Author Joe Lansdale Brings Depth and Entertainment to His Readers
Imagine an Egyptian mummy on its way from one museum to another falls off the back of the truck into a chemically-induced swamp in East Texas. The mummy comes to life and begins to quietly knock off residents of a nearby, rural nursing home. Two residents – one of whom claims to be the real Elvis and one who claims to be the real John F. Kennedy – discover the mummy and fight back.
Now, to begin to understand Joe Lansdale’s writing, imagine that the story is as much comedy as it is drama.
The story is his “Bubba Ho-Tep,” made into a gem of a little obscure movie – a genuine underground classic – for only $1 million (most of that went to the actors) that, for the price of a ticket or a DVD rental, will most likely roam around in a viewer’s mind for years.
Joe grew up in Gladewater and Mount Enterprise and lives in Nacogdoches with his wife, Karen, who is also a writer and an editor. Their daughter, Kasey, is a country-blues singer.
Joe writes western, horror, science fiction, mystery, and suspense novels and stories translated into more than a dozen languages; movie scripts; graphic novels; and more including pieces for so-called literary magazines. One of the most honored writers in Texas, he has six Bram Stoker Awards, a British Fantasy Award, an American Horror Award, an Edgar Award, and “grand master” status in the horror genre. He is writer in residence at Stephen F. Austin University.
The New York Times Book Review said he has “a folklorist’s eye for telling detail and a front-porch raconteur’s sense of pace.”
Readers most know Joe for his Hap Collins and Leonard Pine stories, novels about two rough-and-ready friends who slide around the concepts of right and wrong on dangerous and seemingly endless adventures filled with sudden but inevitable violence, macho humor, and eventual justice. In the newest book, Vanilla Ride, just published in hardback by Alfred P. Knopf, Hap and Leonard, Hap’s girlfriend Brett, and an assortment of accomplices tangle with drug dealers, corrupt lawmen, the Dixie Mafia, and the title character, a smooth-as-silk hitwoman paid to do them in.
He dedicates the new book to the series’ readers with these five words: “bless your little weird hearts.”
Irony permeates his writing because that’s how he sees the world.
“There’s an old Mark Twain saying that there’s no humor in heaven, meaning that humor is always based on tragedy or darkness,” Joe said. “We have to laugh at that.”
It’s only natural that Joe’s version of East Texas fills most of his stories.
“I grew up in East Texas and paid attention to East Texas, and it’s what I know. I’ve lived here all my life. I know the people and the country, warts and all. When you are a writer, you look at it from both sides,” Joe said.
“The bottom line is, Texas and its people are pretty much what most people mean when they use the broader term ‘America.’ No state better represents the independent spirit, the can-do attitude of America, better than Texas,” he said.
Most of his characters are “everyday folks” thrown into unusual circumstances.
“Certain aspects of the stories are my own biography. The crimes come from newspapers, and the people are blue-collar people I grew up with,” he said. “That’s how they are if they’ll admit it.”
Joe also has a knack for fast-paced dialogue.
“I don’t write just the way people talk, but I give the illusion of it – how people phrase and put things together,” he said. “When we actually talk, we digress. We stop. We pause. We fill in blanks with our hands. That sort of thing. For books, writers tend to solidify, to think about it, to find that shining light of dialogue more than in real conversations.”
Perhaps surprisingly given his subjects, nearly as many women as men read the Hap and Leonard stories.
“I get a lot of women readers. And people all sorts of ages and with all sorts of income. It’s a real mixed bag,” he said. “From the fan letters and people I meet, men probably outnumber the women, but there are a lot of women readers who love Hap.”
Entertaining readers is important to Lansdale.
In Vanilla Ride, which is a fast read in a day without interruptions, Hap, a reader himself, mentions an author who’s “scared to death his work might be entertaining.”
“Some of my novels, like The Bottoms and A Fine Dark Line, have some real depth to them, but no matter the intent they must entertain,” he said. “I don’t try to write for other people. I write for me, and I hope there are people who like what I write.”
Joe, who recently turned 58, was writing by the time he was nine. He wrote local Boy Scout news for the Gladewater Mirror, and sold his first article, a non-fiction piece, when he was 21. By 1981, when he was 30, he turned to full-time writing.
“I’ve been paid all kinds of money, but not a one (movie has) been made,” he said.
Joe has been a martial artist, which figures prominently into his stories, since age 11. He’s also a two-time inductee into the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame as the creator of shen chuan, which he calls an amalgam of a number of martial arts.
“I’ve been studying since I was a kid,” he said. “One day realized I was teaching a blend of different arts, and got it recognized by other grand masters as both a self-defense system and a means of directing and living your own life. The whole thing in martial arts is balance in the physical aspect and balance and moderation and economy of motion – no waste – to help us be better people.”
Joe’s writing influences include Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Bloch, and others.
“They are sorta lean storytellers with muscular style,” he said. “I’m a big believer in style, a way of telling the story that fits the story. I don’t belong to any one genre. Even some of the individual works are so varied unto themselves that people call them the Lansdale genre.”
He typically spends about three hours a day writing at his computer, four hours a week on is own martial arts training, and four hours a week teaching martial arts. He spends the rest of his time with his family, reading, watching movies, and traveling to events like the recent East Texas Book Fest in Tyler.
Joe is also working on a script with actor Bill Paxton to turn the Edgar Award-winning – and New York Times notable book of the year – The Bottoms, his 2001 coming-of-age novel about a series of East Texas murders in the Great Depression, into a movie. He’s also working on a young adult novel for Delacorte Press Books.
With his eighth Hap and Leonard novel now in bookstores, the ninth, “Blue to the Bone,” is set for release by late 2010.
So, where do the stories, many of them originating from the fictional Laborde, Texas, named for a friend who died, come from?
Hap and Leonard arose from what he sees around him, from his reading, and from his imagination.
So did “Bubba Ho-Tep.”
In a glimpse at the creative mind, Joe tells its birth this way:
“My brother, who is 17 years older than me, recorded at Sun Records and my sister-in-law went to school with Elvis. I grew up on Elvis’ music, and during the time John Kennedy was assassinated my mom was in a rest home because of an accident and had to have 24-hour care, and I was there a lot.
“I’d always been a fan of mummy movies. I enjoyed them growing up and read some short stories about mummies, and wanted to write a story with a mummy – in this case as a metaphor for old age and death.”
Metaphor certainly is welcome in Joe Lansdale’s own “little weird heart,” as long as it entertains, too. n