Above the Influence: An Interview with Joe R. Lansdale

9780316479912_22712Joe R. Lansdale’s latest, More Better Deals, takes a few cues from one of his influences—James M. Cain—who gave us one of the great templates of noir with his books The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. This time the male is Ed Edwards, a used car salesman in early sixties East Texas, carrying a family secret. When he goes to repossess a Cadillac, he soon finds himself in the arms of purchaser’s wife, Nancy Craig. She would like to see her husband gone and Ed would like to have her, and the husband’s businesses as well, as part of some insurance money to help his sister. Yes, the set up is familiar, but Lansdale uses it to create a novel wild, funny, and completely his own.
Joe was kind enough to take some questions about the book, Cain, and the effect of where he lives on his writing.

Scott Montgomery: More Better Deals is an homage to one of your favorite writers James M Cain. You once described him as a “clean writer.” What does that mean to you?

Joe R. Lansdale: His prose is uncluttered. He doesn’t even tell you who’s talking, and you always know. He writes tight, little stories without adornment, but his prose is still fast paced and muscular and understandable.

SM: While I see the classic Cain plot setup, the voice, characters, and theme are all yours. How do you try to use your influences in your work?
JRL: Well, this is a more obvious one than usual. I have wanted to play with the Cain structure—at least the one he developed for his two signature books in my view, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twicethen undercurrent it with social commentary without it being too overwhelming, and I wanted to give it my voice and more humor, though it is certainly dark humor.
SM: The setting puts a fine spin on the template. What about East Texas makes it skew a story in a different way?
JRL: It’s my background, and East Texas to me is far more interesting than Los Angeles because it can be deceptive. It’s wooded and lots of water and hospitality, but underneath that hospitality is a razor’s edge and a turd in the punch bowl. Not everyone, of course. Like anywhere, East Texas is a mix of good and bad, but I’m writing crime novels, so the bad are more prominent, but I think there’s a kind of squirming difference here, a mild gothic undertone due to Southern roots, and it not being like the myth of Texas. No deserts, no mountains in this corner of the state. Woods and water and smiling racism, and the old days police work with a black jack and a phone book.
SM: Ed carries a secret that takes this out of the normal Cain template. Were you aware of that going into the story or did it develop as it went along?
JRL : I knew it going in. I don’t know that I thought about it consciously, but I knew.
S.M. : How did you approach Nancy so she wouldn’t be the standard femme fatale?
JRL: I  based her on people I knew, who I’m sure didn’t commit murder, but who had inclinations for something better but were living in a time when a female brain surgeon, or any kind of job of that ilk was generally out of the reach of ambitious and smart women. I thought of Nancy as being the kind of woman that had she had a different upbringing and a chance at greater education might well have been more successful, even in those times. I envisioned her as having a burning hunger for what she didn’t get to do, and that, along with her background, gave her a less savory viewpoint.
SM: You also released a very funny road trip book. Jane Goes North. What inspired that story?
JRL: I’m not sure what inspired that. I have written about road trips before and I enjoy books and films about road trips, and it developed out of that. To very different characters traveling across country for very different reasons, not really wanting to be together, but being forced together. They were also the type that were so constantly disappointed that even the most absurd event that occurred they were not truly surprised or shocked. I wanted to write a kind of insane fable. I think they were both good people who had made bad choices and couldn’t get out of what I’ve seen so many people fall into. The repeat of past mistakes with the mythology that next time it’ll work out, when of course repeating mistakes rarely leads to a different outcome. The road trip was their break with those mistakes and a kind of revelation for them. I had so much fun with that book and consider it one of my best.

More Better Deals is available at BookPeople in-store and online now.