‘What’s truest to me’: An interview with author H. Lee Barnes

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<p>H. Lee Barnes. PHOTO: SAEED RAHBARAN</p>

I KNOW HIM AS LEE, or Barnes, and we’ve been friends since we met at a joint reading in a Las Vegas Book Festival a decade ago. I’d been so stunned by the power of his writing that I used part of my reading time to read his work.

Barnes never fails his readers. In a time of writing that is increasingly detached from the real world of real working people, Lee’s work, from the stories in Gunning For Ho to the just-released novel Cold Deck, howls with the stories of foot soldiers and commandos; croupiers and tired-eyed cocktail waitresses; dirty city streets and the vast and beautiful Nevada landscape.

Lee was recently presented with the Excellence in the Arts Award by the Vietnam Veterans of America for his work set during the Vietnam War. It’s not his first award — in 2009, he was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame — but the VVA award has special meaning.

How does this new award from the VVA have particular significance for you?

Some awards are given on whimsy, depending on judges’ views or who hasn’t gotten one lately. This one is rarely awarded and comes from veterans, who make their decision on whether it’s merited, based on the value they see in the work.

Why does temptation play such a big role in your work?

Temptation is constantly calling us in one form or another. As a teenager I lived with my step-grandfather and grandmother. He was an Episcopal priest, so I was well-indoctrinated in biblical allegory. Too often I’ve heard supposedly wise or educated people interpret the story of Eden as the first sin being that of disobedience or rebellion, but the allegory is actually one of temptation that focuses on weakness as the root of sin. Whether you believe in sin as a human construct or not doesn’t matter. It’s temptation itself at trial. More than one of my characters, but particularly Jude in Cold Deck, falls because of temptation, in his case first to lust, then to greed. The tale is as old as human civilization, but it’s a tale that’s true through the millennia.

In Cold Deck, one of the most compelling and tender elements is Jude’s relationship with his children. Given that you have never raised children, how were you able to so deeply enter Jude’s psyche?

It’s not fully true that I never raised children — just none of my own. In a sense, as the eldest male, I did play a big part in rearing my younger brothers and sister. Because nearly a decade separated us in age, I was given to taking on a lot of adult responsibilities. I’m not sure what role that played in developing Jude’s relationship with his children, but somewhat it might. On the other hand, I coached a junior high school-age tennis team and taught martial arts to children, and found that I could relate to them. I knew in the story that the children were essential to grounding Jude. He needs them, especially with all the bricks and mortar that fall on him.

The theme of decency always underlies how you shape your characters and the story. Please tell us more.

I think decency and honor in people are the two characteristics that most draw me to others, especially my friends. I’ve worked in many environments and have always been amazed at how uncivil people can be to one another. Doing what’s decent is actually the easier route through life. A kind word and a kind deed may mean far more than we think. Yet so many people act spitefully or rudely, never mind those who are sociopaths. If we showed respect for both nature and our fellow humans, the world we occupy would be a finer place. In one way or another, many of my characters find a way to do the decent thing. Certainly, Jude does.

Your life deeply informs your stories. I never doubt the authenticity of a battle scene, dialogue between two cops, the longings of a real cowboy, a woman’s dreams. Tell us a little about your nonliterary life.

I’ve been a working man all of my life, never without a job, from cop to dealer to college professor, and I’m the curious type, interested in a wide range of subjects and activities. I tell my students that the best route to being a writer is broad experience and being a listener. I guess because I tend to be quiet in groups, I hear more than others might. I know as a dealer that I was privileged to work among women, all of us equals in pay and work roles. That afforded me a chance to listen to them, their gripes, their passions, their desires, their defeats, etc. I’ve tried in my writing to be true to them, as well. Of course, that’s all good, but then it needs to take shape in what I write. Fiction or nonfiction, the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the chapters must reflect what I know because that is what’s truest to me. It will also be truest to my readers. Maybe, if I’d ever met a vampire, I’d be selling a lot more books, because then I could write one about a bloodsucker that was authentic. Wait, I did write about one, a casino manager character.

Why did you name the hero of Cold Deck “Jude”?

Jude’s name is an homage to Thomas Hardy’s character Jude and to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases. In the end, of course, Jude is anything but hopeless.

Mary Sojourner is the author of two novels, Sisters of the Dream and Going Through Ghosts; the short story collection Delicate; an essay collection, Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest; a memoir, Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire; and memoir/self-help guide, She Bets Her Life.