A Conversation with Joe Hill

Joe Hill has been quietly publishing short fiction for the past few years, with each new story causing more and more people to say, "Who is this guy?" The release this fall of his first collection, 20th Century Ghosts, brought a lot more attention, because the book included some excellent original stories and some other stories that had been published in obscure places. With all of these tales gathered together, it became clear to any reader that Joe Hill's work is thoughtful, subtle, vividly imaginative, and yet grounded in an emotional reality that can be remarkably moving, but not sentimental. The best of his tales are models of what can be accomplished with the short story form.

You've been pegged at times as a horror writer, though clearly you've written all different sorts of fiction. Is there a label you like for the kind of writing you do?
I was having dinner with some publishing people and one of them, an editor, asked me how I'd describe what I write. I said I mostly did two kinds of fiction, fantasy and magic realism. So he asked me what the difference was, and I said if I published a story in a genre magazine it was fantasy, but if I published it in a literary journal, it was magic realism. That's the difference.

I read an essay about six years ago, by Bernard Malamud, "Why Fantasy?" Malamud basically made an argument that every fictional world is an artificial construction, a work of fantasy. The world in Norman Mailer's fiction isn't any more real or valid or "true" than the world Lewis Carroll wrote about. Mailer's characters only seem more real because they're more familiar. Whereas no one has ever run into a talking white rabbit. Malamud's position was that writers should be willing to use all the tools offered by the imagination, to explore the fantastic and the surreal. And his reasoning really freed me to be myself, to write about ghosts and inflatable children and murderous man-eating locusts.

Before encountering Malamud's essay, why had you avoided fantasy elements in your writing? What caused that restriction for you?
Fear. I was trying to play it safe. For example, I wrote a story called "The Entire Weight of Tacoma" about a man in late middle-age coming to terms with the idea that he's at least partly to blame for the disaster his grown-up daughter has made of her life. It was well-written, on a sentence-by-sentence level. It was psychologically convincing, I think. It was safe...it was a story I could show to any editor at any literary journal in the country, without fear of embarrassment. It had only one problem. It was boring. I didn't want to risk anything -- of myself. I was afraid to ask interesting questions because I was worried I hadn't lived enough to provide interesting answers.

It's probably no accident that I've written all my best stuff since I became a dad. Having a kid -- that's taking a real risk. It probably helped me see that the kind of gambles I was afraid of taking in my fiction were really no big deal. What, is someone going to tell me I'm uncool because I wrote a ghost story? I am uncool. Fathers are the uncoolest people in the world.

Were the writers you read primarily mainstream?
I used to read everything. D.H. Lawrence. Elizabethan poetry. Modern short fiction collections about suburban malaise. But ever since I had my first son, there's been a definite swing in my reading habits. I have three boys now, and maybe it's all the testosterone in the house, but these days I mostly stick to manfiction. Elmore Leonard. Walter Mosley. James Ellroy.

I don't read too much of what's commonly labeled horror fiction, or fantasy. I don't know why. I usually like it when I do. I just started Anansi Boys, and if I had the time, I'd sit around and read that all day.

In the story note to "Pop Art", you write, "As patiently as I worked at [my mainstream] stories, few of them ever seemed satisfying to me. They refused to come to life, to surprise and excite, in the way of short stories by the likes of Ethan Canin, Richard Bausch or Tobias Wolff." What qualities make a story come to life for you?
There's really two things, and they have to work in concert. They're like positive and negative on a battery, and without one, you've got no charge.

Before I can get started on a story there has to be a hook, a concept that feels fresh and exciting. But it can't just be a clever idea for its own sake. Somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that a story has to be about more than just itself... that it has to ask the kind of questions that maybe can't be answered.

So in "20th Century Ghost," the hook was this: what if someone loved the movies so much, they went on visiting their favorite theater even after they died? But along the way, the story wound up looking at some other, bigger, more meaningful questions. Like what happens to us after we die? And why are movies (and other works of art) so important to us anyway?

So that's one thing I need, a hook I can use to snag some interesting thematic material. The other thing, though, is I need a main character with something interesting going on inside. A lot of the people I write about are not living the lives they want to be living. They've painted themselves into corners. They're their own worst enemies. They drive away the people who want to help them, burn bridges, blow off their futures. And if they do happen to be happy, or content, or lucky, then they're willing to do awful things to stay that way. I don't mean to say that all my characters are anti-heroes, or villains. That's a kind of black-and-white thinking I try to avoid. I mean they're in jeopardy. I like to write about people who are morally or spiritually or psychologically adrift, because right from the start I'm rooting for them to make themselves well, to find their way out of the hole they've dug for themselves. Some of them don't, but I always hope.

How did you go about finding markets for your stories? Did you have any trouble placing them?
For a long time I couldn't sell a story to save my life. I was lucky to manage one story acceptance a year. But there's been a steady shift ever since I wrote "20th Century Ghost" about four years ago. I wrote it very quickly. Everything just dropped into place. And right from the start, it seemed to work in some way a lot of my other stuff didn't.

"Ghost" sold the third place I sent it -- to a lit. magazine, The High Plains Literary Review. I can't remember what I wrote right after it. "You Will Hear The Locust Sing," I think. And that sold quickly as well.

When I was writing more mainstream stuff, I saw a lot of warm, supportive, personal rejections. Editors liked my stories, but something was missing. I wasn't excited about them, that's what was missing. Those mainstream stories were muscle cars with no fuel in the tank. The fantasy element was a hit of high octane. So lately it's become much easier to place my stories. With a little luck, hopefully I can continue to build on the good things that have come my way in the last couple years.

What sort of high octane does fantasy add to your writing?
On a practical level, it tends to create situation. Fantasy involves asking an interesting what-if. What if you went to a movie, and someone sat down next to you and started whispering to you, and then you realized the person talking to you was dead? That you were being whispered to by a ghost? Now you've got somewhere to go. You need to answer that question.

On an emotional level, introducing an element of fantasy helps to remind me what I'm doing. That I'm sitting down to perform an act of make-believe. Right from the start I have to put any idea of playing it safe out of my head. I try always to take some big leap of the imagination on the very first page. I'm either telling you something incredible -- "when I was in junior high, my best friend was an inflatable boy" -- or I'm putting the main character in terrible, unlikely danger. Like at the beginning of "The Black Phone," when the kidnapper sprays John Finney in the face with a can of wasp poison. Either way, we're putting the pedal down and leaving normal behind as quickly as possible.

How did the collection come about?
My agent said it would be a hard sell and he was right. The conventional wisdom is that there isn't any kind of market for a first book of stories. That you can only launch a writer with a novel. Part of me questions that, especially when you're talking about short stories of the supernatural. Kelly Link did pretty well with Stranger Things Happen. And Clive Barker made out okay with Books of Blood.

Anyway, 20th Century Ghosts was turned down by all of the big mainstream publishers. Quickly. But it was a different story on the small press level. Pete Crowther at PS Publishing had a look, and really liked it, came on with a lot of enthusiasm. As a writer of surreal and fantastic tales himself, he just responded to what was going on in the stories. But every small press editor who looked at it -- Richard Chizmar, Bill Schafer, Paul Miller -- responded with interest and excitement. They're a remarkable bunch... I'd throw Kelly Link and Gavin Grant in there too. They play an entirely different game than the editors at the big publishing houses. The guys with the small presses, they get excited about a book and they want to publish it. They don't stop to think how much money they're going to lose.

How did you go about organizing the contents of the collection?
Well, another thing I picked up while poring over Malamud's essays is his idea that a collection should be a single, unified, artistic statement, just like a novel...not an archive of each and every story you've written in however many years. I was choosy about what I put in. And I tried to make sure that each story pointed to the story that followed it, in some way. So "Pop Art" is about an inflatable boy, an eleven-year-old kid made out of plastic and filled with air. He's hated and feared and lonely, the ultimate outsider. The story after it is "You Will Hear The Locust Sing" about another outsider, a greasy, abused loner who turns into a man-eating insect out of a 1950s giant bug movie. There are a lot of upsetting father issues in "Locust" and so the story after it is "Abraham's Boys," which is about the difficult relationship between Van Helsing and his two teenage sons.

Because most of the stories had been previously published, there wasn't a whole lot of editing to do. The stories pretty much were what they were.

I did do some more work on the collection, though, after Pete accepted it for publication. "The Cape" was a last minute add, something I wrote a few months before the book went to press. "Scheherazade's Typewriter," the hidden story, also went in relatively late, although the story itself was over two years old. "Typewriter" was originally twenty-five pages long, and I considered it a failure, a story that didn't do any of the things I wanted it to do. It went in a drawer but I never forget about it. Then, a few months after I sold the book, I tried rewriting "Scheherazade's Typewriter" from scratch. I didn't even reread my first draft, just worked from memory. And I was able to polish the story off in only five pages and this time it felt right.

Are there any plans for a U.S. release?
I don't know. It isn't too hard to get a copy over here if you want one. You can find the book at -- koff koff -- Amazon UK, Shocklines, or order straight from the PS website. If Pete sells out, that'll be the time to think about another, possibly American edition.

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