Joe Hill Remembers Where He Came From (Part One)
Photo: Gage Skidmore
Craig Spector, one of the founders of splatterspunk, once explained to me in an interview that the splatterpunks were people who "had grown up reading Stephen King."
Joe Hill is not a splatterpunk, but he grew up the same.
And that's part of the problem.
Because, although Hill, 43, has built a reputation with stories that presented worlds that dance across the line between weird and horror, whimsical and drop-dead-series, that can resonate on any number of levels, it’s "Stephen King's son" that often jumps into people's minds when they encounter Hill, whose birth name is Joseph King but took on the nom de plume when he started selling in order to build a career outside his father's large shadow. He did it, he's said in numerous interviews, because although he might sell a book based on his famous name, he was sure that, if the book was a clunker, there wouldn't be a second novel in him; not one that people would want to read, anyway.
But every interview, every article, every review, has been compelled to mention the Hill-King connection (like this very article!) because to not do so would seem to be ignoring a large facet of how the public sees Joe Hill.
Hill takes it in stride; since 2013, with the publication of his third novel NOS4A2, he's been quite open about his father's influence, often citing his father's work in any official discussion lasting longer than five or ten minutes.
While he's doing this, he's also writing, publishing novels (his fourth, The Fireman, is out this month), short stories, finishing his critically-acclaimed comic series Locke and Key, or seeing his works transition to the small and large screen, like the long-gestating Locke and Key adaptation or the underrated Horns film which stared Daniel Radcliffe and Joe Anderson.
Here, in the first part of a long interview, Hill and I discuss working with other creators, genre-jumping (and the effect it has on marketing with books and film), how Ig in Horns was like Deadpool, and creating a threat in every scene you write.
We met six years ago and it was because of you and I talking at a reading before the show that I got into Lev Grossman. A month or so after we talked, I picked it up and fell absolutely in love with his work, and now I don't have SyFy, so I can't see [his] show.
[laughs] Yeah, I cut the cable years ago. Might have to download an episode.
Yeah, but, y'know, something like that, you always worry it's going to change your perception of how you saw it in your head [versus] when you read it so many years ago. Of course, you had Horns and Locke and Key—
As far as adaptations go, and especially TV adaptations, I almost think that, if you read the source material of Game of Thrones or 11/22/63 or The Walking Dead or anything that started life on the page, and then became a show, don't you almost feel like the readers want it to be its own thing, a little bit, at some point? Otherwise, after you read all the books, after a couple of years, wouldn't you start to say, if it was REALLY faithful, that there's no surprise here?
Oh no, I don't disagree with that at all. I got started on The Walking Dead [with] the source material. I was talking with a friend who's a big fan of the show, but not a fan of the comic, and I felt terrible saying this, but in a certain way, Scott Gimple, the showrunner of TWD...I actually enjoy HIS writing more than I did at certain points reading Kirkman's and I felt TERRIBLE about it, like—
—they handled transitions of character better, and I enjoyed seeing—okay, they're doing THIS, and they're going in THIS direction, and it almost felt a little like sacrilege as a writer, myself.
But when talented people get their hands on some GOOD interesting source material, this is what you always hope for with an adaptation. In a sense, this is a little bit different, but in some ways it's the same when I would write scripts for Locke and Key. I always felt that Gabriel Rodriguez, who illustrated the comic, would make it so much more interesting and exciting than what was in my own head. They were very faithful, he was very faithful to what was in the script, but somehow he always managed to FIND that extra telling detail that would give the image more power than I ever could've hoped for.
So in some ways I don't think it's taking away from Kirkman to say that this other guy took his stories, took his characters, and when he scripted the show, you were really involved. He found a way to convert plutonium to an explosion, that's all. Kirkman provided him with the raw ore and he figured out how to make it explode.. I think more often it doesn't work out that way—
—but every once in a while you do get that fusion and one artist is able to build on what another artist did in a really exciting way.
Well, and you and Gabriel—from what I understand in other interviews—you guys really had a partnership. You would actually sit down and bounce ideas off each other.
I'll tell you what's funny about that. Fox filmed the Locke and Key pilot for the TV show that never aired. Gabe and I both met in Pittsburgh where they were filming the show and we were both there for about a week—and, by the way, the pilot came out wonderfully, it was a beautiful pilot, looked like mid-period Spielberg; it's a real heartbreaker it didn't get on the air.
But the thing about the shooting of the show, [was that] it was great to see the making of the program, but the best part of that experience was at the end of the day when Gabe and I would go back to the hotel bar and we would sit and talk about the comic book. Over the course of that week, him and I together blocked out most of the backstory and the whole end of the comic and it was very much US. It wasn't MY story and MY blueprint; it was OUR story and OUR blueprint and several of the most critical ideas of the final seven issues were Gabe's pitches, of Gabe saying, "What if we did this?" and me going, "Oh my God, that's brilliant!" So that is the kind of the collaboration you hope for.
I'm proud of the novels, I'm proud of the short stories, I'm proud of the comics, my good feelings about my own work are pretty evenly spread around. I feel pretty happy about what I've done. But in terms of what was the most FUN to work on? I don't know if I'll ever have a project that'll be as fun to work on as Locke and Key. It was like being in a band. It was like having a rock band. I was the drummer and Gabe was the cool lead guitarist, and Robbie Robbins was the vocalist and Jay Fotos played keyboards, and Chris Ryall, who was the editor, was the bassist. It just always felt like we were feeding off each other. We were always sort of chiming together. And, y'know, writing is lonely. It's not like that.
When you started Locke and Key, did you go out and say, "Hey, I'm willing to take ideas" or did you have a kind-of ownership and, as you guys worked together, over the course of six, seven books—
We grew together. Not too far from my house, there's this weird tree with a power cable going right through it and somehow the tree's growing around the power cable. And that was kinda like me and Gabe. We sort of grew together. But, initially—so I wrote four novels I was never able to sell. And over the course of the decade, I wrote these four books that went nowhere and I got to the point, in my late-20s or early-30s, of feeling like I didn't have a novel in me, that maybe I had taken my best swing and I just wasn't able to be a novelist. But I had written a whole bunch of short stories that made me happy, that I was proud of; a couple of them had won prizes or gotten into best-of collections. And a lot of those stories got the attention of a talent scout at Marvel Comics.
She invited me to write an eleven-page Spider-Man story. And THAT was my big break. I remember feeling like when I got that—y'know, this is okay. I had a dream I was going to be a novelist, and that wasn't going to pan out, but I get to be a comic book writer and that sounds pretty awesome.
You get to tell stories.
I could wind up writing Ghost Rider and be a completely happy man. So I did Spider-Man and that was my first published comic and I was really excited. I had a great experience working on it. Instantly, of course, I wanted to do more and so I gave Marvel a series of pitches and none of those pitches went anywhere. I pitched DC, I pitched Dark Horse, and none of that went anywhere. One of the pitches, though, was a haunted house story about a house filled with impossible keys and every key unlocked a different door and activated a different supernatural power. And that pitch stuck in my head. I was a young father at the time and it always seemed like we ran out of diapers at eleven in the evening.
I know that feeling.
I'd go out at eleven in the evening, completely exhausted, just cruising around and getting diapers. My mind would drift back to the haunted house story and I would think up a new key. So I was writing the story in my head for two or three years.
I've read the first two books of Locke and Key so far.
I really feel like I found my stride in the third book. I think the first two were good, but in the first two I can sense myself working hard, [but] by the third book I'd figured out how to glide. I'd figured out how to make it really easy and fun and like I knew what I was doing.
Was it an increase in confidence—like, hey, the stories are working? Was it an increase of the collaboration with Gabriel?
It was all that but it was also familiarity with the form because I was doing it over and over again. Every month I had to turn in another 22-page script to keep it going and what happened was my brain started to function automatically so I would hit certain beats at exactly the right moment. That didn't happen at first; at first, I had to fight to make the scripts flow correctly, to make things happen at the right time, to figure out how to pace an issue. But, by the time I started working on Locke and Key: Crown of Shadows, everything happened when it was supposed to, just sort of unconsciously. By then, I had absorbed the basic rules of the form, so I could get out of my way and just have fun.
Writers always talk about building a ritual when they talk about writing in general. So, by Crown of Shadows you had felt this had become ingrained in you? Like, "Okay, this is how it's going to go now?"
I was also familiar with the characters. I had learned about them as I wrote them, and so in every situation, I began to instinctively see how that unique person would react. Which also made things easier. I think this is also why novels are always so hard. Because it's difficult to form that ritual, to make it a ritualized experience because every book needs its own rituals. The problem with writing a novel is that every novel is completely—doesn't matter how many novels you've written before it—the new novel is a completely unique set of puzzles and problems that have nothing to do with anything you did in any of the other books. This is always why they're worth writing. It's invigorating and a little scary and fun and [it takes] a certain amount of sweat to get it right. You can learn when you're writing a comic book, it has a kind of ritualized form. Like writing a sonnet. But there is no RIGHT way to write a novel. A comic book HAS to be 22 pages long. But a novel can by any number of pages long—it can be a 150 pages, or it could be a two volumes long. It could be a 1,000 pages long.
What you're saying is reminding me of something Neil Gaiman wrote in his introduction to American Gods. He had finished a draft of the novel and he was talking to a sci-fi writer—I wanna say it's Gene Wolfe—and he said, "Ah, I figured out how to write a novel." And the writer he was talking to said, "No, you figured out how to write THIS novel."
YES. That's right, that's right, that's right. Sometimes I think this is why with almost every novel I've worked on, I've had this experience of struggling for 18 months to write the first third of the book, and then I'm able to write the next two-thirds of the book in six months. I don't know exactly what that is, but at some point, there's this incredible thing where you're able to figure out the characters and the situations and to make the beginning of the book flow properly so that it's entertaining to read. You fall into a groove and the rest of the book is easy to write.
Do you think it's sometimes—there are many writers who think that stories are almost found objects, and do you think that struggle is you being introduced to the characters, to this world you've created? It takes time to feel your way, to learn the customs and the currency.
Yeah, yeah. I think there are a few specific problems, but one specific problem is that I'll come up with a situation and that's usually where the starting point of the story is. Like, with The Fireman, I thought—what if there was a plague of spontaneous combustion? What if there was some stuff you could get on you and you couldn't get it off, and it responds to you emotionally, so when you feel anxiety, when you feel stress, it starts to smolder? And if you can't control your fear, you burst into flames. That was the driving concept of The Fireman. So the concept, that's the most fun and the easiest part of the process.
But then you have to have characters, and the characters have to—it doesn’t matter how good your idea is—the characters have to MEAN something to you. You have to kinda love them—maybe even your villains, you have to love a little bit—but you have to love your heroes. You have to be curious about your villains. You have to get to know them a little bit. It's like getting to know anyone; you can't know them all that quickly and you have to see them in a variety of environments and situations.
I write a lot of material just getting into the book and, over time, I've learned not to feel bad about that because I need to write that material to figure out who these people are. When I get to a tipping point where the book becomes easier to write, and more fun to write, that’s because my sense of who these people are has solidified and I'm able to find that state of flow much more easily because all I have to do is put them in a situation and I'll know how they'll behave, but I can't see that at first. And I have to develop a lot of material, probably 80% of which I won't use, to figure out how they feel about things and how they see the world.
But I can see how there can be other problems. I haven't had this that much. Sometimes, in short stories, I've experimented with the language itself or with the presentation. I've done something unusual in terms of form, and I can see how that would also be an additional challenge that might slow you down. But a certain book, like writing a style that's new to you, and writing in that style is new, and developing that style can be very challenging. Like I said, I think all my books are written in the same voice but the short stories not so much. The short stories there's a little more range in terms of form. And I've certainly written some stories where the form itself presented some challenges.
Like "The Devil on the Staircase" or "Twittering from the Circus of the Dead".
Yes. Exactly. "Twittering from the Circus of the Dead" is a great example of a story that was written in tweets. I was an early adopter of Twitter and it did seem like there were fewer people and it was a little more original when I did it. A lot of people are writing Twitter stories now. But, anyway, that was interesting to do. It was interesting to see if I could construct a narrative completely in tweet-form. "Devil on the Staircase" has this thing where every paragraph on the page visually appears to be a staircase.
I couldn't figure out how you did that. I have the hardcover and when I got to yours, yours is the closer, and I remember sitting there after I read it and thinking, "The editing of this story must've been the thing that set it" because I couldn't figure out how you did it until the post-edit.
What's really funny is that "The Devil on the Staircase" HAS to be published in a font like Courier because Courier is a monotype and every letter takes up the exact same size. If you switched to a font like Geneva, the staircase gets all fucked up. It wouldn't work anymore.
It was interesting because when I was in editing, when they sent me the proof pages of my story, I tried to fix it so it was in staircases again, and I couldn't do it because it was all mangled up. I worked on it for about three days and finally I called up my editor and I said, "Hey, listen, we're going to have to do something here, because I'm completely rewriting this story from scratch to make it work visually." And gradually they realized what they had to do to make the story work on the page. So actually it's the only story in that book that appears in Courier font.
When you're flipping through [Stories, the anthology "Devil" appears in], it jumps out at you. If you flip from right to left, you go through the contributors' backgrounds, and you're looking around and you see Joyce Carol Oates or Lawrence Block or whatever and all of a sudden you see this weird, fucked-up design.
And you HAVE to stop and read passages of your story because it ALWAYS catches the eye because of all the white space juxtaposed with the stairs.
Yeah. I knew that Neil would appreciate that. Neil edited Stories and I knew he did that because he likes to screw around with form, too, and he's got a lot of short stories where he's done vented, strange, things with form. He did one recently—not in Trigger Warning, but in the one before that—where I think it was a numbered list, it was a story as a numbered list. They go to this weird circus in London and it's a list of all the weird things they see in each room. And I remember the moment I got done reading that I thought, "Okay, I have to write a list story." And I still haven't done it but ever since that I've thought I have to do a story that's a numbered list.
Does that ever come to you, where you'll see an interesting thing and you don't have an idea, you just kind of tuck it into the back of your mind, like "Save this for later."
Yeah, that happens. You wanna know what's frustrating? It would be great, I would love to write a couple of 300-word stories because I just think they're cool. I just think that little flash fictions, little vignettes, are cool. But I've never been able to do that. Most of my stories tend to be between 6,000 and 10,000 word short stories. And then the novels are all over the place in terms of length. The Fireman is long, NOS4A2 is long. Heart Shaped Box and Horns were a little shorter.
But what's weird is if I'm in a situation where I HAVE to do something at a certain length, it just happens. Like, "Oh, okay, I'll do this." But I can't TRICK myself into this, I HAVE to be in a situation where I have to produce that. I auctioned off to a charity, I said, "I'll write you a personal short story, a one-page short story." I didn't know what I'd do. Some guy paid—I dunno, $3,500? $5,000? I didn't actually think anyone would buy it. Someone bought a one-page short story just for them. So then I had to come up with something and I had an idea almost right away. I didn't have an idea until I actually sold the story. But as soon as I found out that I was on the hook for one, the next day I had an idea. I sat down, I wrote it, I did a second draft, I sent the second draft. It was one sheet of paper, two sided, but I could ONLY do that when I HAD to do it. I couldn't just say to myself today, "Tomorrow I'm gonna write a 500 word short story." It wouldn't be like that; it would wind up being a 3,000 word short story.
I can totally appreciate that. A friend of mine, Jamie Lackey, she's more in fantasy—it's like she can't write short stories, she can only write these beautiful flash pieces. I can't do that. Whenever I try, it always comes off, like "There's MORE to the story. There has to be MORE to the story!"
And you're missing so much of the guts that essentially you have this really beautiful mannequin that can't DO anything.
Y'know, I don't work from prompts very often. I'm too slow when I don't commit to that, so I go with my own ideas and then look for a market. But I did a panel once with a fantasy writer named Seanan McGuire. Man, she is AWESOME, she is really cool, and her stories are really cool. I LOVE her fiction. I included one of her stories, "A Mermaid's Story," in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. And she said the story developed from a prompt where an editor said, "We need you to write a mermaid story" and she said, okay. She said she's terrible at thinking up concepts for short stories or novels, she's a terrible idea person, unless she has a prompt. But if you tell her, "Nazi Dinosaur", she'll come up with the best Nazi dinosaur story.
That seems so counterintuitive.
It does, but, I kinda understood it. Like, I like a good prompt, too. I remember early on, I had a few published short stories that had done okay and received some decent notice. A woman named Jeanne Cavealos had announced she was going to do an anthology of Van Helsing stories. And I thought, "I want in that anthology." That's happening. I'm gonna place a story with this market. So I sat down and I thought, I HAVE to write a story about Van Helsing. What's my Van Helsing story? And I came up with a story called "Abraham's Boys", about Abraham Van Helsing's sons addressing the fact that they believe their father was a vindictive madman who had a weird obsession with driving stakes through the hearts of dead bodies. And I did sell the story and it came out pretty well and it wound up in 20th Century Ghosts.
But that was one where I NEVER would've written about Van Helsing if I hadn't had a prompt. And then I had a prompt and very quickly I thought, Okay, what can I do about Van Helsing? What Van Helsing story can I write that ONLY I can write and I had something very quickly. So prompts can be a lot of fun.
It's weird for me. In my day job, I'm an English teacher and so I have to come up with prompts A LOT. And when it's nonfiction—prompts for nonfiction are GREAT for me. But when it comes to fiction, or if there's a call for an anthology with an actual prompt, I wrack my brains.
Or when I'm invited to write something—like, "Hey, can you write something for this thing, we're doing this thing"—and I'll wrack my brains out. Even if it gets published and they go, "We love it!" I will HATE IT because it felt like I was PULLING it of me.
See, I have a little of the same thing, only it's for nonfiction. Whenever I'm commanded to contribute an essay, I almost never know how to go into it. The only essays that I've ever written that I've ever been really happy with—and I guess I've written a few that I've been happy with, some book reviews and stuff—but generally the one way where I can write an essay, where it's easy, is when it starts as a tweet, but it's too long. I've got some idea there that's too long for a tweet. So I'll start writing it as a post in Tumblr, and it just keeps going and before you know it I've got, like, 3,000 words about something. It's usually a rant. It's usually a screed of some kind and then it turns into something about films or comics. Hopefully it's not too terrible, but at least that's easy to write. That's the one time essays come together for me.
If you wouldn't mind talking about Horns for just a second—
One of the things that I found interesting was that critics and audiences loved the genre-jumping and tone and romance in the book, but critics of the movie couldn't figure out how to respond to it because Aja KEPT that tone. He NAILED the tone, and critics and audience were, like, "Am I supposed to be sad? Scared? Laughing?" and that drove me nuts. What do you think about that because he NAILED it, to me.
I think it's a marketing issue. The thing is, in the '60s and '70s, people made movies that were emotionally complex, where you had a variation in mood. You look at Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and you have romance, and you have comedy, and you have action, and ultimately you have a very desperate, dusty sort of tragedy. All those elements are there, and the movie pinballs very effortlessly between moods and all those highs and lows. Maybe because there was just less competition back then, there was only one movie opening every weekend, and so it was easier to get people in.
In the modern day, no one wants to make a movie like that. When you do a comedy, you DO a comedy—you know, wall-to-wall, joke-a-minute, grossout humor; we're STAYING funny. If you do an action movie, you certainly wouldn't slow down. You wouldn't have the scene where Newman romances Ella with the bicycle. But, of course, they're not sleeping together, she's sleeping with Redford, and they get into that emotional romantic triangle the three of them had. You just wouldn't have that. You've gotta keep the bus moving at 65-miles-per hour. You would never slow down for something like that in a modern action movie.
No, seriously. There're so many movies, you have to hit one tone, and you have to hit it at eleven, for 90 minutes—or, anymore, two and a half hours.
Absolutely. That's because that's what they know how to sell. They have to be able to sell something like that—hard, hard, hard—to cut through the noise to get people to come in. It's easy to blame the film companies for obsessing on this kind of marketing, but in some ways, they're doing it because that's what they HAVE to do. I have to give Mandelay and the film companies credit for even MAKING Horns, which was sort of a weird choice. It seemed like it had so many uncommercial elements it was surprising that they made it at all.
And they got Radcliffe and Juno—
—Temple and Joe Anderson—
Oh, Joe Anderson's great.
Maybe we could've been saved. The marketing team behind Horns came up with the greatest slogan of all time, but the film had already been released when they came up with it. It was already out on VOD. I wish I had come up with it because I would've sold 1 billion copies of the book if we'd been able to put this tagline on the cover. What they came up with was "Horns: Grow a pair."
That's brilliant. [laughs]
[laughs] Oh my god, dude. That would've been so awesome. That would've been SO awesome. I think that it WAS hard for them to figure out how to sell it because essentially—and this is true of the book as well—the first act is a very bleak, black comedy. The second act is this story of childhood wonder and first love. And the third act is this bloody horror revenge movie.
Mixed in with all the mystery.
Right. Mixed in with this kind of Patricia Highsmith dark mystery. And I think that readers are more comfortable with books that zing around genres. And publishers are more comfortable with it because that describes a lot of books. Like, a LOT of books cover a range of emotional territory and a range of moods. If readers didn't like that kind of thing, a writer like John Irving couldn't have a career. But the audience of readers is very small and the audience of films, by necessity, has to be very large, so if a hundred thousand people read your book, you've got a big bestseller on your hands. That's a big fucking deal in the publishing business. If a hundred thousand people go see your movie, you're certainly not going to finish in the top ten that week. That's not a really successful movie. You've gotta have a couple million people show up to see your film. Same with TV.
As an audience member, a reader, a writer, there are a lot of angles in books, [so there are] a lot of angles in book marketing. If you have that in a movie or film or TV show or miniseries, you [then] HAVE those angles to [market] with, too, but a lot of it seems to be left behind. Instead you might get, "Okay, we might have a funny one-liner in Expendables 4"
Right. Exactly. [laughs]
—Or Deadpool will mock the fact there's a very big undercurrent of romance because it came out on Valentine's Day, but it's always kinda tongue-in-cheek. Like, "Oh yeah, we have THIS." Whereas with books, you have a much bigger canvas.
You know what's funny? In terms of temperament and mood, there's not that much difference between Deadpool and Horns. They're actually kinda similar. You've got this broken love, this broken romance, and this guy who's been deformed and acquired unique powers—but Deadpool's a superhero story. And if Horns is kind of a superhero story—
It's kinda, yeah.
—the Devil is the original superhero. He's the guy who's got a cape, he had a costume, he had superpowers. He even had—like, Thor's got his hammer; the Devil's got his pitchfork.
...And he's freeing people...
He's freeing people, that's right! This is the thing, you have this megalomaniacal dictator holding two naked hostages in a jungle prison. And the Devil turns up and he frees them both. He educates them, he wakes them up to their own sexuality, which is kinda awesome. So, yeah, the Devil's totally a superhero. But they didn't sell it that way, and they should've. I guess now we're—shit, I'm just realizing now that we should've sold it as a superhero story.
You should've. And the promo material, you could've had Radcliffe dress in very traditional Devil's-ware.
Yeah, y'know one thing we missed is we didn't get a chance to get Daniel into the blue dress. Because people forget—
[laughs] He probably would've done it.
He would've done it in a heartbeat! He would've loved that shit! I KNOW he would've loved that shit! The hero Ig in the book—there're desperate battles and bloody revenge and all that stuff happens with Ig in a nice blue cocktail gown.
That's after he gets burned by Lee, isn't it? He ends up in the cocktail dress?
Yeah. He's also been burned, all the hair's been burned off his body. Otherwise, he's in great shape. I think in some ways, if there's a misstep in the film, after he gets burned up, he comes out of the water and he's all melted—sorta like horribly deformed—and I sometimes think they should've stayed with the idea that fire purifies him. So, when he comes out of the water, he's glowing and red, and REALLY looks like the devil.
I mean, in the book—you'd said in another interview that [this book] is about becoming a threat—and he comes out of the water and he is the fucking THREAT now.
Right, exactly. Then he is. But there, they might've felt that we don't want him to come off as the role [of the devil] until the very end. So we don't want him to come out of the water looking tougher than ever. We want him to come out of the water looking weaker than ever. Which is kinda hard to argue with. Probably did make some sense. I still think that would've been the moment you see him assuming all the powers of the Devil and looking like a true regal Satanic badass.
I read in an interview when doing background, around the time of Heart Shaped Box, and you said that you just kept throwing shit at the guy and seeing how he got out of it. And it's the same way with Ig—like, you kept throwing shit that you kinda expect, "NOW he's gonna be a badass!", but then someone else would come along and kick him in the nuts.
It wasn't until the very end, when he went after Lee—finally Merrin's father understands and NOW he's the threat. But he had to go through a fucking shitstorm—not even in the year since Merrin's murder, but just since waking up with the horns. And the same thing with Jude. Actually, you just like putting ALL your characters through the strainer. In NOS4A2, you kick the shit out of Vic the entire time—
Yeah. But I think—isn't that how a good suspense story works? I mean, I always feel like the ultimate model of this relentless suspense adventure story is Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indy takes a beating in scene after scene. I do feel that if something isn't under threat in every scene, then why are you writing that scene? It's almost, like—now, in this scene the character is gonna have some refreshing, happy sex; a terrific meal; and a nap—we don't need to hear that part because we don't want to know about the good stuff. We wanna know about what the next situation this character finds themselves in. Where they have to struggle to survive.
So I tend to feel the most confident when I'm writing a scene where the character's life is in peril. And it doesn't have to be their physical life. You can bring more imagination to that. If it's their emotional life, we still feel that that's life or death. If it's their spiritual life, we still read that as a life or death situation. It's flawed—I have some criticisms of it—but I go back to the Michael Crichton novel Disclosure, where the only thing at risk in the course of that book is this man's career. But his job means everything to him. It's life or death because his job IS his life. And so, I think that that's what's satisfying to the reader: the feeling that they're being propelled along because the stakes are life and death.
But you have to have that break up with a little bit of comedy. I'm going back to Horns, briefly—and actually another writer—but you juxtapose Ig almost drowning in the flashback, when you talk about them being kids, with him going buckass-naked down the hill on the back of a cart. You need that up and down. And I always think of the opening scene of Richard Stark's The Outfit, where he wakes up after—you were talking about that divine lay—and he hears the click of a gun and he rolls instantly before the .22 hits the pillow. It's like, "Ah, this is so great!" Now, let's make it fucking worse.
Yeah. [laughs] Well, I think that the comedy—there's a lot of comedy in The Fireman. Some of that is my own view of how people are. With The Fireman, you have an Apocalyptic novel—real end-of-the-world type stuff. And mostly in end-of-the-world stories, things are pretty grim. I go back to The Road by Cormac McCarthy—
Yes, that book destroyed me.
Yeah, and me, too! And I love Cormac McCarthy and I love that book. I mean, it's the end of the world, things are so desperate, and there's one scene we come across the degenerates who were frying a baby on a spit, or a campfire, and I always feel that that scene is either the most terrifying in any Apocalyptic novel, or secretly the funniest. It IS like a dead baby joke, right?
I was just thinking that. For me, it's the scene near the end where the guy steals their cart, and they make the dude strip, and you know he's been sentenced to death. That is just grueling. I like recommending it to students because I like to mess with their day.
I recommend the WORST books. "Oh, you want a horror novel from ME? Okay, I'll hook you up." The dead baby and a few light moments through and it keeps me wanting to come back, but that book was almost a SLOG because it is SO grim.
So dire. It's so grim. One of the things I wanted to have in The Fireman was I wanted it to have some humanity and I wanted to examine the idea that human beings are basically really affectionate apes. I just sort of reject a vision of the end of the world where we're all ready to bite each other's throats out over the last can of corn. If that's what we are, I think it's better to just wipe us off the board and let the cockroaches have their turn. I wanna see a reason why humanity is worth saving. And so, some terrible things are happening in The Fireman, hospitals are burning down in every town, there's a corpse on every street corner—
...squads hunting people down and executing them...
Yeah, but Harper is still basically a good person with a sense of humor and this almost relentless sense of optimism. She probably sings too loud in the shower.
It's like the immovable object against the unstoppable force. I see Harper's optimism as the immovable object and I wanted to see what would happen against the unstoppable force of this runaway pathogen that's burning up the world. So, I guess, to bring it around back to your question, I have some opportunities for humor in the book, I think that's important because it's one way to show how the people in the book have value. If you don't feel that they have value, then the book won't be thrilling because you won't care about the people when their lives are in danger.
Well, it's funny with Harper—she strikes me as the most optimistic character you've written. Jude, Ig, Vic—they all carry some kind of guilt that scarred them, that almost propelled them to atone, whereas Harper is a very optimistic kinda person. Was this intentional or did that develop by the "I want an optimistic damn story"?
I don't think I was thinking about how dark, or how grim, Jude's and Ig's situations were. But I did write in the book before, NOS4A2, we had this very tough, but very broken young woman named Vic McQueen and I love Vic, I think Vic's terrific. She's kind of a James Cameron heroine. She's very, very tough. A real kind of badass. I did that and I thought, with Harper, I wanted to show a different kind of strength. I wanted Harper to represent a fundamentally different sort of character.
I've taken all my kids to all the superhero films, all those Marvel films—and I love those Marvel films, I think they're really great. They're great fun and it's amazing what they've done. Over the course of the franchise, there's a lot to admire. One thing that's not very admirable in the films is the lack of female representation. The almost total lack of female characters and I'm not the first person to mention that you've got Black Widow, and she's everyone's love interest. She HAS to be everyone's love interest because there are no other women. She doesn't have a chance to be a person because she has to represent 50% of humanity.
When I wrote The Fireman, I was very conscious of wanting to do a big action-y science fiction thing with a broad female cast, with a lot of different kinds of women. A lot of women to root for and identify with, as well as a few women to dread and fear. It was kind of a response to, "I would love to see more of THIS in action." The title itself is a little bit of a bait-and-switch. The book is titled for John Rookwood, who's a little bit of a superhero himself. He's not quite The Human Torch, but a little bit, and he has a little more control over flame, and what he does with flame, is a little more than what Charlie McGee does in Firestarter.
And yet, Harper is not HIS love interest; HE is HARPER'S love interest. She's the driver of the action. He is her most valuable ally, but she is at the center of the story—her needs, her desires. She is the engine of the novel. I like that. I like that the book reverses any expectations you might have had based on the title.
The argument against the people going "Why are you bitching about Black Widow?" is that she's such a badass, and she can do all these things, and she's trained—but her only PURPOSE is to be the love interest. What's interesting about Harper and Vic in the last book is that there's parental love. There's not really romantic love with these characters; there's parental love. They're parents. That's their drive. If there's gonna be love, there's gonna be THAT. Harper—there's the character Rich, who seems to have feelings for her. I haven't gotten to the point of John becoming the love interest—I'm about 250 pages into the arc, so don't fucking spoil it—but, it is interesting whereas Horns was very much a romantic story...Heart Shaped Box at the end had more of a romantic story in terms of accepting a person...[The Fireman] is very parental and you don't see that. It's usually like, "I'm the girl that you have to jump through hoops for so you can love me."
Exactly. I sort of think, in both NOS4A2 and The Fireman, I've written about mothers and being a mother because I've been a single dad for quite a few years now and I think I spend a lot of time doing what is traditionally thought of as a mother's job. Although my kids have a great mother and we have a great relationship and they spend just as much time with her as they do with me.
But, when they're with you, you're doing both Mom and Dad and she's doing Mom and Dad at her house.
Right, right. Exactly.
[I'm a] child of divorce—I get it.
It's given me perspective on parenting and it's become something of a preoccupation of mine, which is why it turns up in the subject of this book and the last book.
To leave a comment