Joe Hill: All in the Cult
Joseph Hillstrom King was born June 4, 1972 in Bangor ME, son of writers Stephen & Tabitha King. He attended Vassar College, earning a degree in English in 1995. He married Leanora Legrand in 1998 (divorced 2010), and they have three children.
He chose to write under the pen name Joe Hill to obscure the connection to his famous parents and make it on his own merits. He began writing stories and novels after college, publishing a few mainstream and fantasy pieces starting in 1996, many of which are gathered in his debut collection 20th Century Ghosts (2005), a Crawford Award winner. A novella collection, Strange Weather, is forthcoming in 2017. Hill was guest editor for the first volume of The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy anthology series in 2015.
Hill is also a comics writer, best known for his dark fantasy series Locke and Key, with artist Gabriel Rodriguez (2008-2013). Another collaboration with Rodriguez, Tales from the Darkside, is forthcoming.
Hill’s first novel, supernatural thriller Heart-Shaped Box (2007), was a commercial and critical success and launched him to prominence. Other novels include Horns (2008; adapted as a film in 2014) and N0S4A2 (2013; as N0S4R2 in the UK). His latest novel is The Fireman, released this month.
Excerpts from the interview:
‘‘The crazy author archetype is bullshit. Leading up to Heart-Shaped Box I’d written four books I couldn’t sell. I’d made this decision to write as Joe Hill, to drop the last name King, and to fight into the publishing world on the merits of my own fiction, as opposed to letting my dad’s name open doors for me. That was a terrific time, and great fun. I wrote a lot of bad fiction that never got published. Three of the four novels were pretty terrible. The first novel you write is a tremendously important novel to you, but whether any reader will actually want to look at it is another story. The idea that you could write a bestselling novel your first time out is like imagining you could pick up a tennis racket and play at Wimbledon. It’s a ludicrous notion. You’ve got to lose a thousand games before you’re going to win at that level.”
‘‘The Fireman is a story about the planet catching on fire. It’s about a spore that infects human beings very easily. The spores grow on you, and it’s beautiful – like a black tattoo with gold speckling. People call it ‘dragonscale.’ But when you feel stress, you start to smolder, and if you can’t control your emotions, you burst into flames and die of spontaneous combustion. The spore is virulent, people don’t know why it’s spreading, and it’s impossible to treat – it’s hard to treat an illness when hospitals keep burning down. There’s a fire on every street corner, every hospital’s an inferno, and in the midst of this, one young woman named Harper contracts the illness at roughly the same time she discovers she’s pregnant. Because she’s done a fair amount of medical reading, she knows the baby will likely be born healthy. She determines to stay alive long enough to deliver her child safely. In the course of looking for a way to survive her own infection, she comes across an almost mythic figure called the Fireman, who is himself a carrier of dragonscale, but rather than being terrified by his own infection, he’s embraced it, and learned how to control it to a degree. The novel is about how Harper and the Fireman become friends and struggle to survive together in a world that’s burning down around them. That’s the elevator pitch, if the elevator ride was not real fast.”
‘‘My novel Horns is about a man who’s blamed for the murder of his girlfriend even though he didn’t actually commit the crime. Everyone in this small town believes he was the killer, so he is demonized by them. One night he gets drunk, and he goes out and curses God, and the next morning wakes up and discovers he’s growing a pair of horns, and he’s inherited all the powers of the devil. That book is the most different from all my other work of anything I’ve written. That’s the closest I’ve come to pure magical realism, like we’re familiar with from Borges and Calvino. We never find out why he grows the horns. He didn’t read some Satanic Book of the Dead and write his name in blood. I never explain it, and the truth is, I never cared. To me, the horns and his power are a manifestation of his inner feelings, how he felt about himself: demonized, hated, like the devil. A lot of people like the book, but one of the criticisms I heard, especially as it became a movie, was, ‘Why does he get the horns?’ I heard this from film producers over and over. ‘Why does he get the horns?’ When I talked to Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the lead, about it, he said the reason he wanted to do the movie was because it’s never explained how he gets the horns. He wanted to do it because it’s magical realism. Those are the words he used. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he gets it.’”
‘‘I’ve written for TV, short stories, novels, comic books, and of all of it, and what I like the best is comic books, by far. I love writing comics. I could give up all the rest of writing, if I could hold onto that. I’ve taken the last couple of years off of writing comics because it’s so much fun. It’s not hard like writing a novel. Novels are hard, but I think sometimes this should be hard. You want to wrestle with those other literary forms and try to win. You want to come out with something that’s really satisfying and rich. Deciding to write a novel is accepting that you can’t have instant gratification. There’s so much instant gratification in the comic form. You write it, it’s drawn, and three months later it’s on the stands and people are responding. With a novel it’s more like four years of effort. Writing for comics is also like being in a band. There’s this harmony. Gabriel Rodriguez is one of my best friends in the world – he’s like a brother to me. I love Chris Ryall, our editor, and Jay Fotos the colorist, and Robby Robins who does the lettering – you feel like you’re in The Rolling Stones. I think I’m like the drummer, and Dave is the lead guitarist, and Robby is obviously the lead vocalist. I just write something, and Gabe sends me a page of art which is better than I imagined. We feed off each other’s energy. Writing a novel is very isolating by comparison. There’s so much self doubt. Every day you have to fight your self doubt all over again. But if you just do comics, the danger is you will lose the skills necessary to write a short story or a novel. The knife will grow dull. I love comic books as a reader too, but I also love novels and short stories, and I read a lot more novels than I do comic books. (I talk this good talk about stepping away to do the hard work of novels, but I’m working on another issue of Locke & Key. It’s going to be a standalone story, probably out around October.)”
‘‘There’s going to be another book in 2017 called Strange Weather. It’s a collection of four novellas – in that way it’s a little bit like my dad’s Different Seasons. Three of the novellas are previously unpublished. The fourth is called ‘Snapshot 1988’, and that’s being published in a special issue of Cemetery Dance this summer. That will be a sort of Fireman promotional issue, with an excerpt from the book and an interview. Usually it’s been three years between books, so it’ll be kind of cool to have another book out just a year or 18 months after The Fireman. Three of the novellas are in varying states of completion, and the fourth I’m still writing, but I know what it is. I’m also working on a screenplay for Locke & Key, because we’re going to take another stab at the TV thing. After that I think I’m going to write the rest of Gunpowder, a SF novel I started for PS Publishing. The Fireman is like Michael Crichton science fiction, but Gunpowder is like Arthur C. Clarke science fiction – it’s got spaceships and distant planets. I’m looking forward to getting back to that. I have a contract with William Morrow where I’m on the hook for a book of short stories. I like the idea of completing that contract, and then having some time to think about what I’m going to do next – to not have to write something under deadline to contract. For years I was always under the gun for the next deadline, and it’s refreshing to retire from that relentless pace and see what I feel like writing.”
‘‘For the longest time there has been this fight about what has more value, genre fiction or literary fiction. The truth is, we won the battle. We won it a decade ago, if not longer. There is mainstream acceptance for Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, John Lethem – the list goes on and on. Salman Rushdie, for goodness’ sake. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror elements are all over mainstream literature and have been for years and years. The people who don’t like it are the Donald Trumps of genre fiction: they want to build a wall between us and the rest of the world. I can’t be in favor of some kind of walled city state where science fiction and fantasy meet. I don’t want it. After I read one of John Scalzi’s books I said, ‘Oh, he’s writing science fiction for the rest of us.’ It was fun. The pages flew. You liked the characters, and you understood the situation. The tech all made sense. It was full of laughs. There’s nothing wrong with writing science fiction or fantasy or horror that doesn’t alienate the casual reader. I think in a world where The Walking Dead is the most popular thing on television, closely followed by Game of Thrones, and the biggest hit film of the last year was The Force Awakens, we’ve got the trifecta right there. We’ve got horror, we’ve got fantasy, we’ve got science fiction. If only the cultists were watching those shows and movies, none of those productions would be successful in the way they are. The truth is we’re all in the cult now.’’
Read the complete interview in the July 2016 issue of Locus Magazine. Interview design by Francesca Myman. Photo by Shane Leonard.