A Conversation with James Sallis

By Simon McDonald, Editorial Manager |

Revered by CNN as “the best crime writer you’ve never heard of,” James Sallis is one of the genre’s premier stylists, whose critically acclaimed masterpieces have always challenged the preconceived devices of crime fiction. On July 29, Mulholland Books is reprinting Sallis’s classic espionage novel Death Will Have Your Eyes, in which a retired member of an elite corps of spies trained during the Cold War is tasked with hunting down a rogue agent. TheReadingRoom’s Simon McDonald recently caught up with James to talk about the re-release of his 1997 novel and his long, prolific career that shows no signs of abating.

Death Will Have Your Eyes was first published in 1997 to vast critical acclaim – The Edge magazine labelled it “outstanding,” Jonathan Lethem was “enthralled,” and Michael Moorcock called it your “best novel yet.” How does it feel to have the novel back out in the public eye (with a striking new cover!) for a generation of readers who perhaps missed it the first time?
Well, considering that almost everyone seems to have missed it the first time, it feels great. Tremendous. The book’s had a tiny group of ardent fans over the years, was even optioned for some time, but it more or less remained among the good dishes you don’t bring out often.

I’ve got to say, that title, Death Will Have Your Eyes, adapted from Cesare Pavese’s poem, is just fantastic and reminiscent of Fleming’s James Bond novels. How did you discover the poem, and at what stage in the writing process did it become the novel’s title?
I think the title came to me at the same time the basic shape of the book did. I was reading, as always, a lot of poetry and, especially just then, a lot of Pavese. I loved the double reading: that death will take your eyes, that death’s eyes will be those of a lover’s.

Death Will Have Your Eyes is categorized as a spy thriller, but it’s also much more than that, almost a deconstruction of the archetypical protagonists who populate the genre. Was this an intentional objective, or a theme that formed during the writing process?
I cook a lot. And generally I start out from a recipe, or did at some point in the past. But by the time I’m there by the stove, it’s all changing. I’m flying by the seat of my pants, seeing what happens if I add this, if I turn the heat up just a bit. All my writing is organic; it’s about seeing what’s in there. Line to line and page to page, I’m discovering the story just as the reader will.

Read on.

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