David J Howe meets up with debut horror novelist Joe Hill.
Meeting Joe Hill, you cannot help but be reminded of another author in his younger days … photographs from the seventies reveal Stephen King to be of similar build with similar eyes … and indeed, Joe Hill was born Joseph Hillstrom King, son of Stephen. However this fact only really came out in the last year, after his first collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, was published.
We meet in a London coffee bar, where Joe has a cappuccino and slice of cake. Coming from a literary family, with both mother and father being published authors, Joe has been writing ever since he can remember.
‘I’ve been writing since I was 12,’ he explains, adding sugar to his coffee. ‘My first professional submission was to Marvel Comics and they turned it down . Tragically. I don’t know why …’ He smiles broadly. ‘But then I finished a book in my senior year in college and that’s what won me my agent. That was loosely based on, or took it’s inspiration from a Nirvana song. The book was called Paper Angels and it was very Cormac McCarthy … and used all these long words with 48 letters in and so on. I liked to work in words like “antediluvian” if I could – any sentence could be improved by that.’
Joe pauses to munch on his cake, and I ask how growing up in a house filled with books and writers at work affected him.
‘I dunno, I can’t compare it to anyone else’s childhood but I do think it’s fair to say that I would come home from school and my mum would be in her office, writing, my dad would be in his office, writing, and by the time I was 12 or 13 I thought that making stuff up for a living was a totally rational thing to do. I would get home from school and think, Oh, it must be time for me to go write. I had the daily practice of writing, and now it’s been such a part of my life for so long that not to write would be like … losing a few fingers or something.’
Talking with Joe, you realise that although he takes writing very seriously, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is enthusiastic and articulate, talking about his writing with interest and animation, hands gesticulating.
I ask about his first published book, a collection of short stories: ‘I wrote four novels before Heart-Shaped Box that I couldn’t sell,’ he explains. ‘My first book was called 20th Century Ghosts and it sold to the last place it was sent: it had been turned down everywhere else. But Peter Crowther from the small press publisher PS in the UK saw it, liked it, and then published it.’
Joe is a great supporter of and believer in the small presses, and his passion is apparent. ‘The small presses are such an important part of the literary ecosystem. It’s a place where anyone can come forward. There have been so many writers who have had that chance to explore and experiment and invent in the small presses when the larger publishing houses would rather have something a little more safe. They’re not looking for “generic” … but it’s a tough business and it’s hard to make any money in it and so they’re looking for the titles where they think they can sell a few thousand copies.
Heart-Shaped Box is certainly set to sell that. Published in the UK at the end of March, it’s about a rock musician called Jude, who buys a ghost on the internet and comes to regret that purchase when it transpires that the sale was fixed, and that the ghost is out for revenge.
This collision between the fantastic – ghosts – and the technological – the internet – is fascinating, however Joe doesn’t see it like that. ‘It’s not really that fantastic, you know. First of all, all ghost stories are really about people buying stuff. The family buys the house in Amityville. They get the six bedroomed place, and then they get the blood leaking through the walls at 2am … When I think about most stories of hauntings, they begin with people buying something they shouldn’t. From another standpoint it should be noted that buying a ghost off the internet is not a totally original idea. It’s been done! People have sold their souls online. It’s all out there. People have sold haunted hat racks and haunted bracelets … The one that sticks in my head is something that my mum sent me … there was one woman on eBay selling a bracelet which the seller claimed was possessed by the ghost of an angry witch. I remember thinking, who the hell’s going to buy that? My question on all this sort of stuff is not who would sell it, but who would buy it? And my answer to that was Jude.
‘But I think that the concept is incidental. For me as a writer I need a great concept to get started, that will carry me along for about two days and then I need a great character or the story is headed for the shredder. And, again, I found Jude. Jude is a really decent guy, he’s just been having a bad day … and he’s been having that bad day for about six years.’
I wonder how Joe classifies his own work. ‘Heart-Shaped Box is horror,’ he says. ‘I always used to get annoyed when I was younger … I’d get Fangoria magazine and open it and there’d be this interview with a guy who had directed Sorority Dwarf Massacre 4 or whatever, and he’d be like, “I don’t really see myself as a horror director,” and I’d just want to scream! You’re not Fellini! Look at the movie you just made! But that said, I see myself as a guy who’s written one horror novel and some ghost stories, but not necessarily a horror writer. I love fantasy and I love surrealism. 20th Century Ghosts is a good representation of my work. There’s some literary fiction in there, there’s a crime story … I like genre fiction, but I like all the genres, from science fiction to horror to crime …’
With Heart-Shaped Box picked up both by Gollancz in the UK and Morrow in the US, it was only a matter of time before interest was shown by Hollywood, and now a film version is underway, with Neil Jordan slated to direct. Jordan’s previous work includes the halluciagenically beautiful werewolf tale The Company of Wolves (1984), the controversial The Crying Game (1992) and an adaptation of Anne Rice’s vampire novel Interview with A Vampire. Production on the film will start for Warner Bros as soon as Jordan finishes writing the script. Joe is understandably pleased with this latest development. ‘I’m delighted Neil Jordan is going to take a whack at the book. He’s a careful, literate director with a great aptitude for examining fear and regret and love, and he should do a great job with it.’
With Heart-Shaped Box already selling strongly – it hit number 8 in the New York Times bestseller lists at the start of April – what’s next for Joe Hill? ‘I don’t know,’ he says with a smile. ‘Some of that depends on my publishers. The next thing is a new edition of 20th Century Ghosts. Gollancz in England and William Morrow in the US are doing it. There was one story missed out, called ‘Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead’, and so that will be included.
‘I’ve also written a young adult fantasy novel called The Bright Circle and I’ve also got a thriller underway – not supernatural – called Dirty Deeds … so there’s a bunch of projects that could come next.’
Heart-Shaped Box is published in the UK by Gollancz in hardback.