got worse by being cut; it only gets better.
Your descriptions of violence are very authoritative. Were you involved in many fights as a younger man?
I had one fight in my life. I was 11 years old, and a bully began verbally assaulting and pushing me. One day, he started and I just grabbed his shoulders and slammed him into a cement embankment and started beating his head against the cement, very coldly. I realised then that the violence was inside me, and I did everything I could to keep from ever letting that happen again. A lot of what I write about concerns the violence that is inside all of us.
Have you seen many fights while playing on stage in your blues band, Three-Legged Dog?
My highlight was in Dallas, many years ago. I was playing steel guitar, and someone dropped on the dancefloor, I thought they were seizing – I’m a trained medical technician. The band leader told me to get down and help. So the band kept playing and I did CPR on the man until the ambulance showed up. I got back on stage and did my little steel guitar break while they were hauling the man out of the door. The other notable time was one night, as we were putting our equipment out, I found something under the table. I pulled it out and it was a human ear. I took it to the bartender and he said, “We’ve been looking for that.” It was from a fight the night before.
What is about Drive that made it perfect for a film adaptation?
Frankly, it was Hossein Amini’s script. The idea with Drive was to have a very simple story with a lot of momentum. It’s very cinematic – visual and action-orientated. [Years ago] they tried to make the book into a blockbuster. Scripts were written that had explosions and multiple car chases and heroism. It would have been dreadful. Hugh Jackman was being talked about in the main role, but he was involved with so many other things that he couldn’t do it and it was shelved. Then Ryan Gosling came aboard. He was looking for something different, something action/adventure, a strong, ‘Steve McQueen’ part. He really liked it, and he wanted Nicolas Winding Refn to direct. No one had any idea what was going to happen.
Did Nic and Ryan do anything to thank you, such as present you with a scorpion jacket?
My experience with the whole thing was so gracious and nice – I was kept in the loop constantly. I did not read the script, I didn’t want to, and at the premiere in LA the first thing Nic did when he went onstage was to thank me and say I was responsible for all of this, and I was bowled away. I have a scorpion sweatshirt, actually. I wear it – it has the scorpion on the sleeve.
Did you see Ryan’s band play?
No, we didn’t talk much. When I was on set he was so focused – you didn’t want to mess with him – so we said hello and shook hands. I was so entranced by his eyes. I just kept staring at them.
What about talk of the pair of them making the sequel, Driven?
Nic has finally said he is not going to make the sequel, and I never really expected that he would. Driven was written largely at the request of the studio. I feel that lightning strikes once, and maybe we should leave it alone, because it’s such an individual, fine film.
Has the popularity of Drive changed you?
It has, because it has brought so many readers to my early work and got it back into circulation. I was in the UK last year, and people were handing me stacks of books to sign. Guys would come up to me and say, “I went to see Drive because my girlfriend made me. Hell of a movie!” It’s made me so visible as writer.
Have you been asked to sign anything unusual?
An exact copy of the scorpion jacket, in Germany. I was surprised at that.
Others Of My Kind will be released on 27 October. A new special edition of Drive is out now, priced £7.99 (No Exit)
(Illustration: Cristina Couceiro)