Darkness suits Joe Hill, but he does his best to avoid the long shadow of his father, Stephen King. Born Joseph Hillstrom King, the 40-year-old author uses a pen name to ensure that he’s read based on literary merit, not genealogy. From his 2007 debut novel Heart-Shaped Box to his Locke & Key comics, he’s carved out his own brand of chilling (and heartwarming) storytelling. In his new novel, NOS4A2, Hill’s exploration of vampirism is proof that he’s a king of the macabre in his own right.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
NOS4A2 is a left-of-center take on vampirism. Is it a response to the popularity of vampires?
I don’t understand the romance of vampires. They’re bloated leeches that live in dirt. That doesn’t strike me as the height of eroticism. [NOS4A2 antagonist] Charlie Manx is a spiritual vampire—he drinks children’s unhappiness, and you would think that’d be a good thing. When he’s done, they’re always happy—whether they’re riding an amusement park ride or stabbing a bum to death with scissors. The kids live in an eternal state of innocence, and it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Innocent children like to rip the wings off a butterfly just to watch it flop around, and they will laugh ’cause they don’t know any better. Innocence is ignorance.
Innocent children like to rip the wings off a butterfly just to watch it flop around, and they will laugh ’cause they don’t know any better. Innocence is ignorance.
Manx abducts kids to a sinister place called “Christmasland” using a Rolls-Royce Wraith that only plays Christmas songs. Is December 25 your most beloved holiday?
If there were a war on Christmas, I would be the general advancing on it. It’s over-commercialized.
I hate seeing decorations on November 1 and I hate Christmas jingles. I had to listen to a lot of Christmas music while I was working on NOS4A2 and I wasn’t too happy about it. I’m sure if you were going down to Hell in an elevator, the music playing would be the Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas album and it would speed up the farther you plunged.
Your stories frequently deal with inscapes, what’s going on in people’s minds. In Horns that related to nasty, privately held thoughts, and in NOS4A2 it’s about creativity, whether for purposes of good or evil. There seems to be a dark side or a cost involved.
I think most of the time the things you bring out of your imagination are healthy for you—that’s the great playground. But if you spend your whole life writing paranoid fantasies, you have to be careful you don’t tumble into one. I’m very proud of Horns, but when I wrote it I was unhappy, struggling with paranoia—not romantic paranoia but nasty, unpleasant, real-life paranoia. I was obsessed with surveillance. I had this off-the-rails eight or nine months when I was struggling with what was true, and out of that emerged this book about paranoia. What if you found out that everybody secretly hated you? What would it be like to learn no one is really your friend? I sound like a Woody Allen character, but later I got on Paxil and got into therapy and it occurred to me, “Why would anybody want to watch me? What do I do that’s so interesting?”
How involved were you in Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of Horns, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple?
Just enough to be underfoot and a pain in the ass, and then I slipped away as quickly as possible. A couple of things that I noted about it: Alexandre wants it to be special, and in some ways wasn’t directing a film as much as painting one. The footage is so beautiful. And Juno Temple makes one of the most beautiful dead girls you’ve ever seen. Daniel Radcliffe, who I think is a great Ig, is so impressive in how serious he takes his craft, how attentive he is to the technical aspects, and how natural and intuitive he is. I was having a conversation with him and then it was time for him to be beaten on the ground with a chain. There was no warm-up time, it was like someone flicking a switch and all of a sudden he was this completely different person. Some child actors can’t take that next step. Others seem like they were born to it and every year they get better and discover more about what they can do. He is definitely the second sort.
Entering into the adaptation, were you wary of the film industry from your dad’s experiences?
What I learned is that it’s good to focus on what you can control, which is the comics, the novels, the short stories. With film, no one has complete control over the outcome. Even the auteur theory, which insists that the director is essentially the novelist, misunderstands how many other creative contributions go into a movie. No film is truly just an extension of just one person's personality.
So you’re not itching to write movies?
One of the reasons I haven’t flung myself into movies is because when I work on something for a while, I want it to reach an audience. There’s no guarantee of that in the film business. There are so many guys who have worked in the film business for 10 years and written dozens of scripts. They have a pool out back, they’re doing great, but they haven’t had a single film produced. I couldn’t take it.
What was most important to you about ending Locke & Key?
Closure. A story needs an end for the beginning and middle to mean as much as they can. The problem with Spider-Man is that none of the adventures matter, because there’s no ending. He fights guys, puts them in jail, they get out, he fights them again. Every big event is bogus, because events are sandcastles. With Locke & Key, it was time to reveal everyone and have that defining moment.
Do you care if people read your books because you’re Stephen King’s son?
It’s better when they pick up the book and they don’t know. I found out after using the pen name that the stories rise and fall on their own merit. If you come out, and you’re a famous guy’s kid and you write a book that sucks, people might buy the first book, but they won’t buy the second. It doesn’t matter what your last name is—nothing can save you.
What’s your advice for would-be novelists?
Never sit down and say, “I’m going to write a book.” Write one great scene. A book is a bunch of scenes stacked together, and if every scene is special, you probably have a good book. And no, you don’t have to write what’s supposed to come next. What you need to do is write one more scene that the reader’s going to give a shit about. Also, it’s not the ideas that matter—I have a lot more ideas than I’ll ever be able to write. What matters is careful, methodical, and inventive execution, which takes time and focus. If you don’t got that, you’ve got nothing.
Mark Twain would've been a twittering whore.
It’s a common assumption, because you and your father write dark stories, that you had rough, outcast lives.
I think it’s possible to write about unhappiness, loss, and pain without actually having suffered through a childhood where somebody was putting cigarettes out on you. My parents were great, wonderful people. I’m a hipster geek—I was a geek before it was cool to be a geek. I was a nerd in high school, and I think that’s a pretty typical profile: the jealous, hate-filled nerd who thinks, “Someday, I’ll have revenge on the popular kids by having my own cartoon!” I had a little bit of that, but I wasn’t really an outcast. I had friends and had fun. I’m sure I’ve had my share of disappointment, and shit that I was hoping would work out, that didn’t work out. I wound up a divorced guy, and I didn’t see that coming. But, I would say for the most part, I’ve had it pretty good.
You’re quite active on social media. Is that a conscious promotional decision?
I tweet a lot, and I find Tumblr addictive and fun in the same way, and easy. I know that there are some people who feel that the writer is supposed to be a J.D. Salinger hermit, who hides in a cabin, reveals nothing of his personality, and occasionally comes down to reveal these documents filled with insight and brilliance, that have been hewn from the hard crust of his personality like a miner digging for plutonium, or something. Where did that bullshit get started? Writers love to hear themselves talk, and I am no exception. You don’t get into writing unless you love to hear yourself mouth off. I think it’s a given, not just with me, but with every writer, that you assume every idea that occurs to you is another shimmering bubble of perfect insight, just waiting for you to pop in front of the largest audience you can muster.
Mark Twain would have loved Twitter. He would've been a twittering whore. Dorothy Parker would have lived and died by Twitter. Can you imagine Oscar Wilde on Twitter? Holy shit, that dude would've had, like, four million followers, and every tweet would've been essential. Every tweet would've been the best part of your day. I don’t get why people don’t expect writers to be all over social media blabbing away. When you’re a writer, the whole business is to poke at and explore ideas, and to use language to frame debate, discussion, and thought. I take Twitter as license to spout off on anything that occurs to me, whether it’s action figures, politics, porn, or comics. I’m ready to blab away about it.
You grew up with your dad having a rabid fan base, and even had them come to your doorstep. You seem to welcome interaction with fans with your frequent use of social media. Do you draw a line for privacy’s sake?
I was on Twitter when I got divorced, and I never said a word about it. I never talk about my kids on Twitter. Once in a great while, one will say something that is absolutely hilarious, and then I’ll say, “The youngest boy said ‘this,’” like any dad. But, for the most part, I don’t do family on Twitter or Tumblr. I don’t do drama. If I’ve got something that's eating at me, or if someone is bothering me, I don’t go on Twitter and vent. One thing I’m always uneasy about is the power of social media to shame people. Even ass-hats who really have it coming. Even total dipshits who open their mouths and hilarious, offensive, ridiculous vomit comes pouring out. Even there, I’m a little uneasy about the power of people to go on a Facebook wall or Twitter and have a mass mocking.
When I have issues with people, I prefer to talk to them quietly, not make a public display of it. I always try to assume that people are good, even when someone says something stupid or embarrassing—I’ve said stupid things! When it’s a massive attack, what's accomplished? You make a stone cold enemy, someone who then gets in a defensive crouch, and is going to hold that defensive position, instead of thinking about it, and saying, “Oh, sorry, I was being an asshole the other day.”
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
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