WHEN HE picks up for our interview, Joe Hill is baking bread. The bestselling horror/dark fantasy author has very little downtime between spending time with his three children, promoting his new collection of short novels, Strange Weather, and creating the Hulu adaptation of his Eisner-Award winning comic book series Locke & Key.
Yet the writer who can't stand to see a blank page in a notebook, who jumps between writing thousand-page novels like The Fireman, Horns (adapted into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe), novellas, and comics, treasures this small ritual of kneading, watching the ciabatta rise, and breaking bread with family.
As the son of Stephen King, Hill grew up around horror—he even appeared Romero’s cult classic Creepshow when he was a kid—but the warmly affable Hill has refined a style that’s all his own, and fans can’t get enough.
We spoke with Hill about the eerie relevance of Strange Weather, writing longhand, and how humans use fiction to process real-life horror surrounding us.
What does a typical book festival presentation look like for you?
I’m going to come down and talk about the book, and I’m going to read an abbreviated new story that hasn’t been published. I’ll usually read and do a Q&A.
This story shaped up nicely as a thing for the audience to listen to. It’s called “You Are Released.” I read it one other time, then, the day after I read it, there was this incident in Hawaii where they received an alert about an incoming ballistic missile, which weirdly overlaps with the content of this story. People at the event were freaked out...And freaking people out is what I’m all about!
I make a joke that freaking people out is the gig, but it was a little bit of an unhappy coincidence. The story is, in part, feeling like we’re in a moment when the geopolitical waters are pretty stirred up. If someone is careless, we could get into quite a bit of trouble quickly. I never really felt that in my life. When I was a little kid, I worried about it at the height of the Cold War, but it seemed like the global situation between superpowers has been pretty stable until the last year or two. Suddenly, we’ve got a president throwing around nuclear threats on Twitter and you’ve got leadership in North Korea throwing threats right back. Reckless talk turns into reckless action.
Does the current state of affairs make your job easier?
I do think so. The ‘50s were a great moment of horror—there was lots of fear of nuclear annihilation. As a species, we evolved to deal with anxiety, and a way to explore it is in the safe playground of fiction.
Take, for example, death. Death is a really scary thing, and it’s going to happen to all of us. Most of us couldn’t get through the day if that’s all we focused on. We know we’re going to have to deal with it, so we read ghost stories. Every ghost story ever written is at least an exploration of, ‘What does death mean? What does it mean to leave this world?’
At the height of the Cold War, there was a lot of fear about superpowers trading missiles. We got a whole chain of movies like Them and Godzilla about the terror of the nuclear dog being let off the leash. If we explore that idea in fiction, we can emotionally recourse our feelings about it, and even have some fun while we’re doing it.
One story in Strange Weather seems particularly relevant right now, "Loaded."
I've written about vampires, I've written about devils and ghosts, but what's really scary is a white man with a gun. That's what we've learned over the last seven, eight years. That's what "Loaded" is about.
I read something that there have been 11 school shootings this year. We haven’t finished January. My sense is people have been kind of numbed at this point. There are too many kids blown away, and we don’t know what to feel anymore. We seem to have made the national decision that we’re not going to take any action.
“Loaded” isn’t a political argument. It doesn’t make policy decisions, doesn’t say, “Here’s what we should do.”
I’ve been on Twitter, argued, and at a certain point I wonder, “Why am I doing this? It’s not my job to argue with people online.” What I’m interested in is writing a story about it. If you can get past politics, regardless of how people stand on the subject, they can explore some ideas about it and explore the subject in a different light. I think that’s a healthy thing.
Strange Weather came out after you released two giant volumes. What was it like changing form?
I love a big novel, but I also think there's a lot to recommend in stories that are all killer, no filler. It gets in and does the work quickly and swiftly.
The other thing about Ghost Stories and Strange Weather is they developed over a fairly long period of time. “Snapshot” was written while on tour for Nosferatu—I wrote it in two notebooks. I was on tour and in between events and found myself looking at my phone a lot, so I bought a notebook and started a story that turned into that novella. When it was done, it was too long to be a short story, too long to be a novel.
Then two years later, I finished the first draft of The Fireman. I did that longhand as well, spread across seven notebooks. One notebook was half-empty. I started a new story, and at that point, I realized I had a collection coming.
How long have you been writing longhand?
I’ve always dabbled with it, but basically, I was a guy who worked on the computer. I’m friends with Neil Gaiman, and Neil had encouraged me to try working longhand. The girl I was dating got me a really nice fountain pen and I wanted to play around with that. I’m an enormous admirer of the novelist David Mitchell. I read in the The Paris Review that he went back and forth between longhand and the computer and I thought, "Maybe I ought to give this a try."
The other thing that drew me to writing in a notebook is, it never pings with texts or beeps with emails. It is a single-purpose device, notebooks. A lot of the job in the 21st century is about tuning out.
What happens after your first draft?
I open up the notebook and copy stuff in the computer, changing it as I go. The notebook is much too fleshed-out to be an outline, but still not quite like a first draft.
You are constantly working on something—do you ever struggle to create?
I don’t believe in writer’s block. The only way to break stalemate is to write the story you’re trying not to write and explore that subject. Your mom is not going to care.
Locke & Key is coming to Hulu! You're a producer this go-round. What was that experience like?
I wrote the pilot and second episode and wrote the third episode with a terrific Texas writer who did the script for Dr. Strange and Sinister. Then we passed them onto the writers' room and worked with them to keep it fun, scary, and consistent.
We shot the pilot up in Toronto, it was directed by Andy Muschietti, a phenomenal filmmaker—he directed Mama and followed with the adaptation of It.
If Hulu gives us the green light, we’ll be filming later this spring. It visually echoes what’s happening in the comic and, in other places, breaks off and does its own thing.
I want fans of the comic to see things they love from the comic, and I want to keep them off-balance and take the story in unexpected directions.