October, 2011. A long interview with author Joe Hill. This took place at the London offices of his publisher, while he was in the UK promoting the paperback release of his novel Horns. We talked about his writing, and the various developing screen adaptations of his work. Originally conducted for an Empire magazine feature, but reproduced here in full.
Joe Hill’s first novel, Heart Shaped Box, met with critical acclaim and reached number 8 on the New York Times bestseller list in April 2007. It would have been a great achievement for any debut author, but was particularly satisfying for Hill, who had managed to do it without anyone learning that he just happened to be the son of the world’s bestselling writer, Stephen King. All accusations of nepotism thoroughly dodged, he has gone on to publish successful comics series Locke and Key, and a second novel, the berserk Horns, in which the narrator suddenly and mysteriously acquires a satanic new persona. We allowed Hill to introduce himself in the London offices of his publisher…
So what brings you to London?
Ostensibly I’m over here for the paperback release of Horns. The truth is that I come from old Maine stock and we don’t believe in vacations. You’re supposed to work from sun-up to sundown, and if you want to study your Bible by candlelight for a little while before bed that’s OK, and any sign of overt happiness is frowned upon because it usually means something’s not getting done. So I don’t really know how to take a vacation, so what I did was arrange this, but spread a thin crust of work over the surface so it seems like I’m actually here for a purpose. I did some media for Horns yesterday and I’m doing some press today and a reading tonight, and then I’m kinda goofing off for a few days with some friends I know here. I’m trying to work out how much time I’d have to spend in here before I could call someone a ‘bloke’ without getting a roll of the eyes. It’s just a great word to say. It feels good in your mouth.
The other thing is… I don’t know what it is about London, but I come here once or twice a year for about a week, and I walk around, and by the time I go home I’ve got about ten new story ideas. It’s a terrific place for me in terms of energy. Ideas aren’t everything – they’re not even the most important part of writing – but it’s still nice to have bunch of them in your back pocket.
So what is the most important part of writing?
Um, I think it’s having a certain level of cognitive dissonance between the work you put in and the result you get. You need to be able to sit there for six hours a day, and at the end of the day be able to walk away and let it go. You have to have a kind of blissful acceptance that you might spend two months writing a hundred pages and then throw the whole thing away in a single day. In the book I’m working on now – which is coming together great; I’m going to read some of it tonight at Waterstone’s – there’s this one part that’s about 180 pages long, about the bad guy. And I re-wrote it about three times and thought about it very carefully, and I think it’s a really good piece of work, and I decided about a month ago to slash the whole thing. I decided I’d written it for me. I was trying to find that bad guy’s voice and how he talks to people and why he’s the way he is, and I had to write it over and over again before I understood him. But in terms of actual story I think it’s better not to have so much of him right in your face, because it’s like seeing Jaws when he was a baby, eating fish. Less is more. It’s like, you want to be careful not to make the Hannibal Lecter mistake, where he was at his absolute most frightening in Red Dragon where you only had him for about fifteen pages, and then in Silence of the Lambs he was almost as scary and just as great, and he’s still only in about 45 pages… It’s when you had a whole book about him… What, mommy didn’t love him and daddy didn’t understand and that’s why he’s bad? Suddenly he’s not frightening anymore – he’s just this loser!
Hemingway always said you have to kill your darlings. I don’t know if you always have to kill them, but I do think this has happened in every single piece of work I’ve ever done that was longer than like 20 pages, where I had this one scene I couldn’t wait to write and that I felt was the emotional heart of the book, and I would write the first draft and that scene would be in and I’d love it, and then at some point in the third or fourth draft I’d realise it’s the one scene in the book that doesn’t really matter; it’s the one scene totally holding the book back because it became something else. I don’t know if a lot of writers obsess over ‘The Concept’. I’m a firm believer that it’s important to have that nice fat hook: to have that concept that people can really get excited about. But by the time you’re finished, what you have is usually very different from what you initially imagined.
What’s your work routine?
I don’t religiously do six hours a day, but I set myself goals. With this draft – it sounds like I’m making processed meat – but I will process ten pages a day. If I get them done in two hours, great. If it takes me six hours, OK. If it takes me eight I’ll do it, but I try not to work that long because I think there tends to be a fall-off. I do work on the weekends though. Maybe not six hours, but I don’t like to let something go because then I’ll waste a day trying to get back up to speed. The other thing is, if I haven’t worked at all I feel restless and kind of out of sorts, and I’m grumpy with people, so I don’t feel centred and like myself until I’ve got my work out of the way.
Horns’ protagonist Ig is very vividly realised; is there a lot of you in him?
I think a lot of people when they hear ‘write what you know’ think that they’d better make their main character themselves, and I’ve always tried to avoid that. My main characters tend to be different from me. Judas from Heart Shaped Box was radically different from me: I was just like, what would it be like to be a heavy metal musician who’s had a thirty-year career? And Ig from Horns is also very different, although we have some similarities: there has to be something to grab on to. I come from a well-off family; my dad is a well-known guy the same as Ig’s dad; Ig’s family are musicians where mine are writers… So there’s some overlap. But Ig has a passion for books about building houses out of recycled materials, he’s big into volunteerism and he’s very devout and goes to church. I’m not very religious, and if I did have a religion I’d probably worship the same snake god that Alan Moore worships. It’s worked out pretty good for him. I think I aspire to do good, but for the most part I’m pretty happy to download movies and use my free time in the most selfish way possible. And Ig is braver. He does stuff like the courageous naked ride down the hill. I never would have done anything like that. I’d have been too worried about scraping my knees.
How far along is the movie adaptation of Horns?
Shia LaBeouf is going to play Ig in the film, and Keith Bunin who’s written a number of episodes of In Treatment is doing the script, and it’s ploughing forward so we’ll see what happens. I think Shia’s a great lead for the part. He can kind of play that kind of innocent Jimmy Stewart sweetness, but I also think it’d be really fun to see him with the shaved head and the horns walking around in a blue dress. I’ll be as involved as they want me to be, and I won’t be underfoot if they don’t want me underfoot. I’ve done my version of the story, and I’ve talked to them about ideas – I had a couple of suggestions that I thought might streamline a film. But at the end of the day I’ve done my version and the movie has to be something different. Films fail either when they treat the source material as if it doesn’t matter, or when they become too reverential to the source material. You want to find a middle path where a film can breathe and be its own deal.
I’m not sure it’s as unusual as it used to be for an actor to be attached at such an early stage of development. Shia read the book and was excited about it and thought it was a part he could play and that people haven’t seen him do. I think he wants to make that transformation. Maybe it’s even a metaphor for his whole professional outlook: he’s played so many clean-cut nice guys that he wants people to see that he can be the demon if he has to be. I think a lot of actors – especially actors who can open films – have started to do this: getting excited about about something and looking at how they can put a package together.
What happened to Locke and Key? The TV series seemed like a sure thing.
I’m not sure anything’s a sure thing. Launching a TV show is probably the hardest act in the entertainment business. In the case of Locke & Key we came up with a pilot, which Mark Romanek directed, Josh Friedman, who was the showrunner on Sarah Connor, did a great script, they pulled together a terrific cast, and they made something really scary and emotionally intense. But, Fox has three slots for new dramas, they had eight pilots, and they picked the three they wanted. But I’m not sure… I feel fairly certain that the pilot will see the light of day at some point, and I’m not certain that we’re done as a TV show. Locke & Key as a comic book has a lot of the same elements that you see in shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad and Walking Dead and Battlestar Galactica: dark, fantastic, with a grim edge… And the thing all those shows have in common was that they were on cable. So I think it’s possible that we may find someone at SyFy or AMC or TNT who’d like to give the show a shot. And if that happens I think we’d be very lucky, in that it would be a case of the show finding a more natural home than one of the big networks. It’s very difficult to imagine Walking Dead on CBS, so we’ll see. I think we have a good shot. I think there’s room for the pilot to be a theatrical film of some kind, although you’d probably have to throw a few more million dollars at it and add half an hour. But I also think it’s possible that a cable channel will throw another $5m and another half hour at it and make it a two-hour pilot. I’ll say this: we’ve had interest from some cable channels, and one cable channel has been more than interested… That gives me hope, but until someone actually buys twelve episodes, we don’t have a show.
And is Heart Shaped Box still happening as film? Wasn’t Neil Jordan attached to direct at one point?
That’s one of these movie stories where it’s in terminal development. Neil Jordan hasn’t been on it in a long time but I still keep seeing reported on a regular basis that he’s doing it. The book came out a while ago, and he wanted to do it, but they didn’t have a script that they liked and then there was the writer’s strike, and Neil just decided to go back to Ireland and make something different. So that’s what he did, and his attachment with the picture ceased. Some other names have been involved. If Heart Shaped Box suddenly goes into development it’ll be because an actor says they would like to play Judas Coyne. Then we might see a team come together around it. But it’s stalled at the moment. I have a short story called Twittering the Circus of the Dead, and that’s actually further along than Heart Shaped Box because there’s so much energy behind it. It has a director, and Manderlay wants to produce, and they’ve got a plan and all the pieces are flying together.
It’s interesting – I’ve now seen two sides of the business. There’s Heart Shaped Box, where there’s this spinning of wheels and this development process that continues and continues and continues. But when something does happen, it’s with such suddenness, it’s almost like everyone’s like racing behind going ‘Agh! We’ve gotta get this done!’ With Locke & Key it was amazing how all the elements collapsed together in just a few months and suddenly they were filming the pilot in Pittsburgh. It was such a remarkable difference from the way Heart Shaped Box has staggered along. So if something does happen with Heart Shaped Box it’ll happen all of a sudden!
A director named Todd Lincoln is behind Twittering the Circus of the Dead. You won’t have heard of him. He’s something of an up-and-coming it-director. He’s done a lot of short films that are kind of upsetting and weird, and he’s directed his first feature [The Apparition] which is a horror film coming out in early 2012, and this is going to be his follow-up project. He’s exciting. He’s kind of like if Wes Anderson wanted to make horror films. He’s a really cool guy!
Are you wary of films of your work, given your father’s experiences?
No, not at all! I think my dad has had nothing but good experiences! Because even the bad films are great. Horror fiction, fantasy, science fiction to a degree, the only thing that’s better than a good movie is a really bad movie. I love a great scary film, but I’ve also seen awful things that I’ve really loved. Like, what’s a good one, Howling 2! That’s such a gas. They show the shot where Sybil Danning takes her blouse off 32 times in that film. I counted. Actually it’s not a blouse, it’s like a leather bustier.
You know what’s a great, hysterical film? Children of the Corn. ‘Outlanderrrrrrr! We have your wooooooman!’ Who doesn’t love that? So yeah, you always hope you’re going to have a great film, but I’m sure if someone takes one of the books or one of the stories and makes something horrible, I’ll still probably love it.
Horns is out now in paperback from Gollancz.