In a room on the top floor of a large house in the middle of 10 swampy acres in East Texas, Joe Lansdale sits at a small desk, surrounded by his success. Talking over the phone, he explains how one wall holds foreign editions of his many novels, novellas, and story collections, which have been translated into the Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and so on. (Not on display are some of the awards he’s won over the years, which include an Edgar, a Raymond Chandler Lifetime Achievement Award, and 10 Bram Stokers. Only Stephen King has more of the latter, with 13.) With north of a hundred books published, Lansdale uses the remaining three walls of the room to house his English-language editions. Down the hall, a closet in another room holds graphic novels and comic books he’s had a hand in writing—some with his son, Keith.
Lansdale, 68, makes his living defying expectations. He’s genre dextrous, moving fleetly between westerns, mysteries, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, literary fiction, and nonfiction, and doing it all extremely well. The idea for his latest novel, More Better Deals (Mulholland, July), came to him in the early 1980s, when his career was in its infancy. “Used cars salesman, bad guy”: that was all he wrote down.
That Lansdale was able to work off of so little is unsurprising. He’s not one to spend much time sitting in silent contemplation—of his own character or of the characters in his books. “I don’t slice and dice what I’m doing,” he says in a laid-back, high-low Texas drawl that turns single syllables into feasts. “But my subconscious does. All things come from the subconscious. If you learn to let the subconscious rule, it will answer your questions 98% of the time.”
When nothing more came to Lansdale about More Better Deals, aside from the outline of his central character, he ceded responsibility for the story to the ceaseless simmer of the mind beneath the mind. Then, when he was about 100 pages into two other novels last year, More Better Deals emerged from the soup like Swamp Thing, demanding to take the helm.
Although the standalone thriller embraces the classic pulp tropes of the James M. Cain era, at its core lies a personal and uniquely American conflict: the protagonist, Ed Edwards, is half black but passes for white.
Lansdale grew up in East Texas in the 1950s and ’60s and remembers Jim Crow well. “I saw an absolute disenfranchisement of an entire group of people—an inability for them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, because they weren’t given any boots,” he says. “I remember when having, say, just a drop of black blood meant that you were ostracized, that you were ‘Negro,’ that you were an outsider. I’d read about people who had ‘passed,’ as they used to say. I’m sure my subconscious was playing with all that.”
So, even before Ed tumbles for the beguiling (and married) Nancy Craig, he has a secret that could get him killed. While Nancy’s husband drinks, gambles, and abuses other women (when he’s not abusing her), she runs the family empire—a pair of businesses only Lansdale would dream of conjoining: a drive-in movie theater and a pet cemetery.
Conflict emerges immediately. Nancy’s husband has stopped paying for his Cadillac, and Ed’s boss sends him to get it back. But Nancy has been cut from classic pulp cloth: she knows what she wants and how to manipulate men into getting it for her. Recognizing a sucker in Ed, she offers him something he’d like even more than the Caddy: “Want to come up to the house for a nightcap, and maybe we could roll around on the bed and screw?”
“Do we have to have the nightcap?” Ed asks.
Ed begins to dream of a life with Nancy. They could make improvements to the drive-in and add a used car lot. The problem is the husband: what to do about him? Turns out, Nancy has an idea. Whatever reluctance Ed might have about getting rid of the man is quickly smothered by moral relativism. After all, Ed reasons, he’s killed before, in the Korean War. Sure, killing a man in cold blood would be “a somewhat more violent and bloodier version of the American dream,” but with Nancy’s encouragement, he convinces himself that it’s just the thing that would solve every problem he has.
Of course, the elaborate plan veers wildly off course. When it does—in a long, visceral, gripping sequence—Lansdale drags his characters into a lurid phantasm of realistically awkward, grotesque violence that is more akin to Gran Guignol than James M. Cain.
For this story, Lansdale says he was less interested in people who wanted to rob, say, Fort Knox, than in “the small-time, neighborhood people who just want to be able to make life good for themselves.” He compares Ed and Nancy to his two most famous characters, Hap and Leonard, who’ve featured in dozens of books and a TV show. “In the early novels,” he notes, all Hap and Leonard wanted “was to take their little dreams and make them better, but they’d make bad choices that caused them to have to deal with bad people.” Ed wants the same things, makes the same bad choices, and has to deal with some very bad people, including one who learns the secret of his racial identity and threatens to make it public.
It wasn’t always the case, but Lansdale is now a one-draft guy. He writes every day of the year, for about three hours, unless something stops him, and revises as he goes. When he was new to the writing life he’d write what he calls “the vomit draft,” requiring major revision. “I thought that was how a real writer worked,” he says. “But I was just fucking miserable.” So he tried polishing along the way and found that his mood—and his writing—improved.
When Lansdale finishes work for the day, he likes to walk away. He doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to even think about it, at least not with his conscious mind. To ask him what he’s working on, as I did, is to get shut down with a polite, adamantine resolve. “I could tell you what I’ve written,” he says, “but I don’t want to, because I might undo it.”
The fact that the intricate and truly surprising narrative of More Better Deals snapped so snugly into place in the course of a single draft points to a rare talent. When asked the old chestnut of questions, “How do you do it?” Lansdale is quick with a response: “You’ve got to remember that I’ve read all my life, so I understand plot mechanics. My subconscious is already saying, ‘You gotta do this as you go because you’re gonna need it later.’ And that fascinates me, because I don’t understand it.”
Lansdale’s been practicing karate since he was 11, and when the writer of more than 100 books also wears a black belt around his waist, analogies between his two practices will be as close at hand as the tsuka of his favorite katana. “The samurai thought of themselves as dead before they engaged in combat,” he says. “If you go into battle thinking it doesn’t matter, you engage in such a way that you aren’t aware of what could happen, only of the moment.” If there’s a philosophy behind Lansdale’s writing practice, here it is: “It’s called ‘the mind of no mind,’ a subconscious approach that’s more like Zen.”
Lansdale says goodbye and heads out to the big L-shaped porch that wraps his secluded house to spend some time with a good book. He reads every day, often both before and after writing, and today’s choice is Thom Jones’s The Pugilist at Rest, which seems rather fitting.
Mike Harvkey is the author of 'In the Course of Human Events' and was the researcher/reporter for the bestselling true crime book 'All-American Murder'.