Joe R. Lansdale has worked the East Texas rose fields, mopped up floors, manufactured aluminum chairs and bounced rowdies out of bars. He has written more than three-dozen novels, nine of them chronicling the misadventures of the unlikely private investigator partners Hap Collins and Leonard Pine.
He's seen some things in his 64 years. But now he's got another new experience on tap: watching his beloved crime-solving roughnecks in their very own TV series.
Hap and Leonard takes its bow Wednesday night on Sundance TV. Lansdale, sitting down for an interview before a reading at The Wild Detectives bookstore, can't wait. "I'm always one of those cautiously excited people, but yeah, I'd say I am excited," Lansdale says in a light drawl that sounds like the Piney Woods. "I love what I've seen."
In a bit of happy timing, Little, Brown has just published the ninth Hap and Leonard novel, Honkey Tonk Samurai (a term that sums up a great many Lansdale characters). The book finds its ever-wary heroes facing off against a skinhead biker gang and a shady luxury car dealership that offers a little something extra on the side.
It's the kind of trouble the old childhood friends were made for. Hap and Leonard are a wonderfully mismatched set of comrades. Hap, played in the series by James Purefoy, is a good ol' boy who dodged the Vietnam draft and falls in and out of love too easily. Leonard, played by Michael K. Williams (that's Omar to fans of The Wire), is just your average black gay Republican war veteran with a thing for Dr. Pepper and Nilla Wafers. They're both into martial arts, as is Lansdale, who runs a school, Lansdale Self Defense Systems, in his hometown of Nagodoches.
Lansdale is a lot like Hap: affable, open-minded but not to be messed with. The author's social views are clearly progressive compared to the East Texas mean, as evidenced in the complexity of Leonard.
"I knew gay people that didn't fit the stereotypes," Lansdale says. "Guys that that were in martial arts that were gay and tough and not the stereotypical person. The Republican part, I saw a black Republican on TV about the time I was writing the first novel. First one I'd ever seen. It was like seeing a rare bird at that time. It was like, 'What the hell is that?'"
That first Hap and Leonard novel, 1990's Savage Season, is the basis of the TV series. Hap's old flame Trudy (Mad Men's Christina Hendricks as a Lone Star femme fatale) saunters back into his life with a proposition: help recover a bundle of cash from the bottom of a river and walk away a richer man.
Her other partners in the scheme, including her ex-husband Howard (Bill Sage), are faded '60s radicals that could have stumbled out of a Robert Stone novel. But Lansdale's wit, gift for character and propulsive storytelling are reminiscent of another crime fiction giant, the late Elmore Leonard.
Lansdale is hardly a secret. One of his short stories, the Elvis/JFK/zombie adventure Bubba Ho-Tep, was turned into a popular cult movie in 2002; his novel Cold in July became a film in 2014. Then there are all those books.
But you can tell he's enjoying this current moment and its confluence of TV and literary visibility. He's glad to see Hap and Leonard out in the open for a new audience. He's happy to still be cranking out stories, which he loved to do even before he got paid for it.
As he'd be the first to tell you, it sure beats working those rose fields.