Arts » Literature

Crazy sort of folk

“`The Hap and Leonard stories` are crazy sort of folk tales mixed with reality, but it’s always the social and cultural issues and the two characters that drive the series.”
— Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale, previously best known as a pivotal figure in the blood and guts infused ’80s splatterpunk movement, reinvented his literary persona when he introduced crime fiction’s most unusual duo in 1990’s Savage Season. Over the course of seven books, good ol’ boy Hap Collins, a 40-something white liberal, and Vietnam veteran Leonard Pine — black, conservative, gay — encounter all sorts of bizarre nasties, violent trouble, and humorous situations throughout Lansdale’s East Texas homeland. Racial tensions and societal intolerance color all of their adventures.

Nearly a decade after the last Hap and Leonard adventure, the Edgar Award-winning Lansdale has returned to his signature characters.

“I wanted a break from the characters,” Lansdale told the Current. “I didn’t mean for it to go eight years. A lot of other things I was doing got in the way and took more time than I expected.”

Publishing rights also prevented a speedier reunion. Publishers rarely agree to publish a new book in a series when they don’t control the backlist, and Lansdale had moved on, to Knopf. “Gradually, my agent and I worked to get the backlist back. It took several years. When we got the Hap and Leonard backlist, then I went to Knopf. I’ve actually sold them two of the Hap and Leonard books: Vanilla Ride and one coming out next year, which at this time is called Devil Red.”

The new story begins a few short months after the end of previous book Captains Outrageous.

“`They` didn’t stop having adventures just because I quit writing about ’em. That’s why they aren’t aged any more than they were in the previous book,” Lansdale says. He plans to start the next Hap and Leonard story immediately after the events in Vanilla Ride. “I did this for the obvious reason. Before, I was aging the characters as I wrote about them. But when I took an eight-year hiatus, I just decided they didn’t have eight years of nothing.”

The political world changed during those eight years.

Vanilla Ride was written under the influence of the `G. W.` Bush period. I was probably a little bit harder on some of the things going on then,” said Lansdale. “Religion, I’m often very hard on. That doesn’t mean I believe everyone who is religious are evil people. You talk about the extremists.”

Lansdale found it impossible to portray the neocon W. in a positive light even through the perspective of the politically conservative Leonard.

“He would have been empathetic with the first Bush or Ronald Reagan, and even might have been somewhat empathetic with Nixon. But he would not have been empathetic with George `W.` Bush. He will probably be mixed on Obama.”

Of course, not everything changed for the worse during Hap and Leonard’s sabbatical.

“Ten years ago was just the beginning of starting to see a lot of black and white friends together running around, or seeing a young white girl with a young black man or vice versa. You just didn’t see that much. It was very rare. In the last eight years when I haven’t written about them, that has changed. You see it all the time. You see a lot more openly gay people and things like that; their world has changed dramatically.”

Certainly not a Pollyanna, Lansdale adds, “There are still racial problems, though. Every time I start feeling better about it, then you read about something else that is horrible.”

Current events (even those he doesn’t incorporate into his work) influence his writing, and Lansdale ponders the societal and political environment of the novels he plans to write. When he first wrote about Hap and Leonard, few African-Americans and gays identified themselves as Republicans.

“The idea of a gay, black Republican isn’t that odd anymore. The time is catching up with them,” Lansdale says.

Another seismic shift that Lansdale plans to explore further is the growing mainstream gay-rights movement. “Leonard’s always been pretty damn outspoken. He’s never been the bashful type about `his sexuality`. I’m sure that he’s mentioned gay marriage a couple of times. In this one, there were problems because his boyfriend was being affected by all this religion brouhaha about changing your sexual orientation and all.”

Lansdale identifies another difference from eight years ago: “The internet is involving a lot of people who always loved `Hap and Leonard`, but didn’t always know when the book was out. Now more people know about the book, so it seems to be increasing that enthusiasm.” Fans maintain a popular Yahoo group (groups.yahoo.com/group/JoeRLansdale), and Lansdale writes a blog (joelansdale.blogspot.com).

In March, the University of Texas Press issued Chicken Fried and Sanctified: The Portable Lansdale, which conferred upon him some literary cred.

“Rightly or wrongly, I seem to be transcending just this genre label and `am now` being thought of just as an American writer. I think it’s because my themes are so American, even if I’m writing something that has a more of a genre construct or feel to it. There is something to the way I do it that appeals to people who might not ordinarily read genre fiction,” he says. But Lansdale doesn’t concern himself with labels. “As with all things, I’m just gonna write what I write.” •

Vanilla Ride
By Joe R. Lansdale
Knopf
$24.95, 256 pages, hardcover


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