Even if the prolific Joe Lansdale created an imaginary twin (don’t put it past him), the two combined probably wouldn’t have enough fingers and toes to count all of his published novels. So when he says Paradise Sky was the most fun one to write, take heed.
A fictionalized story of the real-life Nat Love, the picaresque tale follows its African-American protagonist on a jaunt through post-Civil War adventures that lead him into careers as a marksman nicknamed Deadwood Dick, a Buffalo soldier and a marshal, all the while being tailed by a racist miscreant bent on killing Love for a mostly imagined slight.
Lansdale had read the real Nat Love’s autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick" by Himself and saw an avenue to tell a tale often overlooked—African-American contributions to the Old West mythos. He’d pitched it as a novel as far back as the late ‘70s, but agents and editors then saw no audience for a story with black heroes.
“The Buffalo soldiers protected white citizens from Native Americans,” Lansdale says. “There were black marshals, black gunfighters, black bandits. The West was more open to judging people on their abilities instead of the color of their skin.”
The author had written a novella and a couple of short stories stemming from the idea, but he finally attacked the idea in novel form. “I’d written the opening paragraph years ago,” Lansdale says. “I revised it a bit, and it just flowed.”
Paradise Sky plays off of Love’s “real” story, which is sometimes as truthful as dime novels of the West, but Lansdale expands it with mythic Wild West characters like Wild Bill Hickok, whose real-life death in Deadwood plays out on the page. “I see it as a mix of history and Western mythology,” Lansdale says. “It’s a serious book hidden behind the framework of humor and adventure.”
Lansdale has a rep as a writer who tackles it all—mystery, horror, literary short stories, comic books, screenplays. With Paradise Sky and 2013’s The Thicket he's showing his deep love of Mark Twain, but he also tips his hat to his East Texas home—for which he's long had a love/hate relationship—by making it also Love's home region.
“There's a savage anti-intellectualism and rabid religion that worked against me,” he says of East Texas, which retains more of a Southern culture than parts of the state due west. “But I love the people, who are really kind and generous. As long you're not dealing with religion, politics, or guns, you're OK. And I'm not anti-gun. I just think you shouldn't sleep with them and drool over an ammo catalog.”
Lansdale says he finally broke down and moved—from one side of Nacogdoches, Texas, to the other. Every day he gets up, grabs a cup of coffee and aims to write three to five pages in at most three hours. “The well keeps filling up every night,” he says. “I don't force a lot of pages, but I do the work.”
That persistence has led him to Baton Rouge, where he's watching the filming of the six-episode SundanceTV series Hap and Leonard, based on Lansdale's crime novels featuring Hap Collins, a straight white liberal ex-con, and Leonard Pine, a black gay Vietnam vet who votes Republican.
Savage Season, the first Hap and Leonard novel, came out in 1990, and the television series is set in the same time frame. “It's historical,” Lansdale says. “It wasn't when I wrote it. I observe (filming), and they have followed some of my advice. But in the end, as much as I enjoy the series, books are books, films are films, and TV shows are TV shows.”
Lansdale is doing a bit of screenwriting, too. He's working with George R.R. Martin and Howard Waldrop on a series of short films based on Waldrop's stories. And more screenplays may be in his “Rolodex of possibilities.”
“I don't spend a lot of time looking back,” he says. “I've done everything I set out to do, and I've started new goals.” That is likely to include a play, songs, and perhaps even some poetry.
“Hey, I'm only 63,” he says. “I've been very fortunate that I've been able to do what I wanted to do. I've been able to take care of my family, and I've just had a hell of a good time.”
Joe M. O’Connell, author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin, Texas.