With his Hap and Leonard series, East Texas author Joe R. Lansdale has created one of the most indelible crime-solving duos since Holmes and Watson.
The series focuses on Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, an odd couple bonded by a deep, occasionally turbulent friendship and a knack for trouble. Hap is white, liberal, straight and a Vietnam War resister, while Leonard is black, conservative, gay and a war veteran. For decades, Hap and Leonard’s world has evolved through nine novels, as well as a handful of novellas and short stories.
The first Hap and Leonard book, Savage Season, was published in 1990 and “did nothing,” Lansdale says. “It got maybe four reviews and was forgotten. I didn’t think it was a series anyway.” Four years later, the follow-up Mucho Mojo was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and the series has steadily gained readers ever since.
A flurry of Hap and Leonard activity is slated for 2016. Lansdale released a new book in the series, Honky Tonk Samurai, last month, and a short story collection hit shelves yesterday. His characters will also make their television debut tonight in Hap and Leonard, a new SundanceTV series starring James Purefoy as Hap and Michael K. Williams as Leonard.
Paste caught up with Lansdale at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona to discuss his characters’ transition from the page to the screen.
Paste: How did you first come up with the characters of Hap and Leonard?
Lansdale: When I sat down to write about them, it felt like they struck me out of the blue. But it actually was based on a lot of my life, the kind of jobs I did early on, my background growing up in the South during that era. It was an evaluation of the experiences I’d had in the ‘60s and early ‘70s and on, up until I wrote the book. I decided with Savage Season to use a lot of things in my life as the basis.
Obviously, the things that happened to these poor guys didn’t happen to me, but I used my background for a lot of Hap’s background. I grew up being poor, and I lived that kind of life. I was a bouncer, I worked in the rose fields, I teach martial arts and he’s a martial artist. Like Hap, I was a Vietnam War resister. I was drafted and refused to go and nearly went to prison.
Paste: Why write a duo instead of a single protagonist?
Lansdale: That’s funny, because I was going to write the novel just about Hap. And when I started writing, this guy Leonard showed up. I thought he was just a minor character and he was going to leave. He left, but he calls Hap on the phone and they just started talking. I thought that these guys talked fun together, so that’s how it happened. These guys chatter like squirrels, just like I do. Leonard is based on a lot of people, but he’s also that doppelgänger side to an extent. The whole series is just an accident; them being together is an accident.
Paste: Why did you go against the grain and not make them traditional badge-and-gun detectives or established private investigators?
Lansdale: I felt I didn’t know enough about that. It’s funny, because my niece is a homicide detective now. But I’ve always preferred the outsiders. I grew up on a lot of private-eye fiction, and I never really wrote about that except for some short stories. I always saw them as trouble-shooters, therefore they didn’t have to answer to the law.
Paste: The new short story collection has a section where you “interview” Hap and Leonard, and one of the questions really gets to the heart of the characters. Can you answer for them as the author? Why don’t they back off from the situations they get themselves into?
Lansdale: I think they’re the kind of guys who are not exactly the moral police. People see them as heroes, and that misses the point. They’re people who try to be heroes, and they screw up a lot. Hap and Leonard always start out to do something nice, and it goes bad and just gets worse and worse. Basically, their hearts are in the right place. But they’re trouble magnets, and they’re not the sort of people who run. They’re raised the way I was raised. I should’ve run a few times, now that I look back on it. But that fit what I knew.
Paste: In that same piece, you describe Hap and Leonard as surviving “through pure tenacity and a feeling of quarrelsome brotherhood.” How do those two characteristics influence the characters?
Lansdale: I’ve got friends who totally disagree on politics, religion, cultural things, but at the core, we’re the same people. With Hap and Leonard, even though they have differences, at the core they believe in each other more than anything else, because that’s what stood the test of time. You find that kind of brotherhood in martial arts. When you’ve sparred with people, you develop a bond and that’s the same with these guys. They’ve developed a bond in the same way that soldiers develop a bond.
Paste: How important is it that the show really captures that brotherhood?
Lansdale: It’s very important, because it doesn’t work if they don’t. And they do capture it very well. There’s one scene I love so well where Leonard has to go back to where they came from. Hap, in a light emotional moment, hugs him and knocks his hat off, and Leonard says ‘Hey, that’s why men don’t hug.’ It’s that moment when you really know how much they care.
Paste: You’ve had these characters with you for more than 25 years. Have they changed in your mind?
Lansdale: The characters can surprise you. If you know everything, it keeps you from writing. You don’t want a story to burn you out instead of surprising you. If they stay the same, it’s not realistic, and it’s also boring. If they change too much, then the things that attract you to them aren’t there. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I read an interview I gave in the ‘80s and it’s very much like interviews I give now. I hadn’t changed in what I wanted to do and how I do it. These guys have a center they maintain as they get older and have different life experiences.
Paste: When you return to writing about Hap and Leonard, do you just decide it’s time? Or do you wait for a specific idea?
Lansdale: Both, but that’s the same thing. Once I start, it’s hard to stop. Once I start, I’ll write two books and a short story and maybe a novella. I can go on and on with them. It’s hard to put [on] the brakes. In some ways, I don’t consider a single Hap and Leonard novel the best, but I consider them my best characters. They’re the people I return to the most happily.
Paste: You’ve had your work adapted before. How is a television show different than a feature film?
Lansdale: If it was a television show say 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But television is going through a renaissance right now, and it’s more novelistic; it has more time to develop the characters. It used to be the first episode set the template for an entire series. Now the first episode gives you an introduction to the characters, and as wonderful as these six episodes are, if it gets a second season, it’s going to be all the better because now you know them. You know their past and where they’re coming from. The second book, Mucho Mojo, is set up to be the second season. After seeing those six episodes, I think it’s going to happen. The problem is, you never know how many people will tune in, no matter how good it is, so that’s all up in the air.
Paste: [Hap and Leonard showrunners] Nick Damici and Jim Mickle previously adapted your novel Cold in July for film. Did already having that relationship make you more comfortable working with them for the series?
Lansdale: It’s really good. Nick and I are really close, and Jim and I are, too. It’s a very good relationship. I always tell Jim that I’m going to tell him what I like, and I’m going to be adamant about it, but you’re the director and do what you want. You have to make those decisions. I make my case, but what he does is fine, because he’s the director.
Paste: Is it difficult to let go of your characters?
Lansdale: Somewhat. It’s not without it, but I’ve been able to have enough control that I don’t feel like I’m giving up much. When I look at them, I see my stories. I see my characters.
Paste: What are your thoughts on the actors and how they bring your characters to life?
Lansdale: I was so pleased. You’re always worried about it, giving up your characters to some extent. But when they told me it was Michael K. Williams and James Purefoy and Christina Hendricks and Bill Sage, all actors I knew, I said ‘Man, I’m in good hands.’ What’s really nice is the directing looks like the novels feel. If you like the way Cold in July looks, it has that similar look and feel. It’s terrific.