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Joe Lansdale

The Hardest Working Unknown Author?

By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 22, 1997

Joe R. Lansdale may be the most famous unknown writer working today. The 46-year-old Nacogdoches native has been consistently churning out a string of novels, short stories, screenplays, anthologies, and -- more recently -- comic books since he co-wrote, with his mother, a non-fiction piece for a regional farm journal way back in 1971. Since then, he's branched out into the fields he loves and grew up reading: hard-boiled crime novels, horror yarns, a slew of both fiction and non-fiction western writings, and, again, comic books, including a lengthy stint at D.C. where he single-handedly (along with friend and artist Tim Truman, that is) resurrected the character of Jonah Hex, a sixgun-wielding cowboy with a penchant for the supernatural and a real bad case of the uglies.

His Mysterious Press novels (Savage Season, Mucho Mojo, The Two-Bear Mambo) featuring the unlikely exploits of Hap and Leonard, a pair of East Texas ne'er-do-wells (Leonard is big, black, gay, and prone to the occasional violent outburst, while Hap is white, straight, and usually lovesick) are a cause celebré in the somewhat insular world of genre fiction, although everyone from The New York Times to Texas Monthly agrees Lansdale's violently humorous take on race and reason is unlike anything else out there. And after winning the Bram Stoker award four times, the British Fantasy Award, and the American Horror Critics Award, and probably, by now, a Pulitzer or two, Lansdale's name is quickly and deservedly becoming more and more recognizable. (And then, let's not forget his award-winning work with locals Mojo Press -- their Lansdale/Rick Klaw co-edited comic tome remains one of the best arguments for the comic-as-book form to date.) In the genre underground, he's been a star for well over a decade, but that doesn't always translate so well to the racks of Barnes & Noble's bestsellers. It's only a matter of time, though.

With a literary voice unlike any other -- one that's so distinctly Texan you can practically taste the swampy, East Texas pine sap on it -- Lansdale is that rarest of writers, one who can jump from genre to genre, from suspense to gut-curdling ultraviolence to outrageous humor, whenever the mood suits him. Jack London could do it, and Bram Stoker and Poe, too, but it's a tough leap for most. Publishers and book dealers aren't too fond of all this genre-hopping, either, seeing as how it forces them to shelve the author all over the store instead of in one convenient niche. I like to think Mr. Barnes and Mr. Noble slap their corporate brows in bewilderment every time a new Lansdale volume arrives. Hellfire, gentlemen, give the man his own section, already. It's about time.

Austin Chronicle: You've really invaded the comic book field of late, what with The Lone Ranger and Tonto, the short story adaptations in By Bizarre Hands, and updating D.C. Comics' old Seventies standby Jonah Hex. How did all this come about?

Joe R. Lansdale: It started when D.C. called me and wanted me to do a project with Brian Augustine. They said "Would you like to do something for us?" and I said sure, because I'd always been a comics fan and it was something I'd wanted to do for a real long time. The first project I sold was Blood & Shadows but it took about four years for that to come out for various reasons, but I wrote it almost immediately. So that's really how I got into comics -- they just asked if I wanted to do it. As I recall, Bob Wayne -- D.C.'s marketing guy -- exposed them to my work, so they read short stories of mine, or novels of mine, and said yeah, let's try him. And it worked out.

AC: Was The Lone Ranger and Tonto something you brought to the table, or were you specifically tapped for it? That whole western mythology is so very much up your alley...

JRL: No, actually they wanted Tim Truman to do the Lone Ranger, and he and I had done Jonah Hex together and he told them, "How about if I have Joe Lansdale write it and I draw it?" And they said sure, and so that's what we did. There was yet another Lone Ranger and Tonto comic that's been done, with art by a different artist: Ted Mayberry. It's really off-the-wall stuff. It looks very different than what Tim did. I like both of them, I'm partial to Tim's work, we seem to be very simpatico, we seem to have a lot of the same things in mind, a lot of the same background, you know? It's very unusual.

AC: Let's get back to Jonah Hex. I can remember reading that as a kid, and the peculiar mix of badlands gunfighting with surreal, occult aspects was such an original idea at the time. Were you a fan of the old series, back in the day?

JRL: Oh yeah, I was a big fan, and I'd always wanted to do Jonah Hex. Always. So when D.C. came up and said, "Hey, we think you'd be perfect for Jonah Hex," I said "me too." That's really how it happened. D.C. pretty much generated all of the comic book work that I've done for them -- I didn't seek it out, it just came to me. They chose the right projects, though. In fact, I became so associated with the Jonah Hex thing that when the Batman animated series came along, they asked me to do one episode with Jonah Hex, and I did. It's called "Showdown."

AC: Do you find it easier to work in the comic book medium as opposed to doing straight fiction? What sort of differences are involved?

JRL: I find it easier in the sense that it doesn't take as long to accomplish a complete project. In that way, it's easier. In terms of time spent, it's probably more profitable, because I get paid quite well for comics. So time spent, for just the time itself and the money generated by that time, it's easier.

Now, I wouldn't say it's "easy" in the sense that it requires a certain knack. And I'm not one of these people who writes out a page and then lets the artist make up all the panels and do all that -- I write it out panel by panel. That doesn't mean that I won't change it. Tim would often say "You've got four panels here, but I feel like I could show more action by combining them into three," and like that. So, you know, I'm willing to change things like that. Essentially, when you look at a comic book, you look at the script I wrote. That's why I love Tim [Truman] so much, because, not only is he my buddy, but, you know, he also can reflect exactly what I have in mind. I've never had anybody who's worked with my stuff who's that ... close to actually looking just like I had originally visualized it.

I remember Dean Koontz called me up one day and said he'd been looking at Jonah Hex and how much he loved it. But you know what? He said he thought I had drawn the pictures because it really looked just like my work reads. And for me, that's one of the greatest compliments I've ever got.

AC: Do you get more of a kick working in comics than writing books and short stories?

JRL: Nah. It's a different kind of kick. It's sort of like, you know, a kiss in the dark as compared to a... a long relationship. It has its little pleasures, but it's not the same thing. To me, it's spice. If I had to do just comics, well, I wouldn't want to do that. I'm glad I've had the comic work, I plan to do others, but I could lay it down if I had to choose. I hope I don't have to, though.

AC: Movies?

JRL: Well, The Two-Bear Mambo was optioned by Propaganda films, but that's come and gone. It was optioned, they hired me to write a screenplay, I wrote it, everybody loved it, and then the guy who was going to do it went somewhere else, and it's gone.

AC: I think everybody is still waiting to get you properly translated to the screen.

JRL: Well, I'm still waiting for that, too. And I've sold numerous things. I've sold "Cold in July" to the screen at one point, I've sold "The Drive-In" -- Paul Sammon had that for a while, then John Irvine -- Savage Season, John Badham had that one, "Dead in the West" has been optioned nine times. The Two-Bear Mambo, of course. David Lynch was somehow attached to that property, I think maybe because he owns part of Propaganda or something.

Originally, that was a big deal. David Lynch was in and then backed off, and then finally the thing faded out when Peter Heller, the guy who had originally optioned it, moved on to work elsewhere. Anytime somebody leaves like that -- and I think this holds true be it films, comics, books, what have you -- it becomes an orphaned project. It's not theirs any more, and suddenly nobody wants to make it any more. I've had tons of options, but the only thing of mine that was ever filmed was a thing called "Drive-In Date," which was a short story that I wrote and James Cahill produced and directed based on a play version I had written. It was low budget, but really quite good. [Video copies of the film are available locally at Adventures in Crime and Space.]

AC: Are you interested in pursuing more screenplay work?

JRL: Yeah, I'm interested in it. In fact, I think that I would like to do more of that. I get asked all the time, but I don't always have the time to do it. I've recently been approached to rewrite a French screenplay, and I really wanted to do it, but it would have been for chicken feed, so...

AC: French?! What sort of French screenplay? I don't get it.

JRL: It's crime, it really is a lot like my work. I've seen the director's other work, and I really liked it, but I'm at a point in my career where I want to get paid right for the job I do. I'm willing to do things more cheaply if I feel that they're going to get made and things are going to happen, but I can turn around and do the same project for myself, get paid better, and I'll still have the project. Screenplays are very much in my future right now, though.

AC: You've written some of the most explosive short stories in the business, and they were, at one point, considered to be your forte. Is this still the case, or are you focusing more on novels and whatnot these days?

JRL: I mostly focus on novels now. "The Big Blow" just came out, and a thing called "Revelations," which is one of the best novellas I've written in quite a while. I'm definitely proud of that piece. It's historical, but it's hard-boiled, too -- little bit western but also a little bit early gangster story. It's set in 1900 in Galveston, around the time of the big hurricane, and it has Jack Johnson, the black boxer, and it's based on sort of a true story.

AC: The horror boom of the late-Eighties/early-Nineties seems to have really petered out. Many writers have kind of fallen by the wayside, present company excluded, natch, but it's a much smaller field these days than it was even five years ago. Any thoughts on why this is?

JRL: Well, I think the big thing is that Stephen King is just a phenomenon, and when he came along, for the first time horror was suddenly considered a very commercial genre. It had always been around, of course, but now the books had the word "horror" actually printed on their spines. This was the first time there was actually a horror genre, and because there was, everybody wanted their own little Stephen King, every publishing house had their own guy (and it was almost always a guy, with the exception of V.C. Andrews).

What happened then was that there was an undercurrent in horror, in the mid-Eighties, with people like me, David Schow, John Skipp, and Craig Spector, and others. There was a feeling amongst us that a lot of the old-guard horror writers were just too subtle, and we were young and full of piss and vinegar and decided to carry it all the other way. For a while that produced what they called "splatterpunk," although I felt that I was actually doing all sorts of things. I never liked that catchphrase. So many people embraced that type of extreme horror writing, that when the fad passed, very few people could stand up and do anything else because they had no other elements to their fiction, they had no other recourse. Many people's careers existed because they were there in the right place at the right time, and essentially, horror failed to mutate when it was most necessary. There was just too much of it. It's kind of like if you saw a ghost every day -- after a while, who gives a shit?

AC: What about relative newcomers -- and by that I mean people like Poppy Brite and the new wave of women horror writers, Kathy Koja, Nancy Collins, and so on?

JRL: Well, yeah, eventually, people like Collins and Poppy Z. Brite came along and took that same, extreme form of horror writing, and rolled it into the Nineties with a different perspective, a female one, I think, and the field has now gone off in that direction.

I actually see signs that horror is coming back. Is it going to come back like it was before? Probably not, but what's really weird is that you're now beginning to see the echoes of the Eighties and early Nineties on television with shows like The X-Files and Millennium, so, you know it's hardly a dead field. It's just that it's gone in different directions. You're starting to see more horror films again as well, and I think that you're starting to see a trend back to that sort of thing. It's almost a Fifties, B-movie sensibility. It's really coming back, though. Not that it ever really left.

AC: One last thing: You've always been a cross-genre writer -- westerns, crime fiction, humor, horror, you do it all. Does it bother you that this sort of interdisciplinary writing may have kept you from becoming a household name like King or Koontz?

JRL: I don't know how to answer that except to say that I love all the different fields intensely, I'm not just doing them for a buck, I love 'em. They have been so conglomerated inside my head that when I write, I don't consciously say I'm mixing genres, it just happens. The Westerns have probably affected me more than any one thing, Western-related material. I love Westerns.

Had I stuck to one genre -- like horror -- when that boom was over, I'd have been out there with a tin cup. The other side of it is that a lot of these writers who had maybe been around longer, or made more money or whatever, most of 'em are gone. And I'm still here.

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