By Sean Tuohy
Twisted, dark, funny, and filled with a heart (dark heart, maybe), Joe Hill is an author whose stories are filled with characters so full of life that they fill the seats beside you. His stories are injected with so much humor and original prose that you are instantly brought to another world.
Hill's novels cover the gamut of storytelling: Heart-Shaped Box is about a former rock star who buys the suit that a man died in and is haunted by his ghost; Horns features a young man who wakes up to find out he is growing horns from his head and then develops dark, magical powers; and NOS4A2, in which a young woman uses her powers to fight a supernatural evil.
I was lucky enough to speak to Hill about his writing style, his next book, and what books are currently cluttering his nightstand table.
Sean Tuohy: What authors did you read growing up?
Joe Hill: The first writer I really fell for was Arthur Conan Doyle. I had a deal with my parents: bedtime was at 9:00 p.m., but I could stay up an extra half hour if I was in bed reading a book. I soon discovered a half an hour was exactly enough time to read a Sherlock Holmes story. I read them all, over the course of about three months… The Sign of Four and the other novels usually required a week to finish. It’s possible I owned a Sherlockian Calabash pipe and sometimes wandered the house, gumming it thoughtfully, and looking for things to detect.
I loved Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, which were full of slaughter and betrayal.
I read comics without discrimination or judgment: good comics, bad comics, hilariously bad comics. For a year or two I was very emotionally wrapped up in the soap opera of Chris Claremont’s X-Men. I once stalked Chris Claremont at a Boston SF Convention.
I was (and still am) a big fan of Tabitha and Stephen King. I’ve read both extensively.
ST: Was there one book that you connected with above all others?
JH: I read The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs over and over. It is, in some ways, like the perfect Harry Potter novel; it just happens to have been written about 30 years before J.K. Rowling got started. A lonely orphan discovers he’s related to a wizard and must learn how to cast spells himself, so he can defeat the doomsday plot of a terrible sorcerer who has returned from the dead. Sound familiar? But instead of Hogwarts, the setting is New Zebedee, Conn., and instead of art by Mary GrandPré, the illustrations were provided by Edward Gorey. I’ve reread the book more than once as an adult and it still retains all its old power. I’m persuaded the novel itself is a perfect, compact work of enchantment.
In a lot of ways, Locke & Key, the comic I wrote for six years, wouldn’t exist without The House with a Clock in its Walls.
ST: When did you start to have ideas of becoming a full-time writer?
JH: Both of my parents are novelists. I started goofing off on a typewriter about three minutes after I learned you could string letters together to make words.
In junior high, I discovered role-playing games, and I was a dungeon master for a couple of years (although the game my friends and I loved to play was not Dungeons & Dragons, but Call of Cthulhu). In high school, though, I was a boarding student at a tony Massachusetts academy, and role-playing more or less ended. Make-believe with a group of friends quickly came to seem a little shameful. I started writing every day, stories of fantasy and horror, to fill the hole.
ST: Do you outline your stories or just sit down and begin to write?
JH: Ah…neither really.
I work very slowly. A short story takes one to three months. A novel might take anywhere from a year to five years. Whereas I generate ideas very quickly, I have a couple decent ideas for stories every week.
When I finally start a story, it’s already been living in my imagination for months, or maybe years. I know the first scene. I have some big set pieces in mind. I know things about the key characters. I almost always know the first sentence. Very little of this is written down, although I might have a couple notes scattered across my journals. But no outline, just an unmapped island that I’ve been visiting in my daydreams.
I think outlines are a mistake. Or at least, I know they’re a mistake for me, and I suspect they’re often a mistake for most other writers. It’s more useful to develop a single interesting situation, and a few characters you want to investigate. Develop someone who has regrets, a strong personal code, a few helpless compulsions; develop someone who can’t control or can’t express their anger; someone who has a distinctive, interesting voice; someone driven, either by their demons or their angels. Drop a really engaging character into a gripping situation, and you don’t need to outline. You can just sit back and watch the fireworks. Outlines choke off any chance of discovery, of surprising yourself.
ST: Last year, the movie “Horns,” based on your novel of the same name, was released in theaters. How did it feel seeing the world and characters that you created on the big screen?
JH: In some ways I like the movie better than the novel. I’m proud of the novel. I worked hard on it, and I think it’s fun to read, that the pages turn quickly, that it explores interesting themes and ideas. But I had a nervous breakdown while I was working on it. I was terrifically depressed. My marriage ended. It was a sad, confused time for me, and my feelings about the book are wrapped up in a lot of personally unhappy memories.
The movie, on the other hand, is a lot of fun. Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple gave it everything they had, and their moments together are beautiful and heart-rending. Alexandre Aja got the book’s atmosphere of lush summery romance, and also its sick sense of humor, and managed to capture both things on the screen. In the end, it didn’t do well in the marketplace, but I think it was always a tough sell. In some ways I’m surprised it got made at all. It’s the least commercial thing I’ve ever written: a weird horror-satire, a surreal, “Twin Peaks”-sy riff on The Metamorphosis.
Late in the game, a PR person came up with the world’s best tagline: Horns: Grow a pair. I wish I had thought of that. If we had slapped that line on the cover of the book, we would’ve sold a billion, billion copies. Sigh.
ST: Do you have any rituals you have to complete before or after writing?
JH: Um, besides routine procrastination? Like lots of modern writers, I’d so much rather screw off on Twitter than actually do my job.
Which doesn’t make a lick of sense. When I sit down to work, and I finally begin to build sentences, it almost always makes me feel good. I like myself best when I’m writing. Or maybe that’s not quite right: maybe I mean I know myself best when I’m writing. Or have a chance to visit with my best, smartest self.
I get up every hour to make a cup of tea. That’s the one ritual. It takes three cups of tea to get through a normal day of work. Then I’ll have a fourth, late in the afternoon, when I sit down to read.
ST: Are you still a reader? If so, what are you reading now?
JH: I’d give up writing for a living before I’d give up reading for pleasure. I think of myself as a father first, a reader second, and a writer only a distant third. I love other people’s sentences much more than my own, and I hope I never get tired of a good story.
I’m usually reading two or three things at once. At the moment I’m working my way through a big heavy collection of short stories by Irwin Shaw, the tenth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log.
That’s a pretty good representative example of what I might be reading in any given month. The short story might be my favorite form; if I have a favorite genre, it’s not horror but historical fiction; and I read a broad range of non-fiction, from history to true crime to pop cultural analysis.
I just finished David Mitchell’s novel, Slade House, which is out this October. It’s his most surprising book yet, and maybe the last book in the world anyone would’ve expected him to write: a red-in-tooth-and-claw supernatural horror thriller. It’s a little like if Wes Craven hired Umberto Eco to reboot “Nightmare on Elm Street:” erudite, witty, as finely wrought as a Fabergé egg, but also unrepentantly terrifying.
ST: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?
JH: Over the years, I’ve had a lot of good advice from some brilliant writers. But I never really learned that much from all the kind, well-meant suggestions and clever tips. They didn’t stick with me. Just about everything I learned about writing a good book I learned from reading lots and lots of good books. I studied the novels I loved. I read them over and over, sometimes with a pen and highlighter, taking notes. Once, I spent a month rewriting the first five chapters of Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce, just to get the feel of his sentences.
ST: What does the future hold for Joe Hill?
JH: I’m the guest editor for the inaugural edition of Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. That’ll be out this October. And I’ve got a new novel, a dark modern fantasy called The Fireman, which will be out in the summer of 2016. It’s about a plague of spontaneous combustion; it’s my version of The Stand, soaked in gasoline and set on fire.
ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
JH: I have never lost a game of Boggle.