If Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale had been born on a fantasy
world, he might be a cross between a lion and a chameleon. His
work is full of fierce nobility, and resists being caged. His
work changes colors and blends easily into a variety of backgrounds.
Joe Lansdale has written horror, science fiction, fantasy, mystery,
suspense, westerns, "men's adventure," and just about
every other kind of writing you can think of. Joe has done it
all, and he keeps on getting better. He won a Bram Stoker award
for "The Night They Missed the Horror Show," his novel
The Drive-In—nominated for a World Fantasy Award—is
like a ride on a runaway Tilt-a-Whirl, and his "Tight Little
Stitches in a Dead Man's Back" is probably one of the finest
pieces of writing I've ever had the pleasure to read. Just when
you think you've got Joe pegged in a particular category, he
goes chameleon again. His The Magic Wagon is a bonafide
western, complete with a gunfighter and a wrestling monkey. Well,
you can't say—you dare not say—Joe isn't an original
talent. He knows one of those Oriental killing techniques that
I can't pronounce, and he used to hire himself out as a personal
bodyguard when he lived in San Francisco and had hair down to
I digress. Joe conducted one of the first interviews I ever
did, for Twilight Zone Magazine back in 1986, and I'm
glad to have the opportunity to turn the tables. Let's get one
thing straight: I don't like everything Joe writes. I think he
can be colder and crueller than Hell. He doesn't like everything
I do, because he thinks I sentimentalize too much and that I
overwrite. Joe is of the school of true grit and hard knocks,
and he says what needs to be said and no more. One of his first
jobs was picking roses. He says the smell made you sick after
awhile, and your hands got cut up by thorns. You need tough hands
to pick roses, it seems to me. Joe's got 'em. And if his stories
were roses, pulled from his imagination as if from a field under
the hard blue Texas sky, he leaves an occasional thorn on the
stem so he can draw a drop of blood. That way, we can have a
little pain with our pleasure. Which seems to me what writing
might be all about.
Joe has a new collection of short stories out, called By
Bizarre Hands and published by Mark V. Ziesing. It's a beautiful-looking
book, and is a terrific scope of Joe's talent. Joe doesn't sit
still very long, so it's time we got to the questions.
Joe: "`The Night They Missed the Horror Show.'
That's my favorite. It's closer to me because it's been with
me for a long time. It's based on real incidents. Things that
happened to me, things that happened to friends of mine, stories
that I heard that I knew were true. I wove all those things together,
and I think I really captured a certain element there that I
remember from growing up."
Does that story particularly appeal to you because
it mirrors something about you?
Joe: "Yeah, I think so. It mirrors where I came
from. That's not saying that everybody I grew up with dragged
dogs behind cars or were racist. Racism is a thing that bothers
me very, very deeply. My feeling about racism probably appears
in my work more than any other thing. It's in almost every story.
I know people who are otherwise really fine folks, except they've
got this blind spot about racism."
I do too, and that's probably because of growing
up in the South. Racism used to be part of who you were, at least
in an "Old South" sense. It's like the good old boys
Joe: "Right. And a lot of those people who might
make racist remarks would never ever think of hurting anybody
of another color. I left Texas for California partly to get away
from that racist attitude, and I found out California wasn't
a lot different, though people didn't make obviously racist remarks.
But the South is an easy target. When you write about racism
in the South, everybody figures that's the status quo. It's not,
because racism is everywhere and certainly not just in the South."
Is there a work you wish you hadn't done or wish
you could change?
Joe: "I could probably go back and rewrite a lot
of things now, because I know more about writing now. But I don't
regret anything I've written. I don't regret any of the viciousness...you
know, people may say this earlier book or short story I did was
crude or too bloody or something like that, but I always knew
what I was doing. I was always trying to push it as far as I
could go. But I wish I could rewrite some of the prose, make
it more clever or clear what I meant to say."
You say you wanted to push things as far as you
could go. Why was that?
Joe: "Back when I did Act of Love, that
was before Clive Barker or splatterpunk. I wanted to write something
very powerful and visceral. This was before the movies were doing
graphic horror, too. I guess this was late 1979 or 1980. The
closest thing to what I wanted to do at that time was the work
of Sam Peckinpah—which, if you look at it now, is pretty tame.
I didn't want to make violence insignificant. I wanted to make
violence nasty, I wanted to make it bother you, but I wanted
to make the story compelling. The thing that made me write Act
of Love was anger. I was angry that so much attention was
directed to psychopaths and murderers and very little attention
given to their victims. So when I wrote a scene of butchery,
I wanted to build sympathy for the people the violence was done
Your scenes of violence are intense, but they're
Joe: "Yeah, they are. I try to tell it flat-out.
It's funny, but most people usually think my violent scenes are
longer than they are and bloodier than they are."
Could you be happy if a publisher said, "Joe,
we want you to write one thing: horror, mystery, westerns, or
whatever. But just one"?
Joe: "Uh uh. No. It would break my heart. And
it is said to me; it's said all the time. What I'm concentrating
on right now are the novels and on suspense. I think suspense
is a broad field, and that's what I need. I think I'll continue
to write horror and science-fictional types of things in shorter
pieces, but it looks like I'm moving away from doing those in
novel length. I'm trying to do what I like to do without compromising
my work, but also reaching a wider audience."
I hate those labels publishers put on a writer's
work, but that's how the business is.
Joe: "I hate 'em, too. I've always known what
I've wanted to do, but it's been hell on me. My friend Bill Nolan
has been a major influence on me, and he advised me not to skip
around from category to category. Bill has taught me to have
a game plan, which is real important."
But you basically write for yourself, don't you?
Joe: "Yeah. I have a game plan in the sense that
I think about my career and where it's going, but I write for
myself. It's obvious. I've written westerns, horror, mystery,
science fiction, all kinds of things."
And some things that defy a category, like
The Drive-In. What is it? Fantasy? Horror? It's an excellent
book, but I don't know how to define it, and defining it really
Joe: "I wish they'd just market my books as Lansdale
books. I think I've proven myself. But The Drive-In is
quirky as hell. It's kind of a cult book, and it's not for everybody."
But it really has your voice.
Joe: "Yeah, and I'm starting to think a voice
is what makes a writer. I used to think it was plot. Then I thought
it was character, and then I thought it was theme. I guess all
those are important, but a writer's voice has to be there. Ultimately,
a writer has to develop some sort of tone that keeps you turning
the pages. I think Stephen King has a tremendous voice. That's
been his biggest asset. His voice is easily recognizable, and
that's pretty important too."
Do you have a dream book you'd like to write?
Joe: "Yeah, I do. A big, historical western that
would be realistic and funny at the same time. Sort of my Little
Big Man, though the story isn't anything like that."
You've been thinking about this for awhile?
Joe: "For years. But I feel like I could miss
the time to do it. Even though I do write for myself, I believe
that when you have any kind of commercial success, it affects
how you think. When you reach a wide audience, you have a tendency
to think, `God, what did I do right that time?' I don't know
how many writers I've seen who write the same damn book over
and over and over again. That's like me saying, `Well, I know
what the public expects, so I've got to give it to them.' I'm
concerned with what I want to read. That doesn't mean
I'm not going to screw up and make mistakes, but I want to do
the best that I can do with every book and not think about having
a public who expects a particular thing."
I don't like to think about my books going out
to thousands of people. That's nice and all, but it makes me
nervous to think about. It's kind of unreal.
Joe: "I'm flattered by the attention I'm getting,
but it embarrasses me too. And there's a side of it that's seductive.
I mean, you're going to get good and bad reviews, and just because
you get good reviews doesn't mean somebody's not out there wondering
what the hell you're trying to do. You can't be universally admired.
It's seductive to believe you're doing everything right when
you know you're not."
Where would you like your career to be in five
Joe: "I'd like to be doing suspense novels. I'd
like to be out of what some people would call the labels ghetto,
and be marketing Lansdale books. I want to do suspense novels,
but I'd like to continue to do what I'd call `off-beat' books
for the smaller presses. Short story collections, too. Other
than that, I want to keep on writing and not get bent into that
seduction of success we were talking about. I want to keep on
writing for myself, and if people like it, that's fine too."