With Mojo Aforethought
An Interview with Joe R Lansdale
by Nick Gevers
The publication in 2000 of Joe R. Lansdale's superb retrospective collection, High Cotton: Selected Stories, brings his remarkable career into an opportune focus. For two decades, Lansdale has been a prolific cult author, regaling a dedicated audience with tales expressive of an outrageous gory moralism. His fictional settings, always intensely and laconically authentic, range from the Wild West to alternate worlds to post-holocaust nightmares to the South's utterly seedy underbelly, but Texas is in all of them. Like Neal Barrett, Jr., Lansdale is a subversive Bard of Texas, capturing that state in its entirety and in its every particularity, in its wide surrealistic splendour and in its multiplex gritty intimacy. And like Barrett, he is, simply and universally, a superb storyteller.
Joe Lansdale's stories, in all their brilliance, speak for themselves. But here is a glimpse of the man who wields that hypnotic voice, captured in an e-mail interview in August 2000.
NG: Starting with the most mundane question of all: you've lived for a long time in the Texan town of Nacogdoches. What sort of a town is Nacogdoches? Is it as remote as it sounds?
JRL: I love Nacogdoches. It's a town of about 30,000 people. Not a burg. Not a true city. About three or four hours away from large cities like Dallas or Houston. It's very beautiful here, good people, everything we need.
NG: What, for your writing, were your most important formative experiences? You write very evocatively about life in Texas over the last few decades, often describing the lives of poor whites and low-lives...
JRL: I think growing up in East Texas. Hearing the stories my parents and relatives told, and of course my own experiences. Reading. Comics: I love comics. Films. Just about anything that crossed my path. I'm sure the odd jobs I've had, struggling to make a living, martial arts, all these things have influenced my work.
NG: What about your literary influences? I know you've cited Edgar Rice Burroughs as important in that respect; but your work doesn't greatly resemble his...
JRL: Edgar Rice Burroughs made it imperative that I be a writer. He is my sentimental favorite to this day, and I even had the fortune to complete a novel he left uncompleted. It was titled Tarzan's Last Adventure. I loved that, working with my hero. What he did give me was a sense of pace and a love for pure storytelling.
NG: How did you get your start as a published writer?
JRL: I sold my first piece, a non-fiction piece--when I was 21. Right before I turned 22. I wrote it with my mother. It was an article on planting shrubs as a way of therapy. We were paid for it, and we won the prize for best letter article. I think altogether we both made about fifteen dollars. But that was my first sale. I went on to write and sell a number of articles after that, and in the mid-seventies I began to sell fiction. First to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. I sold them five or six stories, pretty much back to back. Three of those were about a private eye named Ray Slater. I used this name as the author of a quickie Western I wrote called The Texas Nightriders. My original title was The Crescent Sign of the Texas Rider.
NG: Which, of your many novels, are your favourites? You have an intimidatingly long bibliography...
JRL: I'm not ashamed of any of them. Some worked better than others, and some are just favorites because I think they came together well and because they were very satisfying. My favorite may be my latest, The Bottoms, replacing my former favorite The Magic Wagon. Mucho Mojo and Freezer Burn are also favorites. I like The Drive-In for the originality. Cold in July is a nice stand alone thriller. Actually, I'm proud of all the Hap and Leonard books, but the first three, Savage Season, Mucho Mojo, and Two Bear Mambo are my favorites of that group. Short stories? I like the new collection: High Cotton: Selected Stories. It will contain the best from all my collections. Or the best as I see it. That's quite a few, but not many considering how much work I've done.
NG: Your oeuvre is quite varied: you're well known in the Horror, Western, and suspense genres, and you've also written Science Fiction and Fantasy, not to mention crossovers between various of these literary categories. How do you manage to reconcile this versatility with the demands of the market? Is there any genre you most enjoy working within?
JRL: I don't really think about it much, and maybe that's part of the problem. When I do think about it, I find I'm not much interested in writing the book, or it goes its own way anyway. I do seem to be moving into a more mainstream stage now, and I think that's good, because I found it on my own terms, not someone else's, so it's still my work as I want to see it. It's not about being mainstream or not being mainstream, it's about what you can do well and enjoy. But, I sure have no problem with being mainstream if I can, and still satisfy myself. To me, I write the Lansdale genre.
NG: A good deal of your work has been published by the small presses. What has your experience of the small presses been like? Are there advantages for an author in dealing with outfits like, say, Borderlands Press, or Mark V. Ziesing?
JRL: The experience has been mostly good. I've been disappointed with some, and very happy with others. I've had some cheat me, and some go out of their way to be fair. Currently I'm doing most of my small press work with Subterranean, and I have my new short story collection, High Cotton, coming out from Golden Gryphon. That's been a great experience. I'd have to say they are my current favorites. But I've had good experiences with most. I loved the edition Crossroads did of Freezer Burn. Beautiful. I think some small presses are better at packaging and marketing than others. Subterranean has allowed me to make some real money, and do some unique books as well.
NG: You're very much a cult author, aren't you, with a very dedicated core following; what's it like being the object of this sort of devotion?
JRL: It's a mixed blessing. Some want to own you. They don't want you to succeed too much, because then you aren't this special thing that they and only a few others know about. You want to succeed because you want to be read and you want to make money. Some are mad if you quit writing horror fiction as they perceive it. Some are mad if you don't write crime. I don't try to please anyone but me. I'm glad of my following. It's kept me in money and beans. I thank the faithful very much, but I still write for me and I don't want to be limited to a cult following. In fact, I have a bigger following than most cult writers. And it's growing. Rapidly. Thank goodness.
NG: A number of your books and stories have been optioned for film over the years. How many of these projects have matured?
JRL: Only two short stories of mine have actually been filmed. One is on DVD from Warner with a number of other short films. The story filmed was "The Job". "Drive-in Date" has also been filmed and I liked it quite a bit. I've optioned a large number of stories and books and have had a number of reoptions, but nothing movie length has been filmed. Currently, Mucho Mojo is optioned by New Line Cinema and a screenplay is being done by Ted Tally who did the scripts for Silence of the Lambs and All the Pretty Horses (forthcoming). So, I'm hopeful they've got enough money and talent invested they'll do it. Beyond that, Bubba-Ho-Tep is currently under option by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm fame, and is in preproduction. So, maybe. "The Big Blow", a novella of mine is also under option by David Lynch. He's had it for three years, and his time is almost up, so we'll see. Nightrunners is also under option. And maybe one other short story. I'm uncertain. Oh, and Razorwire productions has Dead in the West under option.
NG: Together with others, you've produced various graphic novels. How does working in this medium compare with ordinary prose writing?
JRL: I like graphic novels. It's easier for me than novels or short stories. It's similar to writing for animation, which I also did. Wrote four episodes of Batman: the Animated Series. Contributed to one episode of Superman. I've loved comics since I was a child. I learned to read from comics. My mother taught me by using them to help me read. Batman is a favorite of mine. I loved all the DC comics as a kid. Was fanatic about them, actually.
NG: You have a distinguished place in martial arts circles: you have your own martial arts studio, and are an inductee into the field's Hall of Fame. How do you balance your literary and martial arts activities? Do these different areas of interest overlap in any way, in the sense of cross-fertilisation?
JRL: I think they do overlap, and I couldn't do one without the other. Least not comfortably. Martial arts taught me discipline, concentration and a work ethic.
NG: You gained a reputation early on for your immense skill in short story writing, and your new collection, High Cotton, assembles many of your finest tales. Do you have any standard technique you follow in producing your stories? I've seen mention of "Mojo" storytelling...
JRL: I don't have a method. I just have a story I want to tell, and I do my best to tell it. One thing is I don't consider if others will like it. If they do, great. If they don't, that's the way the cookie crumbles. I'm trying to write a story that entertains me. That's about all the method there is. Sometimes they jump to me full blown, other times it's a tidbit here and there, and finally it grows into a story. Now and then it's purely manufactured, like a good carpenter building a chair.
NG: Many of your short stories are violent in a very graphic way, and present the perpetrators of violence--psychopaths, serial killers, peckerwood louts, white supremacist snuff-movie aficionados, mad dogs, even mad cats--on their own terms. At the same time, these stories usually possess a reasonably clear moral. Can you enlarge on how you achieve this combination?
JRL: I really don't know what to tell you. It has to do with personal experience, the experience of others, observation, reading, and just plain old storytelling. I think you do have to be in touch with human nature--your own. Inside you are all the evils and goods that you find in other people. What makes a person good or evil is how far one or the other rules them. Being jealous might be a mild thing, but it can go to the extreme and produce murder. But all of us are jealous, but not all of us are murderers. It depends sometimes on the situation. You may be a peaceable person, but under stress, threat of your life, you could turn dangerous. And perhaps rightfully so. There are a lot of factors.
NG: Another feature of violent "splatterpunk" Horror or suspense stories is their paradoxical hilarity--as you say in one of your story introductions in High Cotton, "there's humor in horror". Why is this so? Is it that Horror audiences are so accustomed to the genre's conventions that they take them for granted, and see violence as something ritualised and slapstick?
JRL: Well, you fall and hurt your knee, that's not funny. You see Abbott and Costello do it, it may strike you as funny. First of all, you know it's an act, but it's still the act of pretending to be injured. We are drawn to the little horrors as well as the bigger horrors, and they are often funny. I think the conventions of the genre, can, as well, become slapstick. Notice how when there's a big trend in truly horrifying films and books, that the final stage is parody, satire. Universal's original horror films--Abbot And Costello Meet The Wolfman. There's a humorous take on almost everything, though not everyone is amused at the same things.
NG: At one point in High Cotton you remark on your affection for alternate history stories, and the collection contains two of them. Where, for you, lies the fascination of altering the past, of the striking of historical ironies?
JRL: I think the idea that everyday you have choices, and you make them, and sometimes they're good, sometimes not. What if you, or anyone, had made different choices at one time or another? What would be the results? I find the idea fascinating. Add that to my love of history, and there's just all sorts of fun in this.
NG: What projects are you busy on now?
JRL: I just finished up Zeppelins West, which is, in fact, a kind of adventure parody of alternate histories. It comes out sometime next year from Subterranean Press. Next, a new Hap and Leonard novel, and then I'm moving into new territory, as well as finishing up some old territory--Drive-In 3: The Bus Tour, and a couple other small items.
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© Nick Gevers 30 September 2000