Joe R. Lansdale: dark master of the Texas gothic
Joe Lansdale chats with Chet Williamson about war, religious fundamentalism, and Bubba Ho-Tep. Oh, and there are a few words about writing horror, too.
* * *
Texas hosted the World Fantasy Awards this year, and though the assemblage was practically overflowing with VIPs of the fantastic, it was still a sure bet that if you saw the crowd part to make way for one man, that man was Joe R. Lansdale. The author of Bubba Ho-Tep and countless other gems of weird storytelling has made his name as the proud wielder of an in-your-face literary style he calls “Texas Mojo” — and there’s a lot of Lansdale out there right now, in a multitude of genres and formats. Among the most recent are the comic book Conan & the Songs of the Dead with Tim Truman, the adaptation of “Incident on & off a Mountain Road” on Masters of Horror, the Lansdale-edited anthology Retro Pulp Tales, and a new novella in the Lords of the Razor anthology.
WEIRD TALES: You’re always working on new novels, stories, and film scripts, and you run a martial arts dojo. How do you find time to do it all?
JOE R. LANSDALE: I find that time is easy to manage if you have a schedule and you’re serious about it. I usually write about three hours a day in the morning, or three to five pages, whichever comes first. Then I like to take off, watch the news, eat lunch. My wife and I like to visit with our kids if they’re not working. I also spend a bit of time every day working on other projects, which might include phone calls to agents, editors, publishers, or someone I’m trying to co-produce a film with. When I edit an anthology I read a lot fast. Two nights a week I teach martial arts.
WT: That’s been a passion of yours for a long time, hasn’t it?
JRL: I’ve done martial arts now for 44 years, and Shen Chuan, the system I founded, has caught on. We don’t try to spread it hard, as we want it to be for people who really want to learn martial arts in a more intense way. We have fairly small classes, and like it like that, though we’re not opposed to branching out slowly, and have done just that. There are Shen Chuan classes in Rockwall, Texas, and classes influenced by Shen Chuan all the way into Kentucky. Nights that I don’t teach, I read or watch movies. I’m a bear on time management, but don’t really think about it, and seem to have a lot of spare time. That said, I haven’t written a novel in a year and a half, as I’ve been writing screenplays and comics, but I have one in the mill, and this very week I intend to get back to it and try and finish by the first of the year.
WT: You’re a master of the serious horror tale, and have written some of the most grim and unrelenting stories and novels ever. You’ve also written work in the vein of the true Southern Gothic and regional literary masters, such as Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. You write escapist fiction, and you write taut thrillers. Looking at the categories — and realizing that often they overlap to form what is pure Joe Lansdale fiction — which is your favorite Lansdale?
JRL: My favorites vary, but I think novels like The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, Sunset & Sawdust, Mucho Mojo (my favorite of the Hap and Leonard series) The Drive-In, The Magic Wagon, and the stories in High Cotton are my favorite types of works. I seem to be leaning more toward Southern Gothic these days. That said, the new one coming out, though it takes place in East Texas, is more of a kind of horror/thriller, though thriller is a larger aspect. It’s also just quirky fun. I suppose when it gets down to die dog or eat the hatchet, I like the short stories and the Texas Gothic, which is more accurate, I guess, than Southern Gothic. To be even more accurate, I think it would be East Texas Gothic.
WT: Getting even more specific, if only one of your short stories and one of your novels were to survive you, which ones would you choose for the time capsule?
JRL: I guess “The Night They Missed the Horror Show” would be the short story, and A Fine Dark Line would be the novel. But ask me tomorrow, and you might get a different answer. And I’m still writing, so maybe it’ll be something as yet unwritten.
WT: One of your major themes deals with characters who are thrust into positions in which they have to make a moral choice, see that choice through for better or worse, and then somehow deal with the consequences. Your protagonists face some tough choices. Have you ever been faced with any such life-changing choices, like whether or not to use violence in dealing with a situation? Or does your deft handling of these situations come purely from an imaginative empathy for your characters?
JRL: I’ve always been interested in moral choices. I think it’s what matters in life, and especially if it’s a choice you make when it isn’t convenient. Situational ethics don’t impress me. It’s what you do under pressure. It’s also important that people understand that all choices have consequences, and that you have to deal with them. What seems a positive moral choice to one person, however, may seem evil to another. It also has to do with what information you have.
I have been faced with using violence, but I didn’t have to think much about it. I didn’t want to get hurt, so I hurt them first. It was self-defense. I was against the Vietnam War, and though I was drafted, I refused to go. There was more to it, but that was the bottom line. I disagreed with our choice in Vietnam, as I disagree with our choice in Iraq. I think both were, and are, morally wrong, but I do believe there are wars I would have fought in. World War Two comes to mind, Afghanistan is another example. It gets minimal to non-existent after that. World War One, probably.
I like to think I would have made the choice that Mark Twain made during the Civil War. He showed up, and then he left — if I remember right, went out West. He thought that the whole thing was stupid, and he was right. People are still fighting that war as if it happened yesterday, but the ones who won and lost are long dead. We live in a new universe, but it’s still tainted by that war. War is seldom good. The only straight out good war was World War Two, and not all that happened within was good. Morality, it do be so nuanced.
I look at Iraq and I hear people say it’s better without Saddam, and who wants to argue that? But we’ve now killed more people by accident, or due to the civil war we’ve unintentionally helped produce, than Saddam ever did. And now it’s a theocracy, which always scares me. When people know they’re right and there are no nuances, yikes. It’ll just get worse over there, and we’ll be buried up to our necks in that shit until doomsday. Sorry, got on my soap box.
But to get back to the question, I’ve made choices and have opinions, but I also use my imagination to write morality plays, and morality seems central to a lot of my work.
WT: Your concern with theocracy leads us to the tender subject of how you deal with religion. In your fiction, you don’t have much sympathy for religious dogma, do you?
JRL: I don’t care for religion at all. By that, I don’t mean I think people don’t have the right to be religious. I respect their right to believe any stupid thing they want, but I’d be a liar if said I respected their belief any more than they respect mine. It’s the right I respect.
Right now there are more fundamentalist assholes than ever before in my lifetime, and I grew up in what’s thought of as a Bible belt state. My Baptist church when I was a kid would be liberal compared to the literal-mindedness of the religious folks I meet now.
I was talking to a guy about Noah’s Ark. I said, yeah, okay, all fifty billion species doubled up and got on a fucking boat and they sailed around. Guy said, yeah, Noah put them all on there. I said, then you’re telling me you take the Bible literal. Yeah, he says, and I say, then since we know the size of the Ark by the “notes” in the Bible, how’d they all fit? He used his powers to make them fit, he says. And I say, where does it say in the Bible that he made them small or made them fit in the glove box? And he says, doesn’t, and I say, no shit, which means you do not take the Bible literal, you alter it to fit what you want. It doesn’t say he made them itty-bitty. It says what it says, and if you’re gonna lay that literal shit on me, then stick to the fuckin’ game plan, which puts us back to square one. How did he get all those animals on the goddamn Ark if you take it literal?
And how come God’s miracles weren’t going on in India, or North America? And if they were, why’s the arrogant bastard quiet about it?
What about Adam and Eve? If they’re the only people, and they have sons, and maybe sisters, someone is dropping anchor in some forbidden harbor to make all the sterling citizens of the world.
And what’s up with Lot? He tries to give his daughters to the crowd in Sodom in place of the angels they want to “know.” What kind of father is that?
And why can’t they find any record of Moses and David and these guys? And why do Christians mostly quote the Old Testament to justify war and meanness? What happened to God between the Old and the New Testaments — get on Zoloft? And who in the hell thinks the world is only a few thousand years old? I got socks that old.
Now, I know not all Christians are that literal, but those are the ones who chap my highly attractive ass. How come Jerry Falwell sounds like Bin Laden? Why is he so hateful? If that’s God’s message, he can cram it.
WT: How do you deal with readers who violently disagree with you on religion or other matters?
JRL: I try to explain that they missed the point. I try to be polite about it. I had one guy send me some racist jokes, thinking the racists in some of my stories were the good guys. That was his weird misconception. You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to figure out that I’m not about that. And someone wrote me that they loved animals and that animals died in my story. Well, they can blow me. People die in my stories as well, and I give to all sorts of animal and human charities. If they can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality I certainly can’t explain it to them, though, sadly, I’ve tried. Literature, films, games, etc., do not make you mean. You can read something good and it might change your life, or you can read something bad and it might change your life for the worse, but that’s a choice. I can’t write so that every moron out there won’t get offended, or take to heart something that isn’t meant to be taken to heart. Fiction is just that.
WT: You just mentioned charities. You’ve shared your commercial success with a number of good causes. Care to discuss some of them with which you’ve been affiliated, and maybe get readers to investigate them as well?
JRL: PROTECT, which was founded by people like Andrew Vachss, is my main charity. My wife gives to numerous animal charities, and I give to a few others, but PROTECT is my main one, and I’m on the Board of Directors. Go to the website at www.protect.org and check it out. It’s a children’s lobby, the only one around. Andrew figured if the gun people can make political hay with guns, we can do the same for children. It’s non-profit, and it’s only politic is to make life better for abused and mistreated children, prevent abuse in the first place, and make the laws tougher.
WT: I’m a member myself, and I hope readers will visit the site. Speaking of matters legal, you and Tim Truman were at the heart of one of the most high profile legal battles ever to hit the comic book world some years ago when Johnny and Edgar Winter objected to a Jonah Hex series you wrote. The case was settled in your favor, but has that experience made you more hesitant to satirize other public figures?
JRL: Unfortunately for me, the Winter case didn’t change me at all. We thought that what we were doing was a tribute to them, and never thought they’d take it personally, or think it was some sort of cut-down. I’ve been villains and cowards in books, and I always take it as a compliment. I’d love to be the hero, but it’s the choice of the writer. If they slander me directly, that’s one thing, but playing with a stage persona is different. No way any reasonable person could think we had something against them, or against albinos as they suggested. How silly. Johnny Winter was one of my favorite musicians. I say was, as I find myself reluctant to listen to him much anymore, but I respect his talent.
WT: Regarding tributes, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of the film Monster House to your novella Something Lumber This Way Comes. Have other readers noticed this? And have Spielberg and Zemeckis offered you a piece of the action for so blatantly copying your idea?
JRL: Everyone tells me Monster House is based on my book, and it sure looks like my basic idea and basic story line gussied up. I’m aware of it, and that’s all I’ll say at this point. But again, you’re one of many who have called me or told me in person that it seemed a little too close.
WT: Since this is for WEIRD TALES, the question, clichéd as it is, has to be asked: what scares Joe Lansdale?
JRL: What scares me is fear of what could happen to my family and loved ones, and of being an invalid, sick and useless. Those things scare me. “Bubba Ho-Tep” covered some of that. The stupidity of people and politicians scares me as well.
WT: By examining those fears and other, you’ve contributed greatly to popular culture and to regional literature. But what popular culture do you like? Getting aside from books for a moment, what about music? Are you able to listen to music when you write, or does it distract you?
JRL: I can’t listen to music when I write. I did it with one novel, a Batman book, Captured by the Engines, but it doesn’t suit me. I like all kinds of popular culture. I’m quite fond of Westerns and the fantastic, but there is so much I like. I do love music. I’m very fond of my daughter’s work. She writes and sings and has a band and is doing very well. At www.kaseylansdale.com you can hear her music, see photos, and read what’s up with her.
I love country music, but usually not the top forty stuff. On the edge of country is more my taste. I love Johnny Cash, Robert Earl Keene, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Sr., Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Jeff Walker. I also love blues and sixties soul music, R&B, and rockabilly. I can listen to big band when I’m in the mood, or classical. I’m not nuts about rap or hip-hop, though some hip-hop works for me. Rap just makes my ass tired, as does standard country music. I like some of the old Western stuff, like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, but I have to be in the mood. I love Dean Martin, never got Frank Sinatra and still don’t, except for a song here and there. That’s about it for the lounge crowd.
WT: Let’s finally turn to books. What were those books that made you want to be a writer in the first place? And have you read anything recently that touched your spirit?
JRL: The books that got me as a child were things like Edgar Rice Burroughs. There were some literary tomes — I loved the Iliad, more than the Odyssey, actually, and I did love Kipling’s Jungle Book. These books had a tremendous effect on me. And though I’m not religious, the Bible and Shakespeare were lying around, and I read those extensively. I read all those writers and books over and over. Later, Mark Twain, any and all I could get my hands on. Then Hemingway for style to some extent, more than for his stories. And Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Will-iam Goldman, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, anything weird by almost anyone when I was a child. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone was a big influence, and its writers like Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. Also, William F. Nolan — loved his versatility. Crime writers like Chandler, Hammett, more recent ones like Neal Barrett, Jr. and Andrew Vachss . . . the list goes on.
WT: So what’s next? You’ve written one of the finest non-related (except in theme and setting) trilogy of novels in American fiction in The Bottoms, A Thin Dark Line, and Sunset & Sawdust. From my perspective, these three books seem like your most serious work and your highest literary accomplishments to date. Are you planning more novels like them? Also, you seem to pretty much write the kind of books you want to write, but if you had no commercial considerations at all, would you write what you’re writing now, or something different?
JRL: I’d write a little differently, I think, but not a whole lot. The three books you mention are favorites of mine, and I’m planning more like them. I’ll probably always mix it up, however. A documentary crew did a piece on me for Italian TV – I think they’re doing Elmore Leonard next, if he agrees – so they hold my work quite highly. A French author who’s written about Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, McCarthy, and Harry Crews is doing a book on me. In a letter to me he said the sad thing is because I don’t always toe the line and do “serious” books, it will probably keep me from the serious recognition he believes I deserve. I don’t know, I can only be me. I try not to get too tied up in that sort of ego stuff. I grew up on both literature and pulp, and they’re both inside me, like part of my guts.
WT: The young horror writer Joe Hill has said that The Drive-In was the book that made him want to be a writer. How does it feel to have achieved “Grand Old Man” status and to have had the influence on young writers that you have?
JRL: Being a grand old man is more painful than satisfying. Means you’re getting old, even if you aren’t actually. And I’m not. Let me repeat that. I’m not.
WT: I believe you. Still, you’ve been writing for nearly three decades, and you’ve been successful critically, artistically, and commercially. You must have learned a lot about the writing and publishing business during the time you’ve been in it. So, Uncle Joey, what advice would you give to beginning writers? Of the “here’s what I wish I’d known then” variety . . .
JRL: The only advice I can give to would-be writers is read a lot, put your ass in a chair, and write.
Chet Williamson is a freelance writer who has published nearly 20 books, most of them in the fields of suspense and horror. Nearly a hundred of his short stories have appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Twilight Zone, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and many other magazines and anthologies. When he’s not writing, Chet can be found either listening to or making music. He plays with Rambles.net editor Tom Knapp in Fire in the Glen, a Celtic duo, and he loves and collects nearly every kind of music. His long-suffering wife Laurie is good enough to share the house with him and his collection. Their son Colin lives in Tokyo, where he works for Square, developing video games.