Meet the mystery man behind "Drive"

Author James Sallis returns with his latest novel, "The Killer is Dying."

Story highlights

  • Author James Sallis's 2005 noir classic, "Drive," arrives on the big screen this week
  • His latest, "The Killer is Dying," involves three strangers who unwittingly cross paths in Phoenix
  • Sallis has written more than two dozen volumes of fiction, poetry, essays, criticism & biography
James Sallis may be the best crime writer you've never heard of.
In an award-winning career spanning some forty years, he's written more than two dozen volumes of fiction, poetry, essays, criticism and biography inspiring a small but cult-like following of readers. Now his fan base is about to get a big boost.
His newest novel, "The Killer is Dying" is drawing praise from critics all over the world, while his 2005 noir classic, "Drive" arrives on the big screen this week.
"Drive" features an all-star cast, including Hollywood hunk Ryan Gosling in the starring role as Sallis describes, "a guy who does stunt driving for movies by day and drives for criminals at night." Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn won best director at the Cannes film festival for "Drive" earlier this year.
Sallis also has a new novel out, "The Killer is Dying."
It's the story of three strangers who unwittingly cross paths in the sun-scorched sprawl of Phoenix. There's Christian, a dying hit man on his final job, Sayles, the detective trying to catch him, and Jimmie a teenager abandoned by his parents, who is somehow seeing Christian's dreams. It's Sallis at his existential best; minimalist noir with a cinematic feel. It's pulp fiction for the 21st century.
Not just a writer, Sallis is also a poet, professor and musician. CNN recently caught up with him to talk about his new novel. Sallis, a man of letters but few words, gave us some insight into his work. The following is an edited transcript:
CNN: "The Killer is Dying" is not your typical crime novel, how would you describe it?
Sallis: As a novel about three isolated people living in a huge makeshift city in the middle of forbidding desert, three people who in the course of the novel find community of a sort.
CNN: Tell me more about your three main characters, Christian, Sayles & Jimmie.
Sallis: Christian is a hired killer dying of an unspecified terminal disease. He goes to fulfill his final contract but is beaten to the punch, and sees his mark taken down by someone else.
With no knowledge at all of Christian, Sayles is the detective investigating that attack. He is cut off from others and from his own emotions, with only his job to hold him in place; his wife is dying of cancer.
Jimmie is a teenager abandoned by both parents and living by his wits, buying and selling on eBay to get by, expecting any day to get caught and taken away. Then suddenly, in the third chapter, Jimmie is having the killer's, Christian's, dreams.
CNN: Phoenix really comes alive in your book, what is it about the city that interests you as a writer?
Sallis: It's the nation's fifth largest city, a triumph of will and engineering over common sense, surrounded by miles of what looks at first to be almost nothing. Sprawling, various, indefinable, ungraspable. If ever there was a melting pot, this is one. Kinda south, kinda west, kinda old, kinda ageless, kinda middle America, kinda Hispanic....
CNN: You're something of a renaissance man, beyond your crime novels, you're also a poet, a translator, a biographer, a musician and a teacher. How do these various disciplines influence your work overall?
Sallis: Take any one of those away, the work would be quite different. I would be quite different.
CNN: Did you always want to be a writer?
Sallis: I think I knew pretty early that that's where I was headed. Like the automobile wreck in JB: "Saw it start to, saw it had to, saw it happen." Or as someone once described noir fiction: "force of circumstances driving protagonists to the commission of dreadful acts."
CNN: One of your most popular novels, "Drive," is out now as a Hollywood movie. How involved were you in the adaptation and what do you think of the movie?
Sallis: I had no involvement beyond providing the novel -- the buzzer in the chair that got everyone up and moving. It's an astonishingly fine movie, one that will be talked about and referenced, I suspect, for many years. Nic Refn's direction, Ryan's acting, Albert Brooks' bad guy - all tremendous. Brilliant.
CNN: What have you read recently that really made an impression on you?
Sallis: Mostly rereads: a collection of Barry Hannah's stories, "Long, Last, Happy." Danny Woodrell's "The Bayou Trilogy." Also "The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller."
CNN: What's next for you?
Sallis: I'm a hundred-plus pages into a novel about Driver seven years further along, when the mob shows up, apparently to kill him. After that, back to reworking the draft of "Others of My Kind," about a woman abducted as a child and kept in a box under her abductor's bed, and who is now one of the world's good people. A brief portion of this appeared in my friend Patrick Millikin's anthology Phoenix Noir. Oh -- and a lot of playing festivals and coffee houses with my band, Three-Legged Dog.