Joe R. Lansdale Interview
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Joe R. Lansdale. Among readers and writers, that name always brings forth praise and a desire to share opinions on his work. In a way, Lansdale has become an iconic figure when it comes to discussing cross-genre talent. The author has published more than thirty books that range from thrillers to horror and from science fiction to western. His list of accolades is long enough to be considered a book in itself and includes sixteen Bram Stoker Awards, the Grand Master Award from the World Horror Convention, a British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Horror Critics Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, the "Shot in the Dark" International Crime Writer’s Award, the Golden Lion Award, the Booklist Editor’s Award, the Critic’s Choice Award and a New York Times Notable Book Award. Also, this week Lansdale received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association.
All of the above would be impressive if Lansdale was just a writer, but he's also a two-time inductee into the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame and has a plethora of side projects that go from movies to comics to running his own martial arts school and everything in between. With a new Lifetime Achievement Award on his mantle and no sign of slowing down (even when he tries), we sat down with the Champion Mojo Storyteller himself to learn more about his past and what's coming from him in the future.
Gabino Iglesias: You have basically written successfully in almost every genre out there from horror and science fiction to thrillers, noirs and bizarro before it was called bizarro: is there a genre that you enjoy writing more than the others? Is there a genre that comes easier than the rest?
Joe Lansdale: Actually, there isn’t a genre I prefer more than another. I don’t think of myself specifically writing in a particular genre, unless I’m asked to write for an anthology that has a theme. Even then, I use the genre as a spring board and go my own way. Sometimes what I write fits more comfortably into genre specs, and sometimes not. I wrote a story for Christopher Golden for an anthology that was about zombies, though he said writers could take the theme of death and run with it. I wrote a story where there are no supernatural or scientific inspired zombies, and in fact, no zombies as we normally think about them are in the story. But it is metaphorically a zombie story, certainly a story about death and dealing with it, about the fragility of life. Everyone else wrote zombie stories, so it looked as if I was the only one that couldn’t follow directions. Not true. The original specs were broader. It’s just that the other writers chose to go full-tilt zombie. Nothing wrong with that at all. The book has fine stories. It’s just not where I wanted to go.
GI: All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky, your first Young Adult novel, came out in late 2011 and garnered a lot of praise; why did you decide to tackle this genre? How did writing for a younger audience impact you writing process?
JL: I’ve always loved Young Adult novels. More than that, I’ve always enjoyed stories about Young Adults making their way in the world, finding their place, trying to fulfill their dreams. This includes books not normally thought of as Young Adult books, like Shane by Jack Schafer, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Caroline. All of these are from a young adult point of view. There are many others, of course. As for me, I had written several already. The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, and in a way, even The Drive-In is a young adult novel, though skewered. I actually had written a more obvious Young Adult novel before All The Earth. One that fits that category a little more directly, The Boar. But it was always just a chance to tell a good story and let it shape itself. Some of the finest and most unique writing right now is in the Young Adult field. I’ve wanted to write there since the early eighties.
GI: I’m very excited about getting a chance to review Edge of Dark Water soon. The words “bold new direction” have been said here and there; what can folks expect from this one?
JL: It is new and it is old. Meaning the things I do well are there, but it has a tone that gives it a broader feel. It too has the elements of a Young Adult novel, and yet its themes are a bit more adult. Only a bit, when you get right to it, as Young Adult fiction now embraces a lot of what were initially thought of as adult themes. Like it or not, Young Adults are not the Young Adults of my Hardy Boy days as a kid.
GI: Books are far from being the only thing on your plate. What can you tell us about Christmas with the Dead? What was it like to work with your son and daughter?
JL: It was great to work with my son and daughter and my friend Terrill Lee Lankford, who is extremely talented and in many ways. But I won’t lie to you. It was stressful as well. It was over a hundred degrees every day. Makeup was melting. We were melting. And I didn’t have it as bad as most. Since I was only a producer, I didn’t have to be there all the time. Lee went through hell on that movie, and frankly, I knew it and loved him for it, but when it was over, I realized even more what kind of hell he had gone through. My respect for him, which was already high, became astronomical. We tried a union of University students and pros, and it wasn’t as comfortable as it might have been, but we got through it, and I met a lot of really nice people. The biggest problem was the university students were torn between working for us, and working for the school that was giving them their grade. It caused some friction and inconvenience, but it also gave the movie a kind of edge and uniqueness. It’s a low budget movie, and that’s what it was meant to be. Lee and I had a kind of seventies style horror film in mind, but being as how the story was a bit of a sentimental story, as well as a horror story, my son took that theme and expanded on it, and then Lee had some great ideas to expand that further. What we came up with is a story with zombies, but it’s really about the main character, played wonderfully by Damian Maffei. He is a fine actor, and his performance here is really good. He is in nearly every scene and carried the movie like Atlas carrying the world. He was our anchor. My son’s script was much better than my story, and my daughter did fine in her role, and provided two great songs for the film. She’s a professional singer and song writer, so that was handy. My son-in-law Adam has a part as well. He plays a goofy next door neighbor who sets the story off in an unexpected direction. For the money, we got a very nice film. It’s currently being edited, and all the elements needed in post are being applied. It’s going slow because we are low budget, but it’s going well. I hope we’ll have it finished by early, to the middle of next year.
GI: Recently you shared a lot of your expertise on writing with folks through social media. Where did the idea for these writing lessons come from and what made you decide to go through with them? What kind of feedback did you get from readers and writers?
JL: These tips, roughly written off the top of my head, came from being asked certain questions all the time, and from being Writer in Residence at Stephen F. Austin State University. I teach there one semester a year, and these are the kind of questions that come up. I put down my thoughts for others. I hope it helps. But as I said in the notes, these are merely my opinion. What works for me, and might work for someone else. Or give them something to play off of and find their own way. I don’t think my views are Gospel.
JL: I love hardcover books, but I think ebooks are the new paperback. It still has to shake out a little, to see how people can sort through it and find the authors they might like. The problem is that in some cases, most, the ebook misses an editorial staff. So there’s no one to say this stinks. Anything and everything can find its way there. It dilutes and spreads everything so thin it’s hard to know what’s what. But, on the other hand, it gives old novels new life, and good new novels that might not have been published by regular publishers, a chance to be seen. It also cuts out a lot of the middle man. That can be good and bad, but it can really be good for someone who’s numbers on the computer aren’t that good through no fault of their own, and they want to reach the readers directly. You can do a book for a small press that only publishes three thousand copies, and you can sell all three thousand in a week, or less, but the computer only shows three thousand copies sold; it can’t determine that is a good sell through for that book. It only knows numbers. But, ebooks don’t have to sell as much to make what the author would have made having to sell ten times over. If done independently, it can cut out editors and publishers, and even agents, and your percentage is much higher. As it should be. No truck to load, racks to fill, no stores with overhead, no warehouses, no staff of any kind if you don’t want it. Publishing will have to change on their ebooks percentages if they want to stay in business. Giving you 25 percent isn’t going to match getting seventy-five percent the new way. I still think publishers are needed, and can produce a better project right now, but they’re going to have to bend more, or they’ll go the way of the dinosaur. The biggest problem with the book business is it wants to be the film business. It has all the problems all modern businesses have. They’re greedy. A good profit is not enough anymore. The other problem is there are so many things choking the dollar, so many options that people have. Games and movies and on-line books, and so on. Ebooks are a bit more in the wheelhouse of modern consumers; right there on their reading device. I know a lot of people who told me they read much more now than they ever did because of the Kindle or Nook. It’s so easy. They don’t have to go to bookstores, and they don’t have to have a lot of library space, and they can take it anywhere without bending the pages, etc.
But, as I said, it’s not all good. Then it comes back to that whole thing about someone has to be able to find you out there in the midst of all those on-line books. I think people who already have a name may profit best, and people who are great at self promotion, or just have a unique “product”. It’s a two edge sword, and it’ll take time to see which side of the sword is sharper.
GI: You’ve worked with a few writers here and there; are there any collaborations coming out in the near future? Is there any writer out there who you would like to get a chance to work with?
JL: I don’t have any collaborations coming out. I did one with Bruce Timm recently for Rocketeer. It was light and fun and Bruce plotted it, and I wrote it, and he illustrated it. It’s a story, not a comic, but it was in a comic. Frankly, outside of comics and film, I’m not a great lover of collaborations. I’ve done them with my brothers Andrew Vachss and Lewis Shiner, as well as Melissa Mia Hall, and a few others here and there. Andrew and I talk about another one, and it could happen. I just don’t know when we can find the time. Truthfully, I work better on my own due to the fact my method is quirky and I don’t plot things out, and I have specific views on how I want something to scan on a page. If I’m reading someone else, I’m not always aware of that, or care and I can enjoy it. But if I’m writing it, I have my own rhythms, and sometimes they just done mix. We’ll see.
JL: I’m working on a new Young Adult novel, but that won’t appear until 2013. I’m also soon to start on another novel for Mulholland. There are a number of comics I’ve written, or written with my brother, that are currently out or will be out in the new year, and one short in Creepy Magazine, that I did with my son, called Mud. I’m not sure when that comes out. I’m working on co-producing some films, and we’ll see how that shakes out as well. Also, a number of short stories will appear. One of my favorites will be in Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin’s anthology, Dangerous Women. I’m not sure if it comes out next year, or the year after. Probably the year after. But it’s called Wrestling Jesus and I’m fond of it. There will also be a collection of stories from P.S. Publications in 2012. It’s a combination of old, recent, and never before seen stories, as well as a couple of rarities. It has some things that I will never publish again. I have the rights to publish my Hellboy story only once outside of the original anthology, and this will be it. It should be a really fun book. Also, that publisher is publishing a limited version of Edge Of Dark Water in England, in conjunction with my British publisher. I will soon finish a short story for my daughter’s anthology from Subterranean, Impossible Monsters, and that may be out next year. Act Of Love is being re-released in a thirty year edition, and it has a new Marvin Hanson story. I also contributed to a book my son and wife wrote for children, also forthcoming from Subterranean. It’s called In Wanders From Mars.
As for my daughter’s anthology, Impossible Monsters, besides me, Neil Gaiman, Charlaine Harris, David Schow, Chet Williamson, Ann Perry, and a lot of other writers you’ll want to read are in it. I also have a John Carter of Mars story coming out in March from Tor. It’s for Young Adults, and I had a great time writing it. Edgar Rice Burroughs may not have been the best writer I read growing up, but there’s no denying his importance to me as a reader. I already wanted to be a writer because of comics and writers like Jack London and Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, but when I read Burroughs, I had to be a writer. So for me, having had a chance to finish a Tarzan book, and write this story, well, I’m pretty content. My story will soon be on their website as promotion for the anthology. So you can read it there.
There are other projects, but they are not far enough along for me to comment on. Obviously, plenty. Not all of it in 2012, but a lot of it will be written then.
JL: I love reading and I love writing, and it’s what I do. Writing and reading are not all of me, but it’s an important part of me. I am thinking about slowing down a little, but we’ll see if that happens. I’ve thought about that for years, and sometimes I do slow a bit, but then I start right back. I think if I do slow down it might mean I would teach less at the University, or maybe not at all. I did slow down teaching martial arts, though I still teach weekly, and in time I’ll pass that on completely. But not yet. I’m still enjoying it too much and I’m still very able. There are a number of little things I’m dropping associated with writing, but not writing itself, though I may slow down there as well. We’ll see what actually happens. I think as I get older I want to put in more and more time on my prose. I have a few dream projects to do. Though, frankly, I’ve done most of them. It’s time for my subconscious to create new ones. And it will.
GI: Thank you for your time, Joe!
As Lansdale continues to win awards and explore new literary spaces, when can just sit back and enjoy whatever he regales us with because it's always top-notch. If you want to stay up to date on Lansdale's releases and upcoming projects, visit the links below.
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