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An Interview with Joe R. Lansdale: Part II

Joe R. Lansdale, whose acclaimed new novel EDGE OF DARK WATER caused New York Journal of Books to proclaim it has “all the potential of becoming a classic, read by generations to come,” recently took some time out of his day to talk with Mulholland Books about his inspirations and writing process while his novel works its way into bookstores across the country.

Missed Part I? Read it here.

Did you choose Hollywood as the characters’ destination for reasons other than May’s ambitions for her life? What do you think a place like Hollywood represent to people in Depression Era, small East Texas towns like the one in which EDGE OF DARK WATER is set? Did you have something in mind for what Hollywood represented for May Lynn, specifically?

Hollywood, especially then, the thirties, was one of those far away places that seemed to offer something special. It was a place someone could go to and become something new and shiny and famous. Or at least that was the thought. It was like Oz. A magical place.

It was a dream destination; it was very early on part of our American myth. I think for May Lynn it was that and more. It was a possible escape from poverty and the possibility of maybe working in a café and then becoming a wife and mother. Not bad ambitious, necessarily. But they weren’t good ambitions for her; she felt she was something special, and that there was a magic cloak out there in Hollywood somewhere waiting to be tossed over her shoulders.

Speaking of Hollywood, a few of your stories have been adapted for television and film, including the novella Bubba Ho-Tep, which was adapted into the cult classic film of the same name starring Bruce Campbell. Can you tell us a little about how it feels to see your writing transformed for the screen?

I much prefer prose, but I love film as well. I’ve grown up with it and loved it all my life. Along with comics and books and stories and music. It is cool to write something and then see an actor interpret it, in film or on the stage. I’ve had both of those pleasures. I also had a film made from a short story of mine titled INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD. It was made for SHOWTIME, directed, as was BUBBA HOTEP, by Don Coscarelli. Last summer, my son wrote a screenplay based on a story of mine, and it was made into an independent film titled CHRISTMAS WITH THE DEAD, and comes out soon. So, that’s a part of me as well. Films.

As for BUBBA, I never thought it could be filmed. I was wrong. It was a pleasure to see what Don did with it. It’s very faithful to the story, and most of the dialogue is from the story, and some of the dialogue is taken from the prose and turned into dialogue. Even where the film varies from the story, it is slight and right. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis were awesome in it.

Where did you come up with the idea of Skunk? Were you inspired by any particular characters from the canon? Do you have a favorite bounty hunter character from other novels or films?

Skunk is that thing bad dream that is coming after you and will not stop; a juggernaut. He is mortality and death; a creeping doom that all of us suspicion is waiting somewhere around the corner, or under the bed, in the night shadows. He is like an elemental, a nightmare that just might be there when you wake up. He is every dark thing I have ever imagined.

In addition to being a riveting story of adventure and suspense, EDGE OF DARK WATER can be classified as a coming-of-age novel. Was weaving these two genres of storytelling difficult? Do you remember any the writing of any scenes where the marriage of the two seemed especially natural or especially difficult?

It is a coming of age story. I’m a great fan of Young Adult fiction and have read it all my life. Even wrote a couple of Young Adult novels, THE BOAR, and ALL THE EARTH THROWN TO THE SKY. I didn’t find it difficult at all, because I’ve done that sort of thing before with adult novels. It seems to be in my DNA.

I think one thing that helps me write so many different kinds of fiction is I like so many different kinds, and have never seen one kind as better than another. It’s not the type, it’s the quality. So for me, it felt pretty natural.

Each of the young protagonists that set out on their journey to honor May Lynn is marked by difference—Sue Ellen by her tomboyish ways, Jinx by the color of her skin, and Terry by his reputation as a “sissy.” Was this a conscious decision or come about organically as you thought about the group’s adventure?

 

I’m sure my writerly experience and subconscious came into play here. I wasn’t aware of doing it, but when you’ve been selling writing for over forty years, you tend to develop certain instincts. You do things you’re not aware of thinking about. I’m very much a writer who works out of the subconscious. I have a hard time sitting down to plot, so I don’t. It happens each day as I write. I’m sure my subconscious is doing the planning. It just doesn’t tell me what’s going on until my fingers touch the keys.

The awards you’ve received over the course of your writing career are quite numerous—the Edgar Award for Best Novel, the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, and eight Bram Stoker Awards. Out of all those acclaimed works, do you have a favorite, or one the writing of which you remember the most fondly?

I appreciate them all.

Can you tell us a little about your life outside of writing? I hear you’re also a member of the Martial Arts Hall of Fame, and music runs almost as strong in your family as storytelling.

I have been a martial artist for nearly fifty years. I still teach. I don’t spend quite as much time as I once did at it, but I’m still active. I created a system called SHEN CHUAN, MARTIAL SCIENCE, and another arm of that which is a family system. I studied numerous martial arts in my life time, beginning with boxing and wrestling that my dad taught to me when I was eleven. I wasn’t very good then, but I stayed with it and became very active by the time I was a teenager and on up until now. By the time I was in my late teens I was pretty dang good. I am a member of  THE INTERNATIONAL MARTIAL ARTS HALL OF FAME and THE UNITED STATES MARTIAL ARTS HALL OF FAME. I own a dojo and have top students who teach the regular classes for me. I mostly teach private lessons these days, and seminars, and now and again I go in and teach the weekly classes. It’s a good life.

As for music, my mother loved it and sang around the house. She at one point wanted to be a singer, but the hard Depression life took over. My brother was involved in music early on. He’s seventeen years older than me, and tried to make a go at Sun Records back when Elvis and Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were starting out in the 1950’s. My brother wasn’t as successful, but he loved music. He worked in the field as a producer for awhile, and these days is writing comics. My wife’s grandmother was musical, and Karen was a clarinet player.

My daughter is a professional singer and songwriter. She is currently working on an album in Nashville, and she is extraordinarily talented. My son isn’t involved in music. He’s a journalist and writes screenplays and comics and runs his own on-line newspaper. As for me and music, I listen to it.

 

What writers, artists or filmmakers inspire you? Did you have the work of any other writers or filmmakers in mind in the writing of EDGE OF DARK WATER?

I have so many influences, but believe I am my own thing. I may be a blend of many things, but in the end, I’m me. I love a lot of the Southern writers. Harper Lee, Flannery O’Conner, Carson McCuller, some of Faulkner, Davis Grubb. I enjoy Ernest Hemingway’s style over his content. Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY and shorter works, especially, “The Diamond As Big As The Ritz”. I love Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Raymond Chandler, Hammett and James Cain, Andrew Vachss, Neal Barrett, Jr., Elmore Leonard. Writers like Mark Twain, of course, Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, and so on.

In films, I really love John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Houston, the Cohens, Clint Eastwood, who I think is a great director. Comic books also have been a great pleasure and an influence. This list could become too heavy to lift, as I’ve only touched on the many writers and film makers who have given me so much pleasure and have been an influence, so I’ll end it there. Oh, wait. I should say that as a kid the writer who inspired me the most and made me have to be a writer, not just want to be one, was Edgar Rice Burroughs. He’s still my sentimental favorite.