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Interview: Joe R. Lansdale, Author

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Joe R. Lansdale is one of our most prolific writers. Author of twenty books, and more published short stories than my mathematically challenged brain can count, Lansdale effortlessly moves between the horror, science fiction, humor, western, and literary genres. I’ve only recently begun to delve into his immense pile of work and I think it was a stellar review in Esquire or Playboy or one of the other slicks that turned me onto his work. I read his 2004 novel Sunset and Sawdust in one huge gulp and immediately began carrying the book around, reading passages of it aloud to anyone I could corner. Lansdale writes some of the best sentences and creates some of the most vivid images around. Take this hippest, most intelligent, most literate farm boy, and that’s the narrator of Sunset and Sawdust. For example, check out the opening paragraph: “On the afternoon it rained frogs, sun perch, and minnows, Sunset discovered she could take a beating good as Three-Fingered Jack. Unlike Jack, who had taken his in the sunshine, she took hers in her own home at the tail end of a cyclone, the windows rattling, the roof lifting, the hardwood floor cold as stone.”

Lansdale is also a 9th degree black belt who brings the iron will and discipline of the martial arts with him when he sits down to write. He works hard, producing a huge amount of writing, and he is fearless in trying whatever interests him. Instead of safely sticking to just one style or genre, he chases his enthusiasms wherever they lead. Through a hot Texas summer, hurricanes, and power outages, Lansdale stuck with this interview and we greatly appreciate his persistence and dedication.

Slushpile: You are an accomplished martial artist and you’ve studied the form for more than thirty years. Are there similarities between the discipline needed to excel in the martial arts and the discipline needed to excel as a writer?

Lansdale: Discipline is discipline, and the martial arts have taught me that. Economy of motion, moving within the moment, flowing from moment to moment, attack to attack, line to line. Very similar, actually.

Slushpile: What other non-literary hobbies or pursuits influence your writing?

Lansdale: Reading, watching films. History. Anthropology. Archeology. Mostly reading about these things. Music. Listening to it. And, of course, martial arts.

Slushpile: How do you approach the writing of a horror tale? Is it just the subject matter that is different from a book that is (for lack of a better word) a literary novel? Do you approach building the suspense and the frights in the same way that a thriller author builds suspense?

Lansdale: I don’t really think about it. The story starts to come, and I just follow.

Slushpile: Your website bio features books published by well over twenty publishers. And that is only through 2000. What has working with so many publishers been like? Given your breadth of experience, what do you think the publishing industry (as a whole) does well and what do you think it does poorly?

Lansdale: I’ve been published by a number of publishers in the small press. I like to pass it around. But Subterranean has been my main small press publisher. As far as book publishers, I’ve been primarily with Warner, and now Knopf, and the paperback arm, Vintage. Small publishers can do off beat books well, even writers who may not sell well in the mainstream. But, they don’t distribute well. The big book companies don’t really know how to utilize the writers they have. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Slushpile: Are you represented by an agent or do you represent yourself? If you have an agent, who is it?

Lansdale: My agent is James Vines of the Vines agency. I’ve been with him right at ten years. He handles the literary works. I do the short stories, mostly, and the comics. I have a film agent, Justin Manask, and a foreign agent, Danny Barrora. They’ve all done well by me.

Slushpile: So if you were to finish a book today, how do you go about finding a publisher out of the large number you’ve worked with? Do you submit manuscripts or does your agent handle that? Do you sell books based on proposals or do you wait until you have a finished product to submit?

Lansdale: My agent handles it. But I handle the small press books. And I can usually go to Subterranean and Bill Schafer will do it. I also have a good relationship with Golden Gryphon and Night Shade. As for proposals, I usually sell the book based on that I’m going to do a book. And that’s it. Sometimes proposals are written later, so they know what I’m doing. But I don’t do many of them, and don’t like doing them. Sometimes I’ll do a little “sketch” or short piece giving the general idea of the story, and that’s it. So I don’t wait until it’s finished, and I don’t do true proposals. It’s usually next two books.

Slushpile: You’ve worked with major publishers in New York City and smaller publishers scattered around the country. What are the positives and negatives associated with working with each type?

Lansdale: I think I covered that before. But, the small presses give you a lot of latitude and have a built in audience. The mainstream publishers live in fear. They don’t know what will sell, or even how it sells. More and more, publishing, sadly, reminds me of Hollywood.

Slushpile: There are, unfortunately, some small “publishers” that ultimately turn out to be scams preying on poorly informed aspiring authors. And some small publishers that aren’t scams often turn out to not be able to distribute books properly or produce quality products or to suffer other shortcomings. However, you have had some very successful relationships with small publishers. How should an aspiring author judge a small publisher? What should they look for in order to find the best small publisher possible?

Lansdale: Honesty. Doing what they say. When they start saying, “I’m just a small press, and …” I’m already suspicious. They owe you what they owe you, small press or not. They shouldn’t make the deal if they can’t pay, and you shouldn’t if you can’t deliver. Sometimes small presses are fans who want to hang, call you on the phone daily and become buddies. That happens, but I don’t live for that. I won’t them to be professional, and I will too, and then a friendship often develops. I enjoy people and like to talk, but I don’t want to make a career of it. So, professionalism. They treat their small press like a big press. I also hate it when they say I’m asking you to support the small press, so I can’t offer much money, or I’d like you to do a story for free. But, they themselves cash the checks on the sales, so I don’t get that.

Slushpile: You are an extremely prolific writer. What do you attribute your productivity to?

Lansdale: Discipline and a love for the work. And, of course, kids who need things.

Slushpile: Please give us an idea of your writing habits. How do you approach your writing? Are you someone that writes every day, for regular hours? Or are you more of a writer who starts and stops, writing in phases?

Lansdale: I write in the mornings, generally about three hours. Sometimes I write other times, but rarely. I mostly take weekends and holidays off. Even though I have a general time of three hours, I actually shoot for three to five pages daily. I get that, and feel like it’s good or I’ve had enough, I quit. Even if I should get it in thirty minutes. If I get it, still have juice, I just keep going until it runs out. That way I have some ten and fifteen page days, but mostly I write a small bit each day. It adds up. Those who write just when they are in the mood, never learn that the mood can be created by habit.

Slushpile: Give us an idea of how you approach a new story (whether it’s a novel or a short story or whatever). What is the initial spark that makes you want to write the story?

Lansdale: I don’t know the answer to that. With me, it’s a mood. A general idea. I sit down and play, and gradually, it hooks up and becomes a story. I just keep working every day until it’s finished. Some stories come full blown, some come in pieces, and you have to really dig down and pull it out of the hole.

Slushpile: You have worked in many different genres, from horror to Western to suspense. Do you have an idea for which genre a work is going to be when you start it? Or do you just tell the story you want to tell and then let the publisher categorize it?

Lansdale: Sometimes I know. If I’m asked to do a story for an anthology, and it strikes me as a good idea, then I mostly have some idea of what kind of story I’ll write. When I just have a story come, I just follow. It becomes what it becomes. I also try not to get too tied into any one genre, even if I know I’m supposed to be writing a horror story, or western, or the like. I go with the flow.

Slushpile: Rappers have posses… why not writers? If you could get a group of your fellow authors together as your posse, who would you include?

Lansdale: I have lots of writer friends, but the idea of a posse doesn’t appeal. Writers work alone.

Slushpile: I read where you once had a job picking roses and that it was incredibly difficult work. It was said the smell made you sick and that the thorns cut your hands. Do you see the character of Sunset in Sunset and Sawdust in a similar manner? A beautiful woman, but tough and challenging under the gorgeous exterior?

Lansdale: Oh, yeah. I grew up doing manual labor, and that has influenced the lives of many of my characters. Sunset included.

Slushpile: In addition to picking roses, what other odd jobs have you had?

Lansdale: All kinds of field work. Carpenter’s helper. Street department–this mean road repairs, garbage trucks, whatever. Janitor for years. All kinds of things.

Slushpile: Do you have any writing superstitions? Any good luck charms or talismans on your writing desk?

Lansdale: Loose shoes. I wear slip on shoes when I write. But, it’s not a fetish. I’ve worked without them. I like a cup of coffee and I’m ready to go.

Slushpile: In a previous interview, you were asked about how you skip around genres and you replied that it’s just the way you write, much to the chagrin of publishers. But you did say “My friend Bill Nolan has been a major influence on me, and he advised me not to skip around from category to category. Bill has taught me to have a game plan which is real important.” What was that game plan? Did you put it into effect with your writing career?

Lansdale: I think I try and skip around in a planned manner, if that make sense. I mine what interests me, and market it well, and move on.

Slushpile: You seem to write what you want, how you want, in the genre you want. You also seem comfortable with the fact that you might make some mistakes along the way. In contrast, many aspiring authors are so fearful that they will only get one chance; they’re petrified to take any chances and make a mistake. How can a young writer develop the type of confidence you have?

Lansdale: Forty-two years of martial arts.

Slushpile: How long does it take for you to write a story? As prolific as you are, do you maintain multiple projects going at once or do you concentrate on just one piece at a time?

Lansdale: It varies. Usually a week or two. A novel, Four to Six months. But, Sunset took just under a year. It takes as long as it takes.

Slushpile: If you could get any writer, living or dead, into your dojo and go a few rounds with him, who would it be?

Lansdale: Why would I want to fight a writer?

Slushpile: “Literary” writers or writers of the academic world are often dismissive of genre writers. What aspect of genre writing would you suggest the “literary” authors incorporate into their own work?

Lansdale: Excitement. Interest. Originality.

Slushpile: Many authors have no idea how a story will end when they begin it. Others plot obsessively and have detailed notes on all the twists and turns of their story. Which method do you prefer?

Lansdale: I usually have no idea. Now and again, the ending will come to me first. A lot of the time, even when I think I know the ending, it will change.

Slushpile: The opening line of Sunset and Sawdust is “On the afternoon it rained frogs, sun perch, and minnows, Sunset discovered she could take a beating good as Three-Fingered Jack.” Many aspiring authors struggle with first lines. How did you come up with this opening? Tell us about the genesis of this initial line.

Lansdale: Again, it just seems to be there. When I get a good opening, feel confident of it, the rest of the story flows out of it.

Slushpile: There is an element of deadpan humor to much of Cormac McCarthy’s early work that I think gets overlooked in discussions of his violence and biblical language. Sunset and Sawdust has this same type of humor. For instance, the scene where Sunset, Clyde and Hillbilly go to avert a mob scene at a movie theater and Clyde punches out an arrogant, bigoted Morgan made me laugh out loud. Morgan’s knocked out and is face down in a pile of mule dung and Clyde simply says “He was building up to that, and he finally got there.” Sunset commands “Give him about half a minute, then pull him out so he can breathe.” How do you approach writing humor into your stories?

Lansdale: Again, it just seems to be there. I see life as sadly humorous. Mark Twain said “There’s no humor in heaven.” Think about that.

Slushpile: Sunset and Sawdust features some great metaphors and similes such as a dress that is “rotten as politics” and a gunshot “loud as Gabriel blowing her up to heaven.” Do these details come to you as you’re writing the text, or do you layer them in after getting down the basic lines written? Or, to put it another way, do you polish your writing as you go or do you come back later and add in the fine details?

Lansdale: They come as I go. Now and again, I’ll hear a good line, and it’ll be stuck in my brain, or one will come to me, and I try and find a way to work it in. But, it works best if it just comes as I go. Most of my writing is that way. It comes as I go. Not much forethought. But, I polish as I go, and then do one final polish. This way I do one draft and a polish. But, since I don’t throw away paper, use a word processor, I have no idea how many daily revisions I do. I’ve been doing it long enough now, I’m usually happy as I go. Some books vary, however, and cause problems. You never know what’s going to happen, which is part of the excitement.

Slushpile: How did you create the villain Two? His long black Prince Albert coat, his bowler hat, his blazing green eyes that caused him to be described as a beetle. How did you create and develop this character? What were your inspirations?

Lansdale: He just came to me as I was telling the story, and the details developed as I went. Sometimes, when I polish, I’ll stick in foreshadowing, things of that nature to strengthen scenes, or characters.

Slushpile: What author do you wish were more widely-known and appreciated?

Lansdale: Neal Barrett, Jr.

Slushpile: You have developed quite a devoted cult following. What is the craziest thing that a fan has done to get your attention?

Lansdale: Most are pretty sane. I’ve had a few show up in my yard or at the dojo. That’s been about the extreme of it. Some guy and his girlfriend came to see me from Germany. Just called me, and I met them at the coffee shop in town.

Slushpile: You have mentioned in other interviews that the Hap and Leonard characters have really taken on a life of their own and that “the stories seem more like they’re dictated to me than anything else.” By contrast, what stories do you remember being particularly grueling to write?

Lansdale: The first two Drive-In novels, though I don’t think they read like it. The latest one, The Drive-In 3: The Bus Tour, was fun and easy to write. So, go figure. Waltz of Shadows was difficult. Easiest book I ever wrote was Zeppelins West. It’s very light, but it was a lot of fun, and pretty odd. Flaming London was close to the same feeling. There will be a third, The Sky Done Ripped. All in this sort of series with Ned the Seal.

Slushpile: What do you do when you’ve hit the wall on a story and can’t seem to figure out what to do with it?

Lansdale: I read or go to the movies or take a walk. I don’t hit the wall much, however.

Slushpile: You have mentioned Mark Twain, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Walter Scott, H. Rider Haggard as early influences and William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck and others as later influences. Who are your favorite authors now?

Lansdale: I like many authors. Neal Barrett, Jr., Andrew Vachss, James Lee Burke. I read a lot of older stuff even now, and love it. I like the GOLD MEDAL crime books. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck. Flannery O’Conner, Truman Capote, so many.

Slushpile: I have a friend who is from Georgia and our wider circle of acquaintances all think he’s hilarious; they think he comes up with the funniest phrases and idioms. In actuality, he’s merely saying old Southern sayings that I’ve heard all my life. They think he is the originator of phrases such as “hot as a whore in church” and “effective as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.” How aware are you of speech patterns when you write. Do you consciously try to capture a certain drawl or idiom, or do you just write dialogue that seems natural to you?

Lansdale: I’m very aware, and of course, like your friend from Georgia, I use a lot of Southern sayings. I do try to capture a sound, a feel. I don’t know about drawl. I don’t think of East Texas as drawlers. That’s more West Texas. We talk kind of fast for Texans. I’m aware of all of this. I like a somewhat laconic style, and use that, most of the time. It all sounds like me, but the voice does vary from novel to novel, depending on the tone I need.

Slushpile: You have written under a pen name. What makes you decide to use a pen name for this work and use your real name for that work?

Lansdale: Early on, because I didn’t want to scatter myself to thin. Later I said the hell with it. I might do it if I wanted to create a different kind of sound, or surprise readers, or just for fun. I also was hired to do some things where the pen name was established.

Slushpile: I know that bigotry and racism are major concerns for you. And you have mentioned in other interviews that you feel sad “that the racial attitudes are that way in Los Angeles, Boston, the heartland, the U.S. and the world. No one’s immune. Racial attitudes in the South are better than in the North.” How do you approach your stories so that you are telling the truth about the South, with all of its shortcomings, without just fueling more negative stereotypes about southerners?

Lansdale: It’s impossible. No matter how much you show a full rounded South, readers latch on one aspect. It’s so deeply ingrained in history, but more so in films and books and comics. It’s the same way with the look of the region. I try and describe East Texas, which is wooded and full of water, and is humid and then the publishers put a West Texas cover on the books, are talk about the barren wastelands. It’s nothing like that. Some stereotypes are bigger than Texas, no matter what you do.

Slushpile: You have worked with reoccurring characters before. Any chance we’ll see more of Sunset in the future?

Lansdale: Maybe.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Lansdale: Put your ass in the chair and write. And read a lot. And not in one genre.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?

Lansdale: Stay with it.

Be sure to check out Joe R. Lansdale’s great website.