Joe R. Lansdale has been writing riveting novels and stories spanning the suspense, Western, and horror genres for four decades. Frequent themes and elements to his writing include memorably quirky characters, bizarre criminal set-ups, issues of race, and matters of rural deprivation, often all couched in the most brazen humor. He’s noted as a “cult author” but with each new work he garners more and more mainstream and commercial success. Best know as the author of the popular Hap and Leonard series of action-suspense novels, he’s also the winner of the British Fantasy Award, the American Horror Award, the Edgar Award, and eight Bram Stoker Awards. In 2007 the World Horror Convention made him the recipient of the Grand Master Award for his contribution to the field of Horror fiction.
Here, Joe and I discuss his latest novel Edge Of Dark Water, out from Mulholland Books in late March, 2012. The story focuses on the murder of pretty May Lynn, a teen from rural east Texas who dreamt of going to Hollywood and becoming a sensation. Her friends Sue Ellen, Terry, and Jinx decide to honor her by robbing her grave, burning her body, and traveling down the Sabine river on a raft before heading out west to scatter her ashes in the city of movie stars. However, when the kids find a map leading to stolen loot, they’re suddenly on the run from several violent adversaries, including the mythical “Skunk,” a man raised as a beast in the deep woods who will stop at nothing to track and kill his prey.
PIC: Much of your crime and horror work is noted for its occasional excesses into violence, disturbing, and unsettling matters. With a coming-of-age tale like Edge Of Dark Water some folks might think you would curb your impulses towards more over-the-top material but it’s just as dark a narrative with scenes of real chills and bloodletting. Do you ever feel the need to tone down the work?
LANSDALE: I never really think about it in a conscious way. I think each story dictates its own nature. I let the story be the guide. I’ve purposely toned down things when I think I went too far with that particular scene. Not because it was violent, or scary, or even quiet. I changed it or toned it down when I thought I made the wrong choice for the scene, for the kind of story I was trying to tell. I am not married to being violent or being non-violent. It depends on the story, the kind of impact I want to make with the scene, or the overall impact. I have said for years less is often more, but sometimes more is more.
The Edge Of Dark Water is a coming of age tale, but it’s for adults. I think young adults can read it, but it’s not designed for children. If I had written it strictly for Young Adults, I might have geared it in a slightly different way to accommodate the age group more, but that’s about it when it comes to changes of that nature.
PIC: You’ve written other young adult/coming-of-age tales featuring bizarre adventures, going back to the likes of The Magic Wagon and The Boar. But lately with the young Hap Collins story “The Boy Who Became Invisible,” the YA novel All The Earth, Thrown To The Sky, and now Edge you seem to be honing in on this kind of fare. What stirred your need to focus on these themes again recently?
LANSDALE: I think those themes have always been in my work, but I go through waves. I also find that I feel the most comfortable with pure storytelling. The kind of tale told by someone who is relatively innocent, or at least should be, who is just saying this is what happened. First person narration is to me the purest form of storytelling. I’m not saying you can’t tell a good story in third person, or if you’re really clever, second person, or some variation there of. I’ve written in first and third, and I’m written with a bit of experimentation. But what I like best is first person and the feeling that I’m getting the story straight from the horse’s mouth, or someone who got it first hand from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. That makes it seem more real to me. It’s one of the reasons that though I wanted to write early on, when I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess Of Mars, which was told in first person, I from that point on HAD to write. On some level I almost thought the story might be real. That it might have happened. Such was the power of the first person voice. It led to my reading more and more first person narratives. I read a lot of Burroughs, and the first person tales, of which he wrote many, were always my favorite. I loved Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for just that reason. It seemed real and immediate. Third person is one step removed, but first person, it’s the story teller’s voice. I always loved it when we sat under a tree in my grandmother’s front yard, and the adults would start telling stories, some of them things they had heard, but often their own adventures, or stories that were told as their own adventures. That came even before Burroughs. But when I read that book, A Princess Of Mars, I was sunk. From that point on all I wanted to do was write, and because of that book, I preferred first person narration. It’s another reason I latched onto private eye fiction, because so much of it was told in first person.
There were some great third person books in that field, of course. The Maltese Falcon comes to mind, but I always preferred Chandler, not only because he was a wonderful writer, but because he told his Marlowe stories in first person. To Kill A Mockingbird sealed the deal for me. I was introduced to the book by the film. The little bit of first person narration in the film hooked me as well, and when I read the book I realized what could really be done with first person. And the fact that it was a young person telling the story, and many of the things the character talked about were things I could relate to in my life, directly, or indirectly, I was even more locked-in to preferring that kind of storytelling. Now, after all this, my next novel may be in third person. But the point I’m making here is first person narration is a favorite of mine, and when it involves someone coming of age, I’m more likely to be sucked in.
PIC: Will we see more tales of young Hap and Leonard?
LANSDALE: Yes. There is a new one, a novella, titled Dead Aim that I’m finishing up. It will be turned in to Subterranean Press this coming year. Beyond that, I can’t say. As for novels, I think there will be more. I also have some film business involving them. We’ll see how that turns out.
PIC: How about your own childhood? Were you an adventurous kid searching for lost treasure? Did you ever run into any Injun Joe, Goat-man, or Skunk-like characters?
LANSDALE: I was an adventurous kid. I was sick a lot early on, and then I sort of got over it. I ran the creek banks and the woods, rode bicycles, went camping and hiking, and so on, began learning martial arts. I never met an Injun Joe, but I certainly met my share of eccentric characters. The ones that intrigued me most, however, were the everyday folks who got up and did their job and took care of their families. I didn’t know that at the time, but as I grew older, I realized just how important my family had been to me, and how important I wanted it to be for my kids. A lot of my stories are about families. Natural, or made by choice.
PIC: I particularly liked the plot element you followed in Edge when Sue Ellen’s mother, a generally weak-willed, emotionally broken woman decides to join the kids on their adventure. It was a nice touch of possible redemption, especially since most of the adults are painted as ignorant, vapid, or cruel. What led you to taking the storyline in that direction?
LANSDALE: I felt this was the Sue Ellen’s story for the most part, but I didn’t see her mother as evil, just someone who had been self-centered. Someone who gave up for awhile. Sue Ellen reignited a spark in her. I felt an adventure with both mother and daughter would make it more interesting, more dynamic, especially as it took place at that point when Sue Ellen was starting to claim her own independence. In a way, so was her mother. I really liked Sue Ellen’s mother. I liked the way she went at pulling herself out of the hell hole she was in, and I liked the fact that it was Sue Ellen that led to her making the effort. It didn’t all work out like everyone planned. Plans seldom do. But at least everyone was trying to make a better life than what they had.
PIC: You’ve always put good use to the idea that the south is the province of the gothic and grotesque. Do you ever take any heat from your neighbors for making east Texas such a creepy and violent place to be?
LANSDALE: No, not really. I think I may have gotten a little heat here and there. But most Southerners who are honest about their region know that though there is a beautiful side to the South, there is also a gothic snake that lurks in the undergrowth, and it can raise its fanged head at any moment. I think like Flannery O’Connor said about Southerners, “We still know weird when we see it.” That’s true. But sometimes we are part of the weird. I think every region has its dark side. It’s just that I know this region better than any other, so that’s what I write about. I’m drawn to the darker part of it, because that’s the part that haunts me.
PIC: You’re quite active on the social media sites. How do you like keeping up with the fans via Facebook and Twitter?
LANSDALE: I’m not as active as some would like. The ones who want me to promote my stuff. But I’m making an effort. If you promote too much, you seem self centered. If you have a fan page and don’t promote at all, then you’re an idiot. I try to let people know about my work and where they can find it, but I’ll be honest. Much as I enjoy some of my conversations with people, I’d rather go back to no Facebook and no Twitter, if it meant I could just write my books and stories. That’s what I like to do. These days, even if you’re successful, to stay that way you have to let people know you’re out there. The good side is I do enjoy talking to people. I do email in the morning, do Facebook, and when I’m in between things during the day, I’ll drop in and answer questions, and when I’m in the car on the way to town, my wife driving, of course, I do the Twitter business. I think there’s a lot more time in the day than people think. I like being busy. Writing, teaching martial arts once a week now, teaching at the University one semester a year, visiting with family and friends, reading, anything else that interests me. I earned the right to enjoy myself, and I do. I worked more than one job for a long time when I was starting out, and then I was a house dad, and for nearly thirty years or so I’ve been full time, and for right at forty years I’ve been selling my stories and books and articles and essays, screenplays, plays, comic scripts, so my dream to be a writer came true, and it’s as wonderful as I thought it would be.
PIC: You also spend time doing a popular feature about writing tips and reading suggestions. How’d you wind up schooling so many folks?
LANSDALE: I did it because of so many questions. I kept getting fans who wanted me to write a book on writing. These were off the top of my head ideas, not always well spelled or thought out in great detail, but the kind of off the cuff responses I’d give to a writing question. I think I’m going to expand them into a book in the near future. These were more like tips, than lessons really. And they were take it or leave it lessons. I don’t think I know all the answers, just some that worked for me, and might work for another writer coming up, or might spur them to go off in their own direction. I only read a couple of writing books that helped me out, and there was only one bit of writing advice in both books that I took to heart. That was write regularly, and to not try and do a ton of work each day. Be steady. I try and do three to five pages a day. I nearly always do that, so I’m a hero everyday. I don’t feel like I have to turn out twenty to thirty pages of prose a day. That way I burn out. This way I can control quality, and not burn out. Also, I often get more pages a day than that, but all I expect is the three to five. When I get more, that’s just a bonus. The book where I got this advice, by the way, was a writing book titled One Way To Write Your Novel. I don’t remember who wrote it. (Dick Perry). And I think it was advocating one page a day. But it was the idea of a small amount done consistently and done well that stuck with me.
PIC: What else is on the horizon for you?
LANSDALE: I’m working on a new Young Adult novel for Delacorte. I’m writing a number of short stories, and I have another novel to do for Mulholland Books. As I said before, I’m also finishing up Dead Aim, the Hap and Leonard novella. No telling what else will come along.
PIC: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us at length, Joe. The Big Click appreciates it!