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Interview with the Man Himself--Joe Lansdale

I first discovered Joe R. Lansdale when I was in college. I started with the first two Drive-In novels then his collection Electric Gumbo. From then on, I collected all his older titles I could find and was always on the lookout for anything new. I consider the man to be one of our greatest living storytellers, and one of my favorite things about his work is the eclectic nature of it. He is a genre unto himself. Horror, mystery, crime, western, bizarro, YA —he does it all, and he does it all well.

Now that I’m done gushing, I have to say I was beyond ecstatic when Mr. Lansdale agreed to let me interview him for my little blog. It is quite an honor, and without further ado, we’ll get to what everyone came here for…

MAG: First of all, let me thank you for taking the time to talk with me. One thing I want to attempt with this interview is to ask you about some works that I don’t see you asked about much in other interviews. So in that spirit, I’m going to start out by asking you about an odd, obscure work—Duck Footed. This is a short story released as a chapbook from Subterranean Press about ten years ago. One thing that strikes me about the piece is that it has a lot to say about religion, specifically the way people twist religion into something nasty and harmful, and yet the outrageous and almost silly nature of the story results in it not feeling overly preachy, which in essence makes the message even more effective. Was that your intention going in, or was it you just having fun with no thought toward message?

JRL: You nailed it completely. I'm not fond of religion in general, though not personally against anyone choosing to be religious. Just don't try and force it on me. The sort of religious knot heads who use it to justify everything in the world from racism to sexism, to homophobia, to just plain meanness. Religion as of recent on the Islamic side has been used by the ISIS to justify rape in the name of god. I for one understand they are extremist, but religion in general seems to me a justification for most anything. But yeah, in this case, and that hasn't always been the case, I used a light-hearted story to speak about something than can be a lot less light-hearted. Religious extremism.

I wrote that story for a friend of mine, Ardath Mayhar, and unfortunately near forgotten author of some fine novels and short stories. She lived just outside of Nacogdoches, and we were friends for nearly forty years. She died a few years back. Great lady and a neglected author. THE WORLD ENDS AT HICKORY HOLLOW might be one to check out, and there are a couple of collections of short stories. Start there if you're interested. Unfortunately, most of her books are publish on demand, and not enough people know about her to demand her. She sold a lot in the eighties and nineties, especially. (Ardath Mayhar's work can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Ardath-Mayhar/e/B001HPJ4EU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1439590642&sr=8-1)

MAG: I'll have to look her up. One of my favorite novels you’ve written is Sunset and Sawdust. One of the most effective parts of that story for me was your characterization of Sunset. She comes across as a very realistic portrayal of a strong woman. Not a Xena-type warrior, but a woman with foibles and weaknesses, fear and uncertainty, but also a streak of steel that always has her striving to do the right thing. In fact, many of your women characters have this steel. Does this come from women you’ve known in your own life?

JRL: It does. My mother, in many ways, seemed like a kind pushover, but people were mistaking kindness and generosity and a positive spirit for weakness. At the core, she and my father, were two of the strongest willed, toughest people I have ever known. My mother was actually made to have been born in more recent times. She was ahead of her time on many ideas and issues, and only the time in which she was born held her back from being able to bring her full creativity to bloom. She was a painter of some skill, and had tremendous ideas about design, and so on. So, she was one. Also, a lot of women I have known in my life have been that way. Ardath Mayhar once again comes to mind. My daughter is an amazing woman. Strong and resilient and brave. (Lansdale's daughter Kasey is a talented country singer, check out her website here: http://kaseylansdale.com/ You can also visit her YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/user/kaseylansdale And )

MAG: Staying with Sunset and Sawdust for a moment, did you meet any resistance writing what is basically a period crime novel with a female protagonist?

JRL: I don't remember any. I was able to do pretty much what I wanted. Well, exactly what I wanted. On female leads in novels, and film, you do hear now and then that if a novel fails it's because of a female protagonist, but if it succeeds, it's because of a female protagonist. None of it makes any sense. It succeeds or it doesn't, and sometimes works that deserve to succeed fail, and works that are awful succeed.

MAG: You’ve also created a gay protagonist with Leonard Pine in your Hap and Leonard series. As a gay man myself, I’ve always been impressed by how realistic Leonard comes across. You’ve said (and I’m paraphrasing) that when it comes to characterization, giving a man a limp isn’t characterization, but how he feels about the limp and how it affects his life is. In that vein, making a character gay isn’t characterization but how he feels about it and how it affects his life is. Some writers tell you a character is gay at the onset and that’s it, it has no real impact on their lives. Conversely, others make it so that it’s the character’s only focus and personality trait. With Leonard, his sexuality is a real part of who he is, but it doesn’t define him either. It’s a balance that makes him feel very authentic. Have you received much feedback from the gay community on the character?

JRL: I have received nothing but positive feed back from the gay community on Leonard. I love that guy. Gay people like straight people come in all stripes. Hap and Leonard are my two favorite characters of all time. I like that one is straight and one is gay, and they differ politically, and in many other ways, but their brotherhood trumps all else.

MAG: Speaking of Hap and Leonard, I know you recently spent some time on the set of the TV series Sundance is making from the first novel, Savage Season. This isn’t your first adaption, but since you’ve lived with Hap and Leonard longer than any other characters you’ve created, what was it like to see them finally coming to life for the screen and did you feel more protective toward those characters than others from earlier adaptions?

JRL: I really did feel protective, but when you sell a property to film, you only have so much say. I was allowed a lot. I love the director Jim Mickle like a nephew and the main script writer, and actor, Nick Damici like a brother. I say what I think, which may not always be what they want to hear, but then again, neither has to listen. They have been very good with me, however, and I did become an executive producer, and not in title only.

MAG: I want to ask you a couple of questions about Lost Echoes. I think it’s a great book that is compelling and exciting, and it is plot-wise perhaps your most commercial. The concept of the man who gets psychic glimpses of the past through sounds is quite unique and in the hands of a less adept writer could have come across as a gimmick, but you sold it a hundred percent. It is so unique in fact that I’m just curious where that idea came from?

JRL: My very good friend, and I love him like a brother, Terrill Lee Lankford, was doing a signing in Houston, and he ended up through a snafu with an extra hotel room. I was visiting and he offered me the spare room. I took it. I didn't realize that the window was open behind the curtain, and all night I heard cars on the highway, voices, and I thought: What if what I'm hearing are people's thoughts. And then I thought, no. What if I'm hearing the sounds of the past, the rattling in those trucks of living human beings bumping up against the sides of their cars, and that the sound this makes reveals the past. Hidden events in sound. If you hear a door close, and at some point in time someone had been violently thrown against that door, maybe you get the whole event in your head, if you have a special kind of a ability. And my character had that ability due to a childhood health problem. I called it audiochronology. The past captured in sound. It would be as if the past entered into objects, remained there until something caused an audio event, which in turn was then detected and visualized by the person with the ability to do that. Anyway, thanks to my brother Lee for giving me that room to stay in, and thanks to me for being stupid and not realizing the window was open. I had a very miserable night, but a very profitable result. I wrote the novel quickly, started it as soon as I got home. It has it's fans, but for some reason, it's been mostly ignored.

MAG: That really is a shame, because people are missing out on a truly gripping story. That novel also has a lot about martial arts in it, and how it can be used as a healing instrument. I know you are experienced in martial arts, and your love for it shines through in Lost Echoes. Do you still practice, and how much of a role does martial arts play in your life today?

JRL: I still practice and I still teach. I do have some injuries, which keeps me from doing certain things, martial arts and exercise wise, but on the whole they are minor. I teach one private class a week, do the occasional seminar and teach at our annual camp here in Nacogdoches. Camp Lansdale it's called. I have been doing martial arts in some form for 53 years, and created the system of Shen Chuan over twenty years ago. Me and the system have been recognized by the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame as well as the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame.

MAG: The first collection I read by you was Electric Gumbo, which contains a lot of your most popular short fiction, but it also has a few nonfiction pieces about your love of B-movies and the drive-in theater. I responded strongly to these as someone who grew up after the drive-in era who always had a romantic notion of the experience and regretted never getting to attend a movie at a drive-in. “Hell Through a Windshield” really fed that. A few years after reading the piece, I discovered that a small town in the next state, but within reasonable driving distance, still had an operational drive-in and I’ve been several times and enjoyed the experience as much as I thought I would. All this rambling is leading to the question, when is the last time you were able to attend a drive-in? If recently, do you still enjoy the experience?

JRL: You know, it's been years. In the 70s. We had one down from out house, and my wife and I went there frequently. It was cheap. We also took our kids when they were little. I didn't want to bring kids to an inside show, as they would annoy everyone, and I know I hate that. But you could take them to the drive in. Mostly they slept or our oldest played in the back of the car. It was fun. Neither kid remembers the drive in, but our daughter Kasey recently went to one up North. She saw Ant Man. She enjoyed the experience.

MAG: You wrote a Batman novel called Captured by the Engines. Though it is a Caped Crusader story, the plot that incorporates Native American mythology and cars was both clever and very Lansdale with is combination of disparate elements. How free were you to develop your own unique plot, and did Warner Books have any concern that the plot was too outrageous?

JRL: I don't remember any concern or interference. I had fun, and no one complained.

MAG: You have a very close-knit family, and you’ve worked with your wife and kids on various projects. I just wondered, do you seek their advice or thoughts when you have a work in progress?

JRL: No. I don't ask for advice when I'm writing. I'll figure it out. It works best for me that way. Collaborations, of course, are different. I find them harder, as you're trying to please two people, not just yourself. I have fun doing it in other ways, but it's not the same. I always think one person can do better than two. I don't subscribe to two heads are better than one. In film it's different to some degree, but still, there's usually way too many cooks in the soup in film. Still, now and then, especially with family, it's fun to do.

MAG: I recently finished Paradise Sky, which I think ranks as one of your best. I know you’ve said you have been wanting to write this novel for many years. If you had written it when you initially had the inspiration, do you think it would have been a different book from the one you ultimately delivered?

JRL: I think it would have been very similar, but I think it wouldn't have had the depth I was able to bring to it, so I think the delay worked.

MAG: A selfish question here, do you think you’ll do any books in the future about the Nat Loving character?

JRL: I don't know. My books sort of arrive on their own, like relatives you like but didn't know were coming. Some become long term house guests. Others just drop by and say hi. Nat has been with me longer than any character I've created, even though he just recently showed up in two short stories, BLACK HAT JACK, and then PARADISE SKY. He could turn up in the yard at any time.

MAG: Some authors once they find success in the novel tend to stop writing short stories. This is not the case with you, which pleases me to no end since I’m a huge lover of the short form. Do you find short stories and novels present different challenges for the writer, and what keeps bringing you back to the short form?

JRL: I adore short stories. Novels as well, but short stories are my favorite. I like that I can be so diverse and move between this idea and another, and you can experiment more with them. I slow down on them sometimes, but usually I write a lot of them. In the 90s I think I wrote less than before, or after. But it comes and goes in waves. I seem to be pulling back on them slightly now, but only slightly. I've written 9 this year already, as well as a novel, and half of another novel. I have so many ideas, and not enough time. The ones I wrote were mostly short, and most were about Hap when he was younger. Some include Leonard. Those came quickly, and I have two more started. I wrote a horror story as well, and Kasey and I are about to start a horror tale. My son and I are writing a screenplay.

MAG: Well, I just want to say that this has been a real pleasure and a thrill. Not only are you a talented author, you’re also a true gentleman. I look forward to more stories from you in the future.

JRL: Thank you so much.

Joe Lansdale has a website that is updated frequently and features a free short story every week: http://www.joerlansdale.com/
His work is also available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble: