Joe Hill, 44, is touring to promote his fourth book, The Fireman. His scheduled appearance in Santa Fe on Monday, May 23, promises a trivia game with George RR Martin. SFR editor Julie Ann Grimm caught up with Hill on the phone. Read her feature/review here.
How are you, Joe?
I have the pre-publication jitters. If I had books come out more frequently, if I was more prolific, it would feel like less of a big deal, but you know, I only have one for every three years, or at least that is the pace I am on now, so that is just enough time to forget what the last book tour was like.
The book’s release date is May 17. When does the tour actually kick off?
I think it officially kicked off with this interview, about 60 seconds ago. Today is the first day of the tour. But, I guess it doesn’t really begin until I’m at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire tonight. It’s a fairly large theater. It’s hard to imagine. If only 11 people come, it’s going to be a very empty, strange, lonely event. We will see how many people turn out, but I am looking forward to it anyway.
Where will the tour take you?
Santa Fe, among other spots … I’m going to Boston, New York, Washington DC (and that will be my first time in Washington DC for a book), Miami, Phoenix and Santa Fe, San Diego, Pasenda, and I’m pretty sure I do Portland, Oregon … It’s a two-week tour and it’s pretty relentless, but that’s exciting. That is not anything to complain about. It’s an event every single night for the next two weeks. This is a day and age when publishers rarely have the resources and ability to get behind a book in a big way and send a writer out on a big tour, so this is a bit of a big deal. It’s very fun.
Do you enjoy the touring and the speaking part of things?
I get anxious about it until I do it, and then I am enjoying it. Writing itself is a sort of lonely, isolating experience and it’s very refreshing to get out of the office and go into book stores or go into theaters, and you see all these other human faces, and and oh my God, other living creatures. So that is exciting. And you hope people will like the book.
I try to avoid reading other views when I write a piece. Do you read them all or avoid it, too?
I certainly try to take a look at all the reviews, and I love a great review. I think that I am pretty normal as writers go in that regard. I hate it when critics are critical, even though it’s kind of in the job title, I don’t really see anything wrong with unadulterated, unconditional praise. But that said, I love a great review, but when a review is just lukewarm or actually bad, it’s not fun to read that, but I grit my teeth and read it anyway because I am always hoping to learn more and if someone says, ‘This is why I like this thing,’ that is something you can maybe take into the next book. Or maybe not, some people you can never please.
Do you ever talk to your dad about your books?
Yeah, sure, the whole family writes. My mom is also a novelist, and my brother is a novelist, and his wife is a novelist. And so when I was growing up, when I was 12-13 and we’d gather around the dinner table, our supper conversation was always literary conversation. We were always talking about characters and books and authors and publishing, so it’s always been part of the family conversation and it seems very natural for us to pass around our manuscripts and to comment on each other’s work and make suggestions. We do that.
It’s kind of unfair actually, to have so many great writers in your immediate circle who you can bounce thoughts off of, who can respond to your work and make suggestions. It seems like a horrifyingly unfair advantage. What’s the story with your pseudonym?
I knew at a fairly early age I wanted to be a writer. When I was 18, I decided to drop my last name and write as Joe Hill and to the best of my ability keep it a secret who my dad was. And the reason I did that was because I wanted to be sure that when I sold a story, it sold because an editor loved it, that it sold on its own merits, and not because my dad was someone famous. And I had a real fear that if I wrote a novel that wasn’t very good, a publisher might publish it anyway because a publisher saw a chance to make a quick buck on the last name. So by becoming Joe Hill and keeping my identity a secret, playing it close to the vest, I was able to learn my craft in private and make my mistakes in secret, which is where they belong. I have always been an insecure sort of dude, and I really needed the encouragement of knowing that this story sold because someone loved it. This story sold for the right reason.
And I was able to get that. I was able to get that level of validation. I eventually did start to sell short stories and I had a big break when I was able to sell a script to Marvel comics for Spider-Man,. That was sort of my great breakthrough when I sold an 11-page Spider-Man story, and it was a great experience, and eventually I was able to sell a book of short stories to a small press in England where the publisher had no idea who my dad was. I had an agent for 10 years, Nick Choate, who also didn’t know. And I told him shortly after we sold 20th Century Ghosts.And then I stuck in with the pen name because even now people will walk into book store and say ‘Oh this looks interesting, I think I’ll give it a try.’ And they will only Google me after they finish reading it find out that my dad is Stephen King. And that is always kind of satisfying. It’s always kind of satisfying to get a reader that way. It’s OK if readers try me out because they know who my dad is, but it’s also kind of fun when someone tries me out just because of the way the book looks. By the time Heart-Shaped Box was published, the jig was kind of up, right? Yeah. So my first published book was 20th Century Ghosts, which was a collection of short stories, and originally it was published on a small press edition at PS Publishing in England after it had been turned down everywhere in New York City and by everyone in London. When the book came out, I began to do public appearances for it. And almost the moment I stuck my face out in public, people started to figure it out. My dad is very well known in the literary community, and it was a book of ghost stories, and he is especially well known for his ghost stories and well known in the community that cared about fantastic literature. I started going to events, and immediately people began blogging, ‘Oh hey, I met Joe Hill and doesn’t he look like dot dot dot.’ I would email those people directly and say, ‘Yeah, you caught me, but could you take that off your blog? I am trying to keep it under wraps.’ I knew after 20th Century Ghosts that the pen name was not going to last much longer. And about three months before Heart-Shaped Box came out in America, Variety magazine broke the story about who my dad was, and after that, it was kind of pointless to continue to play the cover-up game. I should just add that the funny thing is when someone posted it on their blog, ’I’ve done the math and I’ve met Joe Hill and I’ve done some thinking and I’ve figured it out, he’s got to be Stephen King’s son.’ When I contacted a person like that and said, ‘You’ve got me. Could you pull that off your blog?’ It’s amazing how often people were glad to do so, and were excited to sort of be in on the secret and help me maintain it. … They really understood and when it did come out, people in the know were very enthusiastic about it. How do I pronounce the name of your last book?
It’s actually a vanity license plate. NOS482, which when you say it is “nosvoratu.” The Latin word for vampire. .. I’m a little bit of a collector of vanity license plates myself. I have a whole collection of photographs of them. Everytime I see an interesting one, I snap a picture. I also like to take photographs of little doors. It’s interesting how many old buildings have little doors built in the foundations. Usually they are coal scuttles or whatever, but I always like to image Narnia is on the other side of those doors.
You appear in Santa Fe at George RR Martin’s theater. Do you know him?
I have never met him personally. I am a fan of his work. But it’s interesting: I don’t really know him through Game of Thrones, I know George RR Martin because in the ‘80s he edited a series called Wildcards, and he also contributed stories but he was the editor on it. They weren’t comic books, they were collections of short stories about a world overrun with superheroes.
He was sort of the first person to treat superheroes in a kind of mature, adult context. Nowadays with movies like Batman v. Superman everything is gritty and dark and hyper serious and hyper real, but when Mr. Martin started doing that with Wildcards, ‘What if superheroes really did exist? What would that be like in the world that we recognize as opposed to the brightly colored world of comic books?’ When he started with that idea in the ‘80s, it was a pretty fresh concept. And as a 13 or 14-year-old kid, I really responded to it. Did you think about superheros and super powers as you were writing The Fireman?
The Fireman has a lot of elements in it. It’s a big action-filled science-fiction novel with terrifying sequences, which sort of keep it not too far from the sort of horror novels that I’ve written before, and keep it in the same general artistic sphere. But yeah, it’s totally a superhero story. In a lot of ways, the Fireman is like 50 percent the human torch and 50 percent Charlie McGee from Firestarter.
I thought about Dragonscale as a disease that turns into a superpower.
Yeah, I guess that is true. It’s this virus that gets out of control. This spore gets out of control, and people get it on them, and they can’t get it off them. And when you start to feel stress or anxiety, you begin to smoke, and if you can’t control your panic you burst into flames. ... The Fireman has learned how to control flame and use it as a weapon.
Were you thinking about The Stand? It’s a strange thing. Originally when I started writing the book, The Stand was never in my head; what I was thinking about was the Harry Potter novels. I think very few people will see it. The underlying structure of The Fireman is almost identical to the underlying structure of the first six Harry Potter novels. It was only when I was about two-thirds of the way through when I began to think about The Stand. I was about two-thirds of the way through the first draft when it came to me that the book was full of echoes of The Stand, which I love and I’ve read half a dozen times. Then I had to make a decision: Do I run from this, do I try to disguise the similarities or do I acknowledge those echoes? It just seemed to me that it would be much more fun to acknowledge those echoes, and I actually chose to amplify some of the similarities. There’s a bunch of ways I did that, but the most obvious is there’s a hero in The Stand named Nick Andros who is a deaf man, and my story also features a hero, a young boy who is also deaf and his name is Nick. In my original first draft, my Nick was named Travis. But I thought this similarity is too strong to ignore, so I changed the name. But then in other places, I looked for ways to reverse or invert what my dad did in The Stand. An example of that would be, in The Stand there is a figure named Mother Abigail who is warm and generous and heroic and this sort of kind benevolent leaders of a community it of good guys. And in my story there is a woman named Mother Carol who is frail and paranoid and neurotic and comes to rule over a community of people who are emotionally polluted and going bad quickly. And I thought those sort of reversals are kind of fun and interesting to explore. And there’s Harold Cross. ... Is he a combination of two character names? Of course. Harold Lauder and Nadine Cross. And the hand of God is even in there!Yes, [laughs]. The hand of God turns up, and that is one of those reversals where in The Stand the hand of God appears and it’s the final crash of the cannons, it’s the annihilating final moment and in my book the hand of God turns up, and it’s a serious moment, but there is something just a tiny little bit funny about it. I have to say, I did get my yucks playing around with some of the stuff from The Stand.And, more seriously, all my books throughout my career have been conversations with my influences. They have been ways for me to reflect upon the stories that amp me up. And this is one of the reasons why I so love the work of JJ Abrams, because I feel like his films are sort of crossing blades with all these works that came when I was a kid and inspired my generation. He did Super 8, which sort of reinvented everything that was wonderful about those ‘80s Spielberg films. You have to back to go forward.
This interview was trimmed for space and clarity.