With his debut novel, I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, Steve Earle extends the creative renewal that has seen him rise from the ash heap of heroin addiction. Now clean for 16 years since his incarceration, the renowned singer-songwriter hasn’t composed the typical “write what you know” fictionalized memoir, but has conjured a spiritual parable of redemption featuring the ghost of Hank Williams, the fictionalized doctor who treated him, an avenging priest and a young Mexican immigrant who develops miraculous healing powers. The multilayered novel takes place in Earle’s native San Antonio, when President Kennedy makes his fatal trip to the Lone Star state.
How does it feel to add published novelist to your resume?
I’m really proud of the novel. It’s better than I possibly could have hoped for. I worked on it a long time, and I was determined to finish it. It’s sort of like the stages of dealing with death [laughs]. It’s a lot longer than a song; it took up a lot more of my life. And there were so many stops and starts because of my day job. Then there were three or four revelations along the way—good things, breakthroughs—that caused me to backtrack and rewrite almost everything. So I was terrified that it would be horribly disjointed, but I had a good editor who guided me through that process of making it cohesive.
What took so long?
There was a month in Barcelona six or seven years ago where a lot got done. I had a friend’s apartment, and it was a great place to write, because I don’t understand Catalan or Spanish enough to distract me. And then there were a couple of periods in New York where I joined the Writers’ Room downtown to go there to work. I sat down and tried to finish it right before the Townes record came out , and didn’t quite make it. I got to the top of a hill and saw another hill, so I had to delay publication one more time. After Townes was out and I did the tour, I basically finished the novel right here in my apartment in New York City about three or four months ago.
Will this novel surprise readers who might expect more of your life in it?
Never would I suck material out of myself like that. Patti Smith just won a National Book Award for her memoir, and it’s a perfectly legitimate form. For some people, it’s what they do best. For me it’s just a waste of material. But I am from San Antonio, Texas. And I was at San Antonio International when Kennedy landed the day before he got assassinated. My father was an air traffic controller and he called my mother and said take the kids out of school and bring them. It’s an eyewitness account to the best of my 50-year recollection. So it is writing what I know, but it’s fiction.
The drug episodes seem to reflect some personal experience.
Those parts with Doc detoxing are very, very realistic. Realistic to the point that it was really hard to write and even hard for me to re-read during the editing process.
Do your various creative pursuits complement each other?
As late as I started, I don’t ever expect to be as good a prose writer as I am a songwriter. But I still find it necessary to do it for me. I’d gone through a four-and-a-half year, drug-induced writer’s block, and the idea of stretching out, getting out of my comfort zone, was a form of therapy. And I think my new songs on the record I’m about to release [titled the same as the novel, but otherwise unrelated] are a lot better because they were written during the time I was writing this novel. I was running full bore, with every literary muscle that I possess going full blast. Even acting [The Wire, Treme], I’m never going to be a great actor, but I think I’m a better musical performer because of my acting on film.
What’s the next step?
I came so close to not being here that I really believe I must have been spared for something. But I’m no longer arrogant enough to believe that I’m necessarily going to know what it is. So I just try to suit up and show up every day, ready for whatever presents itself.