“Knowing You’re Good: Joe R. Lansdale on Elmore Leonard” by Andrew J. Rausch

[Leonard] always approached what he did with class. He believed in what he did. He knew he was good, and you have to know you’re good. That’s not the same thing as being immodest. But you don’t jump out of a plane if you’ve never packed a parachute.

Joe R. Lansdale has written nearly fifty novels and thirty short story collections in a variety of genres, including Western, horror, suspense, crime, and science fiction. He has also written chapbooks, comic book adaptations, and worked on Batman: The Animated Series (1992). Lansdale is perhaps best known for his offbeat Bram Stoker Award nominated novella Bubba Ho-Tep (1994). The novella, which depicts Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy battling an undead mummy in a nursing home, was later adapted into a successful film by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm (1979) fame.

Despite working in a number of genres, Lansdale has proven himself a master of the crime genre. He is the author of the bestselling Hap and Leonard series, which (to date) includes thirteen novels (including a mosaic novel), five novellas, and four short story collections. The crime series, which focuses on the exploits of best friends and private investigators Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, was adapted into the popular Sundance television series starring James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams. Other noted Lansdale crime novels include Cold in July (1989), Freezer Burn (1999), and More Better Deals (2020).

Lansdale has won an impressive ten Bram Stoker Awards and has been nominated for another nine. He has also received the American Mystery Award, the Horror Critics Award, and the “Shot in the Dark” International Crime Writers Award. In 2011, he received the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement and in 2012 he was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. He has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award eleven times.

Similar to Leonard, Lansdale has written both crime and Western novels and writes fantastic dialogue.

ANDREW RAUSCH: Do you remember the first Elmore Leonard book that you read?

JOE R. LANSDALE: The very first book I remember reading by him was Hombre (1961). I read that and I thought, oh my god, this is not like so many of the little paperback Westerns I had been reading. This is a novel and it’s unique. It certainly feels like a Western, but it feels like something bigger. It really caught me in a way that made me think differently. He and Brian Garfield did that. Garfield wrote a lot of Westerns that were under pen names or quickie Westerns, but he also wrote these really great Westerns like Wild Times (1978) and so on. So between the two of them, I began to look at Westerns differently. Then I went out and read about Valdez Is Coming (1970), and I thought, “Wow, something unique is going on here!” Then I read Forty Lashes Less One, (1972). I read every Western he had done. Then I jumped over to the crime novels. I believe the first crime novel I ever read by him was Mr. Majestyk (1974). And I loved it! I still think it’s kind of underrated because it’s such a simple novel. It’s about a melon farmer who wants to get his watermelons to market and that starts the whole ball rolling. I loved it!

I love a lot of the things in the Leonard novels. One aspect that I really love is that a lot of his novels are generally about little people with little dreams that seem magnificent to them. That’s what they want. They want these little things that are important to them because of where they are on the food chain, so to speak. So I jumped from reading that one to reading just everything. 52 Pickup (1974)… Every novel that he had written, really, but I remember 52 Pick-up in particular; how pleased I was with that; how surprised I was with that. That was one of those where a guy actually had money. Rich, industrious, but he was still a blue-collar guy. That was interesting to me because that was the people I knew. City Primeval (1980), which was also called High Noon in Detroit. To me, this was a guy whose uniqueness in dialogue seemed to be influenced by George Higgins, who is one of my favorite dialogue writers. I know this for a fact, actually, because I met Dutch’s son, Peter, recently and he mentioned that. I agree with that one hundred percent that George and his dad wrote fantastic dialogue. That was an influence on me, too, you know. Aside from just reading those books and enjoying them immensely, I come back to the other real reason the stuff hung me up was just the stuff I said before about little people with little dreams. I’ve always thought those were sometimes far more interesting to me than the guy that’s going to rob Fort Knox. I kind of like the idea of the guys that are gonna rob the beauty parlor. That’s what interests me.

Leonard never wrote “bad guy” protagonists as bad guys. They were just regular people who called their moms, paid their bills, and also robbed liquor stores.

It’s one of those things, and I may feel a little bit different than he does here, but it’s one of those things that you can’t look at them as bad guys because everybody’s the hero of their own story. What I think is interesting is that those bad guys are bad guys, because no matter what they do, they still step over the line that is socially acceptable. Eventually they become bad guys in the general sense, but what I thought he meant was they weren’t evil in the classic sort of mustache-twirling way. They had complex lives and, like you said, they called their moms and they had to worry about about what they were going to be having for lunch next week and so on and so on… So what I thought he did was he did people. And some of those people chose the wrong path, some chose the better path. But in the end, they were all just people.

I thought that one of his unique abilities was his ability to show that a lot of these characters, like the character in Out of Sight (1996) that’s a thief, were people. Or like Rum Punch (1992), which became Jackie Brown (1997), which is a great film that I loved because it really is like an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s so much like that book. The idea was this simple thing: Jackie was trying to make a little money, but she chose a bad way to do it. But she wasn’t what you would call a giant mastermind, deadly criminal. She wasn’t a Hannibal Lecter or anything. She was just this one person that stepped over the line, and that made her a criminal, but she still had these very human aspects, like everybody does. And even with Ordell, here was a guy just living the American dream, only his American dream was a little different from what other people thought. And that made it even a little more frightening in its own way, but it made him interesting. It made him unique. But I never felt like I wanted to be those guys. It felt like I was on the outside looking in a little bit.

I love those books, and I love the way he approached those books. I have to say he was one of my favorite writers of all time.

One aspect that I really love is that a lot of his novels are generally about little people with little dreams that seem magnificent to them. That’s what they want. They want these little things that are important to them because of where they are on the food chain, so to speak.

His characters like, say, Ordell Robbie, are capable of extreme violence, but they’re also funny and clever in an everyday “they don’t know they’re funny” kind of way. And then that humor is punctuated by the violence that often rears its head rather abruptly.

That’s a technique I’ve always admired and have used a lot myself. The thing is, the funniest stuff is when the people in it don’t know it’s funny. Mark Twain once said, “There’s no humor in heaven,” meaning just about everything that’s humorous is generally based on somebody’s embarrassment, discomfort, or pain. And when you really think about it, that’s true. Humor is based on the negative sides. People say, “How do you balance humor and horror?” They’re not that far apart. They’re pretty much the same thing a lot of the time. It’s how you look at it and how you lay it out. I think that these guys, when they’re having these things happen to them, it’s damn sure not funny to them. But to an observer, it is funny.

There are some similarities between your writing style and Leonard’s. You both write different things, but there are similarities. You both have wild characters, snappy dialogue, a mixture of humor and violence. Sometimes the humor is used to make the violence more shocking. Do you consider him an influence?

I think I was already doing some of those things, but I think he taught me how to do them better. Robert Bloch was a big influence on me early on. Robert Bloch wrote Psycho (1959) and all these great short stories. I got to meet Bob and we came to be friends, at least kind of in a more general way. We were on our way to being much closer friends, but then he got ill and died. But I’d see him at conventions, and it got to where we knew each other and we would talk. I bought a story from him, with my friend, Rick Claw, for Weird Business (1995), which was a comic book version of stories by a variety of writers. We exchanged a lot of postcards and things like that. He was a very funny guy who frequently wrote about very dark subjects. He wrote a lot of classic short stories. I re-read his short stories from time to time. So he was the guy who probably taught me that as much as anybody.

Prior to him, it was Mark Twain. Mark Twain did that. If you read [The Adventures of] Huckleberry Finn (1884), some of that stuff is so funny, but it’s so damn dark. There’s always been that chain of writers. There was Twain, there was Bloch, and Fred Brown… there’s a ton of them that I could name, but the ones I mentioned were the big influences on that. When I got to Elmore Leonard, I think it sort of solidified that with me. I felt like he was a kindred soul who was there ahead of me and could sure teach me some tricks. So I tried to learn them.

Elmore Leonard tended to write about locales he was familiar with. Detroit and Miami most of the time. Since most of your stories take place in East Texas, is that something you find kinship with him in? Does that play into the reasons why you like his work?

I’m sure it did. I never really thought about it that way, but I always felt that he knew the places of which he spoke. I don’t have a hundred percent career of just writing about east Texas, but ninety-eight percent career is what I would say. That’s the place I know. It’s the people I know. I know how they talk. That’s the thing, too—if you don’t pay attention and you read [George V.] Higgins or you read Leonard or maybe even me, you think, “Oh, they’ve all got the same kind of thing.” No, they don’t! We all have a kind of dialogue that’s natural and designed to represent the way most people really talk. At least, we give the illusion of how most people really talk. There is a difference because those locales do come out. If you look, they’re very identifiable from the way the dialogue is written.

A technique I’ve always admired and have used a lot myself…the funniest stuff is when the people in it don’t know it’s funny.

Today every writer is aware of Leonard’s “10 Rules for Writing.” The primary rule everyone always talks about is “leave out the things readers skip.” You seem to write along those same lines. Why do you think it is that writers often believe they have to overwrite? Are six pages describing the room ever really needed?

We have a society in which more is more, instead of less is more. I think that has a lot to do with the nature of the writer too. There are some writers, like Faulkner, whom I really like. He was a really rich and ripe writer, and I would say he overwrote sometimes. He did a lot of stream of consciousness, which is something I’ve learned a lot from. I use it frequently. He was just a very different kind of writer.

I like Leonard’s rules, but I’m not a big rule follower. I tend to agree with a lot of them. One I do disagree with is, I write about weather. Twain always said he didn’t, but then he does. Huckleberry Finn has a flood in it. It’s there. But I do think that most people don’t write weather well. Probably James Lee Burke is one of the best examples of somebody who does it very well. I like to believe I do it quite well. And the weather for me is representational of the characters to some extent, but it also gets back to that question you asked earlier about writing where you’re from. And where I’m from, weather is a constant. It changes a lot. It could be hot in the day, and then all of a sudden comes a giant rainstorm or a tornado; the weather can change dramatically in one day. Certainly, it can change through the seasons. We’ve got a lot of rain in East Texas. It’s not a dry place by any means. In fact, it’s more like Louisiana. It’s tropical.

The first half of the Hap and Leonard show—the first season was filmed in Baton Rouge, and that looks like East Texas. There are certain aspects of it that are different, for sure. There are certain kinds of trees here and there that are different. But Louisiana and East Texas are just a line in the dirt. As far as the way they look, we have a sort of tropical environment. To me, the weather one I don’t agree with unless you do poor weather. Just saying “it rained”… that’s not necessarily a good thing. And you can strip that stuff down so much. Like, there’s a writer called Paul Cain who wrote Fast One (1949) and Seven Slayers (1955), and I thought his work was so dull because it was so flat and nothing but “This is what happened next. He got out of the car and walked down the street.” But Elmore Leonard’s work—it changed dramatically, I think, around the time of Glitz (1985)—Elmore Leonard’s work has a kind of muscular poetry. I’m one of those who like his work straight across the board, but I actually like the works before Glitz better. I think that he became a lot more mannered as time went on. Like Ray Bradbury became a lot more mannered. Like Ernest Hemingway became a lot more mannered. But that didn’t mean they were bad, it just meant it was different. I loved all of his works, but I really liked it before it was quite so mannered.

The rules that he has I think are flexible, I think, because even he didn’t follow them completely. If you look at some of my early work, and I know this is true with some of his early work, we use things besides said. Both of us were very much “you use said and you move on.” Use said and that’s it. I’m still very much that way. In my early work and Leonard’s early work, we both tried different things. There was a book [Charlie Martz and Other Stories: The Unpublished Stories, 2015] that his son edited and had published of his early work, and you can see he used things like replied, and that’s because we were learning from pulp models. You learn as you go. Hemingway taught me a lot about how to write in a lean manner. I think that he’s less interesting in some ways than someone like Leonard, who had a more humorous and poetic side. But Hemingway is kind of the king and the most influential writer of the 20th century. And he’s certainly had an influence on the 21st century by people who don’t even know Hemingway’s work, but they’re getting it through other people. I’d say Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James Cain are some others.

Do you have a favorite Elmore Leonard novel? Is there one that stands out for you?

Hombre. I’ve read it several times. It’s my favorite. People always ask, “What do you like better—crime, Western, horror?” I don’t know. It depends. But I do think sometimes I lean towards the Western. I like the stripped down situations that Westerns allow and the lack of technological involvement and things like that. That may have something to do with it. But I think it’s just such a straightforward and yet powerful tale. I like the film based on it, too. I’ve watched that film I don’t know how many times. It’s very much like the book. I think that would be my choice for the Leonard novels.

If I had to pick one after that, I’d probably pick 52 Pickup or City Primeval.

You mentioned the film Hombre. What are some of the other films you like the most that are based on Leonard’s work, and what would you say are the films you like the least?

I like Hombre the best. That’s the one I really, really like. After that, probably Jackie Brown, I think. I would put that novel, Rum Punch, high on my list as well. I think Jackie Brown comes close to being a perfect film. It’s my favorite Tarantino film, and I guess it’s his first three or four films that I like best. That one I love, and I think it is because it’s more Elmore Leonard than maybe Quentin Tarantino. Not a slug on him, but it’s just to say I’m already an Elmore Leonard fan, so here’s a guy who’s doing it right.

I think the problem with adaptations a lot of times is [that] people feel the absolute need to change everything. And though there are certainly changes, that’s pretty much the book. And you can watch it over and over, just like with Hombre. That’s one of the reasons why I like those films—they’re highly re-watchable. Some of the others, not so much.

As far as least… He was done badly several times. There was one that was filmed twice. The Big Bounce (1969, 2004). Not one of my favorite books of his, anyway, but I think the two film versions of it are just dreadful.

Are there any Elmore Leonard novels that don’t resonate with you very much?

I like all of his novels on some level. And my least favorite Elmore Leonard is better than most people’s best novel. You’re judging it from a different level. There’s another one called The Hunted (1977) that didn’t hit me quite as hard. I enjoyed it, it was just less memorable for me. I like all of his books. That’s one of the things I can’t say about everybody. I’ve never read a Leonard book that I actually disliked.

Leonard wrote for decades before truly breaking out and becoming recognized at the level he is now. He had successes but didn’t really explode until the Eighties and then even more in the Nineties. As a writer who’s written for decades yourself and has slowly received more and more attention, is this an aspect of Leonard’s career that is of interest to you?

I relate to it. I sure do. I don’t know why that’s true of his career, and my own career I honestly don’t know why either. But I have to say that I’ve really liked it a lot being just that way because you stay new longer. You stay fresh longer because you’re constantly rediscovered, you’re constantly built up, you’re constantly stacked up. I’m probably better known now and doing better work and getting more recognition now than when I was first making a splash in the Eighties. I made a little splash then and I certainly had a following and that thing built and built. People still call me a “cult writer.” I’m a big damn cult. I’m happy for that, but it’s really nice in a way to just be one of those writers that keeps on coming. I love the fact that I’ve become a respected writer and an influential writer for some people, and someone who’s even been imitated to some degree. I do see that connection, and I understand that for him it might not have been good or it may have been good. I don’t know. But for me, it’s been wonderful that way. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Are there any other aspects of Elmore Leonard’s career that you find inspirational or that speak to you regarding your own work or career?

I didn’t know Leonard personally, although I did meet him. I was on a panel with him once in Scottsdale or Phoenix—I forget exactly where—and we were on a film panel. He said, “You’re the only one up there who knows what he’s talking about.” I thought, “Wow! That’s great! Elmore Leonard!” And I have a postcard from him somewhere. That’s the extent of it. And it was complimenting my writing. He put three sentences of my story I’d written, and I thought that was great. Outside of that, I hadn’t really had any contact with him.

What I always observed from the outside, and I didn’t know the inside, was that he always approached what he did with class. He believed in what he did. He knew he was good, and you have to know you’re good. That’s not the same thing as being immodest. But you don’t jump out of a plane if you’ve never packed a parachute. That’s not the way you do it. He knew he was good, and he knew he had earned his place. Those things I admired about him. But he was not immodest. He was somebody that had class. He was somebody that you aspired to be, at least in how you presented yourself to the public. I think I did learn from that. I’d like to think I was already trying to move into being that kind of person anyway, but certainly, he’s a great example.

The above was excerpted from Perspectives on Elmore Leonard: Conversations with Authors, Experts and Collaborators by Andrew J. Rausch (McFarland, 2022).

Andrew J. Rausch is the author of more than 40 books, including Hell To Pay: Diggy and Stick Book One (Down & Out Books, March 14, 2022) and the forthcoming Conversations with Joe R. Lansdale (co-edited by Mark Slade, University Press of Mississippi, Fall 2022). A contributor to numerous film publications and an editor at Diabolique magazine, he lives in Independence, Kansas.

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