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Mucho Mojo!

Interview with Joe R Lansdale

by Sue Babcock and John Miller

Joe Lansdale loves to write, and it shows in his enthusiasm during interviews. He's an eastern small -town Texan, from Nacogdoches, with an accent as thick as syrup you pour on pancakes. His storytelling bristles with style and passion. He's authored an impressive, I'd even say an overwhelming, array of books and short stories. He published his first piece (it was non-fiction) several decades ago when he was 21. His latest book, Vanilla Ride, a new adventure of Hap and Leonard, has gained rave reviews from fans and well-known authors alike. He's written horror, graphic novels, adventure, mainstream, and has garnered seven Bram Stoker awards. His martial arts training lends itself to his stories, it also taught him the discipline and work ethics needed for his writing. He has said he "couldn't do one without the other."

Joe came to our office at Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope, and we appreciate him taking time to answer our questions. Read on to find out how and what he writes, and whether he's been in any fights lately. If you still want to know more, you can visit his website.

What does being a recipient of multiple Bram Stoker Awards mean to you? Are you active in the HWA? Have you found it to be worthwhile with respect to your career and/or your writing?

I am not active in the HWA, but my wife is in many ways the true founder. It was Robert McCammon's idea, but he didn't want to do it, so Karen did it and made photo copies of articles and information for the early issues, which I assume are quite rare. It was called THE HORROR WRITERS OF AMERICAN then, and very early it was called HOWL, THE HORROR, OCCULT WRITER'S LEAGUE, which was the name McCammon gave to it, and my favoroite name for it. I think at the time it was a valuable as horror was coming into its own.

I still think it's valuable for new writers to have a place to go to and talk to others like them; I think it's less valuable for seasoned professionals. I aid it now and then by rejoining for anthologies, that sort of thing, but anything I can do to help I can do without the league. I'm proud of the seven Bram Stokers I've been awarded, but I don't write for awards. I like them and appreciate them, but when we first founded it, Rick McCammon, Karen, Dean Koontz and I didn't want there to be awards. We feared that would be its complete focus.

I've come to think awards are necessary in the sense that it gives value to the organization, but it should be part of the organization, not the totality of it. We wanted to form something akin to the Writer's Guild with protections and pay scales for writers, but we couldn't get enough people to support it, and getting the publishers on board was impossible. Unlike screenplays the studios also have to be in agreement. So, it's not what we envisioned, and it I'm not a member now, but I think it has its place and that new writers especially profit from association with other writers who like themselves are struggling along, and it can provide market information.

Are short stories still your favorite thing to write? (You mentioned that in the anthology "Bestsellers Guaranteed.")

Short stories are head and shoulders my favorite thing to write. If I could make what I make writing novels and screenplays and comic books from short stories, I might write little else. I would always write in other forms, but short stories would be predominate, no doubt.

Does your karate experiences affect your writing? For example, do you select characters that come from your dojo such as students or instructors or parents, or scenes you've seen played out in the ring?

I don't think of people I know, but all the people I know blend. Martial arts effects more the way I write. I'm very disciplined and focused and I try to write with economy of motion and balance and energy and I try and find my center when I write. There's much more to it than that, but that's basically the answer to your question, I think.

How many fights have you been in outside the ring? How many fights occurred because of the tough characters versed in martial arts?

When I was going to high school and somewhat after, I was prone to fight, so there were many, and being a long hair in the sixties and seventies, about to the mid seventies, and being against the Viet Nam war and being for civil rights and women's rights, etc., I got into it. I fought more than I should have and the thing that martial arts did is it gradually changed me. Fighting is the last thing I want to do now. I know how easy it is to be hurt badly or to hurt someone badly. I'm older as well, but let me tell you a secret. I hate fighting, but you don't want to mess with older martial artist. They are in some ways more deadly because they have less stamina and less time to do what they need to do, so they go for the gusto and know how. But, the main lesson of martial arts is avoiding conflict.

What do you think about UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship)?

I think the techniques can be interesting, but I don't like the flavor that goes along with it. Too much like professional wrestling. One things that makes it popular is people wanting to see somebody hurt. Most observers don't understand the skills when they see them, they've seen too many movies. I think wrestling, once it admitted what should have been obvious, that it was fake, it opened the door for the other because people wanted to believe that stuff. The UFC and MMA events give them the chance to do just that. That's not a put down of the fighters. One of my students does the fighting in those matches, and I'm proud of him, but I don't like the attitude and the culture that goes with it, which is just about fighting and how tough am I and so on.

What advice could you give writers who have anywhere from 5-70 publishing credits in various publications ranging from anthologies, print to ezines? And what advice can you give about finding lit agents and big-boy publishers?

If you have that many publications you're doing all right, but you need to at some point step up the markets and the pay and if you have the ability, write a novel. I prefer short stories and have never stopped writing them, though I may be slowing after this year, but you get more bang for your buck from novels. They get noticed for film more as well, though I've optioned as many short stories as novels, maybe more. I'm not certain. Agents are a mixed bag. I didn't have one early on and sold novels without them between firing agents, but I've had several good ones. One died, one got lazy, one retired that was very good, and another that I have now is excellent. I have a film agent separate of the prose, which I believe is what you're asking about. At one time I also had a separate foreign agent, but he also became my national agent.

Hap and Leonard from your new book "Vanilla Ride" just FLOW together, whether its banter or thinking or kicking ass; they actually flow from the written page into my mind. Can you tell us about them? Who are they? Are they that lifelike because of your writing skills? Because you know them? Both?

Hap is in many ways me had I not made better choices, and in many ways he is me, in the way he talks and most often thinks (not always), but unlike Hap, I wouldn't do the things he does unless I had no choice. Leonard is based on several people, but he has become more and more someone that is unidentifiable as any one or any group of people. Flow is a good word. I try for that. Another martial arts term is the flow, which is natural progression from move to move. My writing skills are not for me to judge. I like to think I've learned something, but you're always learning as you go.

Writers always hear "write what you know." When you write, do you draw from life's experiences and weave them? Or do you just say, "Forget it," and let it rip, whatever's in your heart?

I draw heavily from my life and the things I see around me an in the news and I also let the imagination flow. My imagination is fired up best when it is inspired by real life.

What work of art still has an impact on you (any art, novel, short story, prose, poem)? Do you feel it has embedded into your subconscious, becoming a framework you unconsciously build upon without thinking about it? Or does your art flow out of you without any undue influence from outside yourself?

I'm influenced and I'm me. There are way to many works. Edgar Rice Burroughs taught me to let the story flow, Flannery O'Conner got me in touch with my people, and Twain fed my already skeptic thinking. THE ILLIAD and THE ODYSSEY taught me to try and write characters bigger than life, but somehow connected with the every day, the soil.

What is your greatest triumph with your art (writing, artwork, painting, poetry, film, etc.). What is your greatest failure?

I'm still looking to have the greatest triumph. The greatest failing I'm unaware of. I was always trying to do the best I could each time out.

The state of the economy affects everything including entertainment and book sales. Have you been affected? Has your writing been affected and/or influenced by the world and current times (past or present)?

I don't know if the stories have been effected, but I've been effected a little by it, but not so much as I really notice it. I think entertainment usually does good in bad times, but this time is a little different, but that said, I seem to be doing all right.

The small press and online magazines are folding faster than ever before. Good quality magazines are having a tough go of it, and their editors are trying to raise the money to send those quality publications to print. What do you think the future holds for the publishing world? Not just the big boy publishers, but small press and online magazines (ezines).

More and more of it will be online. SUBTERREANEAN MAGAZINE is a model for this. It's still a magazine. I prefer something I can hold in my hand and archive in the old way. I gave hundreds of my s.f., horror, fantasy, crime and mystery, etc. magazines to the library at A&M. I was amazed at how many of them there used to be. People have quit reading them. I don't know why, exactly. I wish I did. Small press has always come and gone quicker than a duck can eat a June bug. That really isn't that different.

A lot of books will move to Kindle, but there will always be books for the dedicated reader. It's all self correction. There was never meant to be that many readers. There just aren't and never have been, but there are fewer. But the main thing is novels have become luxury items again, like in the eighteen hundreds, outside of dime novels. They were for the wealthy. It was the fifties really when the paper back began to rule. It was cheap, small, and disposable. Hardbacks were cheap as well, even for the time and inflation. But now, not so much. They are for those with money now, so, obviously, you don't get as many readers. A book or milk and bread, most people go for milk and bread. Libraries may boom again, but the problem is people have the attention span of a gnat now and even writers I meet haven't read much. They seldom have read beyond what got them writing in the first place and they burn out because they read in the same field and keep looking for the same experience and can't understand why it doesn't work anymore. It's like a drug, or cigarettes. It can become a habit, but it can cease to be fun long before that. Books are more easily dropped; it's a habit you can discard.

The best way to be a good reader is to study your field, the new stuff, the classics, and the classic novels of other genres and the literary genre. There's a reason people like Twain and London have lasted, or Flannery O'Conner, or Ernest Hemingway, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner, and Ray Bradbury, and so on. Branch out. Be brave. Take chances. Quit looking for the same fix. Read writers who experiment with the form, both the type of story they're telling and how they tell it, yet, don't get so caught up in the form that you lose function; storytelling is your job.

What projects are you working on now?

I'm doing a screenplay based on a novel of mine and I'm writing the next Hap and Leonard novel. Enough said.

Do you have a process you follow for writing a novel?

The process of writing the novel is a little like being an athlete without the athlete feet, and...well, all that athlete stuff. But I do take care of myself, and try to be in good shape when I start a novel, if not six pack shape. Just good shape for a fifty-seven year old martial artist that hasn't the time to be in athletic shape as before. But you have to take care of your tools. And you are your main tool. I don't plot. I find a voice that appeals to me and that finds a character and pretty soon I find a story. I'm more of a point me in the right direction than a map guy. So, I pretty much just start writing, though I might know something about where I'm going, it's thin, and it nearly always changes. And, we can set up an interview.

Anything else you'd like to say about Joe Lansdale?

I'm having fun and hope to do it for as long as my health, mental and physical allow.

Thank you, Joe, very much for taking the time to answer our questions, and for visiting us at American Zoetrope. We appreciate your efforts to help us grow into the best writers we can be!