James Sallis was born December 21, 1944, in Helena, Arkansas, which sits on Crowley’s Ridge on the banks of the Mississippi River. The nearest big city is Memphis, about seventy miles away. Helena, a river port, lies in mostly rural Phillips County, one of the poorest areas in the United States. Sallis protects his privacy, but some sources list his parents as Chappelle Horace Sallis and Mildred C. Liming Sallis. He has an older brother, John Sallis, who has a doctorate in philosophy and is widely published in his field.
When Sallis was growing up in Helena, the city was 70 percent African American and had a reputation as a gathering place for delta blues musicians such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Roosevelt Sykes. It was also a highly conservative town, however, noted for the dramatic contrast between the abject poverty of many inhabitants and the wealth of others. Sallis used his childhood experiences to develop the Lew Griffin character.
As a child, Sallis was a voracious reader and knew that he wanted to write. His first love was poetry, although he also was interested in music. Helena was not easy to escape, but Sallis earned a scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans, where he had his first success as a writer of short stories. New Orleans also became a spiritual home for Sallis, and he has returned several times to live there for brief periods.
Sallis left Tulane without finishing his degree, then attended the University of Iowa for a short time before leaving to write on his own. He met Michael Moorcock, who invited him at the age of twenty-one to move to London and become fiction editor for New Worlds, a seminal science-fiction magazine of the period. While in England, Sallis’s first book was published, a short-story collection entitled A Few Last Words (1970).
After New Worlds folded, Sallis returned to the United States. With markets for short fiction hard to find, he turned to nonfictional works about music, writing The Guitar Players: One Instrument and Its Masters in American Music (1982) and editing Jazz Guitars: An Anthology (1984). He also gave guitar-playing lessons and...
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