On Westerns & Race: An Interview With Joe R. Lansdale
Joe Lansdale's Paradise Sky received some of his finest reviews when it was released. Taking the life and myth of black cowboy and dime novel hero Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick, he weaves his own epic legend. For it's paperback release we asked Joe some questions about the book, race, and the western.
1. It had been a while since you tackled a traditional western in some time. What made you want to tackle this?
I often think in terms of Western stories, and am nearly always looking for an opportunity to write one, or something related to a Western. In many ways, the Hap and Leonard novels are Westerns, modern Westerns. Some show these roots more than others. But ruling out the horror westerns I've written, which are less a traditional style Western, I've written a couple of traditional Westerns. One was under a pen name, the other was supposed to be, but was published in small numbers by a small press. But the ones I think of as Westerns, as well as Historicals, are The Magic Wagon, and though it suggest some fantasy elements, that could well be in how Buster, the narrator views things, not how they really are, and then there's THE THICKET, and PARADISE SKY, the latter being the favorite of all my books. I've also written a novella, BLACK HAT JACK, which I'm fond of, and a couple of short stories, all of them about Nat Love. So the bug is there. I find few Western novels I truly like, though in the seventies I read them by the ton, trying to learn about the field. As well as historical non-fiction about the West.
2, What does the genre allow you to do as a writer?
I think any genre can allow you to do most anything, if you decide to do it. I like getting away from cell phones and computers and a lot of modern sensibilities. I'm not a luddite, nor do I hate the present, but it's a nice vacation. Also, my personal voice, is very close to that of an older time. This is partly due to being raised by older parents, being around older relatives, and where I grew up. When I was young, I only read a few Western novels and stories, Brett Harte, Jack London, Mark Twain, Max Brand, this and that. I preferred the movies then, and though I love London and Twain, even when they wrote Western material, it had a unique sensibility. The first Western I read that made me thing I might want to write them was SLIPHAMMER, by Brian Garfield. It was the forerunner of the Adult Westerns, meaning those with sex in them, but it was a great story about Wyatt Earp, and a very different take. It isn't a favorite of mine, but it showed me that Westerns could go all manner of places.
3. What did you want to pull from the original Deadwood Dick legend and history?
I wanted primarily to show that blacks in the West had contributed greatly. They had been heroes, scoundrels, marshals, murderers, soldiers and so on, just like a lot of white frontier folk. In other words, they did what a lot of folks did. There positive achievements were pretty much overlooked. I had wanted to write the novel for thirty years, had researched the black experience in the West for thirty years, so I was primed to write it.
4. Race and prejudice often plays an important part in your work. What aspect of the subject did you want to delve into about it in Paradise Sky?
I wanted to show that, unlike what the movies would lead you to believe, there were black cowboys, soldiers, etc. They participated in the construct of this country, both good and bad, just like every one else. I blended a lot of different black characters into my version of Nat Love, using primarily the original Nat's attitude in his memoir, which is partly truth, and partly Dime Novel, like pretty much all of the books written then about Western characters. Dime Novels are the basis of what we believe to be the West. It was never like that, but I wanted to blend reality with a Dime Novel attitude.
5. When the book was released a couple years ago, it was one of your most critically acclaimed. What do you think caused that?
I have no idea. I know I had a passion to write it. I think that's true of my books in general, but I had a marvelous time writing this one, and I think my desire, the authenticity of the basic experience of blacks in the West, my enthusiasm for that, came through. 6. What are some western novels you love? THE SHOOTIST, THE HOMESMAN by Glendon Swarthout. TRUE GRIT, Charles Portis. WILD TIMES, Brian Garfield. LITTLE BIG MAN, Thomas Berger. THE SEARCHERS, Alan Lemay. THE TIME IT NEVER RAINED, Elmer Kelton. I could go on and on, actually. I have a hard time enjoying standard Westerns, but there are unique ones, and when I find those, I adore them. There are more than most people think. But it's best I stop here, or I'll miss lunch.