There are writers whom readers love. There are writers whom writers admire. And then there are the precious few: writers who can captivate a reader with the telling of their tale and with their characters as well as being able to astound their peers – the people who know the mechanics of what he does – and earn their respect by the journeyman-like talent displayed on every page of every book.
Joe R. Lansdale is one of those writers. Since the publication of his first novel, Act of Love, his unique voice has captured both the hearts and the imaginations of readers and wordsmiths alike.
And now, roughly three decades since, he continues to craft engaging, well written novels that spellbind an eager and voracious audience. With titles like The Drive-In, The Bottoms, Dead in the West, Nightrunners, the majestic Fine Dark Line, and the riotous Hap & Leonard Mysteries (Savage Season, Mucho Mojo, Two Bear Mambo, Bad Chili, Rumble Tumble), the short stories “Veil’s Visit”, “Captains Outrageous”, and “Vanilla Ride”, and the upcoming Devil Red which will be available on March 15, 2011), his bibliography is legendary and one most people in the business of words will point to as being the very best of the best.
Equally adept at writing novels, short stories (his most well-known creation, Bubba Ho-Tep , was turned into a successful motion picture by Don Coscarelli [Phantasm]), comics, and graphic novels as well as screenplays for film and television, Joe R. Lansdale is a personal hero of mine and many other writers and genre fans. He stands as an author who works with a seeming ease, one who is able to craft stories that touch the mind, the heart, and yes… the funny bone. He is a complete professional and an inspiration to anyone who desires to work in the field.
Dread Central talked with Joe recently and asked about his career as a writer’s writer, his writing process, some upcoming projects, as well as Shen Chuan, a martial art he originated and teaches to this day.
Dread Central: How much of your writing is influenced by the fact that you live in the South / Eastern Texas?
Joe R. Lansdale: My writing is heavily influenced by the region where I live, East Texas. It’s quite a bit different from other parts of Texas and owes more to the South than to the Southwest. It is more Southern than Western in culture. Black culture and, to some extent, Cajun culture have influenced East Texas. Of course, East Texas is always evolving as new influences come in. Hispanic influences, though considerable in many other parts of Texas, were smaller when I was growing up. Now we have a much larger Hispanic population as well as a fairly large Asian population. People from the other parts of the world are starting to make East Texas their home as well. It’s a real stew, and yet, the Old East Texas lies under it all.
DC: You’ve said in interviews that you write “steadily,” electing to work for 3 hours or so a day, doing 3-5 pages a day (sometimes more). Do you keep yourself to that schedule as a matter of discipline, or if you’re on a roll, do you sometimes decide to sit and burn a whole day working on something you’re excited about.
JRL: I’m flexible. I try and work roughly three hours a day, and write at least three to five pages a day, but it can vary. I’ve recently started working more frequently, working weekends from time to time, and coming back in the afternoon to tinker with things. Since our children moved out and got on their own, my wife and I live a much more relaxed lifestyle in some ways, but my work has increased because I have more time, but I still have plenty of time for Karen and to do the things we like and to spend time with our kids and their spouses. It’s a pretty wonderful life, really. But, yes. If I’m on a roll, I keep rolling. I don’t stop progress. Now and again I will get a lot of pages a day. Last year I wrote half a novel in a week while on vacation in Key West. I was inspired, relaxed, and was truly on vacation, hanging out at the condo mostly, going into town a few times for dinner and some sightseeing, but mostly we stayed at the condo and slept late and read, watched a small bit of television, and visited with our daughter and her husband who were along, as well as my mother-in-law and brother-in-law who were also there. I came home and wrote the other half in a week and a half and was very happy with it. It was a Young Adult novel and something I had been thinking about for a while. I liked doing it so much I have a contract for two others, which will most likely take me the usual amount of time. It’s called ALL THE EARTH THROWN TO THE SKY.
Also, by writing three to five pages a day, I don’t have to do as much revision because I’m careful as I go. That doesn’t mean I spell well or don’t make typos, but it means the story and the prose are pretty much what I want the first time out. At least most of the time. Nothing is absolute. But when it comes time for a polish, I don’t have to totally rewrite, just fix up and add and subtract.
DC: Do you worry when that happens that exhaustion will play a part and make for a less than acceptable final result?
JRL: Sometimes as a freelance writer you find yourself crunched by deadlines, or needs for that next check, and yet you want to be true to your artistic designs, and it can be difficult. You have to do the best you can do each time out and just write the best you can. Exhaustion can effect your work, but some of the best work I’ve written were under tough circumstances and were written quickly. Still, of course exhaustion can defeat you. That’s why I try to write regularly and not cram it all into a short period of time, except when you have those inspired moments, like the book I was talking about before. But the truth is, no matter how hard you work, how fast you do it, how slow you do it, you can never be certain how good a work is until time tells you. Some of the books I liked the least when I wrote them turned out to be my favorites, and very often, the reader’s favorites. Which is why you write for yourself, not the reader. I can’t second guess the reader. Then when you’re finished, you hope the reader likes it. But you can’t think about that when you write.
DC: Is it true you don’t really do multiple drafts / rewrites?
JRL: I don’t do multiple drafts, though now and again there’s a project I start that goes slowly and I’ll put it away and come back to it and revise and nudge until it takes off. Some stories, and even a couple of novels, have been like that. When I started out I did multiple drafts but found it discouraging to go back and constantly revise. I had been told just write it, and then clean it up later. But when I did that I found going back over it was difficult because it was usually such a mess, and I spent so much time second guessing myself I could never get anything written. I decided to plan on writing fewer pages a day, unless the spirit moved me otherwise, and I actually revise them a lot on the day I write, and in the polish I touch them up. Used to, when I used a typewriter, at the end of the day those three pages might have resulted in a trash can full of wadded up pages. So, I was revising, but as I went instead of when it was completely done.
My friend Lew Shiner, a very good writer, does multiple drafts and takes years to write one novel. That’s his way and it works for him. I have so many stories to tell, and am driven to tell them, that would make me miserable. In fact, as I get older, perhaps because I notice there’s less sand in my hour glass, I’m even more driven to tell them, and to do all the things in life that interest me. So, for me, being careful as I go, but letting the momentum carry me, being able to feel like a hero every day because I only went in thinking I had to get three to five pages, works well for me. If I have a day where I get fifteen or twenty, that’s great. I often find when that’s the case, I do have to revise those pages more. But, there are some delicious moments. I wrote THE DRIVE-IN rapidly, and COLD IN JULY even more rapidly, and they are both novels I care about. They are relatively short books, but I’m sure I wrote more than three to five pages a day on those. Of course, I didn’t completely adopt the three to five a day plan until I had finished those books, but I had already realized that I did better working daily and steady than trying to cram a book onto paper in a short time, or by working all day. Now and again the write all day method works for me, but not on a regular basis.
Bottom line is I don’t think a slow writer is necessarily any better than a fast writer, or vice versa. Steady is the best answer and even that can go either way. I’m not interested in being an old style pulp writer who can turn out a novel in a week, but I’m not interested in being a writer who takes years to write a novel either. I make a living at this, so I give it regular exercise, but I like to think I’m enough of an artist that I deeply care about the quality. Caring and achieving, however, can be two different things.
DC: At any given time, how many projects will you keep going? Is there ever a time you say, “Ok, my plate is full and I have to push some stuff out.”
JRL: There’s not a set rule. There’s usually one major project, a sort of near burner project that I might tinker with if a day on the major project goes well and I finish up the pages early, or these days I might work on it in the afternoons, or even on rare occasions, in the evening, or might save it for weekends. Now and again I work on a novel, get to a point where I think I can stop, and I might write a short story before I return to it. I prefer, however, to do one project at a time, though I don’t always have a choice. Also, other interests in life sometimes interrupt the flow, and for years I didn’t work when I was on vacation or traveling abroad, but lately I’ve learned to take my lap top and work a little part time, and that is also increasing my productivity, because when you put all my time on vacation, or book tour in the U.S. or in Italy, or what have you, that’s maybe three to four months a year away from my word processor. I’ve started working when I’m away from home more frequently, and it’s increased the number of things I can finish in a year. That said, my plan is to actually start slowing down in the next couple of years. We’ll see how that works out.
DC: Explain how your writing process works, please.
JRL: As for how my writing process works, it just does. I can’t explain it. I seem able to write easily and ideas are numerous, so many I’ll never write them all. Sometimes there will be something I’m consciously thinking about and finally I’ll feel like it’s pushing at me, and I’ll sit down and it’ll come out. I don’t think about the story line so much as the idea, or a scene, and then it starts coming. I don’t plot things out on paper. I just sit down and start, but I’m sure my subconscious is planning or preparing, or whatever it’s doing, and then it nudges my conscious mind until the idea is there. Of course, since I’m already working on something else, I may not get to it right away, and by the time I do, I may have lost interest, or the basic premise may have changed. I let the actual writing dictate those things. I like being as surprised as the reader.
DC: I’ve heard you write poetry. I’m someone who’s never really “gotten” poetry. Neil Gaiman told me once that he agreed that a lot of poetry isn’t very good, but when it is good… it’s amazing. Briefly, explain why the art form appeals to you?
JRL: I’m not a big fan of poetry, if the truth be known. I do like prose that is poetic, unless it’s too self-conscious. Ray Bradbury for my taste writes beautiful prose, but his poetry seems forced and unnatural. The only poetry I’ve written is in the last three years, and it’s not great. The best of it is darkly funny, and the worst of it is, well, the worst of it. I don’t know exactly why I started writing poetry, but I think it had to do with Al Sarrantonio asking me to do a Halloween poem for an anthology he was doing, and instead I wrote several, and he used them all. I sort of got the bug then and wrote others and they were published by the Horror-Zine both on line and in anthologies. I read poetry now and again. My favorite poet is Charles Bukowski, though I don’t think he’s written a single defining poem. It’s his body of work, the tone and attitude of most of it. He’s a guy that strikes me as a real asshole, but there’s a natural power about the work, and it’s closer to prose than poetry, and that’s probably why I like it. I also like some of Billy Collin’s poetry, and I like some of the older masters I used to read when I was younger, and poets I read in college.
I don’t turn to poetry for solace though. I prefer prose, and short stories in particular. That said, I think my prose can often being poetic, at least in a muscular way. Hemingway wrote a kind of muscular prose. As did Flannery O’Conner, and there’s a poetic ring in their work that I love. I do think it helps you say what you want to say concisely, and you can transfer that to prose. You can write lines that people remember. My favorite poetry is actually song lyrics. Dylan. Beatles. So many different writers. That kind of poetry I adore. So, if you include that, then I’m more fond of poetry than I thought.
DC: Do you ever bristle when your writing is treated (by publishers or distributors) as “product” rather than art?
JRL: Yes. Or I’d at least like them to treat it as my product, not the generic brand.
DC: Where do you think the occupation of writing is headed?
JRL: I think it’ll be around. Writers create most everything that happens in your day. Articles, stories, films, radio broadcast, advertising, comics, research, you name it. Writing isn’t going anywhere, but how writers are published and paid may.
DC: How do you think eBooks and things like the Kindle and Nook are going to affect writers and, by extension of that, readers?
JRL: I’m meeting more and more people who read on the machines, and most of them are people who tell me they read more books now than ever before. I don’t know why that is, but one guy my wife and I were talking to the other day said his Kindle had made him a real reader. Said he used to read three to five books a year, and is now reading over thirty. Which for him, he said was a lot of books. It’s a lot of books for a lot of people. Three to five a year is a lot for the average reader. I think being able to order them without having to go to stores is a calling card for a lot of people. I prefer browsing when I can, holding the books, but I’ve nothing against the Kindle. I don’t think reading or books are going anywhere. I do think the old fashioned book will be more of a luxury item, and I think as the big markets go toward electronic, the specialty stores may well come back to serve those who want to browse and hold actual books in their hands. At the end of it all, we may have more people reading than ever before. How that will effect how writers are paid is another question, but frankly, I’m more optimistic than pessimistic about it.
DC: I’m a huge fan of your Hap & Leonard novels. The characters exhibit, in many ways, a progressive “live and let live” attitude toward, for example, Leonard being gay. Tell me a little about how that came to be… being a “southern writer,” it’s easy for some readers to expect a different – and less understanding – perspective.
JRL: I sat down to write a novel in the old Gold Medal novel tradition. I wanted to write about the sixties as seen looking back, their influences both positive and negative, and the character who was to be the main character was to have a lot of my own past, attitudes, etc, and then on the first page Leonard showed up. I didn’t know he was gay right away, but when I realized that’s how I wanted to go, I decided to just reveal it casually and to have it be just a part of who he was, instead of his defining quality. Some people say, “He doesn’t act gay.” I’m not sure how you act gay. There are certainly people who fit some of those stereotypes, and that’s why they are noticed, but there are plenty who do not. It’s the same for tough guys. There are people who appear tough and are, but there are many who appear that way and aren’t. The toughest guys I ever knew didn’t look like Rambo, they looked more like Ernest Borgnine.
Anyway, the characters developed naturally, and I just let them run. They have Southern influences, sixties influences, and they are a perfect vehicle for not only entertainment, but satire and humor and a way to express my views, which aren’t always the same as the characters, by the way. Hap and Leonard are killers. That’s not a positive thing, no matter how it’s justified, and it effects Hap deeply, and maybe Leonard more than he admits, but they are two guys with the best of intentions, and they reflect a lot of what we all think about and would sometimes like to do. I think that’s their appeal.
DC: Have there ever been talks about bringing Hap & Leonard to the screen? Someone told me they’d heard you were at work on a Savage Season script. If so, who would you like to see cast?
JRL: Plenty of times, and they have been optioned often, and there have been scripts by Ted Talley and myself, and yet, no films. I am currently doing the second draft on the SAVAGE SEASON script. We’ll see where that goes. A number of my other works are in progress as well. CHRISTMAS WITH THE DEAD, a low budget film will be filmed here in Nacogdoches this summer, and it’s based on a story of mine. It’s up in the air right now if I’ll do the script or not. I’m overwhelmed. But it looks to be fun and a positive experience.
Brad Wyman, Bill Paxon and myself are trying to produce THE BOTTOMS. More on that later. There’s also COLD IN JULY in the wings, as well as a few other things. As for who I would like to see cast. My original picks were Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Bridges. But Hollywood sees them as too old for the part. I also loved the idea of Bill Paxton playing Hap, and Sam Jackson playing Leonard, but that ship has sailed if it has ever been on the horizon. Josh Lucas and Don Cheadle were said to be in line to do it once, but that didn’t happen, either. I like both of those actors. Currently, I don’t have anyone in mind. I like Josh Brolin for Hap, maybe.
DC: Greg Nicotero is reportedly directing a big screen version of The Drive-In. Is this true?
JRL: Sure looks that way. We’ll see how it pans out. I’m excited about the possibility.
DC: Are you involved with the proposed Bubba Ho-Tep sequel, Bubba Nosferatu? Is that still happening?
JRL: Nope. Not involved in that.
DC: Briefly, I want to diverge in my line of questioning and ask you a little about Shen Chuan. I understand it is a combat system that you’ve developed that is a mixture of Kenpo & Hapkido with elements of Aikido, Aikijutsu, Gung Fu, Judo, Wrestling, Boxing, Thai Boxing, Kickboxing, Arnis Jeet Kune Do, and – and this was kind of a surprise – Dim Mak.
JRL: Dim Mak in the sense that it uses pressure points, but not Dim Mak in the sense of the death touch and magic elements. I’m a realist. But, if you hit certain points in a certain way, you can get the reaction you want. Knock outs, weakness, etc. Because Dim Mak has so many superstitious elements attached, we usually just say reaction points, or pressure points. Some of the people I learned this stuff from have gone off the deep end and think they can knock people out without touching them, using their minds. It’s ridiculous. So, we’ll just say we use the weak points of the body to help out our techniques.
DC: First, explain if you would the genesis of the discipline and how it gets applied in your classes (full contact, kata, focus drills, etc). Are there drills used such as say, Lap Sao or Pak Sao?
JRL: We do a little of the Lap Sao, Pak Sao, but it’s only an attribute in our classes, and we use only a bit of it. We are more akin to check and control in the Kenpo manner, though we work much closer and use a lot of locks and throws, as well as those aforementioned pressure points.
DC: The description above makes me think Shen Chuan is sort of like Mixed Martial Arts or maybe Brazilian Jiujutsu with striking. Is that a fair assessment?
JRL: It’s more of a standup art, but it has groundwork. It’s not as sport-oriented, and is very self-defense. I don’t want to go to the ground if I can help it. Bad place to be in a real fight. But we try to know what to do when we get there. Students of mine have gone the MMA route and done well, so SHEN CHUAN is a system you can take in a lot of directions.
DC: I looked at some of the YouTube videos of the artform and saw a lot of Jeet Kune Do, joint manipulation, and a lot of simultaneous blocking & striking (Lin Sil Die Dar)… It’s very interesting.
JRL: Thanks. Most of it is just that I’ve been doing martial arts since I was eleven. Wrestling and boxing first, taught by my dad, then into the other arts. I blended them over the years, and I truly mean blended them.
DC: How has your knowledge of martial arts helped your writing?
JRL: Discipline. Focus. Confidence.
DC: Has teaching benefitted you (explaining difficult sequences of moves to students = describing action or series of events) in your writing?
JRL: I also teach part time at Stephen F. Austin University, and am Writer in Residence there. I’m teaching Writing Horror Fiction this semester. Teaching helps you teach yourself. It forces you to constantly evaluate, and to revisit the core of your thinking, the things that originally fired you up about either martial arts or writing, or whatever it is you’re teaching. It’s very satisfying.
DC: Ok, I could ask you about martial arts for hours… moving on. Tell me about Dead Man’s Road.
JRL: New book containing DEAD IN THE WEST and four novellas. One of the novellas is brand new. They all have to do with my wandering preacher, Reverend Mercer. They’re my pulp tributes.
DC: After Dead Man’s Road and the new Hap and Leonard novel, Devil Red, these two are released, what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
JRL: More novels and more stories, and who knows what all.
For more information on Joe R Lansdale, visit JoeLansdale.com.
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