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A Conversation with Joe Lansdale: Part I

Joe R. Lansdale’s eagerly anticipated novel EDGE OF DARK WATER, which has already received tremendous praise and was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of its top picks of the Spring 2012, is working its way into bookstore across the country now.

Joe recently took some time out of his day to take part in a conversation with Mulholland Books about his acclaimed new novel. Start reading Part I below.

EDGE OF DARK WATER is set during the Depression Era. How much does the time period influence the story? What do you enjoy most about writing in earlier times? What’s most difficult about it for you?

The Great Depression was the engine for the story. I didn’t make a point of identifying the era, I just sort of let the story determine that gradually with clues the reader would pick up on. I think I originally wrote it with a year in mind, and slipped it in, but when I started rereading it, I took that out. I thought it stood on it’s on, and the time period would be evident, and that if it wasn’t it would stand on it’s on without it. But I think it’s pretty clear. I grew up on stories about the Great Depression because my father and mother were born at the turn of the twentieth century. My father in 1909, my mother in 1914, I believe.

My dad was in his early forties when I was born and my mother in her late thirties, so they had reached their mature years during the Great Depression. My father had ridden the rails to go from town to town to compete in boxing and wrestling matches at fairs. It wasn’t his primary way of making a living, but it was something he did because he needed the money, and he enjoyed it. For the record, those kinds of wrestling matches led to the invention of what is known as pro-wrestling today. Only when my dad did it, the outcome was not ordained.

I remember hearing stories about people being  poor and so desperate. My mother said once they only had onions to eat, for a week or so. And my father told me about some relatives of theirs that were so hungry they ate clay, craving the minerals, I suspect. A lot of my relatives had gone through the Great Depression, and it impacted them. They saved everything, and were very careful with food, cautious about being wasteful. They saved string and stubs of pencils and rubber bands, you name it. Now and again I’ve seen those TV episodes of things like HOARDERS, and thought, well, I can see why they saved that piece of cloth. It can be reused. And those shoes aren’t so bad. You could wear them to work in the yard; like I’m going to work in the yard. But the bottom line is growing up when they did, and then me growing up with them, and knowing what they had been through, it had its impact.

People think times are hard now, and it certainly is for some, but on the whole, not like it was then. Those were tough times and our country was on the brink. It just barely survived. That said, I did enjoy writing about that era because I feel such a kinship to it, having grown up hearing about it all my life. I think it’s more interesting to think about and write about than to live it, though it might be interesting to have lived through it.

Huck FinnDoes the Sabine River, or East Texas in general, have special significance for you, and if so, how did that come to play in the writing of EDGE OF DARK WATER?

I grew up in Gladewater, Texas, along the Sabine. It was a river I went down in boats, inter-tubes and a Navy raft. I fished it and camped along its banks and hung out in the river bottoms with my friends. I was around it for much of my life. It was a river where bodies were found and people were drowned, and all manner of shenanigans occurred along its banks. So, yes, it’s part of me, like an artery.

Many reviewers have remarked that one of the great pleasures of reading your work is the richness with which you’re able to capture the spirit of the American South. Is this something you’ve consciously worked at? Or has it come naturally from your upbringing and living in East Texas?

 I started out trying to write stories that took place elsewhere. I was miserable at it. Ardath Mayhar wrote a story that I read in an old Alfred Hitchcock anthology titled, “Crawfish”. It took place in East Texas and was written in an East Texas voice. It broke the ice for me. Later, my wife and I moved to Nacogdoches, Texas, and Ardath lived there and we met. I couldn’t believe I was meeting the person who had written that story, as it had been so important to me as a writer. She was a great friend of mine for many years, until her death. But she taught me with “Crawfish” what it was to tell a story connected to my region and the people who lived there. When I started off in that direction it felt natural. Not all of my stories have taken place in East Texas, or the South, but most of them have. I feel comfortable writing about that era, and writing in the language and variations of that language that I’ve grown up with all my life.

More to come as our celebration of EDGE OF DARK WATER’s publication continues.