Joe R. Lansdale has been doing big things for a lot of years now (he published his first novel, Act of Love, way back in 1981), and yet somehow it seems like he’s doing even bigger things now. The prolific author, best known for novels like Cold in July, The Bottoms, the novella Bubba Ho-Tep, and his popular Hap and Leonard series (the basis for the Sundance Channel TV show), has been writing professionally and publishing since the 1970s. He has penned nearly fifty novels and thirty short story collections. He’s always been popular, but he didn’t burst out of the gates with a major success like Stephen King. He just kept plugging away, year after year, writing and publishing, steadily developing a massive cult following. And now he, like Elmore Leonard (of whom he’s a fan), has finally broken through and become a prominent mainstream success after having written for five decades.
Despite having found success in virtually every aspect of writing, from scripts to short stories to novels to comic books, and having won a significant number of prestigious awards, Lansdale remains the same “aw shucks” down-to-earth guy he’s always been. He makes time for fans at signings, continues to write for the occasional small publication or publisher, and is known for sharing his hard-earned wisdom with less-experienced writers. The reason for all this is simple: Lansdale spent so many years toiling in the literary trenches that he still sees himself as one of the common folk. If you ask him about his success, he shrugs off comparisons to the “big name” authors. He never wanted to be a celebrity. Ask him about this and he will share the tried-and-true sentiment of his late friend Bill Paxton, saying all he ever wanted was “a place at the table.” Lansdale has money, but he isn’t J.K. Rowling rich. And that suits him just fine. He gets paid well to do the thing he enjoys most. He’s already achieved more than he ever believed he would, and for that he remains grateful.
Today there seem to be new opportunities around every corner. Among them are having two episodes of the new David Fincher/Tim Miller Netflix series Love, Death & Robots adapted from his stories (“Fish Night” and “The Dump”), having an episode of Greg Nicotero’s forthcoming Creepshow series adapted from another (“The Companion”), and several potential film projects, one of which he hopes to direct. And then there are those pesky questions regarding the future of the Hap and Leonard television series…
Were you a fan of the original George Romero Creepshow?
Yeah, I liked that. At the time, I thought it was grim, so I enjoyed that. My favorite stories from that were “The Crate” and “Father’s Day.” I liked one quite a bit. Those were my favorites.
What was your initial reaction when you first learned that they were making the series?
The way I found out about it, if I remember correctly, is I saw Greg Nicotero in Burbank at one of my signings. He may have mentioned it there, or it may have been his manager who told me. Anyway, one of them told me about it and mentioned they might want me to do a script for it. That was the original plan, but that changed. I had a friend named Matt Venne who had, many years ago, tried to adapt the story “The Companion.” That’s a story I wrote with my kids, Keith and Kasey. I don’t remember the details of why it didn’t happen, but that deal didn’t occur. As much as I thought I’d love to do a script, when Matt said, “Hey man, what do you think about me doing this?,” I thought, well, this way if they’re interested my family gets in and one of my friends gets in, too. And that’s what happened.
I’m very pleased with Matt’s script. I haven’t seen the episode yet, but Matt went to the set and was able to see it, and he says high things about it, so I’m hoping for the best. And I love Greg. I’ve known him for a long time; long before he was doing Walking Dead. I’m happy for him and all the success he’s had.
The other writers announced for season one include Stephen King, Joe Hill, and Josh Malerman, who’s hot right now. You’re in good company.
I love it! I’ve been around a long time. I have an extremely varied career, so I’m not just known for one thing. I always love it when any one of those branches identifies me. I never feel like I’m a horror writer or a mystery writer or a crime writer. I’m all of those things, but I’m not exclusively those things. To be lumped in with such great talent is wonderful.
As you mentioned, you co-wrote the story with your children. That story first appeared in the anthology Great Writers and Kids Write Spooky Stories. What do you remember about that experience?
The people doing the anthology came to me and asked, “Do you think your kids will want to do that?” I said, “Let me check.” I asked them and they were ecstatic about it. I said, “Look, here’s a basic idea I’ve got, and you guys can write it. I can help polish it. My son at the time was tweleve. My daughter was eight. My son already had a pretty good way of handling words, so he kind of put the story together. Then Kasey would say, “No, we need this to happen and this to happen…” I just stood there like a hockey goalie, and I’d knock them back into play when they got too far out. And then when they got finished, I typed it up for them. I helped with some of the logic problems. Then when we were done, Kasey put some stuff in there that she really liked. We sent it in and they wrote back, “We love this, but some of these things are too intense for younger readers.” They were some of the scenes Kasey did. In one of them, someone was hanged in the scene. I went to her and said, “They feel like because they’re kids they’re going to have to take the scene out. I could tell she was a little dejected. She hung her head. “Well, shit, it’s just not the same!” [Laughs.] I’ve never forgotten that. She’d probably learned it from me! But they didn’t use that scene. The story came out well. It’s the kind of story that strikes me as something perfect for Creepshow. I’m interested to see the adaptation myself.
Does having worked on the story with Kasey and Keith make this adaptation more special for you?
Yes, it does. Keith, Kasey, and I have gone on to do other things together. We’ve sold screenplays and articles and fictions and things like that. We’ve done that. But to have what was essentially their first story at ages eight and twelve be adapted is pretty special. People always ask, “How much of it did they do?” They did a lot! They’re kind of precocious children, to be honest. I know everybody thinks that, but mine really are. We all got this opportunity where we got to make something together and now we get to see it made into a television show. And not only that, but a show based on an old movie that I liked. It was something the kids saw when they were young, too.
And you wrote two episodes for the new Netflix series Love, Death & Robots.
I did. I wrote “Fish Night” and “The Dump.”
What has that experience been like?
Tim Miller contacted my agent. He was interested in those two stories. I was out in Los Angeles at the time, and Kasey and I went over to visit with him at Blur Studios. He’s a really nice guy! Just an incredibly nice guy. Well-read in the science fiction and fantasy/horror field. He was not just a guy saying he’s gonna make this up. He’s a guy that really is a fan and is very well-versed. We had a great time talking about writers and stories. He showed Kasey and I some of the animation they were doing, and I knew I wanted to be part of that. So we made the deal. I’ve been very, very pleased. He’s been a great guy, keeping me in the loop. I’m excited about it! I’ve seen ‘em, and I love ’em both. They’re very good.
Writers always ask, “What do you think about these things?” If I really like something, I’ll tell you. As a writer, you always think, well, I wish they had done this or I wish they had done that… Because there are certain things you feel get lost in translation. I’m really pleased with these two episodes. I have probably, so far, had the most unique career regarding that. All the adaptations that have been done in a major way, I’ve been very pleased with! Bubba Ho-Tep, Cold in July, “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” from the Masters of Horror series, these two stories that were done for Love, Death & Robots, as well as the Batman animated scripts I wrote… They’ve all been handled well. I’m really a fortunate guy as far as adaptations go! I always say the next thing that’s going to happen is the big shoe is going to drop and then “God, I hate this one.” But so far, so good.
The series was created by Tim Miller and produced by David Fincher. Those are big names to be next to. What is it like to have your work recognized by talents such as those?
It’s pleasing. You love doing that. I’ve been doing it so long that I’m rarely starstruck, I think. But I am talent struck, which is a different thing. Tim is just an amazing talent, and Blur Studios is absolutely unique. It’s the best! I love that guy and I love all of his animators and what everybody who works there is doing. It’s impressive. It feels good, you know? Fincher, I never met, so I don’t really have any actual relationship with him. He’s somebody that’s talented in the business, and it’s great seeing him get behind a project like this.
Is there any talk of further collaborations if the series moves forward?
I think if they’re renewed, they might consider something else. I really don’t know. That’s going to be entirely up to them when they’re ready to move forward. I kind of hope they do. That’d be fun.
James Purefoy and I wrote each other the day we knew it was cancelled, and we both said we’re not sad; we were happy we had three great seasons. I’ve got that, and I can go to my grave with three great seasons of probably my most famous characters.
Speaking of Netflix, a lot of fans have been hoping Hap and Leonard might be revived by them or another outlet. Do you see any hope for that?
I really don’t, mostly because it hasn’t been renewed at this point. I don’t think it looks good. The other thing, James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams, the main characters, on top of the periphery characters, as well as peripheral characters, have gone on to get other jobs and move on. James loved his character and would have loved to keep doing it. I don’t know everybody else. I think if they had renewed it at the time, yeah, we would’ve had those seasons. If somebody wants to come in now and it can be arranged, I’d be all for it. James Purefoy and I wrote each other the day we knew it was cancelled, and we both said we’re not sad; we were happy we had three great seasons. I’ve got that, and I can go to my grave with three great seasons of probably my most famous characters.
They both did such great jobs in those roles.
You never know. When people first named them, I thought, well, these are two great actors! I was a big fan of both of them already. I was excited about that. Then Christina Hendricks was in the first season, and I’m getting all these great character actors. Neil Sandilands and Jeff Pope. It just went on and on. Everybody there. All of those people were just unique talents. I felt very, very pleased that they came in.
The thing is, you don’t know until they do it. When I started seeing them play the parts, I saw the transformations. I saw how hard James worked to get an accent that was going to sell. I was very, very pleased with how they inhabited the characters. James just became Hap Collins. I think because we have a lot in common, and the character was based on me. We were both country boys. He’s a British country boy, but we’re both country boys. We both grew up in small towns. We knew a lot of the kinds of people that appeared in the Hap and Leonard series. I’m not talking about the murderous and dark side, but the kind of everyday people that make up rural life. He came into it with that. He was willed to try to look at those kinds of characters and the area where they existed. I was just so pleased. Mike, too! But I knew James a little bit better. We communicated a little more frequently. I’m very, very pleased with it, and if they were to renew it tomorrow, I’d love to see those guys come back. Who knows in the future? Maybe it’ll be renewed with totally different actors and a different network and so on.
I read that the first novel, Savage Season, was optioned for film. Is that correct?
It was. The script was done. I loved it! The original version, that is. It was optioned by John Badham. The script was by a guy named Steve Katz. There’s more than one guy who works in the field with that name. This guy, I think he quit writing screenplays, but he sold it to John and it looked great! It was just like a novel. And then what happened, as time went on, they started getting cold feet, they started changing more like every damn thing else that was out there. Then I was glad it died. Later on, I wrote a script for Two Bear Mambo that was lost through the ages. It was over at Propaganda Films, which fell apart, so the whole deal fell apart. I don’t even know if that script is still in existence. Later on, they optioned Savage Season again, and this time I wrote the script. I thought I did a very good script on it, but they weren’t able to get traction as a film. My friend, Lowell Northrop, who was one of the people, had a partner who had optioned that particular novel and started pushing it as a TV show. He’s one of the guys that gets pushed out of the talk, but there would be no Hap and Leonard show without Lowell Northrop. He’s listed as a co-executive producer, as I am, which is accurate. He really is the main guy, because in a way, if he hadn’t done that then Jim and Nick would not have had that connection. Although, they were interested in it independently. All of that works together, and I’ve always thought Lowell deserved more credit than he got.
Do you have any other film or TV adaptations coming up?
I have some things I can’t talk about, but I will say there’s a lot of interest in TV shows as well as some films. One that I can talk about is The Thicket, which was optioned by Peter Dinklage. He’s had that for several years now. Ever since it came out, pretty much. Now there’s a director named Elliott Lester attached. We’re hopeful that that’ll go before the camera. We’ll see.
Edge of Dark Water is still optioned. And “The Projectionist,” which I wrote for Lawrence Block’s anthology In Sunlight or in Shadow is under option. My son wrote the screenplay for that, and I’m supposed to direct it if it gets made. That would be a different thing for me to do. People always say, “Oh my god, you’re going to become a director now?” No. I’m a writer first. But I also like films and I’m interested in that aspect of it, that side of it, or have become so since the 80s. I’d like to give that a spin. I wouldn’t say it so cavalier if I had not thought about it, studied it, and been ready to do it.
That would be fascinating. And who in their right mind would pass on that? Your success have provided you with opportunities to do other things, so why not go for them?
I don’t know yet that I will get that opportunity, but I’m hopeful. I’ve had a great schooling. I had Don Coscarelli with Bubba Ho-Tep. I got to be on set, watch him, listen to him. And then you learn from actors. I’ve learned a lot just from Bruce Campbell, just in an offhand way. Not just observing, but in things he said. He gave me a piece of directing advice, and I laughed when I heard it, but he’s essentially correct. He said, “Always make sure everybody’s in the same movie.” I thought, ah! That is good advice. Jim Mickle, who wrote the script for Cold In July, told me, “If you’ve gotta shoot something, you have to be able to get to the other end comfortably and then shoot it from the other angle.” Meaning, if you have a couch against a wall and you want to shoot that shot, you might not be able to get that shot you want. Or at least not easily. I understood the general advice he gave me. Then Bill Paxton and I were friends, and Bill was supposed to direct The Bottoms. Unfortunately he died. I learned a tremendous amount from him. Seeing Frailty and listening to him talk to me about directing and what his plans were for The Bottoms, I learned a lot.
Then there was a little movie done here called Christmas with the Dead, based on a short story of mine. A real small budget. My friend always hates it when I say it, but I think it’s a Roger Corman-style film that Terrill Lee Lankford directed. I probably learned more from him than anybody, because he knew a little bit about all the aspects of film. And because I was helping produce it, I was there and was privy to a lot of conversations about it. I did a little editing and different things like that. I had to be a minor jack of all trades, although I didn’t do much in comparison to what others did. But by being there with them and watching them, and by doing the little bits that I did do, I think I probably learned more about film from that little low-budget basement film than I did from anyone else.