Lansdale has written novels and stories in many genres, including Western, horror, science fiction, mystery, and suspense. He has also written for comics as well as Batman: The Animated Series. He has written 45 novels and published 30 short story collections along with many chapbooks and comic book adaptations. Several of his novels have been adapted to film. He is ranked at #16 of the worlds best horror writers.
I invited Joe to answer a set of questions that would hopefully both enlighten and inspire struggling authors. In my experience with him, he has been a true gentleman. Ladies and gentleman, allow me to introduce…Mr Joe R. Lansdale.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
At four I started trying to write comics and draw the characters, and pretty soon I realized I liked story better. The first thing I ever wrote that I consider complete was when I was nine, and it wasn’t a comic. And nine was when I truly believe I knew I had to be a writer. I didn’t know when or how, or what I would do in-between, but by that point, I knew that was it. I was going to write.
How long does it take you to write a book?
As long as it takes is the old adage, and it’s correct. For me, it depends. I’ve written some in a few weeks, and it’s taken me a year to write others. There are some I’ve written in parts over the years, a little here, a little there. Three to six months is not unusual, however.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I don’t believe in it for me. I can’t speak for other people.
What did you do with your first advance?
I think we put it in the bank and paid bills. I don’t think there was significant purchase.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I don’t have a solid answer to that, but probably THEY DON’T DANCE MUCH, by James Ross
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Yes. But I don’t get worked up about them. I used the good ones for promotion. Good or bad, you believe one, you have to believe the other, so if you see something that makes you feel good, great, but I never feel bad if I get a bad one. If there is something I can learn from it, I do, but that’s for the future. The book being reviewed is done. I suppose if I only got bad reviews they might be more important to me.
When did you write your first book and how old were you?
I was very young, and I’m pretty sure it was a book of fairy tales, but I don’t know for sure. I know that I read THE JUNGLE BOOK fairly young, and that really made my head spin, and from that point on I began to notice the authors who wrote the books. I was also led to many great novels by CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, which were comics based on great literature. Man, they were fine and led me on all manner of exciting literary paths.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I do martial arts, but as I age I only teach a private class once a week. I also have a lot of injuries from over the years. But I do that and I read a lot and watch movies, or TV showed that I like. I spend a lot of time with my family. I really do have the perfect life.
What does your family think of your writing?
My wife has always been my main supporter, and we have written a couple stories together and co-edited an anthology way back. She runs the business at home, manages money, etc. My daughter is a singer/songwriter, as well as a writer, as well as a reader of audio books, and she’s in a lot of commercials. Her music pops up in TV and movies and radio drama from time to time. So, she gets it. So does my son. He works as a dispatcher here for 911, as my wife once did before she went to work for me full-time back in 1988. Keith also writes graphic novels, film scripts. He’s getting a lot more involved in it. So they all understand. They all get it.
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
From time to time.
How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
I don’t know exactly. Forty-five is probably a close number. I like them all in one way or another. My first, ACT OF LOVE, has dated, and it was an apprenticeship novel, but I like them all as much as you can like them all. I always think something I’ve written could have been better. I guess my favorite is PARADISE SKY. My most acclaimed is THE BOTTOMS. I should also mention EDGE OF DARK WATER.
Do you have any suggestions to help anyone become a better writer? If so, what are they?
Pretty simple. Read. A lot. And not just the area where you want to write. Besides, you do that, you’ll burn out as both reader and writer. Read all manner of things, dip into the classics. They have maintained for a reason. If you want to write film, study it. TV? Study it.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kind of things do they say?
Frequently. Most are positive responses. I hear from them in letters, emails, Facebook Fan Page, through my website, sometimes they call. My house phone is in the phone book. My cell isn’t.
What do you think makes a good story?
A passion to discover what happens next, but it really is about the writer’s presentation, how the writer presents the story. Style would be important. I like to discover my stories as I write. I’m not good and sitting down and plotting. I can do it with collaborations, but I don’t like it. I like finding out every morning what is about to happen.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
What’s the first book that terrified you?
A collection of stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The first book that really made my skin crawl was probably DRACULA.
Have you ever read a book that made you cry?
Oh, hell yeah. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is one. It’s my favorite novel.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Waiting for inspiration. You are your own inspiration. Sit down and write. I normally work about three hours a day. But even fifteen minutes here and there is better than not working. Inspiration has a way of showing up when you do.
What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
Publishing is reasonably ethical. I guess it’s the editors or agents, as they call themselves, that offer to fix your book for you for a fee. That’s a racket. Avoid it. Learn by failure. Be vetted. Don’t write something and rush out and publish it yourself.
Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
I wouldn’t give you five cents for someone without an ego, but I wouldn’t give you anything for someone who is egotistical. They are not the same thing. One is confidence, the other is narcissism. You have to believe in yourself, but not blindly.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
No. But now and again I have a period where I don’t read as much. I read fiction and non-fiction, and there have been a few times when I just felt overloaded and took off and watched movies, or TV series for a day or two, and then I’m pretty ready to go back to reading. I think this often comes with trying to read the same type of fiction, looking for the same experience instead of a new experience. I have a lot of books in a lot of categories, so I scout around. I go through periods where I’m not in love with some of what I’m reading, but that’s the way it goes. Then I have times when every book I pick up sets me on fire. Some of that might be mood, but a lot of it is luck of the draw. I also like to read what I want to read. I don’t like it when I’m sent books and then plagued about reading them. I try and read a few books a year for potential quotes. But I don’t want reading to become a job. I do it because I love it. And yeah, I guess it is part of the job, but it and writing shouldn’t feel like it.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I have written under a few. Enough said.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Andrew Vachss. Chet Williamson. Bill Crider. Lewis Shiner. George R.R. Martin. David Morrell. Nancy Collins. This list could get long. The main thing I think we all try and learn from one another is a feeling of community. We have all formed who we are as writers, and that part is nice. I am not really someone who has to hang out with writers all the time, but these folks are important to me, even if I don’t see all of them regularly. Lewis Shiner and I burn up the email. We used to do that with letters. There are others, but I’m sure I’ll leave someone out even if I keep adding. Bill Nolan I have learned a lot from due to conversations over the years. Ray Bradbury I only met, but his work has taught me a lot. Richard Matheson, who I knew a little. Philip Jose Farmer and Robert Bloch I knew a little. I have also learned from other friends in other businesses. Bill Paxton knew the film business, and he had a good mind for story. We used to talk about story and film a lot. I felt I learned a lot from him about film, directing, but all of it circles back to story.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Save more money.