Tag Archives: The Thicket

An Interview with Joe Lansdale

5 Sep
Joe Landale is the author of many novels and stories, including the Hap and Leonard mystery novels and the novella Bubba Ho-Tep. His latest novel The Thicket will be released on September 10.

Joe Landale latest novel The Thicket will be released on September 10. If you’re in Austin, you can see Lansdale in person at BookPeople on September 12.

Joe Lansdale is one of the most versatile and peculiar writers in American literature. He’s written a popular mystery series (Hap and Leonard) whose detectives are a white East Texas rose picker who spent time in prison as a conscientious objector and his best friend, a gay, black veteran. Lansdale has won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association eight times. He’s also written for comic books, television, and movies, and his work has been turned into the films Bubba Ho-Tep (which, if you haven’t seen it, you need to watch tonight) and, coming soon, Cold in July. His latest novel is The Thicket, a suspense novel set in The Big Thicket in East Texas. If you live in Austin, you can see him read from the book in person on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at BookPeople.

In this interview, Lansdale discusses voice, writing “historical” fiction, and what it means to write about East Texas.

(To read an excerpt from Lansdale’s new novel The Thicket and an exercise on voice and first sentences, click here.)

Michael Noll

The first sentence of the novel lists all the things that will happen in the story. I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers try something similar, and the sentences rarely work because they feel manipulative, like the language is trying too hard to get my attention. But this sentence is wonderful. It’s such an absurd list of events, and they’re related so matter-of-factly. How did you approach this sentence?

Joe Lansdale

I’m not overly conscious of it and mostly just try to write something from the subconcious where the story is hidden. But the subconscious mind knows, and I let it be my guide.

Michael Noll

I’m from rural Kansas, where people, especially old farmers, tend to have a colorful way of talking. My siblings and I actually play a game, trying to think of all the crazy lines we’ve heard our dad or grandfather say. So, that’s why I love this line from your novel: “Daddy always said Grandpa was so tight that when he blinked the skin on his pecker rolled back.” That’s maybe the funniest thing I’ve read in a novel in a long time. I’m curious if you made that line up, or if it’s something you’ve heard. In general, you’re so good at writing that rural voice. How much work does it take to maintain it for an entire novel?

Joe Lansdale

It’s a saying I heard growing up. People here, especially generations previous, spoke that way naturally. I’m very comparison-oriented as a writer and speaker. I pay attention even when I don’t know I am. I absorb more than I collect.

Michael Noll

The novel is set one hundred years ago–which seems like a risky move as a writer. So many books set in the past are stifling to read. The characters don’t seem like fresh creations, or the writers try to mimic an old-fashioned way of talking. How did you avoid those problems? At one point, I forgot the time period and thought I was reading something set in the present.

Joe Lansdale

I tried to capture the period without it capturing me. I did allow an old style of speaking to seep in, but I never let it own the story. Shorty has a very stylized way of speaking, and even his contemporaries find it odd.

Michael Noll

You’re a Texas writer–born in Texas, live there, and set many of your books there. As a literary setting, Texas often gets used as a platform for big, sweeping sagas about America. Your work doesn’t really do that, though. It’s funny, where often those books aren’t, and the characters are intensely idiosyncratic, rather than symbols for some larger idea–even though, as in the case of The Thicket, the story is set at a time of significant change. Is this because you write about East Texas, which lacks some of the mythic quality of the Old West and West Texas? Or does it have to do with your conception of how to tell a story? What do you think?

Joe Lansdale

I think East Texas is mythic, but more in an Old South way, mixed with some Western, and cajun, black, and more recently, Hispanic culture. I write out of the mythic and tall tale tradition, actually. Love it. Greek myths are a big part of my background.

September 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Create Your Narrator’s Voice

3 Sep
Joe Lansdale's new novel The Thicket is about X. You can read a free excerpt on Facebook.

Joe R. Lansdale’s new novel The Thicket follows a band of unlikely heroes on an adventure in turn-of-the-century East Texas. You can read a free excerpt on Facebook.

No aspect of writing fiction is more mysterious than creating a unique voice for the narrator. We often begin by imitating a voice that we love–Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, or any of the voices dreamed up by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Kraus, or Gary Shteyngart. Or we try to write the way that someone we know talks. As we fail, the elusive voice becomes like a magic trick that we should know how to perform but have forgotten. So what do we do?

One writer who consistently creates compelling narrators is Joe R. Lansdale. His new novel, The Thicket (to be released September 10) is set in East Texas at the turn of the century and narrated in a voice that catches your eye before the first sentence is over. The writer Ron Carlson said that The Thicket is “told in a voice so alluring and deadpan that it makes you smile and then look around to see who saw you smile.” You can read a preview of the first chapter here.

How the Story Works

First sentences are notoriously difficult to write. Stephen King recently claimed that he cannot write a novel until he’s gotten the first sentence right, and that sometimes doing so takes years. So it’s interesting to see how Lansdale approaches the first sentence of his novel. Notice how quickly he establishes the narrator’s voice:

“I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.”

In that sentence, Lansdale falls back on a tried-and-true strategy. If you don’t know how to start a story, just tell the reader what will happen. It may sound simplistic, but this face-value approach is key to establishing the narrator’s voice for two reasons:

  1. We learn that the narrator is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. He’s not going to play around with us. If you’re trying to develop a character, it’s useful to have a couple of hard-and-fast personality traits to rely upon.
  2. Because the statement is so factual, Lansdale has the luxury of playing with the words. He doesn’t have to worry about finding something interesting to say; he just needs to let the narrator find an interesting way to say a basic thing. This is exactly the strategy used here by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (notice how it’s stating basic information):

“The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.”

A final point to consider: It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that great voices are highly elaborate or deeply folksy, but the phrasings that make them memorable are often subtle. Lansdale’s three-part phrase “gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog” simply adds a few eye-catching adjectives. (This is another reason you shouldn’t abide by all “rules for writers.” Adjectives, when used well, can make a story sparkle.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a voice, using Joe Lansdale’s The Thicket as a model:

  1. Using a story you’ve been working on, write a new first sentence(s). State outright, in the first person, what will happen. Use your plainest language. You’re giving yourself a frame to hang the narration on.
  2. Think about your narrator. Would he or she make such a up-front statement? If not, what parts would the narrator want to hide or soften? How would the simple statements be rephrased in order to make the narrator more comfortable? Make those changes.
  3. If the narrator had a captive audience, how would he/she change the remaining phrases in order to make them more interesting? In other words, what is the narrator’s storytelling voice? Because that is what narrators are doing: telling a story. Pick two or three words or phrases and make some simple changes: add adjectives, replace nouns with different nouns, or cut words to create surprising juxtapositions (“true love and kill someone”).

Play with your sentence(s) and see what you get. If you’re having fun, it’s a good sign.

Good luck.

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