“You have to be passionate about what you do, and willing to mutate.”
Joe Lansdale writes what he knows. The winner of ten Bram Stoker Awards, an Edgar Award for Best Novel (2001’s The Bottoms), the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award and a World Horror Convention Grand Master Award in 2007, Mr. Lansdale is certainly not short on accolades. However, this is a man who doesn’t write for critical acclaim nor the approval of a single reader- he prefers to write as if the reader were dead, in his terms. Lansdale writes for all the right reasons- to tell a story as best he can, in the most stark and honest language as possible. If you happen to love the story, great. If not, there will be sure to be a new one shortly (Lansdale has cranked out forty-three novels and nearly thirty collections since 1980). These stories bite back, hard, and Lansdale offers no apologies. His stories are real- dark and deep, full of characterization that is hardly found in literature these days and often times rolling society over to expose its ugly underbelly.
It isn’t all horror with Lansdale, at least in the general genre sense. While many of Lansdale’s novels focus on some of humanity’s deepest fears, the Texas native has an issue with fitting into a convenient one-size-fits-all box. His writing simply does not fit into the cookie cutter measurements that so many people seem to want. While he may be best known for his fantastic Hap and Leonard series, Lansdale has written for comics (a collection of Jonah Hex graphic novels as well as writing for Batman: The Animated Series) and has dabbled in almost every fiction genre you can imagine, including historical fiction. He detests the label “splatterpunk” that was slapped on his work years back when that was the cool thing to write and he insists on writing what he’d like to read. Lansdale’s work simply does not stay- or fit- in any one category. In fact, some of his work is incorrectly categorized all together. Savage Season, the first novel in the Hap and Leonard universe, was nominated for a Bram Stoker award upon its release and Lansdale seriously considered asking to be removed from the ballot because the novel simply is not a horror novel.
Much like his writing, there is so much more than meets the eye to Joe Lansdale, the man. He teaches at his own Shen Chuan martial arts school and is a member of both the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame as well as the international Martial Arts Hall of Fame. Lansdale attributes the focus and passion of his martial arts career to what often times keeps him driving forward on a writing project.
Whether he’s weaving a story of Elvis and an African-American JFK meeting in a nursing home to take on an ancient evil mummy (Bubba Ho-Tep) or penning novels that are often compared to Mark Twain’s American prose, Lansdale simply writes what he knows, which is a spectacular kaleidoscope of classic American literature mixed with the fantastic.
I had the true honor of speaking with Mr. Lansdale recently and, let me tell you, they simply don’t make them like Joe anymore.
MANGLED MATTERS: You were raised in a household with parents who were really supportive of reading and creativity. What was your first experience with horror, film or lit?
JOE LANSDALE: I’m almost certain it had to have been horror-related in comics, albeit quite mild. Interestingly enough, when I was nine or ten, my brother gave me Edgar Allan Poe to read. My brother really helped provide that fuel for the fire when he gave me that book. He knew I had that interest, and I think the original interest was from comic books and films. The older films were beginning to be shown on TV at that point, the Universal horror films, and that really interested me, too.
MM: You had your ups and downs as a writer early on. What kept you pushing forward and staying positive during the tough times?
JL: I was raised to believe that if I thought I could do it, I could do it. I know that may sound simplistic and, as an adult, sounds a little sillier in some ways than it did as a kid, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t believe it. I had tremendous confidence in myself, and I think that was my parents’ doing. Then with martial arts, that helped a lot with confidence, as well.
I’m also well-read, I’ve read a lot of things. So I felt like I had a strong background in that sort of thing. When I was a kid, there wasn’t a whole lot of horror or science fiction readily available. There was a series of graphic novels called Classics Illustrated that adapted horror and science-fiction stories, all kinds of novels. That series got me reading all kinds of historical pieces like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company and I actually read that before I read Sherlock Holmes. Then I read Holmes and was like “oh, this guy did the Holmes books and these movies on TV”, which led to me reading and exploring. All of these things brought me to the career I have now.
I think a lot of writers these days who don’t have confidence is because they aren’t well-read or they only read what is in their field. Another issue is they only read what is two or four years old. They never go back and say “why are people reading The Time Machine? Why are people reading War of the Worlds? Why do people read all of these great writers?” You need to go back and read them. You need to at least sample them or pick what is some of their most prominent work and know about them. You just gotta be well-read and well-versed in your field. That means every extension- literature, film, radio and comics. All of it.
MM: You acknowledge that it took you a few years to find your own voice, as a writer. Looking back, now thirty-plus years into your career, how do you feel when a younger author cites your voice as their template or blue print for their writing?
JL: I think a lot of us all started off copying other people. I know I did. I was heavily influenced by Robert Bloch and Raymond Chandler. Those two are very diverse writers but I was borrowing somewhat from them. When I was doing horror, Robert Bloch was a major influence on me and when I was doing crime, I think Chandler’s voice was in it. Then I realized one day that we already had a Robert Bloch and we already had a Raymond Chandler, so I had to come up with my own voice. When I quit worrying about it, it suddenly began to surface. I think a part of it was because I had written so many stories at that point, that I sort of flushed the old stuff out of my system. But the voices of the writers that really influenced me were still there in my work, I just didn’t need to depend on them as much anymore. I began to suddenly sound like me and I realized that that was always there, I just didn’t recognize it. Once I recognized it and was comfortable with it, and began to use my own background at least as the impetus for my stories, then I found my voice followed that concept.
While my voice can vary somewhat, there is a little bit of ventriloquism that goes on, it’s always, to the core, very much me. I think you can read a variety of things I’ve written and know it’s me behind the stories. I guess I’m saying that I understand why young writers do it, but they need to leave that behind and find their own voice because you don’t want to write like someone else. You want to use those influences, fine, but use them as a sort of pry bar to get to the other side that deals with your work and your voice.
MM: I find it interesting that Stephen King has said he doesn’t care if he’s labeled or boxed in as a writer. You, on the other hand, really object to that, and rightfully so in my opinion. Especially with all genres you get into, it simply doesn’t fit for you. Why are people so quick to want to label an author?
JL: I think marketing has driven that idea more than anything else. The problem with the label is that it begins to compartmentalize everything within a genre. People suddenly don’t just want horror, they’re looking for a certain design of horror, which is usually what’s marketable. I understand the pragmatic aspect of it, and I don’t mind being called a horror writer or crime writer as long as people understand that is merely an arm of the octopus. I mean, if I’ve written Westerns, does that disqualify me as a horror writer? To me, when people say “you’re a horror writer”, I always go “yeah, but what about all the other stuff I’ve written that isn’t in that field?” A lot of the horror I’ve written, I think, is debatable as horror. A number of things I’ve won Bram Stokers for are actually more crime-oriented like Night They Missed the Horror Show or science fiction-oriented like Fishing for Dinosaurs. I wrote things that people called “splatterpunk”, and I hate that term. Just because I wrote stories that had elements of that genre in it, that didn’t make me a splatterpunk writer. If I’ve written things that are horror, you can’t just brand me as a horror writer because I’ve also written historical and non-fiction and so on and so on. To me, I never get offended when people do that, it never bothers me to a great extent, but if you ask me, my feelings are that it’s unimportant to me to be branded one type of writer or another. Certainly, fantastic elements have always been a large part of my fiction, especially my short fiction, but there’s certainly a lot of stories and novels I’ve written that don’t include that.
I’m not suggesting I’m doing the most magnificent work in the world, but I’m suggesting I’m doing the best work I know how and I’m also saying that the labels can be so restrictive.
MM: I agree completely and it’s refreshing to see an author who pushes back a little when mainstream or the marketing machine tries to label them.
JL: You ask someone and they say “I don’t read horror” and I say, “You know what? A lot of things you think may be horror aren’t necessarily pure horror”, so I just think it limits you. If you feel that I am just a horror writer or science-fiction writer, you feel obligated to write that sort of thing or for all work to have that specific type of brand. Although Stephen King says he doesn’t mind that, he certainly works outside of that horror brand and I understand what he’s saying. That has made him millions of dollars and he’s a world figure, and as a marketing strategy I get that completely but from a writing standpoint, I find it troublesome. I definitely write certain things that fit very well into a specific genre, but I’ve also written a lot that just doesn’t fit into any one genre. I think it’s because I bring all the tools and furniture from all the things I’ve read into most of the things I write. You can feel those elements there, even if that’s not the element I’m primarily using.
MM: My favorite quote of yours is when you said, “Fuck the readers”. I love it and as a fledgling author myself, I struggle with that rule sometimes. Out of context, it could be read a certain way, but can you explain to readers and writers what you mean when you say you don’t write for the reader?
JL: I don’t write for the reader, I write like everybody I know is dead. When I said “Fuck the reader”, it means you cannot sit down and think “What do the readers want?” I’m sure it works for some writers, to consider their audiences and what they want, but that doesn’t work for me. I can’t possibly know what the reader wants. I only know what I want. Then when I get finished, I hope the reader likes it but you have to say “To hell with the reader” when you sit down to write and have the only reader be you.
Sometimes I like to experiment and do things that I know that if I tried to think about what the reader would like, the story would become so narrow and I’d start second-guessing myself. So I think, “You know what? This is what I want to read, so fuck the reader” and I write what I want and I hope the reader is there when it’s done. Sometimes, when I get through writing stuff, I know some of my work is going to be outré or not appeal to a wide audience, and sometimes I finish something and think “That may really appeal to a larger audience”, but you know what? I have no idea what audiences like or want.
Some people are out if you say “fuck” in a story. They’re offended and gone. That’s OK, I can live without them. Then there are some people who think blood and gore should be on every page and if you’re not writing what you were writing in 1986, then it’s not what they want to read because they don’t grow or they don’t have a variation of interest.
MM: The characterization in your stories is amazing. It’s awesome to see a writer put the characterization in front of the “genre” of the story, whether it be horror, mystery or comedy. Those take a back seat to the character development, and that is something that I love. Why do you think character development seems to be lacking so much these days? I feel like that is a big slight to the reader.
JL: Yeah. I do, too.
MM: Why do you feel that the characterization simply isn’t there these days, like it needs to be?
JL: I think it’s because we are a throw-away society. A lot of fiction, extremely popular fiction, is really just television on paper. Television is becoming much richer these days, sure, but these stories are the television from the old days- for people who like to pretend their readers so they can pick up something that’s breezy like a television show and characterization to them is the snarky man with the pipe. To me, those are tags, they’re just brands.
I love plot. For me, I can read a story about an interesting character and I can get to the end of the story and realize there wasn’t much plot and I wouldn’t care at all. That doesn’t mean I don’t care at all about plot. My favorite stories have some driving story arcs but they’re very character driven. Now, once in a while I’ll think something is clever and write something where the story itself is the character. That’s a different thing and that’s where the tone, attitude and uniqueness of the story idea or the way it’s written, that becomes the character. That can supersede the actual characters in the story.
I think of Ray Bradbury a lot with this. I don’t think Bradbury was great with characters- all of his stories were merely metaphorical. But the stories were unique because of the style and branding he had. To me, when you read a Ray Bradbury story, I very seldom have read something where the characterization is pivotal. Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, to an extent, are probably the best of his but even the little touches of characterization are swift and it’s really the story and tone that have made Bradbury such a favorite. But what I really like are stories like Raymond Chandler’s with Philip Marlowe, where the mystery is so secondary. What was important was the voice and how the character felt about the people he met. The dialogue was so interesting, unique and human in those stories.
MM: Looking at the laundry list of accolades you’ve collected over the years, you’ve won just about every award an author can. Is there one particular award you are most proud of?
JL: You know, in a funny way, I think that it was the Lifetime Achievement Award that I got from the Horror Writers Association. Just because it means I’d been around long enough to have an impact on the field. I love all those genres, but that said, I wouldn’t want that to be the only thing that people think of. But I like that, because I like so many people in the field and we kind of grew up together and it’s good to see people like Robert McCammon and F. Paul Wilson, people you admire and respect, so it’s really like being part of a club in a sense.
All of the awards are nice, but you can’t live for them and think that they change your career much. Probably the only award that I got that had any true impact on my career was the Edgar. That boosted my career quite a bit. That award really has some impact, so from a standpoint of helping your career, the Edgar was the most important. The Lifetime Achievement was special because it was nice to be grouped with a lot of peers that you had started out with and respected. There’s no particular award that I’ve ever gotten that I thought changed my life or made me think or feel any differently than I did the day before, besides the fact that it was nice to know that people respected your work and your peers respected you enough to acknowledge you, so it’s always important in that way. I know people whose driving force is to win awards and they get so bent out of shape when they don’t and it’s amazing to me. That’s not why you do this.
The awards are fleeting, too. You look at some lists of past winners of certain awards and you find yourself going, “Whatever happened to him? Whatever happened to her?”, and that goes for any award- the Pulitzer, the Nobel. It happens to all of them. Because a lot of what’s popular is sort of, I guess, a community moment. Everyone is tuned into this one thing or one genre and then they eventually tune out. Richard Brautigan, in the Sixties, was one of the best-selling authors in the world for a book or two, but then time shifted. Because he wasn’t writing for a historical moment, he was writing for that moment and it seemed to fade away, like mist, just gone. He’s an author that I think of a lot because he had this tremendous moment and then he was gone. You can still read his stuff and find it online, but the culture changed almost overnight and suddenly it was almost like he never existed.
MM: You mention the culture shift. You’ve said in the past that horror needs to mutate, which is doesn’t do too effectively as often as it should. As an author who steps into the genre from time to time, do you feel like your multi-facet writing really helps you stay relevant and on the ball? Your longevity speaks for itself.
JL: I think so. Starting out, I was writing crime fiction. I wrote crime short stories, then Acts of Love, which is a really dated novel. So I was in that field and then I started writing horror stories and people were like “You’re going to start confusing people- you gotta pick a field and you gotta stick to it” and I thought, “Yeah, but what if I get bored with that field? What if I pick a field and that field is no longer popular?”
I saw that happen to a lot of people, too, when horror had its bust and they were busted. Some of those authors who wore that splatterpunk badge with pride, you just stopped hearing from them. Many of them were very good writers, too. Truthfully, it never was a big trend, but it was one of the most influential trends in fiction, not just horror fiction. If you look back and do some research on the effects that splatterpunk movement had on literature and entertainment, there was a small group of people who really made that go. But when those trends mutate, you have to evolve as a writer as well because fiction and the world mutates constantly. I’m very influenced by the Thirties and Forties in my writing, but I’m also aware in the current times and all that, so I’ve always been a student of anthropology and sociology. Those elements seem to be universal and you can bring those to the old material and it seems to update it or you can bring it to the new material and try to understand why and how the old stories of the past worked. But you can’t sit still. You have to be like a shark, you just gotta keep swimming. If you get locked into one genre, no matter how good a writer you are, once that genre collapses or that publisher collapses, then when you decide to switch genres, there’s no place for you to go. You have to build your career up from the bottom up.
MM: Which you did right off the bat, as if you knew what lay ahead.
JL: I was working on a multi-pronged career from the beginning. I had a small press career, I had a mainstream career and I worked a career in comics and film. Not just because it was a matter of survival, but because I loved doing all of those things. It helped my survival. I think I’ve been able to survive for so long because there’s an enthusiasm in my storytelling and I’ve been able to move from one field to the next. I’ve done a lot of film work since the late 80’s and it just keeps evolving. You have to be passionate about what you do, and willing to mutate. We all have to occasionally write something to make a living but even when I’ve had to do that, I’ve never just thrown a sack over its head and done it for Old Glory. I try to write as well as I can and find what’s interesting in that story, to me, or add something to it. I can’t speak for other people or what works for them, but I know that’s what works for me. It’s kept me in the game and it’s kept me financially lucrative. It’s also given me a lot of artistic elbow room.
MM: You are an active voice on social media, as well. Your posts and writing tips on Facebook are something any author can really look forward to and learn from. Who were some people, either professionally or personally, that you looked to for advice while you were shaping yourself into a full-time writer?
JL: Early on, I didn’t know any writers or editors. I was just living in the country and mailing stuff out with return envelopes. The first editor to ever buy anything of mine was Sam Merwin, with Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. He was an old pulp editor and he was a really blunt sort of guy. I sent a story in and he wrote back and said it was a pretty good story and he gave me some insight on how to make it a story that fit what these sort of magazines were looking for. I was learning, because I’d never had a lesson in creative writing, so I re-wrote it again and again and finally he told me the more he saw the story, the more he hated it. He encouraged me to write something new. So I sent him a new story that I wrote and he bought it. I remember writing William F. Nolan and I sent him a story. I asked him what he thought and he wrote back very positively. For the most part, I’m very self-taught and I’ve always had a strong confidence in myself. I always thought I could do this, but I will admit I’ve had a level of success that I never expected. I just wanted, like Rocky Balboa said, “I just didn’t want to be another bum in the neighborhood!” (Laughs)
I wanted to write a story that mattered and that somebody would care about. At first, I just wanted to write and even if it was just a part-time job, I was going to be content with that. But then I got to writing and thinking and I knew I could do it as a career. I knew I could do what I had always wanted to do as a full-time profession. So then it was just putting my nose to the grindstone and the rest worked itself out.
MM: Thank God you did, because it definitely worked out for you and the readers.
JL: Well, thank you very much.
MM: Another one of my favorite quotes of yours is, “I don’t plot or plan. I like to be surprised like the reader.” What are you currently working on to surprise the readers with?
JL: I’m working on the new Hap and Leonard novel, called Rusty Puppy. There’s one already finished called Honky Tonk Samurai and that comes out next year. I’m also working on a short story with my daughter, a horror short story. This one is definitely a horror story. I’m writing another Hap and Leonard novella part-time. That’s what I was working on this morning. I’m working on a screenplay with my son and I’m working on a screenplay of my own which I hope to direct. So I’ve got a lot of different irons in the fire, but the main thing is definitely Rusty Puppy. Going back to Hap and Leonard isn’t me just, like I said before, throwing a sack over its head and doing it for Old Glory- it means they are characters I love and love to get into, so it’s a nice break before I get into something big and ambitious again. They give me a lot of fuel, actually.
MM: I don’t think anyone would think a Hap and Leonard novel is a throw-away novel. They are fantastic characters and I know readers love them just as much as you do.
JL: Well there aren’t any characters I love more than those two. I get a lot of reviews and feedback on other books of mine and it always comes back to “When’s the next Hap and Leonard?” (Laughs)
Joe can be found on his personal website HERE
He also offers up incredible insight on his Facebook page– it’s like picking the brain of a mad scientist for free!
Do yourself a favor and check out Joe’s library over at Amazon and pick yourself up some great reads!