Author Q&A: Joe Lansdale

  • July 3, 2012

The Independent talks to Joe Lansdale, author of "Edge of Dark Water."

May Lynn is a pretty girl who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star — until her dead body is dredged up from the Sabine River. Sue Ellen, May Lynn’s strong-willed teenage friend, and her pals Terry and Jinx set out to dig up May Lynn’s body, burn it and take the ashes to Hollywood. If May Lynn can’t become a star, then at least her remains can be spread in the land of her dreams. All they need is some money and a raft …

Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than a dozen novels, including Vanilla Ride, Leather Maiden, Sunset and Sawdust, Lost Echoes and The Bottoms, a recipient of the Edgar Award for Best Novel. He has received the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature and eight Bram Stoker Awards. His novella Bubba Ho-Tep was made into a film.

Questions for Joe Lansdale

The first thing I really want to ask is, where have you been all my life? Edge of Dark Water was amazing. You captured the three/four main characters superbly —— such subtlety in their language differences, and I could go on. How? Do you know them?

I guess I’ve been in Nacogdoches. You should have looked there. I know these characters because they are like people I have known, or heard stories about. They were very distinct in my mind.

You write so much, do you ever get confused?

I was born confused, but the stories I can keep straight for the most part, and I read about five books at one time and they are all distinct in my mind, but what I’d be doing in town I have no idea. My wife usually writes me a note of explanation that starts: Drive to town.

Ray Slater, Brad Simmons, Jack Buchanan,  I’ve never heard of any of them and now I’m on a hunt to find all of them. Where should I begin? Which one of these guys is the real you?

Those pseudonyms were way back when I started out, and believe me, none of them are worth looking up, and two of them were house names and I didn’t write all the work written under those names and was sometimes rewritten, so skip it. Ray Slater was all me, but he was a very desperate writer, a kind of Kilgore Trout. He wrote two books, but only used the name once, as the other came out later under my name, Blood Dance, and it was all right.

Do you have a favorite book of your own? A genre?

No favorite genres, but I like Edge of Dark Water quite a bit, and then maybe The Bottoms or A Fine Dark Line, Sunset and Sawdust. Actually, I love writing novels but love short stories even more.

Put martial arts and writing together and tell me how you’d spend a perfect day.

At 60, I teach one class a week, about two hours, and I teach now and then classes at the school I own, sometimes do camps and seminars on martial arts. I write mornings, spend the rest of the day doing what I like, which often includes reading and movies and martial arts.

Which one of your many awards was the most gratifying? What other award would you like to receive?

All of them are nice, none of them are profound as far as awards go. They help with promotion, but only a little. My family really have pushed me to put this book up for awards though, and they may be right. Frankly, I doubt if it makes much difference. My favorite is the Italian Grinzani Cavour Prize for Literature because it came with money. Quite a bit of money.

Horror, mystery, western, adventure — you’re known for writing in all of these genres. All of them, with the exception of the western, are in Edge of Dark Water. Have you always blurred the lines? Did you mix up all the paint colors when you were little?

I never could color inside the lines and sometimes put my underwear on backwards, but at least that’s by accident and is not a rebellious statement. I mix genres naturally.

Do you start with a character and build a story? Who did you know best, Jinx, Terry, Sue Ellen, Helen or May Lynn, and which was created more fully first?

I start with a mood, and then a scene, and then the character, and when the character speaks to me, I’m off to the races. I guess Sue Ellen and Jinx are the two sides of me, same as my characters Hap and Leonard; there are eight novels about them, two novellas and a few short stories. Hap Collins, not in this book, is the closest to being me, but he doesn’t get older and is better looking. I’m smarter, which may not be saying much.

When I first read that Sue Ellen’s mother, Helen, was going along for the ride, I thought the children’s trip would be compromised, but it wasn’t. How did you keep the mom in her place? She seems like the character that could have become most unwieldy but then again, there’s Jinx.

I thought the mother was in many ways one of the kids, and she was having an experience not too far from theirs. She was growing up, something she had avoided.

How do you think violence affects us when it is so ubiquitous?

Unfortunately, in fiction so much of the American character is revealed through violence, and those could be violent, or pastoral times, though not as pastoral as some like to remember. My parents were in their 20s during the Great Depression, so I knew what kind of lives people led, especially those with limited money and little education. It could be a dark and violent time, at least for a lot of people.

On the back of your book, Joe Hill, author of Horns and Heart Shaped Box, calls the adventure in Edge of Dark Water one half Huckleberry Finn and one half Deliverance.  Was there any influence from either? Do you agree?

Huck Finn for sure. I don’t know about the other, though I’ve read the book and seen the film. I had The Odyssey in mind, as well as Jason and The Argonauts along with Twain. Also a dash of Davis Grubb’s novel Night of the Hunter.

There isn’t a real time line in the book. And there are a couple of characters that seem left behind anyway, like the old woman who ate her mule and the preacher whose parishioners abandon him. Do you think there are tons of people in small-town America abandoned by life, the river, and the townsfolk who just quietly disappear?

It takes place in the 30s, but I thought to let it feel timeless, because the 30s in East Texas was a slow blending of times — the Old West, the modern age and those lost in time along the river. Until a few years back, you still found people like that, lost in time, and if TV shows like “Swamp People” have any reality about them, there are some still out there. In fact, I know a few people that live out of time, and like it like that. I’m not one of them. DVRs and lots of books are nice. And running water and cell phones, etc.

If Skunk can make Jinx believe in miracles, I guess they can happen anywhere. Even in East Texas. What about your miracles, have you witnessed one? What was it and what did it make you believe?

My beliefs and those of Jinx are pretty much in synch. I’m not a believer, and I feel like she does about miracles. Someone loses a leg and grows it back, then talk to me about miracles, don’t tell me you saw a red bird outside your window and realized there were great miracles of God. It’s a cool red bird and you can thank millions of years of evolution for that.

Would you like your books to leave readers feeling any particular way; for example, “Oh my God,” as they shake their heads, or “Thank Jesus, we don’t live in Gladewater””

I just want them to be thrilled, and hope the book touches on real feelings, and that when they finish it has echo beyond the page. That the experience feels unique.

You treat your readers to a complete adventure in Edge of Dark Water. How do you manage the pace? Are your fingers even remotely as fast moving as your mind?

My fingers are fast, not sure about the mind.

Could Jinx have grown up to be Nina Mae McKinney (seductress, African-American Actress of the 30s)?

Nope. Jinx grew up to be Jinx and the great grandmother of another of my characters in another book.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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