Tuesday, March 9, 2010

First Blood: Joe R. Lansdale

Welcome to First Blood, a continuing feature here at American Frankenstein. In the weeks and months to come, I’ll be talking to writers, editors, and other creative folks about how they got their start in the business. First up is that man from Nacogdoches, Texas: Joe R. Lansdale.

When I started publishing in the early nineties, Stephen King was definitely cemented at the top of the heap in horror, but Lansdale was the guy who most young horror writers wanted to emulate. He stories were exciting—both in content and execution and just plain adrenaline-pumping energy—and they were coming at readers fast and furious through an unmistakable voice that was as addictive as anything you’d find in a crackhouse.

By then Joe had done his time pounding a typewriter while working in the rose fields down in Texas (Lansdale once told me: “It’s the job they give the sinners in hell.”). He was just starting to make his mark, driving hard for slots in both the small press and the mainstream markets. In fact, some of the first small press magazines and books I bought were purchased specifically because they included Lansdale stories (remember Pulphouse, Dark Regions, and Space & Time, anyone?).

Of course, since those days Joe’s become a real force in mystery and suspense as well as his old stomping grounds of horror and the fantastic. Comics and film, too, with stints on Jonah Hex and the Don Coscarelli feature Bubba Ho-Tep. In fact, Lansdale’s done well in just about every field he’s chosen, winning the Edgar and multiple Bram Stoker Awards. Plus, the Italians flatout love this Texan. Go figure.

As usual, Joe currently has several projects on the go. Out now is The Best of Joe Lansdale from Tachyon Press, and coming this May is an illustrated compendium of his Drive-In novels, The Complete Drive-In, from Underland Press. He’ll have a new Hap & Leonard novel, Devil Red, out next year, and Subterranean Press has just announced a collection of weird westerns, Dead Man’s Road, featuring one of Lansdale’s signature characters (and a personal favorite) the gunslinging Reverend Jedidiah Mercer.

So, let’s batten down the hatches on this intro and get the word on Joe’s early career from the man himself:

PARTRIDGE: Tell us a little bit about your first fiction sale. How long had you been writing when it happened, and how did it come about?

LANSDALE: I had been writing nonfiction, selling articles, but I was writing stories all along. I once had three months off from my job working in the rose fields, and because I didn’t know better I wrote a story a day. I marketed them for a long time, as there were a lot more magazines then, and I sent them to magazines that didn’t buy that kind of fiction. I got in time, about a thousand rejections. I learned a lot doing that, began to write more carefully, studied the markets. I didn’t know anyone who wrote, didn’t ask advice because there was no one to ask, no creative writing courses. I just wrote. Finally, I wrote a story for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and the editor, an old pulpster, Sam Merwin, thought it was pretty good but overdone. I rewrote it, and he sent it back with some other suggestions. I rewrote it again. He wrote back that he hated the story more every time he saw it. Write something new. I did. About the same character, Ray Slater. It was called “The Full Count,” and it sold. This was in the middle to late seventies, I don’t remember exactly when.

PARTRIDGE: Your first published novel was Act of Love. What do you remember about writing that book, and what were some of the upsides and downsides of the experience?

LANSDALE: I spent about six months on it, and then got hung up. I quit working on it, or anything for about a month. I was a janitor at the university here, so I just went to work and read. And one day, a weekend, I was lying on the couch, reading, and it hit me as to how to finish it. It was late in the evening, and I started writing. At three in the morning I finished. I had written seventy pages in one sitting. It may not have been the world’s greatest novel, but it was sort of interesting for the time, and predated a lot of the Silence of the Lambs-type books. I’m not saying I was the only one doing that sort of thing, just that over the years a lot of writers have told me how much the book influenced them. That’s neat. It’s overdone, but that was pretty much on purpose. A bunch of us were trying to push the boundaries then, to see how far we could go and make it work.

PARTRIDGE: What piece of work established you—critically or commercially (or both)—in the marketplace, and what changed after you published it?

LANSDALE: I had a three-fold hit. “Tight Little Stitches In A Dead Man’s Back” wasn’t my first story, but it was the first one to get serious attention. It was a sort of “literary” apocalyptic story. It got great reviews and really opened some doors. It stays in print. Dead in the West, a zombie western sort of established my small press credentials and I’ve continued to write regularly for small presses. The Magic Wagon opened the gate to New York publishing. All of these got tremendous response, and each was way different in its own way. These all came out in 1986.

PARTRIDGE: What’s your best advice for writers starting out today?

LANSDALE: Put your ass in a chair and write.