A conversation with Joe Lansdale
Q: You’ve written more than a dozen books and won a heap of awards for mystery-writing. How does Sunset and Sawdust further the themes in your fiction?
A: I suppose there are themes in my fiction. Well, I know there are, and they are the engine that drives the story. Self-reliance, accepting responsibility for your actions, tolerance, and a rabid hatred of racism from any angle or group. I'm not fond of religious bullies either. Religion is up to the individual, but wielding it like a cutlass doesn't appeal to me. All of these things are in the majority of my books, and Sunset and Sawdust expresses most of them. I hope, of course, that it's a fun read, a good fast-paced crime book as well. I grew up on both pulp and literature, and I think the best novels are a marriage of these elements.
In a number of my books, there’s a hint of folklore and "modern" mythology. I think we make our own mythologies as we live, and I think we give the past a kind of mythology. I tried to do that with Sunset and Sawdust. The aforementioned themes meet a historical novel meet folklore and myth and spit out a crime novel of sorts. There are some who would argue the novel is not a crime novel. And if they mean in the purely traditional manner it is not a crime novel, they're right.
Q: SUNSET AND SAWDUST features a female protagonist who takes over as the constable of a small town in East Texas. What inspired you to put this character, Sunset Jones, at the center of the story and to put the law in her hands?
A: Actually, there was a woman who became sheriff here in Nacogdoches in the thirties, and that stuck in my head. I believe her husband died and she took over, but wanting the novel to have a bit more drama, I made Sunset's husband a not-so-good guy, and, of course, Sunset is responsible for his death.
Q: You write vividly about the details and dynamics of East Texas during the Great Depression. Did you do extensive research before writing the novel, or have you learned about Depression-era Texas from family and neighbors who lived through it?
A: I did some research, but my father and mother grew up during the Great Depression. I grew up hearing all about it. I had many relatives who lived through the Depression. I soaked up all their stories. I also read a number of novels written during that era.
Also, we were poor when I was growing up, though probably no worse off than most around us, better off than many, so I'm not sure East Texas in the fifties was all that different. Well, it wasn't as bad as the Depression, but it was still a pretty simple way to live.
Q: There are several unlikely alliances that develop between characters in the course of this novel--across lines of race and gender that were not usually crossed in this period. Do you find that small towns and hard times offer a writer more freedom?
A: I do find that small towns and hard times make for unlikely alliances. I saw it happen when I was growing up. And there are always people ahead of where the culture is. And there's this: if they don't make those alliances for themselves, I should.
Q: Your novels are full of suspense as well as murder-and-mayhem action sequences. Do you chart the plots before you write?
A: I don't plot them or chart them. I usually have a character and an opening scene. Maybe I'll have a couple of scenes I want to see happen in my head, and the story occurs as I go. I like to be as surprised as the reader.
Q: Does your martial arts training help keep your action sequences fresh?
A: The martial arts help in many ways. Mostly they help me focus and give me discipline and confidence. Those are things you have to keep to the fore when you you're on a long haul with a novel. And this one took a little longer than usual. I don't know why, but it did.
Q: The characters in SUNSET AND SAWDUST are often consumed by violence and sex, but you render their experiences in hilarious fashion. How did you learn to tell such a rollicking story?
A: I think you have to give these kind of things some humor--at least most of the time, if not all of the time. I also like humor in books, and I see a lot of life with humor. Not always at the moment, but in looking back. I think darkness and humor are really just two sides of a double-edge sword. Twain said something about humor being part of misery, that there was no humor in heaven.
Q: Sunset Jones is one hell of a survivor. Will Sunset recur as a character in your forthcoming books?
A: It's possible. Believe me, I've thought about it. I find that characters I've written about turn up again now and then. In fact, McBride who appears in this novel, appeared in a novella I wrote a few years back called The Big Blow.
Q: Have any of your stories or novels been adapted by filmmakers?
A: Numerous stories and books of mine have been optioned for film, as well as screenplays I've written. Only one story, a kind of cult movie, Bubba Hotep, has been filmed. It's done very well, in fact. Directed by Don Coscarelli, the film starred Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. It won a number of awards.
From the Hardcover edition.