Joe Hill took the horror world by storm with Heart-Shaped Box, Horns and his comic book series Locke and Key. NOS4R2, his latest novel, tells the story of a terrifying serial killer named Chrlie Manx, who stalks America’s highways in his Rolls Royce Phantom, and Vic McQueen, a troubled mother who must confront her past to put a stop to him. We talk to the author about his writing process, nerd culture, and why he’s influenced by British writers.
Vic McQueen is another one of your heroes who is put through the ringer to find her redemption. Are you drawn towards writing these protagonists?
Well, I never want to write a story where the hero is Rock Fiftyman and the heroine is saying “save me.” I have a thing that I talk about when I talk about getting a story going, I usually start from concept, from an idea that I think is exciting and has some hooks in it. And I can usually write on concept for almost two days. And then after two days I’ve gotta have a character. I have to have someone to explore who has regrets, and a past and interesting fixations, someone who will be fun to poke at for 30 pages, or 300 pages, or 700 pages. Because ultimately I’m more interested in people than I am in weird high concepts.
One thing I heard a lot about Heart-Shaped Box is that Judas Coyne is a difficult man to like. I actually think Jude is a pretty great hero, that by the time you get done with the book you come to understand that he’s a better man than you thought he was, and probably a better man than he thinks he is. But Ig from Horns was a sweetheart, and I think that Vic is a deeply good person. She’s got some hard bark on her, you know? She’s got thick skin. But she’s an energetic and imaginative child who becomes a caring and imaginative woman capable of great self-sacrifice.
These magical opportunities come with a serious price. Is that a theme that you’re interested in?
Yeah…[laughs] I don’t know, because if they don’t have any cost then that’s not very interesting, that’s not very fun. From a narrative point of view, if you introduce magic that’s just free power, that’s not very interesting. And I don’t think that people really believe that. I think that with every step forward you take there’s always the possibility that whatever your great new thing is will bite back. That you can cut yourself on the knife you use. So Vic pays a price for her powers. Maggie Leigh, the sort of wonderful librarian, pays a price for her powers and Charlie Manx pays a price for his. In some ways he pays the highest price. And I think that the idea that great things come at cost is interesting and valuable.
It feels like there’s a central theme of addiction and responsibility in the novel…
Is the theme of the novel addiction? I don’t know that it is, I thought the theme of the novel was parenting. And to a degree the book is about your children, Charlie Manx is this sort of nightmare figure who thinks that all children need is fun. And what Vic thinks is that her kid needs a mom who is present and emotionally connected. So you get two different views of how to look after a kid. But there are some things about addiction, addiction is a subject that comes up in the book, but only in the sense that Vic is a very creative person and has had a lot of unhappiness, a lot of emotional struggles, and addiction to alcohol or drugs or even a certain kind of creative work can be a way of armouring yourself against unhappiness.
Did you have any concerns balancing the bigger flourishes like Christmasland and the grittier more grounded aspects?
No, the thing that I struggled with the most when I was working on the book was figuring out who Charlie Manx was. I had this idea that he was a road vampire who had this car that ran on souls instead of gasoline, well, mostly on souls instead of gasoline, and so I had that fixed but why he did the things he did and why he lived the life he was living was very opaque to me, very hard to see. I poked at that for almost nine months before I finally cracked Charlie. And when I finally did figure out who he was, what came to me first was his voice, his particular way of talking. And I started to run him in conversations with other characters and I began to feel like “Oh, OK, now I know how he thinks.” So that was the hardest bit.
But in terms of going back and forth between big action set-pieces or big elemental fantasy and then smaller sort of domestic moments, personal moments, I have two thoughts about that. The first is that you need one to have the other. You can’t just have the fantastic without anything to anchor it, because then it’s like you know a balloon slipping out of a child’s hand, it just drifts away from you.
If you’re going to present a terrible fantasy world like Christmasland where every morning is Christmas and every morning is Christmas Eve, and the children there never age, and play terrible games, then you have to ground that possibility in a world of details that readers can say “Yeah, that’s like real life.” You know, so Vic’s personal struggles with relationships and money and work, her efforts to finish her projects, her difficult, fraught relationship with her mother and father, her childhood in New England, all those feel like stuff of real life and if I paint that stuff convincingly, maybe you’ll still believe me when I’m talking about a car that runs on human souls. It’s almost like the car can be make-believe as long as the roads are real. So there’s that.
The other thing that I’d say is, I’m 40 years old and I still love Led Zeppelin, you know, and Led Zeppelin was one of the first bands to go back and forth between loud and soft. You know to do the big crunching, thunderous guitars and drums sound and then bring it back down to a hush, and I think that’s important in a book too. You know, it can’t just all be thundering drums and a roaring guitar solo. You need some quiet moments to balance it out too. And to flesh out those characters.
You know, there were a lot of conversations about the title. And some other titles were kicked around. We talked about calling it Race, and we talked about calling it Christmasland, you know but I always wanted to keep it NOS4R2 and eventually I talked them into it by saying “Well, Murakami had Q184, and people still bought the book.” And I did think that the title, you see it and you don’t immediately understand it, it’s a little bit of a puzzle. And that I think is good, it entices the reader to come closer and try and unscramble what is going on here.
And the book itself kind of plays with the idea of puzzles. There’s a lot of puzzles embedded in the book. Vic McQueen has a series of children’s books called Search Engine which are based around ingenious puzzles, there’s a lot of scenes with the characters hearing things and hearing what they want to hear or what they expect to hear and not hearing what someone has actually said. And those kind of misunderstandings in language I think are interesting, and so all that is kind of embedded in the title.
In the UK it’s NOS4R2 and in the US it’s NOS4A2, what’s the reasoning behind that?
Yeah, I felt a little weird about that. That was something the UK publisher decided, they talked me into it. And I did feel a little weird about it but eventually I was persuaded that NOS4R2 more accurately reflects pronunciation as it is in England. Whereas NOS4A2 reflects an American pronunciation. But at the end of the day I made my peace with it because Ray Bradbury, his most famous book is Farenheit 451 but in a lot of countries the title of that book is Celsius something-or-other. And, you know, if that was good enough for Bradbury it’s good enough for me.
Heart-Shaped Box, in many countries, they actually have a title that translates to Dead Man’s Suit. So it’s OK. It’s just one letter. I do worry a little bit that people will make fun of it though, that they’re gonna say it’s a story about a Satanic droid, you know! NOS4R2D2! Yeah, I just think there’s a little bit of danger there, but whatever, live dangerously, that’s what I say.
There’s a lot of references to nerd culture, like the orderly with the Firefly tattoo, are you trying consciously to create these figures outside of mainstream culture.
Well, I’m connected to geek culture. You know, I care about things like Firefly and Doctor Who, comic books, my big social event of the year is when I go out to San Diego Comic-Con. But you write from what you know and that’s one of my references. But the other thing is, secretly, everyone is living in geek culture now. Nothing’s more mainstream than The Avengers, you know, third biggest film of all time! The secret language of geekdom, comic books and obscure television shows and off-market video games like the Intercom board games like Zork and all that stuff that was kind of private and clubby has broken big and everyone is a geek now. Which personally I’m fine with. Some people want to keep the club small and private, but I say “It’s fun, and the water’s great, come on in!”
Nah, mostly I’m just goofin’. Mostly it’s just a goof. I try not to take my own stuff too seriously. I guess in a way it kind of all takes place in the same universe. But in Horns there’s a moment when, there’s a party going on and someone has a boombox and Duke Hammer is playing on the boombox, and that’s the band from Heart-Shaped Box. But it’s just me foolin’.
So the characters aren’t going to be popping in to see each other in different books?
Well, the sort of related question is “Why would they?” There was really one story to tell about Judas Coyne, I don’t really have another story to tell about him. There’s one story there about Vic and I told it. Ig I don’t know about, there might be another story in Ig at some point. Horns was a very difficult book to write though and I don’t know if I can go back there. Horns was a lot harder than NOS4R2 and a lot harder than Heart-Shaped Box.
Was that because of the subject matter or was it just that the nature of the story was a bit harder?
No, I think it’s because I was paranoid and depressed when I wrote it.
Is it a coincidence that the Rolls and Triumph are both British makes?
[laughs] It is not an accident, no, it is not an accident. But I don’t know exactly why I did it because it’s a very American novel. I love coming to London. I usually make it over to London once or twice a year. And for me it’s very strange because a lot of my favourite writers are British writers, you know? I love David Mitchell, I love Ian McEwan, JK Rowling obviously, I grew up on the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, Dickens…I would probably say that two out of every three books I read is by a British writer. When I get to London and I’m walking around, I feel like I’ve stepped out of the real world and into the world of my imagination, that somehow I’ve stepped into a book.
I feel that because London is a place I know very well from reading, not from being there. And so here I am surrounded by all these artifacts that I largely only know from my own imagination. Wandering through the geography of my imagination. So in some weird way that only makes sense to me, it kind of made sense that their vehicles were English because America is the real world and England is the inscape, England is the imaginary world, England is the make-believe place. You probably don’t feel that way.
It might be the opposite for us, in that America’s the imaginary place.
I think that that’s true, and in fact Alan Moore talked about this. Alan Moore talked about being a young comic book writer and being as fascinated by the architecture of New York City as he was by the guys flying around in capes. And when he finally came to New York City for the first time, what blew him away was that the water towers on top of the buildings were all real. They looked just like they looked in the comics. And he really felt like at any moment he could look out the window and see Spider-Man going overhead because he had just stepped out of the world that he understood and into the invented world of comics, the world of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. So yeah, I think it’s very common to use a foreign place, foreign places you haven’t been are imaginary to you.
Well, Locke and Key, I’ve been working on Locke and Key since 2007. Locke and Key wraps up this year. I don’t know, the last issue might not be out until October or November. The series is finishing after I’ve been working on it for a long time. You know I was a comic book writer before I was a novelist. I had had a lot of rejections, and I had reached the stage in my career when I thought “Maybe novels aren’t the on the cards for me, maybe I don’t have what it takes” But I had learned to write short stories and I sold some to magazines, and some had won prizes and got in “Best of” collections and on the basis of one of those stories a talent scout for comics asked me to write a Spider-Man story which I did, and had great fun doing. So before I was a published novelist I was a guy who was writing for Spider-Man. And what I thought to myself was “This is OK. If I can’t make it as a novelist, I might be able to make it as a comic book writer. And that would be a lot of fun.” Because I grew up reading comics, I had a very comic-book imagination.
A lot of my favourite writers growing up were Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, also English writers. Frank Miller, who’s not English, loved that early Frank Miller Batman stuff before he turned into, like a Tea Party fascist, God love him. So I thought this would be OK, maybe I can make it in comics, and I started to develop pitches and everything, and one of those pitches was Locke and Key. And then I did break through as a novelist and I was able to sell Heart-Shaped Box, and my career as a novelist took off, but I always kinda liked comic books, it’s partially how I define myself. I do think of myself as a comic book writer first and a novelist second.
I don’t think that one matters more than the other. I love the work that I do with Gabriel Rodriguez who’s like a brother, and I love working with him and making things up. But I also like writing prose, writing fiction, it’s a bit harsher. It feels more like a discipline than hanging out at the playground, like me and Gabe are playing with our action figures, we’re both about 11 and playing with our action figures together in the sandbox, and writing a novel isn’t like that. Writing a novel has its joys as well, but they’re kind of harsher, more pared down joys for the writer. Hopefully for the reader it’s a really lush experience.