Interview: Joe R. Lansdale

How did you first come to discover the Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs?

Actually, as a child when TV was beginning to look for things to fill the air waves, every Saturday they showed Tarzan movies, or Bomba movies, or Flash Gordon, or Buck Rogers, or a combination there of. The Tarzan movies got me interested in the name Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials got me interested in S.F. adventures, so when I was eleven, and came across a Princess of Mars, and a little later Tarzan of the apes, I was hooked through the gills. I had always wanted to be a writer, seemingly from birth, but when I found Edgar Rice Burroughs, I knew I had to be.

What do you find appealing about the characters and milieu?

It was so different from my life, and at that age I pretty much felt the stories were real. The first person narrative of so many of the John Carter tales was what worked for me, more than the Tarzan novels, or any of the series that were not first person. The framing device of Burroughs receiving the story was another one of the things that pulled me in. I think from that moment on my favorite form of storytelling, and writing, was first person. When I look at the thirty novels I’ve written, most of them are in first person, and I think Burroughs influenced that. I write things, normally, very different from what Burroughs wrote, but he is still my sentimental favorite, and the narrative drive he had in his stories has stayed with me to this day. Oh, and add to the fact that John Carter was a Southerner, could live forever, and could go to Mars by just spreading is arms wide was way cool. I did that, you know, as I’m sure a lot of young boys did back then. Spread my arms hoping, just hoping, those stories, were as I suspicioned then, true. Now I realize if I had been swept across that vast void to Mars, I’d have been killed in moments by most anything I encountered. Dang it.

What sort of an influence do you think the Barsoom books have had on the development of fantasy & science fiction?

Tremendous. Among the most influential novels of all time. They were still very popular in the late sixties and early to late seventies when I think certain elements of their time period began to date them. As readers and people we became more sophisticated about race and women. They are certainly of their time on those matters.  But if you get past that, they are great adventure, and they are highly appealing to a young person’s imagination, especially boys. I think Burroughs, like Robert E. Howard, and toss in Tolkein, are the three pillars of fantasy/adventure fiction. Everything springs from them. I think Burroughs was the most influential. Hell, he influenced Howard who wrote an early novel in that tradition titled ALMURIC. The kind of stuff Burroughs wrote collided with the invention of science fiction, as his work often mixed, and confused science with fantasy. I think his best work, his most memorable work, is actually John Carter of Mars, though the character of Tarzan, partly because of films, is better known. I love Tarzan though, and was very grateful I had the opportunity to finish a book Burroughs started. That was a rare and wonderful opportunity.

Who is your favorite character in the Barsoom canon? (And why?)

John Carter of Mars. Duh. He’s the hero. He was the one I projected all my youthful needs and desires into. I wanted to be him back then.

Tell us a bit about your story in the anthology. What’s it about? 

I tried to write a capsulized novel. I think SYNTHETIC MEN OF MARS and MASTERMIND OF MARS, and some of the shorter tales from JOHN CARTER OF MARS were in my head when I wrote my story. I tried to ring certain bells from all of those things, and to give it a feel that I thought would make it fit within the canon. I had a great time.

What’s was the genesis of the story–where did the initial seed for the story come from?

I think the idea of created “men” came from SYNTHETIC MEN OF MARS, and a lot of the “science” came from MASTERMIND. The way it was structured was influenced by the short stories in JOHN CARTER OF MARS. Mostly a story titled, THE SKELETON MEN OF JUPITER, which I believe is in that volume. I always wanted to write a series that picked up where that story left off. Mine didn’t do that, but I tried to capture some of the tone from that.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how? 

Nope. It flowed. The only real challenge was worrying if you got it right. I read Burroughs prose over and over and tried to capture it’s tone, more than trying to write just like him.

What kind of research–other than, perhaps, rereading the Barsoom novels–did you have to do for the story? 

I reread some of the books, and that was it. I knew that stuff pretty dang well. I used to reread those books all the time, up until I was about thirty. I thought they were great for tapping into the subconscious. They did that for me better than any other books I ever read. The age I read them, of course, helped.

Any new work of yours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add? 

I have a Young Adult novel out titled ALL THE EARTH THROWN TO THE SKY this September. It takes place during the Great Depression era. Next year, an adult novel, EDGE OF DARK WATER comes out from MULHOLLAND BOOKS. It also takes place during that era, and is a combination crime/adventure/pursuit novel. I’m proud of both of them.