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The Backlist: Joe R. Lansdale on a Forgotten Classic of Southern Noir

The Backlist: Joe R. Lansdale on a Forgotten Classic of Southern Noir

There’s no one quite like Joe R. Lansdale. It’s hard to think of a writer who has taken so many chances in his writing career, or who’s had so much fun. He’s written not only mysteries and suspense but also horror, science fiction, and Westerns, as well as screenplays and comic books. In his long career, he’s won just about every award you can think of, in multiple genres, and he’s also an international martial arts hall of famer who has founded his own school of martial arts, Shen Chuan. Recently I sat down with him to talk about another master of Southern noir, James Ross, who, in sharp contrast to Lansdale, only published one novel: 1940’s They Don’t Dance Much.  

Why did you choose They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross? 

I just think it’s one of the greatest Southern noir books ever written. I hadn’t ever heard about it until years ago when Daniel Woodrell reviewed my book Mucho Mojo in the New York Times. He said I was in a line with James Ross, and I thought, “Who’s James Ross?” So I looked him up and read his book, and I realized that Woodrell knew what he was talking about. The guy was a really good writer. This ended up being his only novel—I think he had the ambition to write others, but for whatever reason, this one didn’t sell well. Raymond Chandler gave it a quote. He thought it was great. But for the past sixty years, it’s been one of those underrated novels.

I loved it. I can see the similarity to your work, of course, but it was also kind of like a redneck Great Gatsby.

That’s a really good way of putting it. When I first read Ross, I felt, “Man, here’s a kindred soul.” I knew where he was coming from. I knew these people. I knew the environment, which affects how they react, how they live, how they think. And he nailed all that. I’ve always loved books about what I call little hopes and little dreams. These characters aren’t going to rob Fort Knox—they just want to rob a filling station or a dance hall or what have you. Their dreams are so much smaller than what we’re used to in fiction, but for them, they’re huge. I always think of my mom and dad who came out of the Depression. They were very poor, very good people, very hard-working. They had elevated themselves well above where they’d started, and then it was my job to elevate myself and help my children do the same. 

It’s interesting that, as you said, the characters’ hopes are so small, but then the stakes end up being as high as they could possibly be.

Of course. They’re little in the sense of location and ambition, but then things get big and complicated. Ross is reflecting the dreams of an everyman. He’s thinking, “This is what I can do, because this is where I am and this is who I know.” And then, as it should in a novel, everything goes wrong. 

The writing is really strong too. It’s a country style, but at the same time, it’s poetic, like Fitzgerald in a way. You nailed it, t’s a small-scale Great Gatsby. It’s harder and harder for country books like this to be written, unless they’re historical, because the times have changed. That doesn’t mean people have changed. They haven’t really. But there’s less woods. Communication is getting faster and faster. I’ve always admired someone who could look at their own era so incisively, and it’s an era that seems farther and farther behind us all the time.

I think Jack McDonald’s role as a peripheral narrator is Gatsby-like too. He’s on the side of the action, but it comes to affect him as much as anybody. Why do you think James Ross was only able to publish one novel? Why wasn’t his work appreciated at the time?

He did write at least one more novel, which has never been published. Maybe if I read it, I’d think, “Okay, there’s a reason this was never published.” But I’m very curious about it, and I wish someone would bring it out. Sometimes people only have one book in them, and it’s so hard to explain. On the other hand,  I think any writer if they could write a book as good as that one they would feel satisfied. When you write something like They Don’t Dance Much, where do you go next?

I want to go back to what you said about how it’s harder and harder to write country books like this without making them historical. Why do you think that is?

I think the new generations haven’t had the same kinds of experiences in the country that older people like me have had. It may be that novels set in a rural landscape will come to have a nostalgic sort of appeal, even for people who never experienced the country firsthand. It’s just harder and harder to relate to.

The way people speak in these novels is also a hurdle for some readers. I speak an older Southern idiom, because my parents were older. When I was born, my dad was forty-two and my mom was thirty-eight or something like that. My brother is seventeen years older than me. I have an East Texas accent, but it’s an older accent. Because of the way I grew up, I have a grasp of the language of the Old West and things like that. I’m not trying to imply that I do it perfectly, but my father was born in 1899, when the West had only been closed for nine years. That time doesn’t seem that far away to me, and there are echoes of it in the language of They Don’t Dance Much as well. It’s a rhythmic way of talking, a certain way of putting your words together. To some people, it can sound kind of ignorant, but to people like me, it has a kind of poetry. I’ve learned to downplay my accent and that Southern idiom a little bit, though I don’t do it consciously. But when I go back home to Gladewater, Texas, and I get around my friends, I realize man, there is a big difference in the way I talk now.

I’m curious about that term country noir, which is often associated with They Don’t Dance Much. How do you define noir, and which of your works would you categorize that way? 

Most of them. Definitely the historical fiction. The Hap and Leonard series is set in Texas and it’s broad and purposefully somewhat over the top. I was trying to keep some of that East Texas voice alive.

Noir is often thought of as having to do with light through window blinds, cigarette smoke, sweaty sheets and cityscapes and all that. But really it’s an attitude more than anything else. It’s not always nihilistic, but sometimes it is. Things are bleak, and then they get bleaker, and then the real bleakness sets in.

In the edition I read, George V. Higgins’s afterword talks about Ross’s “boldness” compared to other writers of his time. What do you think he means, and do you agree?

I’m not sure what Higgins meant, but Ross is very honest in the way he portrays this world and the people who live in it. Hemingway’s publisher used to take out the bad language in his novels, and he would get really mad about it, because he said, This is how people talk. Now writers are sometimes afraid that readers won’t be able to differentiate between what the character is saying and what the writer feels, and I just don’t think that novels should be subject to that kind of criticism. People can decide for themselves what they read and what they don’t want to read. Somebody wrote me once complaining because a woman in one of my books was described as looking “delicious.” Obviously that could be kind of sexist, but it could also be an endearment. It depends on an attitude of the character, and that’s built up within the context of the story.

I know what you mean. I visited a book club recently where they were asking me to justify the things my characters did, and I wanted to say, That was my character’s choice, not mine.

And there’s no tension if nobody ever does anything wrong. You don’t really have much drama. If you’re writing crime novels and everybody’s nothing but polite, I just don’t see that. Coming from where I did, I was writing about a lot of the people I knew, or know, including friends who went to prison. I think we’ve gotten to a point where people expect life to be a cozy, with nothing but little disappointments. A lot of these people are going to be way shocked if they ever get out from behind their computers and go out in the real world.

One of the things I love about your work is that you never seem to censor yourself when it comes to drama and conflict. Is there ever such a thing as too much violence? How does a writer know where to draw the line?

Certainly I do self-censor sometimes. Looking back at some of my work, I feel like I should have backed off a bit. Not because portraying violence is wrong, but because it took away from the story in a way I didn’t want it to. The violence in my later novels is more metaphorical than anything else. I think of it as a release. 

Is there anything you’ve learned from this novel that you might apply to your own work?

I feel like Ross and I are writing about the same world. It’s North Carolina, and I’m from East Texas, but there’s a Southern connection all the way down. Lots of people from the upper South ended up in this part of Texas. In bad times, they’d write GTT on a post, which meant Gone to Texas. As Davy Crockett said, “You may all go to hell, and I’ll go to Texas.” Although I’ve always thought that when he saw Santa Ana’s soldiers coming over the wall, he might have wished he’d gone to hell instead.

The beauty of this kind of writing is in the understanding of the culture. When I think about New York or Los Angeles, I could maybe write about my characters visiting there, but I could never write about that culture authentically. I did try it when I was starting out, and I look back at that work now and I think, “God, this is false. This is not me.” Then one day, I was listening to some friends talk and they were so funny. Southerners are naturally funny. And I just decided, “You know what, that’s who I am. That’s my voice.” That voice of the South is something that Ross understood really well.