Novelist Joe Lansdale is the Stephen King of East Texas

NACOGDOCHES – A 50-year-old sky-blue Volkswagen Beetle pulls up in the middle of Fredonia Street. The white-haired occupant of the car walks away from the car and says to a man on the sidewalk, “Are you Joe Lansdale?

The author smiles and nods. “I like your handwriting,” the driver says, then gets back into the car and disappears like that.

“It’s always nice when someone takes the time to say something like that,” Lansdale says. “The only thing that could ruin a moment like this is if a car crashed into it.”

Lansdale pauses. “Well, that would have ruined the moment, but it could have made for a more interesting story.”

For almost 70 years, Lansdale has considered, studied, practiced, refined and mastered the architecture of storytelling. His work bears witness to this: he has written and published nearly 50 novels, dozens of short stories, short stories, chapbooks, several screenplays for film and television, anthologies, comics. His work covers crime and suspense, fantasy and horror, science fiction and westerns.

“He’s really someone you might call a cult writer, but he’s a cult writer with 10 different cults,” says Steve Davis, curator of the Southwestern Writer’s Collection at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. “I don’t think people in Texas quite understand what we have with Joe Lansdale. It is an incredible precious natural resource. I think he will go down in history as one of the great writers. People will look back and think, “Wow, we had this guy here in Texas. “

By Joe R. Lansdale

Mulholland Books

352 pages, $ 28

The Sundance television series “Hap and Leonard” has recently drawn more attention to a crime series that Lansdale has written over the past 30 years. His latest work, however, is not part of a series. “Moon Lake” – released this week – is an independent novel that naturally takes place in East Texas. Where many writers find the open expanse of West Texas enticing, Lansdale has pitched his tent in dense Big Thicket instead. “Moon Lake” incorporates so much of what makes Lansdale’s distant work so good: it tackles old social issues with contemporary resonance; he enters family and corruption with characters so richly presented that they almost come out of the pages; and once again he finds himself writing with unfailing elegance about the things that lurk beneath the surface of a body of water.

“It’s never just water with me,” Lansdale says. “It’s that idea of ​​mystery underneath. Something figurative. I love that. “

‘Dark water’

On a sweltering hot day with no cloud cover, Lansdale moves through historic Nacogdoches in small gusts like a lizard. He points out historic sites and buildings, before leading the way to Boss Light, a space owned by fellow novelist Tim Bryant that sells books, art and music. Lansdale’s headlines command an entire shelf.

Lansdale has been in Nacogdoches for decades. If Stephen King has Maine, Lansdale is East Texas. He’s spent years thinking and conjuring up stories that might be lurking in its dark corners.

The action in “Moon Lake” begins in 1968, when Daniel Russell’s father deliberately drives his car off a bridge in the town of Long Lincoln. Russell is saved by a black man and his daughter and briefly lives with them until he can be placed with an aunt. The story picks up a decade later in New Long Lincoln when Russell’s father’s car is finally found with an additional set of bones in the trunk. It turns out that Moon Lake holds a lot of secrets, including the story of a part of the city that had been occupied by black residents until a dam was built and the neighborhood was left under. water.

Lansdale spent much of 2020 writing the book, tapping into all kinds of sources – some more obvious than others. He remembered that Harper Lee had once described a murderous relationship near his hometown that he remembered. He recalled a report about a person coming out of a bridge. Places like Old Bluffton – an underwater ghost town in Texas – were also on his mind, as was his hometown of Gladewater.

A theme about the house emerges from an evocative opening sentence: “My name is Daniel Russell. I dream of dark water.

What is hiding underneath

“My mom always told me that if I didn’t get an education, I would end up digging ditches,” Lansdale says.

He pauses.

“My first job was to dig ditches.

Lansdale was born and spent most of his childhood in Gladewater. His father, Bud, was a mechanic who could not read or write. Her mother, O’Reta, filled the house with books and magazines. He was first drawn to comics and then to Classics Illustrated, which took books by Dickens and Dostoyevsky turned them into graphic novels long before this phrase had any cultural value. He discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs’ speculative fiction around the age of 10.

“I wanted to be a writer before that, but after reading Burroughs I knew I had to be,” he says. “Of course, I had no idea there was a career in there or anything.”

Lansdale published a few stories in the 1970s. But he had never met another writer until he met Ardath Mayhar, a native of Timpson who had settled in Nacogdoches, where she ran a bookstore. Lansdale had read his story “Crawfish” in an Alfred Hitchcock anthology.

“It was in East Texas and had the East Texas vernacular,” he says. “The background. It changed my life there.

Lansdale looked at what he knew: the people, the places. There is a passage in “Moon Lake” where he describes the sound of a cockroach moving under the wallpaper. It’s as fleeting a moment as it gets: a single sentence in a novel that bears no relation to the plot. But his use of “crackle” to describe sound is instantly baffling.

“It’s pretty terrible,” Lansdale said with a smirk, “when you see the wallpaper move. “

Chaos and order

Lansdale’s biography reads like a movie. Before his books began to sell, he worked as a janitor at Stephen F. Austin University. He never graduated from a degree, but later served as a writer-in-residence there. Bryant is one of his former students.

“He taught me everything I know,” says Bryant.

Lansdale offers an alternative to the quintessential solitary novelist. He radiates energy and presents the character of an enthusiast, be it his friends’ books, his affinity for ZZ Top or the history of his adopted city. He’s quick with a joke, self-mockery – he would be the kind of history teacher the students favored. He is also inducted into two Martial Arts Halls of Fame, the result of 60 years of work to achieve a 10th degree black belt in Shen Chuan Martial Sciences.

Here, her seemingly permanent smile flattens almost imperceptibly. He specifies that he will be 70 years old in October.

“But I can still get you home…”

Lansdale says these two activities – writing and self-defense – don’t act as a counterbalance to each other.

“I think writing and martial arts require a lot of the same thinking,” he says. “When martial arts are done well, it’s creative and spontaneous. This is chaos. They are therefore very similar.

Chaos is the coal that burns in Lansdale’s fiction. He imagines it, lets go and tries to find ways to contain it with words. Despite all his mirth, Lansdale has crafted vivid descriptions of despicable acts, often – but not always – committed by despicable people. He is also not afraid to walk on any terrain. It works as if hot buttons should be pushed rather than avoided.

“You have to admire Joe because he has this independent Texan spirit,” Davis says. “He shamelessly writes about this particular region of Texas with great affection and insight. And no fear either. He is not afraid to offend anyone.

Lansdale once wrote a list of his thoughts on writing. Frankly, he writes, when I write I try to write as if everyone I know is dead. This way I don’t care what people think.

“Moon Lake” finds the author writing again about race and class in East Texas. He returns to the subject frequently in some of his best works such as “The Bottoms” and “A Fine Dark Line”. Even Hap and Leonard, his strange couple of amateur investigators, allow him to work on heavy themes in fast-paced detective novels. Hap is white, a guy who went to jail for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, and someone whose job list mirrors Lansdale’s. Leonard is a gay and black veteran who has no tolerance for homophobia and racism, but has a fairly rigid, conservative sense of justice and decorum.

“You have to be touched by these things if you grow up around them,” Lansdale says. That’s why I feel like John Lewis was right: things are better than they were. To say that they are not seems hopeless. There was a time when a black person couldn’t walk into this bookstore. There have been steps forward, but it is clear that we need more. “

Lansdale finds fiction the best way to comment on such matters. “I make a living being a liar,” he says. “But there is a sort of thing, telling the truth is easier to do in fiction and I think it has more validity. I feel like you can hit the heart of something faster with fiction than non-fiction.

Ditches, ruts and retreat

Lansdale’s description of his workday is like the way he moves around town, just with his fingers doing all the work.

“I’m not one of those people who like to have written,” he says. ” I like to write and to have written. Sometimes I have a bad day, but there hasn’t been a blockage in my life. I do not believe it.

He quotes his friend, writer Stephen Graham Jones, who Lansdale said once asked, “Do ditch diggers get a block from ditch diggers?”

“Maybe they do,” he says. “But I used to dig ditches. I worked in the aluminum chair factory, Imperial American, it was called. I worked as a farmer. I worked for Goodwill Industries. I was a janitor at the university.

“All that writing thing where you crawl on the cross every day, hell with you. Go dig a ditch.

Shortly before leaving his home to offer a short tour of Nacogdoches, Lansdale completed an introduction to a collection of Hap and Leonard short stories and a short story unrelated to this book. It is two-thirds of a new novel. What follows? He has a scenario that he can return to. It could start to push on a new Hap and Leonard novel.

“As usual, I have more things than I can do,” he says. “But it’s good because I can’t imagine retiring. I never want to retire. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever heard of.

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