Exclusive: Joe R. Lansdale Talks His Upcoming Books, The Drive-In, and Shen Chuan
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.