Interview: Joe Lansdale (Author and Champion Mojo Storyteller) -By: Liam Sweeny

Written by on January 9, 2023

There are writers’ writers, just like there are guitarists’ guitarists and pimps’ pimps. A writer’s writer is not, make no mistake, an affront to the reader, or solely focused on some void philosophical notion of craft. No, they are actually so beloved by their readers that other writers gather ‘round their campfire and want to walk away with a piece of what makes that writer who they are.

Joe Lansdale is a writers’ writer. A Texan, he can write something low-down and dirty to the point where you can taste the dust his characters are kicking up, but he can also plumb the depths and challenge you to think, and in some, or many cases, challenge you to fear.

I spoke with Joe and we talk mojo.

RRX: I fell in love with Hap and Leonard, which started out as a book series, and went on to TV via Sundance. Two lifelong friends, Hap a white guy with a laborer’s history and Leonard, a gay black Vietnam vet. Leonard breaks a lot of gay stereotypes. You wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley. How did Hap and Leonard come to be?

JL: Hap is about eighty percent me, and Leonard is a lot of folks, a couple of people I worked with, even to some extent myself. Also, a couple of good friends, at least at certain times in their lives. Leonard is gay simply because I knew people who were gay, and so I felt that should be represented more in books, and not just the goofy neighbor next door stereotype of films and TV.

Hap and Leonard have many of the same jobs I’ve had, and though I haven’t had shootouts and the adventures they’ve had, a lot of their backstory, views, situations, I borrowed from real life. My life and others I knew, stories I heard that may or may not be true. They came very naturally to me, more so than any characters I’ve ever written about.

RRX: Your work shows a passion for the comics, the old ones. Batman, Tarzan, Conan the Barbarian. Gets me to realizing that the people who created these, the original writers, are very unsung. More people know who created Hap and Leonard than know who created Batman. In your own work with comics, how do you honor these old writers?

JL: That’s a good point. Growing up I thought Bob Kane wrote all the Batman comics. That’s what you were led to believe, and later I learned of the considerable contributions of Bill Finger. Of course. Batman has been in many writer’s hands, me included, but in my case in books and animated films. I was a big fan of Gardner Fox.  He really turned them out, and he worked with a lot of comic characters. The echo of all that work still travels through the comics. That was a major influence on me, that’s for sure.

RRX: You’ve won 11 Bram Stoker Awards for horror, correct any err. And horror is big in our culture. It fills a need in us that a hungry lion used to feed our ancestors in the savannahs. But in writing, in the piles of publishers’ wish lists, how is horror ‘horror,’ and not just dark sci-fi or a psychological thriller? What makes it horror?

JL: I think I’ve won ten, and if you count Lifetime Achievement, I think you got a house for that too. It’s the old ‘I know horror when I see it’. When I was young it was about fear, but as time went on, to me it became a tool in the tool box along with others. I think I probably borrow a lot of horror mood for my Hap and Leonard novels, at least some, and the truth is if you have strict labels it’s really not much fun. I’ve run the gamut.

RRX: When I was a younger writer trying to build my chops, I heard “gotta read Lansdale!” I picked your book ‘The Bottoms,” a coming-of-age story about a killer of black prostitutes. I have ADHD, so I have a hard time finishing books that aren’t amazing. I finished “The Bottoms”. How does that book fit in with your collected works?

JL: Many readers cite it as my best. I certainly think it’s one of my best. I felt I could do that kind of book long before I did it, but when I wrote it won the Edgar, the Herodotus, and was nominated for others. Bill Paxon, Brent Hanley, and myself, we tried to get it filmed for years. Bill then died young, a botched operation, and that kind of went fallow for now. My favorite of my works is “Paradise Sky”. I wanted to write it for a long time, loved writing it, and feel good about it. Other favorites are “Edge of Dark Water”, The Thicket” and “Sunset and Sawdust”. “The Drive In” is my most original, and in some ways, one of my most influential, along with Hap and Leonard. Lots of writers cite those as catalyst to their own works.

RRX: I can mention a colorblind haberdasher, Imperial Japan, and a sentient smushed cigar butt, and I know you can write that into a story that will be very satisfying. I won’t ask how you do that, but I will say that a lot of writers trying to break in are afraid to shoot wild because they think agents and publishers won’t take a chance. What say you? 

JL: I say go for it if it feels natural to you. It is natural for me. I think comics made me think bold about stories, and pulp influence, and the best of those writers taught me about scene and color. A lot of fine writers like Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, and others labeled as genre writers, though Chandler and Bradbury kind of had it both ways, were big influences. As were more accepted so-called literary writers like Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck. Writers like Kerouac, to some extent, are influences. Film is a major influence. I could fill up pages talking about Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown, C.L. Moore, Cyril Kornbluth…well, you get the idea. I also am heavily influenced by Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle.  It goes on and on.

RRX: We all do what we do for a reason. I write ‘The End’ on a manuscript because it’s a free high. But really I write fiction because I love language and the craft of writing. And I also write because I want to blow a reader away like some writers have blown me away. What reason do you write, in the above sense?

JL: You named all my reasons. Being paid and making a living at it also inspires.

RRX: This is where you answer the question I didn’t ask. Comments? Remarks? Educate, enlighten, emote – the floor is yours.

JL: I’m only going to give the advice I often give. When you write, write like everyone is dead. Write for yourself. Later you can worry about others liking it.

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