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Joe Hill Interview – Strange Weather

Joe HillJoe Hill is the best-selling, award-winning author of the novels Heart-Shaped Box (2007), Horns (2010), NOS4R2 [NOS4A2 in the US] (2013), and The Fireman (2016), as well as comics including Locke & Key (2008-2013) and Wraith: Welcome To Christmasland (2013) and the short story collection 20th Century Ghosts (2005). His latest book, Strange Weather, out now from Gollancz, is a collection of four short novels.

Whilst on tour promoting Strange Weather, Joe Hill was kind enough to talk to Fantasy-Faction via email about his writing career, his latest collection and his incredible body of work.

Your new book, Strange Weather, is a collection of four short novels. How does writing these differ from writing epics like The Fireman or NOS4R2?

There’s a t-shirt that says, “I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie.” I could wear that. As a reader, I love to pour myself into a book big enough to stop a bullet. I’ve spent much of the winter reading my way through Follett’s expertly crafted, relentlessly paced Kingsbridge trilogy. Every one of those novels is over a thousand pages long and I’ve dug every page.

But there’s something to be said for the story that delivers all its force in a few short, blunt strokes. Stories of dread and menace are especially satisfying when they can be read in a sitting or two, when they feel as immediate as a hand on your throat. Think about Woman in Black or Turn of the Screw. After writing a couple George R.R. Martin scale works, I was eager to do some tales that were lighter on their feet. I knew they were more modest pieces, and I think that led naturally to a certain lightness, a sentence-by-sentence ease. Although I admit in some places the subject matter is pretty bleak.

Can you tell us a little bit about each of the four novels? How do they complement each other?

Strange Weather (cover)

The oldest story in the book is the first. “Snapshot” is about a sinister fellow named the Phoenician who has a Polaroid camera that can steal memories. I wrote it in 2013, while I was on tour for NOS4R2. When it was done, I knew I liked what I had. I also knew it was too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel, so I put it aside and forgot about it for a couple years.

Then, in 2015, I finished my fourth novel, The Fireman, and immediately followed by writing a novella titled “Aloft.” That one is about a man who jumps out of an airplane to impress a girl, and winds up stranded on a semi-solid and weirdly sentient cloud. It’s a kind of Robinson Crusoe story set in the stratosphere. At that point it came to me I was working on a collection of four very short novels, or maybe four very long short stories.

“Rain” followed soon after. That one is a climate change tale. It’s about what would happen if the climate changed, and the sky began to rain nails. And then finally there was “Loaded,” which is about America’s new favorite televised pastime, the weekly mass shooting.

A recurring theme in your work, from Horns to “Abraham’s Boys” (2004), is the humanity of monsters and the monstrousness of humanity. What is it about the horror genre that allows us tackle themes like this?

Well, yeah, but as Sigmund Freud didn’t say, sometimes a rabid thirty-foot-high crocodile man is just a rabid thirty-foot-high crocodile man. Charlie Manx, the antagonist of NOS4R2, is a kind of soul vampire, and he comes up pretty short in the “humanity” category.

That said… “Loaded”, the second story in Strange Weather, is about something much scarier than a vampire or a ghoul: the white man with a gun. In the States, we’re up to our eyeballs in blood because of a unique cultural helplessness… there simply doesn’t seem to be any will to tackle the problem of a society littered with high powered guns. Humanity is at its most monstrous when it’s most indifferent.

Your stories often feature inventive fantastical or horrific elements alongside well drawn and believable characters. Which comes first, the concept or the characters?

A good concept is sometimes called “a hook”. You start with a hook, but you’re fishing for a great character. I’m always trying to reel in a character that excites me, someone with secrets, regrets, a lively personal voice. Without that, you might as well cut bait and move on.

You’ve written short stories, comics, novels, and novellas. What are the differences between these mediums? When you start a story, do you always know which medium it will fall into?

NOS4R2 (cover)I usually know when I start. Stories have a way of declaring their intentions early on. I can think of one exception. When I wrote NOS4R2, there was, at one point, a 120 page interlude that told my antagonist’s origin. But it slowed down the action just when things were kicking into the novel’s highest gear and in the end I cut the whole thing out. Later, I reinvented the entire 120 page novella as a 32 page comic book, and it acquired a dynamism, a dark humor, that the prose version lacked. That became the leaping off point for a graphic novel, Wraith, that expands on the world of NOS4R2, but which can be read entirely as its own thing.

If I think I can tell a story in three scenes or less, then it’s a short. If I think there’s more there than three scenes, then I just dive in and find out what I’ve got. My first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, began as a shorty story about a rock star buying a ghost online for his collection of macabre artifacts. Only after his order has been delivered, he finds out it’s not a joke, and the ghost in question is very, very bad. I assumed that was a short story, right up until my lead character refused to die on my schedule. He was like a cockroach. Every time I stomped on him, he scuttled away undamaged, as soon as I lifted my shoe. And I kept stomping for 300 pages.

Horns was adapted into a film, and Locke & Key is being adapted for TV. How have you felt about your work being adapted to different mediums?

I’m always very pleased and gratified when a director or an actor or another writer says they want to adapt one of my stories into a new medium. It’s a thrill to know you wrote something that registered with another artist.

But adaptation is really always reinvention. A good adaptation won’t be a stiff table-reading of the original work… it’ll be something fresh and original and completely itself, and so, inevitably, not what I wrote. I’m comfortable with that. Also the film and TV people write some lovely checks to assure your mental comfort.

The short stories in 20th Century Ghosts frequently centre on family relationships. Families and surrogate families crop up throughout your novels as well. What is it about family relationships that make them such a good source of drama?

20th Century Ghosts (cover)It’s a base human unit — most of us live most of our lives as part of a family unit. Which isn’t easy. It means listening and compromise and loving each other in spite of our often glaring flaws.

That said, I think my novels tend to be less about family, more about romantic love. They’re about couples drawing strength from one another… enough strength to face the darkness around them, or maybe to raise a family themselves. From Heart-Shaped Box to The Fireman, they’ve all been love stories. That’s mostly what I do. That’s mostly what interests me.

Your love of music, especially The Beatles and The Stones, recurs throughout your books. How does music influence your writing?

There are three creative couples that are ceaselessly inspirational to my own creativity: Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, and my parents. A song or a story presents raw ingredients that can be combined in a pedestrian fashion, or to create exciting, unexpected flavors. I’m always looking to take the material in unpredictable directions, to test it and stretch it and get as much out of it as I can. That’s the kind of maximalism Lennon and McCartney took to their music. At the same time I want things to feel raw, and unvarnished, and organic: The Stones approach. And above all I want to celebrate the imagination and the values of decency and empathy. That’s my parents.

Your stories frequently balance the horrific with the humorous. How do you see the link between the two, and how do they complement each other?

I talk about this a lot, actually. Comedy and horror are another perfect creative couple. I’ve always loved the gross-out special effects guys like Rob Bottin and Tom Savini. When they do a shock effect — a hatchet to the head, for example — they call it a “gag”. I don’t think it’s an accident that’s a word we use to indicate both hilarity and nausea. When Moe smashes Curly with a sledgehammer, we erupt into laughter. When Leatherface smashes a teenager with a sledgehammer, and brains go everywhere, we recoil with a scream. Crucially, though… it’s the same scene.

What’s next for Joe Hill?

Locke and Key 1 (cover)I wrote a script for the pilot episode of Locke & Key and then director Andy Muschietti went out and filmed it for Hulu and IDW. Now we’re all in this one moment of perfect suspense, waiting to hear if Hulu will give us the thumbs up to shoot a whole series. If season one goes forward, I also wrote the script for a second episode, and worked on the third with my pal C. Robert Cargill (readers of this blog will want to direct their attention to Cargill’s excellent Sea of Rust, a novel that has all the velocity of Mad Max: Fury Road). So we’ll see what happens there.

If it goes to series — IF — there’s a good chance I’m going to return to the world of Keyhouse for another six book run to be titled World War Key. But it would be a big commitment, so I think the TV thing has to happen before I’d leap in.

Fingers crossed.

Thank you Joe Hill for talking with us!

Strange Weather is out now! If you’d like to learn more about it and Mr. Hill’s other works you can check out his website or follow him on Twitter @joe_hill.


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