Genre Chick Interview: Joe Hill

He’s a charmed debut novelist who still slaves away at his keyboard like every other writer. He’s a whippersnapper that’s already won two Stokers, a British Fantasy Award, and a World Fantasy Award. He loves his local library, and dreams of haunted houses and owning books that never existed. He’s going to be on television, how about that? He spends too much time on the Internet, he listens to all that loud rock music kids like these days, and he stole his daddy’s Bible. This month, Genre Chick Alethea Kontis interviews her hero, Joe Hill.


Alethea Kontis: Which came first, the story or the title? Every time I look at the cover of this book, that Nirvana song gets stuck in my head. Considering that your main character is a rock star, was that ever so slightly intentional?

Joe Hill: Originally the story was titled “Private Collection,” and I figured it would only be about 30 pages long. The main character, Jude, is this unkind, burned-out rock star in decline who buys a ghost online, thinking it might be a nice bit of publicity.

I always figured the ghost would arrive and finish Jude off in short order, giving him a macabre comeuppance. But a funny thing happened on the way to the ending. Jude refused to stick to the plan. He turned out to be a lot more resourceful than I first anticipated, and to be a much more complicated person than I initially thought. I got interested in who he was, and how he had wound up this angry, lonely person, trapped and isolated by his own success.

“Heart-Shaped Box,” the song, is likewise about feeling trapped and isolated. Also, the novel is in part about the way a certain kind of very unhappy person will use loud, intense music to hold self-destructive urges at bay, something I think [Kurt] Cobain tried very hard to do. But I only made a mental connection between the two things because of a lucky accident. I was writing the scene where UPS delivers the ghost–in reality, a haunted suit–and I was listening to iTunes, and Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” just came up on random play. So I put the haunted suit in a giant heart-shaped box, and, eventually, it became clear that ought to be the title.

AK: Jude has a very interesting–and very creepy–collection of curiosities. What’s your most interesting possession?

JH: My father’s Bible. He won it as a child, so it’s about 50 years old, and it looks the way the family Bible is supposed to look–it has this worn pebbled leather cover, the pages are soft and browned at the edges, and it has a smell all of its own: cedar and damp cardboard and sun-cooked paper. I took it without asking–stole it–but later he told me he was glad to let me have it. Maybe you can’t steal a Bible, not really. They don’t have owners. They just have who they’re with at the time.

AK: How have libraries influenced you and/or your writing career?

JH: I love my local small town library. I pop in pretty frequently with my laptop to work. I finished the novel there: one draft of it anyway. It’s a very open, sunlit place, with big windows that offer a view of river rushing through a narrow channel. So on the one hand you’re surrounded by books on shelves, the physical embodiment of ordered thought. And on the other you have light and wildness, the feel of being connected to the larger world. A mix of organized thought and wildness is just exactly the state of mind you want to be in while working on a story.

AK: It’s said that exceptionally creative people are plagued with nightmares. What’s the scariest nightmare you’ve ever had? Have any of your previous story ideas sprung from dreams?

JH: I’ve had some good story ideas come out of dreams, but they’ve never translated into a solid finished piece. Then again, probably 90% of my ideas fail to translate into solid finished pieces, so I’m not sure that says anything about the potential of dreams to provide good material for fiction. It’s more a reflection of my personal failure-to-success ratio.

I’m not plagued with nightmares. I have an occasional recurring dream about being lost in a decrepit old house with boarded over windows, and something diseased and unpleasant hurrying after me. The further I go in the house, the smaller the corridors get, until I’m scrambling through little crawlspaces. I’ve read some on the subject of dream research, and apparently variations of this particular dream are pretty common; the old Freudian interpretation is that it’s about the trauma of childbirth.

Bet you didn’t think I was going to get all Freudian on you, didja?

AK: Many novelists are getting on board with the whole MySpace phenomenon, but it seems that the horror genre was the first one almost completely on board. Why do you think that is? What have you found to be the good and bad aspects of such a community?

JH: Horror is a subdivision of fantasy, and the readers and writers of fantasy have always been out there on the cutting edge of community building. Novelists and hardcore fans of fantasy and science fiction have been meeting at conventions and putting out their home-printed newsletters, going back to the 50s at least. MySpace is just the latest tech-flavored extension of the networking impulse.

The good part of it is that fans of certain imaginary worlds can share their enthusiasm with people they might never have met any other way, people living on the other side of the world sometimes. And for writers and other artists, Internet resources like MySpace offer another avenue of expression–a place to “publish” odd essays and stories that might not otherwise make it into print.

The bad is that a lot of talented young writers spend more time working on their MySpace pages and blogs than they do their craft. This is often encouraged by people who ought to know better. In his first column for Locus, the SF writer Cory Doctorow said that these days the conversation is more important than the content. In this case, “conversation” is a euphemism for the blog, the message board, the MySpace page, while “content” was his particularly loathsome euphemism for fiction. The problem with this kind of reasoning is that until you’ve got good story, there’s nothing to talk about. I think Cory has forgotten that old aphorism: talk is cheap. That’s even more true today than ever; whereas good works of fiction are and always will be uncommon.

As an aside, I’d note that long before anyone in publishing got fascinated with MySpace, it was really a big deal for musicians. Bands discovered they could use MySpace as a way to build an even closer connection with their fans. It was a spot to create community, a way to get the new single out, and another method of passing along news about upcoming appearances. Unsurprisingly, Judas Coyne has his own MySpace page, although he hasn’t made any of his music available yet, and I guess he isn’t touring right now.

AK: You’re going to be on Good Morning America. How cool is that! How did they contact you? What do you have to do to prepare for something like that? Are you nervous?

JH: To answer your questions in order: cool, through my publisher, I have no idea because I’ve never been on TV before (not even local news), and hell yes, who wouldn’t be?

AK: So how annoying is it to have a really famous dad?

JH: Oh man, I’m one of the luckiest guys you’ll ever talk to, and not because I have a famous father. My dad stuck around, was and is a big part of my life, has always stayed emotionally involved and intellectually engaged with his kids, and otherwise has always made an effort to be a decent dad. He’s at least as good a father as he is a writer.

As for writing in his shadow, I was able to work and publish for 10 years without anyone connecting the two of us–plenty of time to make my mistakes in private (where they belong), to develop my voice, and to discover my own personal concerns, the subjects of my fiction: masks, ghosts, the uses and dangers of art, the power of confession. And even now–even after a lot of published reports about how I write under a pseudonym–I still think a certain number of readers find their way to my work without being aware that I’ve got a famous dad. So the pen name is still doing its job in a way. It may have taken a few hits, but it’s my professional identity now, and I’m sticking with it.

If there’s an annoying side to being the son of a celebrity author, it’s that my mother and my brother are both really terrific writers, too, and it would be nice to boast on them sometime. Understandably, though, people are mostly curious about my Paw.

AK: If you could be any superhero, who would you be and why?

JH: This is a matter of great concern. It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve probably spent hundreds of hours considering this exact question, going all the way back to the day my dad read me my first comic.
Got to go with Sandman because I’d like to creep around in other people’s dreams, get in on their weirdest and most private personal stories. Also, in one of the Sandman tales, we find out about this dream library, filled with books that great authors imagined writing but never did. A place like that more or less suits my definition of heaven.