WRITERS TELL ALL
So, Joe Hill (The Man Who Changed My Life) Stopped By and Had a Few Things to Say About Writing, Books, and Just Everything
I don't know that I've ever prefaced an interview before in the history of this website, but I do think it is necessary to note that this is "the" Joe Hill, the man who, along with Megan Abbott, "Alex Marwood," and Laura Lippman, helped change the direction of my life--mainly with his novel NOS4A2, but really, read everything he's written, honestly. I really hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did, and much thanks to Mr. Hill for answering these questions.
Matthew Turbeville: This is really pretty much a dream come true. I have loved your books for years—and even though while I was tempted to get into your earlier novels, it was NOS4A2 that eventually swept me away and changed my life. We’ll get to NOS4A2 in a bit, but first I just want to ask some basic questions. How did you get your start in writing? What was the very first thing you wrote, and what route did you take to get to where you are now, which is pretty much worldwide acclaim?
Joe Hill: Matt, thanks. You’re too kind.
At this point, it’s not much of a secret that I come from a family of writers. It’s not just my Dad – my mom is a damn fine novelist in her own right. I remember when I was twelve, I’d get home from school, my mother would be in her office, battering away at this tomato colored IBM electric typewriter that shivered like it had palsy. My Dad would be in his office working on his Wang Word Processor. With its eight-ball black screen and scifi green letters, that thing just looked like the future.
At a certain point I came to feel like that was what you were supposed to do with your day. You were supposed to sit in a room by yourself, and make things up, and eventually someone would pay you a lot of money for it. Which actually turned out to be true. So I guess I wrote my first novel when I was – fourteen? I think? It was, no surprise, a horror novel. It was titled Midnight Eats, and it was about cafeteria ladies making hamburger out of difficult students at a prep school. I really haven’t developed much as a writer, have I?
As for the route I took – I think it would best be described as “circuitous.” I was a very insecure kid. My dad is my idol: aside from being one of the most distinctive voices ever to come along in American letters, he’s also a great father. But I was afraid to be out there, recognized as his son. I worried that I’d write a lousy novel, and it would get published anyway, because a publisher saw a chance to make a quick buck in a famous last name. And that’s no good. That’s no way to build a long career. I needed to know, for myself, that when I sold a story, it sold for the right reasons, because it was good, not because I was Stephen King’s son.
So I stopped writing as Joseph King, started writing as Joe Hill, and began my collection of rejection letters. My plan to do it the hard way almost worked too well. I wrote four novels I could never sell, and came pretty close to calling it quits. Really the only reason I didn’t hang it up was because Marvel Comics bought an 11-page Spider-Manstory I had scripted. I figured if Marvel was willing to let me write Spidey, I must not be a complete no-talent.
Over the years, I sold some stories, got in a couple best of anthologies, and eventually placed a collection with a respected but small U.K. press. And in the process I learned my craft and got comfortable in my own skin. Eventually it came out about my family, but by then I had learned a couple things and built up my courage. It wasn’t a bad apprenticeship.
MT: You’ve written novels, short stories, novellas, graphic novels, and screenplays. Maybe more than that even. I can barely wrap my mind around working in one medium, so I have to ask: how do you manage so many different forms of writing and so successfully? Do you work on multiple projects at once, or are you strictly by the book and stick to one work at a time?
JH: The last answer was long, so I’ll make this one a bit briefer. I used to juggle two projects at once: a prose work in the morning, a comic in the evening. Most of Locke & Keywas written while juggling other projects. Nowadays, though, I try and stay focused on just one thing at a time. That turns out to be more productive.
I do feel that shifting between forms is a bit like the principal of crop rotation. After writing a novel, the field has been harvested for long prose fiction, and it’s time to plant something else, to revitalize the soil. So I’ll do a comic.
Also, I learned skills writing comics – things about pacing, about timing the reveal – that made me a better novelist. My work as a novelist helped me develop as a short story writer. One challenge helps build the skills to face the next.
MT: Your first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, has admittedly one of the most interesting and strangest concepts I’ve ever encountered, and it works so completely. This makes me ask one of the biggest questions: where do your ideas originate, how long do you let them simmer before they take shape and form into the work you eventually present to the world? Heart-Shaped Box—which, really, like all of your other works—is such an interesting and incredibly innovative idea, and I know our readers are wondering where stories like these come from.
JH: This is probably going to sound depressingly mercantile, but in genre fiction, the sale is made with the elevator pitch. “The hook” is what gets the publisher and the reader alike, and learning how to deliver one is an important skill. So: “Man buys a ghost on the internet.” Or the pitch for NOS4A2: “Man owns a car that runs on human souls instead of gasoline.” The Fireman: “a pandemic that kills people by spontaneous combustion spreads across the world, setting cities alight and burning hospitals to the ground.”
Tell you a secret, though. The hook isn’t that important. Readers fall in love with characters, not high concepts. The high concept gets them through the door, but the characters are what persuade them to stay. I think Heart-Shaped Boxworks, not so much because of the idea, but because the lead character, Judas Coyne, interests us. He’s this graying heavy metal musician who’s had it all – he’s made videos, played arenas, had platinum albums. And yet he’s angry and isolated and unsatisfied and why is that? Heart-Shaped Boxis really a mystery… not a whodunnit, but a whoishe? How did Judas Coyne wind up like he is, and is there any hope for him? It took about 300 pages to answer those questions.
MT: I am going to make a pretty blunt statement: With rare exceptions, I rarely read straight white men. And yet the women you write about are created with such clarity and complexity that you defy any preconceived notions I might have about you. Take Vic McQueen for example. In NOS4A2 we, the reader, get to see Vic transform through her whole life. Eventually she becomes a mother and a warrior, a lover and a woman hell-bent on defending anything that is hers. With all of your female characters, and with Vic in general, how do you tap into the mind of a sex separate from your own to create a character that does not stay stuck on the page but is completely alive?
JH: I’m reading this book by Yuval Harari, called Sapiens, and at one point he writes that most “of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.” I think that’s right. Being a man or a woman in this society – as in any society – is to participate in a cultural story. You accept that story, or you resist it, to varying degrees. I do feel it’s at least partly my job to figure out what makes stories tick, to understand them from the inside as best as I can.
If you’re going to write someone different from yourself, you try to do the homework, you recognize that people are individuals, not categories, and you accept you’ll never get it completely right. But it seems to me it’s important to try. Fiction is built on the promise that we can imagine our way out of our own skin, our own sexuality, our own experience, at least for a few pages. If the solipsists are right – if you can never understand anything but yourself, if we’re all hopelessly confined to our particular identity – then we all might as well stop reading books.
Maybe I’m being too intellectual. Here’s a simpler answer: writing gives me a chance to stop being myself for a couple hours every day. The older I get, the more of a relief it is to take off my Joe Hill suit and be someone else for a while: Vic McQueen or John Rookwood or Honeysuckle Speck. I’m boring and they aren’t.
MT: Speaking of women, you dedicate NOS4A2to your mother, who seems to have been one of your greatest inspirations ever. Including but not limited to other writers, what women have had the greatest impact on your life, and how do you feel they’ve shaped you in a way to enable you to create a character as alive as Vic McQueen?
JH: My wife is everything to me. She’s my calm place; my good sense; she forgives me when I can’t forgive myself; she helps me find my way home when I’m lost in the thicket. Also – and this is almost trivial compared to the rest of it – she’s one of the finest editors in the business and makes me look like a much better writer than I really am.
I was married previously, to one of the most tough-minded, funniest, and insightful people I’ve ever met. Our marriage didn’t work out – we were better at being friends than being a married couple – but we raised three pretty great kids together anyway.
Every single one of the books has been shaped by the fierce intelligence of Jennifer Brehl, who has been the guiding hand behind a really ridiculous number of successful novelists. I guess Hornsis my best known book, but let me tell you – the first draft was an unintelligible crapfest. Jen Brehl willedthat book into its final, much more successful form.
I’ve been surrounded by intelligent, keen-eyed, and witty women my whole life. My mother’s side of the family, the Spruces, is dominated by aggressively brilliant, Scrabble-playing, bullshit-calling women. As a reader, I’ve learned so much from the craft of writers like J.K. Rowling, Kate Atkinson, Laurie Colwin, Ruth Rendell, and, most recently, the astonishing Ali Smith. I’m still an amateur – I still have so much to discover. I’m the lifelong beginner.
MT: I started my own writing career as a screenwriter, but upon reading NOS4A2 and seeing how cinematic prose can be while, at the same time, layer the world you create with so much more complexity, I actually decided to change paths and pursue a former dream of mine: being a novelist. In the scene where—and I’ll try to avoid major spoilers here—Vic McQueen’s most precious possession is taken from her, and she is beaten pretty brutally—it’s all so visual. Every scene from the book ropes the reader in and the reader becomes a part of the book’s world, which is a steady evolution I’ve observed as you’ve moved from book to book. Can you talk to us about how NOS4A2 came into being, and how long of a road it was before you not only developed the characters and story, but also the style in which you could wholly absorb the reader?
JH: That’s a curiously hard question to answer. I’ve written four novels and it’s still a mystery to me how novels get made. With NOS4A2it was something like this:
One day I saw an old sleek silver car with a vanity plate: OLGHOST or something like that. And I started to think about a car that ran on souls instead of gas, a car that provides its driver with a certain immortality.
Then, a few months later, my iTunes was playing music on random, and a Christmas song came up in the middle of a hot July afternoon. It was so out of place it made my arms crawl with gooseflesh.
Around the same time, a friend drafted me to help rebuild his old 60s era Triumph motorcycle, and I sort of fell in love with the oily, battered, rusty ol’ machine.
And all these things added up, a little drip-drip of ideas that gradually piled into a novel.
As for my style, I think I’ve already noted I’m insecure. I’m always afraid of the reader getting bored and putting the book down and never picking it up again. We live in distracted times. There’s just so much out there: Netflix and Twitter and Xbox. Over time I’ve come to believe the only way to keep people reading is to put them in suspense as fast as possible and keep them there; pile it on if possible. You don’t look away when someone is crawling out along a ledge ten stories up, in a high wind, to reach a stranded kitten. I get my hero out on the ledge as fast as possible, and then the kitten turns around and claws him across the face.
As a side note, I also thought about being a screenwriter for a while, and I also changed my mind after reading a novel that lit my imagination on fire. In my case it was Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses.
MT: Your last major novel was The Fireman. You’ve followed it with Strange Weather, a series of novellas. These are two very different works, and to come back to back it’s interesting to see how rapidly you can switch from one mode to the other. How do you decide what story needs to be told, how to tell it, and when to deliver that story to your reader?
JH: In some ways, I just felt like after two 700+ page novels, it was time to get short again, to practice economy.
But that suggests I made a conscious choice, and I really didn’t. I wrote “Snapshot” while I was on tour for NOS4A2. I was sick of my phone and wanted to do something creative, so I bought a notebook and started writing. And the story just kind of gushed out. NOS4A2was like a seismic event and “Snapshot” was the aftershock. And the same pattern repeated itself with “Aloft,” which was written immediately after I finished the first draft of The Fireman. I wrote The Firemanlonghand in seven notebooks. When I finished, there was still about half a blank notebook left… just enough space for a novella. And that’s how it went. I’d finish a big job, then turn to a smaller one, and eventually I wound up with this quartet of very short novels.
MT: Your work encompasses so many genres, but you often remain true to your horror roots. I could be wrong here, but to me, the thing that seems scariest about both your protagonists and your villains is how you are able to let each character inhabit the human spectrum completely. We have empathy and understanding juxtaposed with villainy, creating truly complex characters who inhabit most of your work. That’s one aspect of your writing which truly scares me. One writer introduced your collection 20thCentury Ghostsby saying your true art is remaining subtle in everything you do. What do youthink is the real secret to scaring people so intensely?
JH: A lot of people believe horror fiction is about the gross out, about blasting the audience with a firehose of gore. I’ve got nothing against a firehose of gore… go ahead and paint the town red, that’s my view.
But at bottom, successful scary fiction is about empathy. You find a few characters you love and that the reader will love. Characters you want to linger with, people who make you laugh, who make you happy. Then you hang them over a woodchipper. Horror is about seeing people you care about face the worst, confront the darkest stuff life can throw at a person, and hoping with all your heart they’ll pull through.
The better question is whydo people get addicted to those kinds of stories? You could write a book on that subject – except someone already has. A Danish literary theorist named Mathias Clasen covered it in Why Horror Seduces, easily the most important survey of the genre since Danse Macabre.
MT: As mentioned, you often write horror stories, or works that deal with horror. What’s the scariest book and scariest movie you’ve ever seen? Is there any genre you haven’t tried yet that you’d be interested in trying out?
JH: I think we’re living through the scariest movie ever made right now: the most powerful nation in the history of the world, with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, is now ruled by an ignorant sociopath with all the self-control of a hyper fifth grader and the personal ethics of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.
Ahem, excuse me. Let me try that question again.
Scariest book: I’ve got a couple candidates. Sometimes when I’m asked this question, I say The Collectorby John Fowles. Other times I say ITby my da’. Both answers are true. The Haunting of Hill Houseis also the scariest book I’ve ever read. I’m allowed to have a three-way tie, right? Peter Straub’s Ghost Storyand Susan Hill’s Woman In Blackfeel like they’re in the ring too.
Scariest movie: Of this century? Either It FollowsorHereditary. Of the last century? Probably The Exorcist, although if you wanted to argue for John Carpenter’s The Thing, I’d be open to that. That said, the two most importanthorror films ever are the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In this case, “important” is defined by influence.
What other genres would I like to try? I don’t feel like I have any say over it. My subconscious just throws the next ball and I run after it like a trained dog. Whatever genre that is, that’s what I’m writing.
MT: We all know by now which of your books is my favorite, and it’s not something I’m ashamed to admit. I think any true fan of any artist in any medium has a favorite. Which of your novels or stories or novellas, etc, are you most proud of and fond of, and why? When you wrote your first book, and in attempting to get it published, what was the most difficult hurdle you had to overcome?
JH: I think fondly on just about all of ‘em. I have a hard time looking at HORNS– I got divorced and had a nervous breakdown while I was writing that book. That was the hardest, biggest hurdle of my life. I just didn’t know if I could finish another novel. I knew one thing: I’d rather be a one novel writer, than follow Heart-Shaped Boxwith something that sucked.
Here’s how I got the book written, in the end. A friend let me stay in an unfurnished cottage – literally nothing in the entire place except a desk and a chair. And every day I’d sit there with a copy of Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce. And I would slowly, carefully, copy two or three pages of his book. It was like I was learning how to write sentences all over again, like I was coming back from a mild stroke. After I had copied a couple pages, I was warmed up, and then I’d turn to Hornsand start working on that. And gradually, stubbornly, the story showed me where it wanted to go. Eventually, when I was about halfway through, I no longer needed Elmore Leonard to help me along.
Oddly, I don’t think Hornsreads anything like an Elmore Leonard novel. But I’m not sure. I can’t bear to reread it. I’m proud ofHorns, and I’m so, so glad it found an audience and people enjoy it. But it just makes me sad… looking at it reminds me of how unhappy I was when I wrote it. I wildly prefer the movie. I’d take Daniel Radcliffe acting his heart out over my novel six times a week and twice on Sundays.
MT: There’s a quote attributed to many different famous authors, mostly about writing the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. I ask a lot of authors this question, as it’s one of the most interesting questions to me. Do you think you’ve written the book you’ve always wanted to read and have never found, and if so, which novel or story or novella would that be?
JH: There are a lot of books I’d love to have written: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The House With A Clock In Its Walls, Watership Down, The Song of Achilles. But I can’t write anyone else’s books, only my own. And my own are never the books I hoped I’d write. They’re always a surprise to me.
MT: You’re also famous for writing the Locke & Keygraphic novels. How long have you been a fan of graphic novels, what are your favorite graphic novels, and how did this opportunity present itself to you? What about this storyline made you decide that it had to be presented in this form as opposed to all the other forms you’ve written in, and would you say that writing a graphic novel is more or less challenging than, say, a novel?
JH: Aside from my parents, as a kid, and as a young man, the writers who mattered the most to me were all comic book writers, and mostly British: Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, non-Brit Frank Miller. Chris Clairmont presented a world of profound diversity – racial, sexual, religious – and I fell in love with it and wanted to live in that world myself. I just always had a very comic book imagination. Several of my stories – “Pop Art”, “Aloft” – feel to me almost like comic books without pictures. And I often point out that I was a comic book writer myself before I was a novelist.
Locke & Keystarted as a comic book pitch. It never even crossed my mind to attempt it as a novel. I offered to Marvel first. They passed on it – but I didn’t. I daydreamed about the thing for two years, coming up with new keys, developing new ideas about the house. By the time I offered it to IDW, I had a pretty good foundation in place. Then I began working with Gabriel Rodriguez, who brought Keyhouse and Lovecraft, Massachusetts, to incredible life. I knew the history of the house; I knew what the keys could do; but I didn’t know who my heroes were until Gabe showed them to me. I learned as much about the characters from the way he drew them as he did from anything I wrote about them. It’s important to remember that Gabe and I told that story together. It’s not mine. It’s ours. As a random aside, Gabe designed my wedding ring (and oddly shares the same initials as my wife’s name, before she took mine).
At least for me, writing comics is much easier than writing novels. I feel more comfortable writing comics than I do anything else – more sure of my footing, more in control of the story. I’ve heard Neil Gaiman say the same thing.
MT: One question that’s always bothered me and several of my readers, many of your fans, is the issue of how a true artist develops and where a great writer might come from. I myself come from a place called Hogeye, S.C., and am one of these people wondering if I truly have a place in the writing community when none of my ancestors (to my knowledge) were writers or scholars or artists of any sort. Other than your parents, were any of your grandparents or ancestors before artists? Where do you think the true ability to write, and write well, comes from?
JH: If you love to write, if sometimes you can get down a sentence or a scene that excites you, one that flashes through your imagination like a stroke of lightning – then you’ve got it in you to be a writer of some sort, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your parents or grandparents did. For myself, I write first as a kind of conscious, meditative practice. I do it to know myself, to know my own mind. Hammering out a clean, precise sentence makes me a better thinker. Imagining my way into other people’s lives helps me to understand the world. If you write, and it makes you happy, and helps center you, then it’s worth doing, regardless of any external success. Or anyway, that’s what I think.
As for whether or not you have the natural talent to be a writer – I think it’s much more unusual to have no talent at all. Most people have a little bit of an ear for music; a sense for how to tell a story or a joke; an ability to recognize a striking image. The only way to find out how far your talent can take you is to patiently develop it, with a bit of good humor and as little ego as possible.
MT: I’m sure all of our readers are dying to know just as much as I am what’s next for you. I’ve seen a few projects rumored, but I’m wondering if you’ll confirm any future novels or other projects in the coming years? With the hell this country is going through, we could certainly use some more Joe Hill in our lives.
JH: You’re very, very kind.
The Firemanwas a big epic novel. I followed it with a book of four novellas. Next will be another 20thCentury Ghostsstyle collection: a book of ten stories. I’m the incredible shrinking writer! I’ll probably follow that with my first ever book of haiku.
It looks like I’ll be getting back into comics in a heavy kind of way for a couple years, too. But I’m not allowed to give any details on that, not yet.
MT: Speaking of the hell our country is going through, just hypothetically, if you could give the president one of your books to read (and assuming he would actually read the work) what would that be? What would you hope he would take away from the work? What about novels or collections or any works by any other authors? What do you think the president needs to read most now, at this point in our nation’s history?
JH: Waste of a time. I doubt he’s ever read a book in his life. Sincerely. The only thing he needs to read the articles of impeachment, on his way out the door.
I hope any of your right-leaning readers won’t think I’m utterly against all conservatives. I think there have been several really admirable folks on the right: the late John McCain and the eccentric and irascible Bill Weld to name two. I just don’t think any political party ought to play footsie with a wanna-be autocrat who treats women with such degrading contempt and who seems so inclined to cozy up to crooks.
MT: Your novels have changed lives. Your stories and novellas and graphic novels and anything else you’ve even scribbled down has likely changed countless lives. I know that must feel great, and I just want to personally thank you for contributing so much to the world through your art. I’ve taken up enough of your time, but thank you so much for stopping long enough to answer a few questions. If you’d like, feel free to leave any comments, questions, thoughts, or ideas as we close. Thank you so much, Joe. This has been an immense pleasure.
JH: Oh my goodness. Thank you. I wish you the very best of luck with your own work. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.