Q&A with Joe R. Lansdale, Author of Paradise Sky

Joe R. Lansdale is the author of nearly four dozen novels, two of which were selected as New York Times Notable Books. His popular Hap and Leonard series has been adapted into a Sundance TV show and is now in its third season. Heralded as a “master storyteller” (Examiner.com), Mr. Lansdale has received the British Fantasy Award, an Edgar Award, and the Grinzane Cavour Prize, as well as ten Bram Stoker Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association. He makes his home in Nacogdoches, Texas. His most recent release, Paradise Sky (available in paperback September 26, 2017), is a historical western that melds fact with fiction; the title received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal.

Recently, the author entertained questions about the responsibility of reimagining a life, revisionist history, the universal experience of self-discovery, the potency of setting, and capturing authentic voice. He also teased what’s to come…

Though fictionalized, Paradise Sky is based on the true story of Nat Love. What are the authorial responsibilities when bringing new life to a “real” character, and how do you endeavor to balance those with creative license?

In Nat's case, I wanted to talk about the adventures of a lot of black cowboys, soldiers, etc. Since Nat was someone that sort of represented the black experience in the West—and wrote a kind of combined autobiography and dime novel at the same time—I took his lead but mixed in other characters to invent my own Nat Love, using his name to represent that experience for a lot of blacks in the West. I wanted to make a broader point than Nat did because it would have been hard for him to do so in that day and time.

African Americans have been largely underrepresented and/or ignored in the legends and lore of the American West. To what do you credit your own interest in and knowledge of the subject, and how do you hope that this work might contribute to our fuller understanding of that time period?

I grew up during Jim Crow, and it impacted me deeply. I am also a student of history, and I kept finding all these references to black cowboys and soldiers. So I began to collect those references and any books about the black experience in the West, and I became fascinated by it.

The desire to succeed in spite of adversity is universal.

I wanted to write that novel for thirty years, but there was always some excuse like black people don't read, white people don't read about black people, we don't know who our audience is, or some such. Mulholland and my editor Josh Kendall didn't feel that way. So I wrote it. Bless them.

At its heart, Nat’s is a story of self-discovery and redemption. In what ways do his relationships and acquired skills inform his sense of identity, and how, despite differences in circumstance, can this be viewed as universally relatable?

Discovering yourself is the goal we all have, even if it's not conscious. The point is that we all have these kinds of experiences, but some experiences are also different. For Nat, in that day and time, he had to deal with prejudice and a world that expected him to be inferior and to fail. Like the black cowboys the novel was modeled on, he excelled. The desire to succeed in spite of adversity is universal.

The frontier is very much its own character within this story. What have you found to be the key(s) to capturing an authentic sense of time and place, and how do you see setting as enhancing a narrative’s overall potency?

If you can visualize the setting and the characters, you can write about it. I treated history respectfully but not slavishly. I didn't veer any more than I had to tell the tale. I try to stick to facts as best I can, but even so, some mistakes slipped through—historically, anyway. I corrected some of the minor ones, but the Apache were on the whole not that far into Texas at that time. Then again, lines weren't drawn in the dirt that couldn't be crossed, and I was interested in applying some things I had read about Apache and Cavalry fights and placing it where I did. I thought it was plausible. But technically, it probably would have been the Comanche. 

Storytelling is a rich tradition that has evolved (or, some might argue, devolved) over time. How does creative expression, both historic and contemporary, continue to motivate your own ambitions, and what do you believe are our collective responsibilities in keeping the tradition alive?

I grew up with storytellers, and once I tapped into that approach to fiction, it greatly changed my writing and improved it. I don't think all stories should feel that way, but my favorites do. I like to capture an authentic sounding voice. First-person is my favorite form of writing, as it's the closest to pure storytelling.

Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?

More Hap and Leonard for now—Jackrabbit Smile, The Elephant of Surprise—and then, well, I'm venturing out into other types of stories and, I hope, film. Stay tuned.


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Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than three dozen novels, including The Thicket, Edge of Dark Water, The Bottoms, and A Fine Dark Line. He has received the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Edgar Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, and nine Bram Stoker Awards. He lives with his family in Nacogdoches, Texas.

John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.

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