The Real and the Surreal

Pppicture_005Joe R. Lansdale and James O. Born appeared together at the Poisoned Pen last Wednesday night. 

LansdaleLost_echoes_2–an East Texan author of more than a dozen suspense, horror, and western novels–signed his newest mystery Lost Echoes.

Born–a real live special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement–signed his latest crime thriller Field of Fire.

I’ve been a Lansdale fan for years now.  And if the reading was any indication, Lost Echoes continues the great mojo story-telling tradition that has earned the author an Edgar and six Bram Stoker awards. In the span of a single chapter, Lansdale worked his magic, weaving images and dialogue together to evoke humor, sadness, nostalgia, and dread.  It’s the kind of writing that both inspires me and makes me want to quit at the same time.

I’m much less familiar with Born’s work.  But I have a suspicion I’m going to be a fan very soon.  As I learned at the appearance, Born was a technical advisor to none other than Elmore Leonard, easily one of my favorite writers of all time.  I’ve never met Leonard; nonetheless his novel Rum Punch is the reason I write crime fiction.  In fact, having one of my stories merely appear in the same anthology as one of Leonard’s has been among my proudest moments.  Getting the thumbs up from Leonard, as well as his vast law enforcement experience, gives Born tremendous street cred, and I look forward to diving into his work.

Field_of_fire_2Together, the authors put on a damn entertaining show.  Born told some great cop stories that had me chuckling more than a few times.  And Lansdale?  Well, Lansdale was Lansdale, with all that Texas charm and wit.  I’d go to see either of these guys again in a heartbeat.

Yet at the end of the evening, I couldn’t help but think about how different they were as writers.  Both are very funny.  In fact, I’ve seen the word "quirky" in reference to both their works.  But from what I understand, Born’s novels are deeply rooted in the real world.  He has an insider’s view of crime which I’m told is reflected in the pages.  On the other hand, Lansdale seems to dabble in the surreal.  Don’t get me wrong; he breathes life into his characters and they jump off the page as true as anyone’s.  But there is always something delightfully off center about them and their worlds. They’re bigger than life and yet painfully human.

So here comes the question.

Do you prefer novels that paint a realistic portrait of the world, or do you like your fiction a little over the top?

And before you cheat and claim it depends on your mood at the time, let me remind you of a line from Pulp Fiction.  There are Elvis fans and Beatles fans.  Elvis fans can like the Beatles, and Beatles fans can like Elvis.  But you have to like one more than the other.

16 thoughts on “The Real and the Surreal

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    Two of the funniest guys on the planet – I’m so jealous you got to see them together.

    I’m a surrealist, no question. But reality to me is so twisted and mythic anyway that showing the twisted mythicness of it IS realistic.

    And obviously, I prefer the Beatles. Didn’t even get Elvis till way into adulthood. Now I appreciate him – some of him.

  2. Guyot

    Monty,Are you saying Huston’s books aren’t real? Cuz they are, man. They are.

    I prefer reality over fantasy. Wait, scratch that.

    I prefer that first kind of book you mentioned over the second. But there are times when I can like the second well enough. Just not all the time.

    Oh, and I thought THE BOTTOMS was terrific.

  3. Stacey Cochran

    I like real-world characters put into supernatural settings or plots. Which is a big part of why I liked The Harrowing so much.

    To me, real world police detection is like doing homework. As good as someone like Patty Cornwell is, that kind of writing just bores the hell out of me.

    Give me a down on his luck writer trying to keep his wife and three-month-old fed and in diapers all the while being tormented by something he doesn’t even know for sure is real or not, and I’ll read it.

    That’s my life! 🙂


  4. Louise Ure

    Okay, I’m going to split the hairs on that angel dancing on the head of a pin, I guess.

    I like the situations to be real, or at least possible. And I like the characters to be over the top. More outrageous, more daring, braver than the folks I know in the real world.

    So what does that make me? A Johnny Cash fan? Ray Orbison?

  5. pari

    Something has to be believable to me . . . but that’s the extent of it. I like “quirky” and “over-the-top” more than the hard core real stuff. I absolutely read fiction to escape. I want a different view of the world, one only slightly tethered to what I could find just by living.

    Hey, Mike, my post tomorrow could almost be an extension of today’s. Similar kind of topic — from an askew angle.

  6. pari

    Oh, Elaine,I forgot you’re a Pisces. Happy almost b-day.

    ( . . . and, the eye is basically on the mend. But I still have to use that goopy, gloppy ointment. Frankly, if anyone asks about icky words again, I’m going to say, “Ointment.” It’s a horrible word for a horrible product. Don’t mind me, I’m kvetching.)

  7. Mike MacLean


    “But reality to me is so twisted and mythic anyway that showing the twisted mythicness of it IS realistic.”

    Man, that is so true.


    If I remember correctly you enjoyed the Gischler books. Surreal isn’t the right word, but how would you describe them?

    Louise, Pari, Stacey

    I think your comments illustrate an important point. Something within the story has to be believable (either setting or character) or your reader won’t have much to connect with.


    Knowing that you’re a John Woo and a Lone Wolf & Cub fan, I was surprised at your answer.

  8. Jim Born

    Mike,Thanks for coming out the other night. My head is spinning at the travel but I’m back home now.

    I prefer the supernatural to a degree because the realistic often falls flat. It still comes down to characters people care about first and, I think, an interesting plot second. But characters carry any story.

    You brought up a great example to David. I love Victor Gischler books. Gun Monkeys is great because it treads in areas I’ve been, not only professionally but physically. I know that central Florida corridor and the petty wanna-be thugs that populate it.

    Thanks for the mention and the interest. I had never met Joe but liked his ideas and his accent.

    But living in the sub-tropics (By eleven miles, offically) I don’t think I’ll ever get used top the brown landscape. Give me mosquitos and tourists any day.


    Jim Born

  9. spyscribbler

    I absolutely adore what I call Fiction with a capital F. Over the top for me;anything that really suspends my disbelief.

    Not that I don’t love “realistic” fiction, it’s just that Fiction with a capital F seems to be hard to find these days, except in fantasy, speculative fiction, and paranormal.

  10. David J. Montgomery

    Gischler’s twisted, without a doubt…But I don’t recall him ever going off in a direction that I didn’t believe.

    The kind of stuff that usually doesn’t interest me are psychic detectives or ghost stories and the like. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. Just not my cup of tea. For me, the story is more powerful when it’s real.

    (I also think that books not grounded in the natural are harder to write, and thus more often done poorly.)

  11. Mike MacLean

    Hey Jim,

    Thanks for dropping by and for the comments.

    For anyone who doesn’t know, Mr. Born also blogs at And trust me, if you ever get a chance to see this guy speak, go. Also, to update my post, I’ve read the first two chapters of Walking Money and so far it’s great.


    Glad you could stop in. I enjoyed your Quality Vs. Quantity post.


    Good point about Gischler. I guess I should’ve defined surreal a little more clearly as opposed to supernatural. I believe Gischler’s world, and his characters, but somehow they loom tougher, funnier, and bigger than the real thing. Maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong people.


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