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'Hap And Leonard' Creator Needed To 'Burn Bridges' To Make It As A Writer

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'Hap And Leonard' Creator Needed To 'Burn Bridges' To Make It As A Writer

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'Hap And Leonard' Creator Needed To 'Burn Bridges' To Make It As A Writer

'Hap And Leonard' Creator Needed To 'Burn Bridges' To Make It As A Writer

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Honky Tonk Samurai

by Joe R. Lansdale

Hardcover, 340 pages |

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Joe R. Lansdale grew up poor in east Texas and worked as a janitor and in a potato field before finding success as a writer. Honky Tonk Samurai is the latest book in his mystery series.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest today, writer Joe R. Lansdale, grew up poor in east Texas, but he's always had a fertile imagination. One example is the plot of his novel "Bubble Ho-Tep." Elvis and John F. Kennedy are alive and living in a nursing home where they battle an Egyptian mummy who comes to feast on the elderly. "Bubba Ho-Tep" is one of two Lansdale novels that were adapted to films. Writer Lisa Morton has said Lansdale is his own distinct genre. He's written horror, mystery, Westerns, graphic novels and comics and mainstream literature. He's published more than 40 novels and 30 short story collections. His series of mysteries about two east Texas characters named Hap and Leonard is the basis of a new TV series on the Sundance channel. It stars James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams, and it premieres next Wednesday. I spoke to Joe R. Lansdale about his life and career and his new Hap and Leonard novel "Honky Tonk Samurai."

Well, Joe Lansdale, welcome to FRESH AIR. If you could, just describe these two characters, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, a little bit. Tell us about Hap.

JOE R. LANSDALE: The simplistic view is, like, Hap is a formal war resistor. He didn't go to Vietnam. He protested against it. He is heterosexual and liberal and lives in east Texas. His best friend is Leonard Pine, who is black, gay and conservative and was a Vietnam War hero.

DAVIES: All right, and they're good buddies. And they do...

LANSDALE: They are the best of buddies. They have a solid core that keeps them together. Even though they may have different beliefs about different things that - at the core they have a sense of honor and a sense of brotherhood. And in many ways, I think that that's what this book is about is brotherhood. And I think in this day and time, when you can't get people to agree on anything or even agree to disagree, I think it's kind of got a little bit of a nice message there that slips out.

DAVIES: And they've done all kinds odd jobs together, some of it is as private investigators, right?

LANSDALE: A little bit. In the most recent one, they end up working for a private investigative agency that Hap's girlfriend, Brett, buys from the previous owner. But mostly in the past they've done the jobs I did, which was work in the rose fields, potato fields, bouncing, aluminum chair factories, et cetera, et cetera - the blue-collar jobs, which I did when I was, you know, trying to get to the point where I could write full time.

DAVIES: All right, let's have you read a little bit from early in the book.

LANSDALE: OK.

DAVIES: This is a moment in which Hap and Leonard are staking out a guy. They've been hired by a client who thinks that her husband may be cheating on her. It turns out he isn't, but they're in the day out in front of this guy's house, and this is what unfolds - well, if you'd read for us.

LANSDALE: Sure. (Reading) There we sat, me reflecting on these things and holding in a wheat bread fart out of courtesy, when Leonard said, what the hell? He was looking at a yard across the street from our car. A man had a dog on a lease and the dog was cowered on his belly and the man was kicking it, and I could hear him screaming at it. The dog yelped a couple of times after the kicks. Leonard was already out of the car by this time and crossing the street. I got out and went around and followed, heard Leonard yell, hey, how about you try kicking me? The man stopped his dog abuse and looked up. I let the fart ease out. I did it quietly, not wanting to frighten the dog. I left the fart where I'd laid it, like a rotten egg, and moved away from the smell. Who the hell are you, the man said to Leonard. I'm the man fixing to put that leash on your neck and kick you all over this yard like a soccer ball. You're trespassing, the man said. That's just where I start, Leonard said. How about I put one of your damn eyes out? Appeared like a start to a fairly ordinary day for us.

DAVIES: And that is Joe R. Lansdale, reading from his new book "Honky Tonk Samurai." Leonard is such an interesting character. Tell us about him. I mean, Hap - parts of Hap's biography square pretty well with yours. Where does...

LANSDALE: Yeah, they do, a whole lot.

DAVIES: Where does Leonard come from?

LANSDALE: Leonard comes from a number of people - both white, black, gay and heterosexual. I mean, it's a mixture of people. You know, I always disliked that anytime you had gays represented in - and there were some exceptions certainly - but represented in popular fiction, they were usually the goofy neighbor next door, you know? And I just thought, well, I know a lot of gay people, and they're just as varied as the heterosexual people I know. And there were a lot of tough gay people that I encountered when I was, you know, as I've done martial arts over the years. And I wanted to represent another side of it, and I though that this was a way of doing it. And I honesty didn't even know Leonard was going to be in the book until I wrote the first paragraph and there he was. And then I had no idea he was gay until it was kind of revealed in something Hap said, and all of that just sort of developed. I had no idea I was doing a series. I thought I was writing a standalone. But this character, not only Hap, who tells the story, but Leonard to me is the - is equal importance to the stories, and so he just kind of developed out of that and, like I said, the people I knew and all the people I'd worked with, done martial arts with, so that's where he comes from.

DAVIES: You live in east Texas. I mean, people who know Texas well, as I do as a native, know that it's really several distinct regions. And east Texas is much more like the Deep South than any of the rest of it, which is more like the Southwest. And of course, you know, there's a long history of racial issues there, and you have been called the conscience of east Texas. I mean, I wonder if in some respect this character, Leonard, is a way for you to explore a lot of issues about, you know, attitudes and social relationships.

LANSDALE: Without a doubt. I mean, I didn't set out to think I'm going to be the conscience of anybody other than myself, but what happened is, when I began writing these books, those things that were a part of me begin to slide into them. Those things that I had seen when I was growing up in the South were certainly in the background. And I think social issues and political issues, without beating people over the head, have always been a part of my work in the more so-called serious books I've written as well as the Hap and Leonard series and what have you. But it wasn't that I set down and says I'm going to be the conscience. I just set down and said I want to say something about the '60s - late '60s and early '70s. Actually, when people refer to the '60s, they often are actually including the '70s in that. And what I wanted to do was write something about that, and I never could find a vehicle for it. So when started I writing this crime novel, it just naturally found its place.

DAVIES: Describe east Texas and what your childhood was like there.

LANSDALE: Well, I was born in the '50s - 1951. So I grew up during that part of the '50s when everything was supposed to be at its best in America, they claimed, and then eased into the '60s. But we were probably a little better off in the '50s, but we were always poor. My dad couldn't read or write, and my mom had an 11th-grade education, which I believe actually was as far as some of the schools went when she was going to school. And my dad was a mechanic and my mother was a homemaker but she also sold World Book Encyclopedias and she was a - she painted and sold paintings. She did all kinds of things.

And I remember when people - I think now, rather when people say, oh, the '50s were just this great time, I thought, well, yeah if you were rich, white and male. Because let me tell you, it wasn't all that wonderful if you were black or if you were female or even if you were poor. And so those are the things that stuck with me. I mean, I lived a very happy life. I never felt poor. Our family euphemism was that we were broke, which I think psychologically gave you a different feeling. There were people far worse than we were. You know, we often did pretty well comparatively because east Texas was by - in general - in a general sense was a poor place for everybody - most everybody. So we didn't feel terribly out of place.

But as I got older, I could look back and start seeing these things and think, you know, the racism was terrible. They had water fountains that said colored and, you know, washaterias that said colored and we had segregated schools. And people thought this was perfectly natural and perfectly OK. I remember going to a theater once and there was a stairway that wound its way out to the back. And I was very young, a small child, and I said to my mom, why are those people going up those stairs? And she said, you know, I don't know how to tell you this, I don't know how to explain it, but it won't always be that way because it's wrong. And I never forgot that. It wasn't like a - one of those moments where everything just comes together, but it was certainly somewhat euphoric in the back of my mind like somebody had lit a candle or turned on a light. And then when Martin Luther King came along and started speaking and saying what he had to say in such an extraordinary manner, I was deeply moved and from that point on I was very much a proponent of civil rights.

DAVIES: Did you have black friends as a kid?

LANSDALE: No. No, they were totally segregated. It just wasn't done, you know? And you didn't think about it and neither did they - they themselves were segregated. And - but I began to meet more black people as I grew older as a teenager and as I went into my 20s and so on. And then, you know, I began to see - huh, everybody's just the same - there's some real jackasses out there of all colors and there's some really nice people, too. So for me that was a revelation that probably started in my mid-teens and built to a crescendo by the time I graduated. And I was very much into civil rights, very much against the Vietnam War and so on. I was a little out of place for my area where I lived, and also I was an atheist. So there you are. I had all the triple whammy.

DAVIES: OK. Going back a bit, I mean, your dad was a mechanic. He was a shade tree mechanic, right - worked out of his yard?

LANSDALE: Yeah, yeah. My dad, the way he actually became a mechanic, he - what he did is he used to work in canneries and field work and he would catch trains and hobo - I mean he - not catch them, like, pay a ticket. He would sneak on board the, you know, boxcars or hang underneath them and he would ride the rails to different towns where they had carnivals and fairs, and they had boxing and wrestling in those fairs, and he would enter these contests and make money. And that's part of what he did to sort of supplement what they were doing during the Great Depression 'cause my dad was born in 1909, my mother, in 1914, so they were older when I was born. So he didn't really have a profession. But my mother said, what is it that you would really like to do? And he said, I've always wanted to be a mechanic. So she bought him an old car - I think it was, like, a Model A or something - and she said, why don't you take that car apart and put it back together until you can do it blindfolded? And that's exactly what he did, and that's how his career started.

DAVIES: What did you do for fun as a kid?

LANSDALE: Well, we went fishing. We went hunting. Back then though, fishing and hunting wasn't just a recreational thing, it was something you did to eat. My father once told me - we went out - we were squirrel hunting, and we - you know, I think he saw I was getting kind of excited about it. He says, you know, this isn't a sport. Everybody tells you hunting's a sport. It's not. And he says, if you start to enjoy seeing something fall or die, you need to sit down and have a really serious talk with yourself. Said, this is to eat and that's all. And he was a - very, very racist in his speech and whatever, but you know, I was just - my mother was just the opposite. But what happened was that when we'd go squirrel hunting, he would kill two or three extra and he would bring them to a black family that he knew who were more desperate than we were, and the same thing when he went fishing. And he was always doing stuff like that. So I judged him more by what he did than what he said.

DAVIES: I've got to ask you, how do you prepare squirrel and what's it taste like?

LANSDALE: Well, you know, squirrel - people say it tastes like chicken. No, it tastes like squirrel. It's a little gamier. I used to like it. I haven't eaten one in years, but I saw "Winter's Bone," which is a really fine film and it's based on a very fine novel, but they knew nothing about preparing squirrels. They were just chopping squirrels with their fur on, you know? And you have to skin them and peel their suit off and cut their head off and gut them properly and rinse them, and then you cook them.

DAVIES: You cook them in a stew or, like, on a spit?

LANSDALE: Well, you - well, you fried them was very common, but they also can cook them in stew. You make gumbo with them. You can make dumplings. Squirrel in dumplings was a biggie. But pretty much any way that you would cook any other meat, like chicken for example, you can do the same with squirrel.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Joe R. Lansdale, his new book is "Honky Tonk Samurai." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with novelist Joe R. Lansdale. He has a new book called "Honky Tonk Samurai." It features the characters Hap and Leonard, which is the title of a new Sundance original TV series based on his books.

There's a fair amount of violence in a lot of these stories. And I want to have you read another piece for us.

LANSDALE: OK.

DAVIES: We've talked about this. This is on page 193, well into your new book, "Honky Tonk Samurai."

LANSDALE: Right.

DAVIES: Do you want to set up what's - we don't want to give away the whole story, but do you want to kind of set up what's happening here?

LANSDALE: Well, I think the easiest thing to say is that they have found out that there are some bikers involved with their problem. I'm just going to call it a problem because I don't want to give it away. And they...

DAVIES: This is Hap and Leonard, our two characters, and then a buddy of theirs, Jim Bob, is that his name?

LANSDALE: Jim Bob Luke. And they have come out there to sort of spy on these guys, who are also meth heads. And they've got to the point where they find out that these people have kidnapped somebody they know and that their plans for that person are not really good. And so this is their response.

DAVIES: Well, I will just note that what they're about to do is go - this is at night. There's a bonfire, lots of mean bikers there. And they're about to go charging at them in a car. Two of you hanging outside with shotguns trained and hoping you can get in and rescue this person without getting, you know - well, just being able to get out alive. It's a pretty...

LANSDALE: Yeah, and it's a red Cadillac they're driving (laughter).

DAVIES: It is a nasty situation to be going into. And then you're writing in the first person here as Hap, describing what it feels like. Go ahead if you will.

LANSDALE: (Reading) Situations like that, it's like you and time are frozen in amber. And then the amber breaks and you're not frozen, but everything moves for a time in slow motion. If it's your first time or two doing something like that, going into the midst of danger and uncertainty, you have tunnel vision. You see what's in front of you as if look looking down the length of a tunnel. Everything to the right and the left of you is a black wall. But if you've been there before, it's not that way. On some level, like the samurai of old, you have accepted your death. You are neither their to win or to lose. You are there to be in the moment. Things may be slow, but they are viewed wider with experience. Not inside that fearful tunnel of the neophyte - that's how it was with me. I could see clearly. I could feel clearly. I might add right here that I say to hell with the samurai. I plan to win. I plan to go home. And I knew that plan had about as much chance as a slug in a salt box. I knew, too, I had survived worst situations, and as that thought galloped through my head, another less pleasant thought showed up. Sometimes your luck runs out.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Joe Lansdale, reading from "Honky Tonk Samurai." What struck me when I read that was it - this sounds convincingly like a guy who has been in perilously violent situations before. Was that you?

LANSDALE: That would be true, yes.

DAVIES: How close have you come to something like this?

LANSDALE: Well, something like this, no, but things of - let's just say that I've been close to some of its cousins.

DAVIES: Well, describe one of those cousins for us.

LANSDALE: Well, I would say that I - of many times, when my hair was really, really long, I had a guy that was much bigger than me that decided at work where I was working that he was going to hurt me. And I put him in the hospital. But I've also had a number of those things during the late '60s, early '70s, where just the sight of somebody with long hair led to all kinds of yells and whistle and threats. And some of those went beyond that. And I've had, you know, people pull guns on me and knives and things like that. So I've been close enough that I know how it feels.

I also know about tunnel vision because when you are beginning to be experienced, or less experienced or not experienced at all, when something frightening happens, it is, it's like a tunnel vision. You don't see to your left and your right. You lose peripheral vision completely. But after you've been involved in a number of things, it's just the opposite. It's as if everything widens and everything is clear and everything is real. It's an extraordinary feeling that I'd rather not experience again. But, you know, that's one of the things that martial arts does for you is it makes you confident. But it also makes you less stupid because after you've had these kind of things happen to you, you know better how to avoid them.

I grew up in east Texas and when a time when I was growing up, what was really important was being macho, was being the tough guy, was being the guy that would face down, you know, threats. And not all that's bad, but some of it is because it's just ego, you know, and it's just machoism. But a lot of that, I think, helped define my character, both negatively and positively. But I hope, too, that the negatives taught me things that led to positives.

DAVIES: What were the positives?

LANSDALE: Well, I think the confidence is one of them and the fact that I don't have to prove things. You know, I don't have to do this. I'm confident enough with myself that I don't have to show you how tough I am, unless you're threatening me and I have no choice. And then you better bring you a sack lunch 'cause you're going to be there all day.

DAVIES: (Laughter) OK. You are...

LANSDALE: I saw my dad once - I have a real quick story here. We lived up by - on a hill in - just off Gladewater, Texas, just outside of it, and I was about 5. And he got me a little dog because I was alone a lot. My mom and I were there and there was no - we didn't have a TV at that time. We had a radio. And there was a honky-tonk below us, but across the highway was a drive-in theater where we watched cartoons and movies. And my mother would make up the dialogue, which meant years later, when I actually saw those, I thought, damn, my mom was a liar. They didn't say that.

DAVIES: Well, just to clarify, you actually - you didn't actually get into the theater. You were watching across the street...

LANSDALE: No, we watched it from the house...

DAVIES: So you had no sound.

LANSDALE: Looking out the windows, had no sound, so she just made up the stories. And they were pretty good, you know? And so I was learning storytelling early on. And my father was a great storyteller. But the story here is he got me the dog and that dog and I like brothers. We ate out of the same bowl when my mother wasn't looking. And one day we were out playing. We went up behind the house. There was a house on a hill above ours, and it was covered in flowers. You had to cross a little creek to get over to it, and my dog went up there and he started digging in the flowerbeds. Well, I didn't know this was wrong. I was, like, about 5 years old probably. And a guy came out of the house and he grabbed my dog by the hind legs, hit him in the back of the head with a pipe or a stick or whatever it was and threw him in that creek. And of course this devastated me. I ran home. I told my mother. We didn't have a phone. A lot of people didn't back then. And she walked to some house down the road and called my father.

And it seemed like it was no time at all, though it may have been, I - my father drove up in - his car was a black car. It was like Mr. Death showing up. And he got out of the car and he started going up the hill and he said you stay here. And of course, you know, I didn't. I followed him. And as he went up the hill, he knocked on that guy's door and when that guy came out, he'd hit that guy with everything he had. Didn't say a word, just hit him, knocked him completely out, grabbed him by the ankles, pulled him out, swung him through those flowerbeds for a long time until they were flat and then threw him in the creek where he'd thrown my dog.

He went down and got the dog. It was alive. And that dog died when I was 17 - fell off the porch - just - we were both looking at the sun - sunset or the sunrise - I forget which - and he just died right there. But from then on, my father was my hero and still is. But to me - maybe that was overly violent and people would sue you today, but, you know, what? I don't care. He had it coming.

DAVIES: Joe R. Lansdale's new book is "Honky Tonk Samurai." After a break, he'll tell us how he learned to be a better writer. Linguist Geoff Nunberg will reflect on what idiosyncratic spelling in English and French tells us about our cultures and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews recently released Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra recordings that he says were an explosion of creative energy. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We are speaking with writer Joe R. Lansdale, who's published more than 40 novels and 30 short-story collections in a wide variety of genres. His crime novels about two East Texas characters named Hap and Leonard are the basis of new Sundance channel series. It premieres next Wednesday. Lansdale's new book is "Honky Tonk Samurai."

You know, you're a great storyteller, a professional storyteller. I want to come back to something that you mentioned earlier when I asked if you'd been in violent situations and you described a circumstance when somebody at work didn't like your hair. Take us through that. What happened?

LANSDALE: Well, this guy was my foreman and he just picked at me every day, and he thought it was really funny. And then one day for whatever reason, he just decided that he was going to grab me and punch me. He'd said something to me and I said something back I think. And when he started to punch me, I just took it from there and then I left after he was on the floor. And I got - then they came - the sheriff deputy came to the house. He actually knew me. And he came to the house and he said, man, you know, you're in trouble. You're going to have to go into court and whatever. And so I went in and the judge saw me and she knew, you know, the guy that had done this and she said, you picked on that little bitty boy? - referring to me - and says, case dismissed. So I loved that part about those old days in Texas, although they certainly have bad aspects to them, but I have to say that I didn't feel bad about that at all.

DAVIES: And when was a gun pulled on you?

LANSDALE: Oh, well, when I was younger. This was my fault. Well, a couple times - stealing watermelons, but we won't count that one. But one time we were chasing another car with kids in it. Everybody was yelling at everybody, and they pulled up in the yard and we pulled up behind them and their father thought we were actually there to hurt them, although we probably were yelling at them - probably would've gotten into a fist fight 'cause we were morons. And that's what we did. We went looking for, you know, trouble when I was in 16, 17. And the guy came out with a gun and he stuck that shotgun right in my face and it looked like I was looking down a subway tunnel. And I think I was within seconds 'cause he was very mad and, you know, rightfully so - but maybe not to that degree. Fortunately, I talked myself out of that one.

DAVIES: When you look at your body of work, there's quite a range of stuff here. There's horror and science-fiction and Westerns and detective stuff. What inspired your imagination as a kid?

LANSDALE: When I was a kid, comic books were the first thing. They were - the most important thing I ever discovered were comics, DC Comics in particular. And I could read very early - 4 and 5 - and so I would read comics. And the comics then led me to be interested in just stories in general. And back then TV was just actually starting to be something and they were putting on old movies like the Johnny Weissmuller "Tarzan" movies and these old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movies and stuff. And I watched those with great enthusiasm, and I watched old movies, like "Casablanca" and "The Big Sleep" - whatever they put on. I watched "Hopalong Cassidy." All of those things just inspired me. And then when I began to realize that a number of these things came from books, I began to search for books and stories.

Now, where I lived there wasn't even a library at that time so we would go to Gladewater. We lived in Mount Enterprise. I was born in Gladewater but we lived in place called Mount Enterprise. And when we would go to Gladewater, I would check out a bunch of books on my library card. And then later they started having a bookmobile that came through Mount Enterprise, and I used that to my advantage. Neighbors loaned me books. And once people knew I was nuts for books, they would give me books. My mother was nuts for books. She loved nonfiction in particular, but she was always getting books somewhere and bringing them home, and I read anything I could get my hands on because it was like I was born to it. Now, I don't think that's true since writing is a man-made art, but I think the creativity was something that I was born to, and my parents and my life just kept putting logs on the fire.

DAVIES: And you said your dad used to hop trains and go to carnivals and fight and wrestle for money. I mean, those must've been some good stories to hear.

LANSDALE: Those were some good stories. He started teaching me boxing and wrestling when I was 11 and I started moving into Judo and Hapkido, and I've been doing martial arts now for 53 years. I own my own school in Nacogdoches. I teach part-time now, but my system, Shen Chuan, is in the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame and I'm in a couple of other hall of fames. But the system is, you know, something I developed out of studying all these different arts and things that were taught to me.

But I owe all of that to my father because he was the first one to introduce me to that kind of stuff through the boxing and the wrestling. And he told some stories, but mostly it was the relatives that told stories 'cause he didn't like to talk that much about himself. But yeah, there were some very interesting stories, and I saw few events that were pretty amazing that he did. He was also phenomenally strong and not a very big man. You know, I think in many ways he's probably 50 percent of my life being martial arts, which also added to my writing because it gave me concepts and principles to follow as far as how I built stories. And so my mother influenced the books and the reading, and of course, you know, the rest of it all just sort of came together.

DAVIES: So you grew up poor in east Texas in the country, and your mom got you into books early. When did you start writing?

LANSDALE: I started writing as soon as I discovered pencils. I was trying to write comic books. I was trying to draw them, and I discovered one day that I had one severe problem - I had no artistic talent. I couldn't draw. But I could write, and I liked the stories better than the art. And so it started developing from there, and I think the first full piece I did was a poem when I was 9. I had done these comic book stories. And then that led to a short story, and then I just started writing from there. And by the time I was 11, 12, 13, I was - in that area - I was beginning to write very, very seriously with the intent of becoming a writer because I had finally realized people got paid for this and that you could do this and I didn't have to work in a factory all my life or get a college education and end up stuck doing something that, even though I might like it, might not be what I really wanted to do which was write books.

DAVIES: Did you get encouragement? Did people, you know, take an interest in your writing?

LANSDALE: I didn't get any except my parents'. My parents were always encouraging. My father always - he knew how hard it was not to be able to read and write, and he just always encouraged me just to be the best I could at something. But my mother was a tremendous encouragement, and I think she understood early on that I wanted to be a writer - and my older brother also, and my sister-in-law especially, she used to type up all my manuscripts and stuff. So my family - my immediate family was very supportive, but outside of that, I think a lot of people had no idea I wanted to do it. And I think, you know, some of the teachers were very - I had some good teachers but I don't remember being encouraged much. I remember reading a story and a play both in the same class, and people cheered when I got through reading it and when we got through performing the play. And I got a B, and it's because I used colloquial language and this and that, you know? And I thought, OK, maybe the reality of writing is just not the same. That was my first editorial problem.

DAVIES: (Laughter). You mean you couldn't be writing liked you talked?

LANSDALE: Apparently that's not what they wanted. And I wanted to write stories that were like Twain, you know, or like people that I knew. I didn't - I don't think I actually knew that at the time, but that's what I was trying to do. And then when - as I got older, I started trying to write like everybody else, and that wasn't working for me. So I just said to hell with it, and I started doing stories my way and stopped trying to write about places I didn't know, like New York and Los Angeles. I might know something about them now, but at that time, I'd never been to those places, didn't know anyone that had ever been there. And "77 Sunset Strip" was as close as I'd ever gotten to Los Angeles, and that was a TV show.

So I began to write stories about people I knew. There was a writer named Ardath Mayhar, a forgotten writer and shouldn't be. She wrote a short story once called "Crawfish," and it was in an Alfred Hitchcock anthology, and it was written in East Texas vernacular. And when I read that, I thought, hey, I can do this. It just gave me a freedom. And she and I became dear friends over the years. Turned out, when we moved to Nacogdoches, that's where she lived. But her story and just my experience had already started pushing me that way, and once I moved that way, you know, completely, then my life changed. For three years, I couldn't sell anything. And then it changed again because it caught on.

DAVIES: There was a stretch where you did farming, didn't you? You and your first wife?

LANSDALE: Oh, yeah. My wife and I, that's what we were doing. When we first got married we had a goat dairy and we worked for other farmers, but we had our own organic farm and we sold vegetables. And we did that for a couple of years, but one year, the heat wiped out my sweet potatoes and I said, you know, this could be far more difficult than I expected. I had grown up with farm people, though, so I knew something about it, you know? And my dad's - when he was younger, my dad's people had been sharecroppers 'cause they - you know, he was born, like I said, in 1909. So I knew a little bit about how it was done, but I ended up getting another job and then getting another moving to Nacogdoches again because we had - that's where we had met - and went back to Nacogdoches and I worked there as a janitor in the college and then I worked at a hospital and then a high school, and then I sold two books back-to-back and I went full-time.

DAVIES: How did you get better? I mean, it didn't sound like you were work-shopping and that kind of thing.

LANSDALE: No. I'll tell you, how I got better is - a very important thing is when I was writing the nonfiction pieces, I was doing a lot of work in the rose fields and the weather got really, really bad - icy. In fact, we found a body under a bridge one day, my boss and I. So it was a real bad time to be working in the fields because everything was cold, it was wet, we were having these floods. So my wife said, well, why don't you just stay home for three months? I have a job, I'm going out - she was working for what was Southland Corporation then wearing, like, a little freezer suit that would protect her, and she would pack lunch meat. And so she said, take three months off and write, but when I come home, you better have something written. And so when she went to work, I didn't know any better so I wrote one short story every day for 90 days, and they were all awful.

But it got all the junk out of my system - or at least, a lot of it - and it taught me a lot of things about stories. I think I actually sold four or five of them a few years later, but we had a ritualistic burning of most of them when we moved to Nacogdoches. And by that time, I was selling more stories and, you know, things were picking up. But I think, you know, having a writer's club can help but I also think it can hinder, too, and you start to write for the pleasure of other people. I always try to write like everybody I know is dead - because if I start trying to write for Uncle Bill and Aunt Willie and I wonder if Mom's going to be offended then I'm not going to write straight out, I'm not going to write what's in my - mine to write or what's in my heart to write. So I do that. Then when I get through, I hope those same people have reappeared and want to buy the book or want to buy the story. But I can't do that when I'm writing because it makes you self-conscious. And that's a serious thing I learned along with that 90 days is write - write a lot. Read all the time, and don't worry about what other people think because you can't figure it out because everybody's different. That's a foolish - it's a foolish errand.

DAVIES: Joe, thanks so much.

LANSDALE: Well, thank you.

DAVIES: Joe R. Lansdale's new book is "Honky Tonk Samurai." The Sundance channel's series based on his characters, Hap and Leonard, premieres next Wednesday. Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on the spelling of words in French and English and what it tells us about our cultures. This is FRESH AIR.

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