Interview With an Author: Joe R. Lansdale

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Joe R. Lansdale and his latest book, Things Get Ugly

Joe R. Lansdale is the internationally bestselling author of more than fifty novels, including the popular, long-running Hap and Leonard novels. Many of his cult classics have been adapted for television and film, most famously the films Bubba Ho-Tep and Cold in July and the Hap and Leonard series on Sundance TV and Netflix. Lansdale has written numerous screenplays and teleplays, including for the iconic Batman: The Animated Series. He has won an Edgar Award for The Bottoms and ten Stoker Awards, and he has been designated a World Horror Grandmaster. Lansdale, like many of his characters, lives in East Texas, with his wife, Karen. His latest book is Things Get Ugly and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What inspired you to collect some of your short fiction into Things Get Ugly?

Actually, it was an editor for Tachyon that suggested it. Rick Klaw. I liked the idea, and I gave him the stories I liked, and we thinned it down, and he suggested one or two, I think. Anyway, Tachyon asked, and I responded.

What was your process for putting together this collection? How did you decide which of your stories would be included?

I think I have developed a feel for the ones that are my best, but that said, sometimes you're not the best judge of your own work. If the public keeps responding to a story, if it keeps being reprinted, that has something to do with the decision. Why is that story impacting with readers? It seems to have something unique about it. Mostly, it's just a feeling I have for the stories.

In your introduction you say you'd like there to be a 2nd volume of your crime stories to follow Things Get Ugly. Is that in the works? Would you like this to become a series? Are you planning any other short fiction collections?

I would like for it to be a series, that's for sure, but currently, nothing of that sort is in the works with Tachyon. I have a hard time narrowing my stories to one genre. They can be hard to define. I could have added a few other stories that are also considered "realistic" horror stories, but I didn't. If there's a second volume, I might. If there's a horror volume, I may add them to that.

You wrote several episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, along with episodes of Superman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures. Do you have a favorite Batman story (in comics, novels, film, or television)? A favorite portrayal in film and/or television?

Of those I did, I think Read My Lips has become my favorite, but I like all the work I did for Batman. I also wrote Batman fiction, and my story "Subway Jack" is a favorite of mine. By others, my favorite of the Batman movies is the first Christian Bale Batman. Though the first Michael Keaton movie is high on my list as well. In comics, there are so many, but the Dark Knight Returns is a biggie for me. But really, there are so many it might take a page to list them.

Same question for Superman. Do you have a favorite Superman story (in comics, novels, film, or television)? A favorite portrayal in film and/or television?

I’m sentimental about the George Reeves television show. I started watching it in the fifties, and I actually started out a major Superman fan, and that led me to the comics about him, and then others. Once I found Batman, though, he was my man. I loved the Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Legion of Superheroes. All the original DC heroes. I also liked other characters from other comic companies. The Fly was one. And then the Marvel heroes. I read a lot of other comics as well. Charlton for example. I used to read Billy the Kid comics when I could find them. They appeared erratically on the newsstand where I lived.

You've done a lot of different types of work (novels, short stories, graphic novels, screenwriting, writing, and developing for television). Is there a format that you prefer over the others?

Short stories are my favorite. But I like it all in one way or another. I'm actually sort of weaning away from writing short stories. I'm going to put some of that energy elsewhere, scripts, maybe a play. And of course, I'm regularly writing novels.

Is there something you haven't done yet but are hoping to have the opportunity to try?

Well, I wrote two one-act plays for a Grand Guignol night that was planned. It was supposed to collect plays by a number of writers, and it would end up on Broadway. Which seemed unlikely to me. We all got paid, but it went nowhere. I would like to write another, longer play, however, so that's a play for the near future, I hope. I'm seventy-one, in good health, so I like to think I have a pretty long stretch ahead of me. But when you're my age, you have to realize certain offshoots of the main road are closing, or at least growing shorter. Some I'm pickier. I'd like to direct a film, and just may soon.

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how fiction about crime continues to be a source of inspiration for artists, and entertainment for readers, in spite of the fact that none of us wants to experience it firsthand?

Like it or not, all things good and bad in humans are in us all. We recognize that on some level. The crime part fascinates and scares us, but once we've read the story, novel, film, comic, and what have you, it's a way of flushing our brains. Sort of, I needed that. But then the water backs up again. We know those things could happen to any of us, and under the right circumstances, we ourselves could be the villains, the criminals.

What's currently on your nightstand?

Cult of Glory, which is about the Texas Rangers. It takes the myth out of the Rangers, who early on were a troop of hired thugs. But it also looks at their successes as well. Fascinating book.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I can't accurately. Some authors influenced me for a lifetime, some for a period during my career, and some for one story, novel, or such. But, doing my best. Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Flannery O’Conner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Well, already that's more than five, and I didn't get into Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, William Goldman, Henry Kuttner, Cyril Kornbluth, Jack London, and my sentimental favorite, Edgar Rice Burroughs. He's the main reason I went from wanting to be a writer to having to be a writer.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, followed closely by the Iliad, The Odyssey, by Homer. I was nuts about Greek mythology. Also, the Jungle Book, which paved the way for me to later read Tarzan. I read every Edgar Rice Burroughs book I could get my hands on.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?


Is there a book you've faked reading?

No. I always hated that in others, so I never did that. I have some books I've read and enjoyed that didn't leave a long-term mark on me, and some I've read repeatedly, or at least sections from it.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

All the Ace Double science fiction novels, but I had a lot of fun with them as well. Many of them are unreadable to me now, but back then, the covers, the colorful action-adventure science fiction, as well as anything with horror elements appeals to me. In my middle twenties, I discovered crime fiction, especially hard-boiled, and I was hooked. Same for Westerns. I was already hooked on crime and Western movies, but I had read very little of either compared to my reading of fantastic, horror, and science fiction reading. As a reader, I'm a happy machine, though, in the last couple of years, I've slowed down a bit.

Is there a book that changed your life?

A Princess of Mars, for becoming a writer. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for making me aware of the racists, Southern society I grew up with. It was there in front of me, but those books gave me a different viewpoint. Raymond Chandler's books connected with me as well, because the way people spoke and thought reminded me a lot of the people I grew up with.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s been under fire lately, as has Huckleberry Finn. Both the right and the left want to ban it, so you know it's the stuff. It's an anti-racist book that isn't afraid to use the language of its time to make its point. I hate all this let's go back and crap on everyone who wrote a book because we are offended. Those folks offend me. I didn't know I was reading an anti-racist book when I read Huck in the sixties as a teen, or almost a teen, but after reading it I could feel what it was really about, and in time, following up with To Kill a Mockingbird, I had an understanding of racism. I think what's good about the books is that white folks who might be racists or at least accepting of it, have an introduction to understanding what is what. It led me to read a ton of black writers, looking at a lot of different viewpoints. But the idea I've heard that it's a racist book because it used offensive racial language is idiotic. Of course, it does, it's about racists, and only an idiot would think it's anything else. Lots of white kids who read that book suddenly understood something that was all around them. It was for me a wonderful ah-ha moment, and how do I make myself better.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

A Princes of Mars. It has a lot of problematic elements for modern readers as far as race and sexism, but if I could be ten or eleven again and read it, the magical feeling Burroughs gave me about Mars, and in other books his fantastical version of Africa, the jungle, and so on, the stories about the center of the earth. Those would be books I'd like to reread for the first time for those reasons.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I love Westerns, so recently it was 1883 about a trek from Texas to build a life in Wyoming or Oregon or Montana. I think all three states became part of the quest at one time or another, culminating in Yellowstone.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I wake up and take the dog out and write. My wife wakes up, we have coffee together and talk about whatever, go to lunch. Then I read for a few hours, and at night we watch a film. That's a perfect day, though I have, of course, enjoyed us traveling all over the world.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

You know, I can't think of one.

What are you working on now?

A memoir, the Mechanics Son.

Book cover of Things Get Ugly
Things Get Ugly
Lansdale, Joe R.