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At The Drive-In: Joe R. Lansdale Interviewed
Sean Kitching , March 13th, 2016 21:21

Straddling genres, making the martial arts hall of fame and witnessing social inequality in the American South are the order of the day as Sean Kitching speaks to author Joe R. Lansdale

Born in 1951 in Gladewater, Texas, Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than forty novels and numerous short stories covering a broad spectrum of genres and appearing in a variety of media, including television, film, newspapers and comic books. During the course of his career, he has garnered a number of awards, including ten Bram Stoker Awards, the Edgar Award (for his 2000 novel, The Bottoms), the British Fantasy Award, The Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award to name but a few. When it comes to recommending his work to newcomers, there is so much to choose from, it’s difficult to know where to start. Those interested in the more surreal and far-out aspects of his fiction should consider beginning with The Complete Drive-In, or The Nightrunners, while those more receptive to historically set suspense should pick up The Bottoms or A Fine Dark Line. Recently, Lansdale has produced two of the finest novels of his career in the utterly compelling historical westerns The Thicket and Paradise Sky and his series of gonzo crime-fiction Hap and Leonard novels continued with the release of the ninth book in February 2016. As entertaining as the Hap and Leonard books all are, the early books and in particular, Mucho Mojo, remain the best point of entry for interested parties.

Lansdale’s work, so suited to cinematic interpretation, seems to be finally getting the attention it deserves from directors. The short story Bubba Ho-Tep was made into a wonderfully offbeat horror comedy by Don Coscarelli in 2003, with Bruce Campbell providing a legendary turn as an aging Elvis battling a Mummy in an old folk’s home. Whilst Jim Mickle and Nick Damici adapted Cold In July in 2014, with Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepherd and Don Johnson. The Hap and Leonard TV series premiered on the Sundance channel in the US on March 2, with an amazing cast, including Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire and Albert ‘Chalky’ White from Boardwalk Empire), Christina Hendricks and James Purefoy. Known to some as ‘The Bard of East Texas,’ Lansdale resides in Nacogdoches, where he is the writer in residence at Stephen F. Austin State University, and also teaches his own form of self-defence, Shen Chuan, in his spare time.

Like many people I imagine, I first discovered your work via the fantastic Don Coscarelli adaptation of your story Bubba Ho-Tep. Could you please recount a little of your experience working with the Phantasm director and your feelings about the finished film? I understand Coscarelli had optioned The Drive-In too but that funding fell through, which is such a shame as it seems like a dream of a project. Has there been interest from other directors?

Joe R. Lansdale: First, there has been a lot of interest in The Drive-in, but, alas, it hasn't actually come to fruition. Maybe soon. Don really got Bubba and I didn't think it could be a film. I thought it was too odd to make it to film. He asked me to do the screenplay, but I declined. I didn't see that it could be a screenplay but he wrote one and proved me wrong. He was always considerate about what I thought about the film and the story’s presentation, but in the end, he's the director and he had to make decisions. All good ones. It's a very faithful adaptation, and I love it. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis are just great in that, and Don's direction is sublime. Love it, and I was glad to be a part of it, if just in spirit and Don's desire for it to be a good film and for me to be happy with it. When I first saw it I was very impressed, and it gets better with repeat viewings.

So far I’ve only seen a very short trailer for Hap and Leonard and the character photographs but the tone appears to be spot on. How do you feel about the end result? The casting of Michael K. Williams seems perfect, so much so that I’m already seeing him as Leonard whilst reading the new book. I understand that the first series will be six self-contained episodes adapted from the first book Savage Season - are there plans to continue with it if the series is well received?

JRL: I was very familiar with both actors, as well as Christina Hendricks and Bill Sage, Jimmi Simpson, Polly McIntosh, but the other main actors were new to me. And they were all terrific. Just amazing. Actually, Lowell Northrop optioned Savage Season from me, first book in the series, and I wrote a screenplay. We couldn't get it off the ground as a film, but then we begin to think television, and Lowell pushed it out there and Jim and Nick were anxious to do Hap and Leonard anyway, and I had worked with them before, so it was a perfect story. I love the series. I hope there's a second. The reviews on it, and the new novel, Honky Tonk Samurai have been awesome, though I'm of the school if you believe the good ones you got to believe the bad ones, it's been mostly good ones. The previewers seem to be very happy and excited about it. I know I am. There are plans to continue if it does well.

The ninth Hap and Leonard book, Honky Tonk Samurai, has just come out and a short story collection is due in March. Can you provide some insight into the genesis of the books - what inspired them and also how much of your own life experience is reflected in the characters, such as Hap’s refusal to fight in Vietnam, as you yourself did? When you wrote Savage Season, did you have any idea that it would be the first in a series with such enduring popularity? Do you think the fanbase for those books crosses over to other areas of your work?

JRL: First, there are some of my readers who only read Hap and Leonard, not the other stuff, and some who don't read Hap and Leonard, but a large percentage are crossover readers. And yes, I did refuse to go to Vietnam and it looked like prison was in my future, but they sent me to the psychiatrist and he gave me a 1-Y, which is unfit for military service essentially. I wouldn't choose conscientious objector and I wouldn't go to Canada. I did what Hap did and almost went to prison. I think the threw me a bone as the war was winding down, and I think they accepted my sincerity for being against that war. I would have fought in WW2, so I wasn't a pacifist in the broader sense. I prefer to be a pacifist, but I think there are exceptions and times to defend yourself or your country, but that war wasn't one of them.

I had no idea Savage Season was the beginning of a series. I wrote the second one about three years later. The character of Hap wouldn't stop talking to me, and then there was a third, and over the years nine novels and a collection of stories and some uncollected stories.

Your writing covers a greater diversity of genres than most authors dare to attempt - westerns, science-fiction, mystery/suspense, crime and of course your work in the comic book format. I understand this genre fluidity has caused you some issues with editors and publishers in the past? It could be argued that you’ve finally become a genre unto yourself. I know that you have recently said that you are keen to break more into the mainstream, has this always been part of your plan?

JRL: I think I have broken into the mainstream, and I think that may happen in a broader way, but I want to do it on my own terms, not become a standard producer. I love Hap and Leonard and plan to write more about them, but not exclusively about them. I have always worked in film, or since the eighties, but my screenplays - though I got paid and did screenplays for Ridley Scott and John Irvin and Mark Romanek - seldom got made. I wrote for television some, animation. Batman the Animated Series, Superman the Animated Series, Son of Batman, things of that nature were made and I'm happy about that, but now the recent film and TV stuff have validated me, as if that makes any sense. I have always felt validated and it shouldn't take film to do that for writer, but I'm glad it has. My plan has always been to be read more widely by doing just what I've always done. I wanted to break into the mainstream without becoming mainstream. And yes, I have finally become my own genre, and now that's what publishers want. I have a wonderful publisher now, Mulholland, very innovated, very fine people working there.

How do you feel your work has changed from the earlier days to now? Your focus seems to have shifted to the historical novels, and I believe you consider The Thicket and Paradise Sky to be your best work. What kind of influences lie behind those, both in terms of other writers of fiction and also local folklore? I have seen you mention in other interviews that you believe you still have an epic western novel that you are working towards writing.

JRL: They’re just different books. I could always write in a wide variety. My moods change same as reader's moods change. I really do love writing the historicals, however, but if that's all I did I would go crazy, same with any of the other kinds of books. I need variety. As for the writers who have influenced me they are many. Hemingway, Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, William Goldman, Flannery O'Conner, Carson McCullers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and so many others. As a kid Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard. Different influences at different times in my career, and some have stayed with me more, some less. Chester Himes. Ralph Dennis, who wrote a series called Hardman which is a big influence on the Hap and Leonard novels. Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Gerald Kersh, Fredrick Brown, Robert Bloch, and I'm just getting started. I read constantly. As for the epic Western, that's Paradise Sky. Done.

Your writing often comes back to the issue of racism and a sense of empathy with the underdog in general, from your early short story The Night They Missed The Horror Show, through the friendship between Hap and Leonard and the character of Nat Love in Paradise Sky - can you talk a little about how your sense of social justice informs your work?

JRL: It seems to be the heart of much of my work. I grew up seeing a lot of racism in the South, but I've seen it all over the world. Don't care for it at all. I was poor, so I'm used to the underdog position. I'm not poor now, but unlike some of my friends who are now rich, I haven't embraced conservatism and religion. I'm not opposed to religion if you keep it out of my life. Enjoy it if you do, but don't tell me how to live or teach it in school, or not allow a woman the right to choose, and so on. Yeah, all of that slips into my work. I even got a death threat the other day for not being pro gun, which just proves my point. They can kiss my ass.

Are there other contemporary authors who you feel a sense of kinship with? I can see elements of Harry Crews novels in your work. Donald Ray Pollock too, who wrote the excellent The Devil All The Time. I guess the similarities between those two writers and your own work is the combination of a keen sense of social justice with the unflinching examination of the darker aspects of human behaviour.

JRL: I love Crews, but had been writing a long time before I knew of him. I learned of him because a friend thought we were similar. The reason we are is we were both heavily influenced by Flannery O'Conner. She was wonderful. I know the Pollock novel. Read it last year and liked it. Daniel Woodrell is awesome. I especially like the book Winter’s Bone, and the film made from it. Larry Brown is terrific, all his work, but for me Joe in particular, also a good film, but a much better novel.

You are a member of the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame and creator of your own self-defence system, Shen Chuan. Can you give us a little background to your development of this system? How does it differ from other self-defence systems such Krav Maga?

JRL: No system is better than another, but some are better for certain people. The person makes a system worthwhile, not the other way around. I blended a lot of systems I had studied over the years, Judo, wrestling, boxing, Hapkido, Kenpo, Thai Boxing, American Kickboxing, Jujitsu, Aikido. I took what worked for me and found I had a system that others were interested in and seemed to work for a wide number of people. It was recognised by other martial artists, grandmasters and such, and they gave me the recognition. I'm proud of my work in martial arts. I still teach but only once a week in a private class, and I train a couple more days a week.

Finally, I understand that you are quite a film buff yourself. When I first suggested the idea of interviewing you, the film editor at the Quietus was quite keen to get you to do a Baker’s Dozen of your favourite films but I was interested in doing a straight interview. If you could kindly indulge me with a list, everyone would be happy.

JRL: To Kill A Mocking Bird (Robert Mulligan, 1962)
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Lonesome Dove (Simon Wincer, 1989, mini-series)
Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970)
The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
True Grit (Ethan and Joel Cohen, 2010 - Love that novel too)
The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)
Out Of The Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
To Have And Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944)
The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
Night Of The Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

But also Jerimiah Johnson, All The President’s Men, Marathon Man. So many, and on certain days, they change a bit.