Interview: Joe Hill talks word economy, AC/DC and coloring books

Joe Hill

Coralville Public Library — Sunday, May 22 at 5 p.m.

Joe Hill
Joe Hill will read and sign at the Coralville Library on May 22 — photo via

Since he emerged onto the literary scene — careful to maintain his secret identity at the outset as a horror/fantasy legacy — Joe Hill (born Joseph Hillstrom King) has been building his reputation as one of the keenest voices in horror. He spins tales that are tight and taut, leaving no room even for breathing. He writes non-speculative fiction as well, with just as solid a grasp on the craft — but his bread and butter is in the genre where he has been raking in awards for almost two decades.

Hill has proven successful in a variety of forms, from comic books to novels, novellas and short stories. He’s got a World Fantasy Award (Best Novella, Voluntary Committal, 2006), an Eisner Award (Best Writer, Locke and Key, 2011) and several Bram Stoker Awards, including for his first book, the 2005 short story collection 20th Century Ghosts. His fourth novel, The Fireman, was released yesterday, May 17.

This Sunday, May 22, Hill will be part of the Live From Prairie Lights reading series. He will read and sign starting at 5 p.m. at the Coralville Public Library. A reception will follow. Hill spoke to Little Village in advance of his upcoming appearance.

So, I first encountered you through comics; Locke and Key is a favorite of mine …

Oh, cool!

… And I’m always interested in talking about the topic of collaboration. So I’m wondering what it was like for you working with Gabriel Rodriguez on that. Do you enjoy the collaborative process, as opposed to the solo writing process?

I think of all the projects I’ve worked on, probably I had more fun working on Locke and Key than anything else, and I think that’s because I had this amazing group of people to work with and you could feed off each other’s energy … You’d set out to impress each other, and that would lead to some really fun, great work.

For me … writing is a kind of lonely, isolating profession. Writing a comic is different; it’s more connected to other people. And me, it’s the closest I’ll ever come to feeling what it’s like to be in a rock band … When we worked on Locke and Key, I was like the drummer, Gabriel Rodriguez was sort of the lead guitarist, our editor Chris Ryall was the bassist. Y’know, and everyone just sort of had their role in the band, and it was fun. It was always fun to play together, and see what you could do to psych the other guys up. I know that I would write a page, and I could imagine what Gabriel Rodriguez would do with it, but then when I saw his finished page, it was always even better than what I was imagining. Which would then motivate me to want to turn around to write something that would really get him amped up to draw something else … It was a great experience.

Locke and Key
Hill worked on ‘Locke and Key’ from 2008 through 2013.
Wonderful! I saw recently a coloring book came out for it.

Yeah! There’s a Locke and Key coloring book now. I think that’s one where you want to pull out all the red crayons — you know, keep those close at hand.

Is that something you ever imagined seeing come of your work?

Nooo, I don’t think I ever wrote anything thinking, “Boy, someday this will make a great coloring book!” (laughter) That never really crossed my mind. You know, there are a lot of them out there now, and a lot of grown ups of my generation have sort of discovered there’s something meditative about sitting there with some colored pencils and coloring something in … At the same time, I think probably we’ve reached peak coloring book in the publishing business … We’ve sort of hit maximum market saturation in terms of … how badly people want to buy coloring books. So I kind of expect that one fad to wear itself out a little bit. Hopefully not before we get to sell a whole bunch of copies of the Locke and Key coloring book!

Right! I really loved the analogy you made a moment ago between working on the comic and a rock band. Is music something that has a large place in your life?

Yeah. You know, I said, too, that writing is sort of a lonely experience. And for me, blasting my music while I work, and thinking about music, keeping my albums close, is one of the ways I feel less alone — more connected to the rest of the world, I think. Although, that said, I always used to throw on AC/DC and crank the volume up when I was writing, and I don’t do that quite as much as I used to. When I’m writing dialogue, when I’m getting to know a character, I actually do need things kind of quiet. I didn’t used to need that, but now it seems to be helpful to have things relatively silent.

And you find that dialogue writing is different for you than narrative in that sense?

Yeah, I think I need things quiet so I can correctly hear the characters’ voices. I know that when I’m writing a book … I’ll write lots of material that won’t find its way into the finished story, and I’ve gradually come around to feel like I write those unnecessary scenes to discover the characters. By putting the characters in different situations, I get a sense of what they like, what they don’t like, how they communicate to others — I can learn something about their private anxieties, their daydreams. For me, that’s the work of writing a story, is figuring out who my characters are, and getting a firm handle on their personality. That’s the hard part, and with a novel, I may need 18 months getting to know my characters well, and that will be like writing the first third of the novel — and then usually, I can write the next two thirds of the novel in about four months. Because, by then, I know who these people are, and I know how they’ll react in any given situation. And so that’s sort of the tipping point when the novel writes itself.

So how does that differ for you, then, with short stories? I mean, short stories are sort of defined by their economy, where there’s nothing extraneous there whatsoever, nothing is there by accident. Do you feel like you do a lot of editing then? Do you do as full an exploration ahead of time, and then edit it down?

Well, I’ve gotten better. As I’ve gotten older, and I’ve done this more, I’ve gotten better. The oldest short story that I’ll admit to, um, there’s a story in 20th Century Ghosts called “Better Than Home,” and that’s a very, very old story. The original first draft of that story was 120 pages …

Oh, wow!

And I played a game with myself to see how far I could edit it down. I would take a 10 page sequence and say, “Well, do I need this, or can I lose it?” and I’d find a way cut it. I’d take an eight page sequence and say, “Is there a way to redo this as one page?” I’d take five pages and say, “Is there a way to deliver all this information in a single sentence?” And it was a terrific experiment, and I remember getting a story from 120 pages, down to 85 pages, and then down to 55 pages, and then down to 40, and then down to like — I think I got it to like 38, and then maybe I got it down to 37, and that was it, I couldn’t shrink it any more.

Wow, that sounds like a harrowing yet fun process.

Well, it was a really interesting experience! It was great to explore the possibilities of compression. And trying to be imaginative about it—trying to think, like, “OK, what is this scene doing? Is there a shorter way to deliver all the information in this scene? Does the reader even need this information?” That said, when I sit down to write a short story now, I unconsciously usually find a way to get it all there in about, maybe 38 pages, and then I’ll have to do editing to get it down three or four pages.

So you do a lot of that editing just in your head by nature now?

Yeah, now it’s sort of second nature. You know, some of the things that were true of comic books, in Locke and Key — comic books are very rigid forms; for example, you can’t alternate how many pages you’ve got, you’ve got 22 pages! So you have to deliver on that, and I know that when I wrote the first six issues of Welcome to Lovecraft, it was hard, and I did a lot of drafts, editing, trying to get the timing down right, trying to make everything happen at the right pace … and that was a struggle that continued through the second book, Head Games. But I was doing it almost every month … and eventually my subconscious sort of absorbed the format. So that when I wrote Crown of Shadows, the third book in the series … it just naturally came out at the right length, and the pacing just naturally worked. And the fourth book and the fifth book and the sixth book were even easier.

Do you have plans to do anything more in comics going forward?

You know, I love comics. I love comics. It’s my favorite form to work in; it’s so much fun. That’s one of the reasons I don’t work in that format much anymore. Because novels are harder, which makes them really satisfying when you feel like you did them well. And I think that challenge, I think challenging yourself is important … So I’ve sort of taken a break from comics to focus on novels, and short stories and novellas, but I’m sure I’ll get back in; it’s too much fun not to.

The Fireman
‘The Fireman’ was released May 17, 2016.
Do you have any other, larger challenges that you’re looking forward to beyond novels? Do you have any interest in other forms that you haven’t explored yet?

There’s a couple of things — I’ve written two very long novels back to back. NOS4A2 and The Fireman are both big books, and it’s important to get back in the habit of practicing economy. So this next book is a book of novellas, called Strange Leather, and that will be out in fall of 2017. And the whole idea is to sort of reassume the habit of working in the form of very short novels. I think very compact novels can be a lot of fun. So I’ve got four of those which will be altogether in one book.

I’ve done some writing in TV … I wrote three episodes for a reboot of Tales from the Darkside, a show that was like a sort of Outer Limits show for the ’80s. I was hired to relaunch it … I came up with kind of an interesting new spin on it, and so I wrote three episodes, and they filmed a couple of them, but unfortunately we never made it on the air. They decided not to. We tested well, people seemed to like it, but they decided not to go forward with it.

Oh, that’s heartbreaking.

Well, but it’s not all bad. IDW publishing, who did Locke and Key, won the rights to do the screenplays as comic books …

Oh fantastic!

And so Gabriel Rodriguez, who drew Locke and Key, is doing them now as a series of comic books. So people will get a chance to see the TV show that could have been. And it was good practice — writing those screenplays was good practice for me. Now I’m at work on a pilot episode for Locke and Key, with hopes of having a Locke and Key TV show.

That’s really interesting! What network is interested in that? Or are you allowed to say?

That has not been decided yet. IDW Media now has an arm, or a branch, that produces television shows. So they’ve got one on the air already, called Wynonna Earp, on the SyFy channel, and they’ve got another one they’re developing pretty rapidly, I believe they’re doing with BBC America, that’s based on the Dirk Gently novels, by Douglas Adams.

Oh great! Ha! That’ll be great to see them on that!

And Locke and Key will be their third show.

Fantastic! This is wonderful information. (laughs) I love the work that IDW does, so that’s really exciting to hear. So, speaking of economy, you have a pretty active social media presence. How do you feel that is useful to you in terms of connecting with your fans?

It’s a little less active than it used to be, actually. I was an early adopter of Twitter, and I loved Twitter … there was a long time when I really loved going on Twitter, I would go on during the day, and I had this huge community of friends to talk to, and again, it was one more thing to sort of combat the isolation of writing. But Twitter was one thing when I was on it in the early days. I was an early adopter of it. You know, I was always late to everything. I was like one of the last guys to get on MySpace; I still haven’t gotten on Facebook. But I liked Twitter, I dug it. It was a real writers’ format. But … it’s a really easy place to harass people. There’s a lot of really uncontrolled harassment on the site, and that’s gross, and that’s disappointing. There’s a real passion for outrage and for shaming on Twitter; I don’t dig that either. Even though so many people have it coming — there are people absolutely begging for a good public shaming! But it’s not about them; it’s more about, like, I don’t want to be the guy doing that … It’s an outrageous world, and there’s a lot to be outraged about — but I also sort of wonder how much of the day do you really want to spend in a state of outrage? I think that varies from person to person, but for me? Eh, not too much.

So how do you find is a good way for you now to connect with fans? Do you find that outreach in that way is useful for your career?

Absolutely, absolutely. I can say that I find Twitter and other forms of social media disappointing and disrupting lately — but that doesn’t stop me from going out and using social media to say, “Hey, I’m gonna be here signing books” on a certain night. It’s a useful way to pass information. Sometimes … my self-control will crack, and I’ll be on Twitter just to be silly, and then I’ll remember I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore (laughter). You know, old habits die hard. There are still all these people I really like on Twitter; it’s fun to goof off with them. But it doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to this big unruly club, where there are things going on that I’m not that wild about. But yeah, absolutely. One thing, for a writer, one of the things social media can do, is it can give people the opportunity to connect … maybe hear about what you’re up to.

I will say, though, I think the best way for me to connect with readers, I mean, at the risk of being completely obtuse, I do think the best way to connect with my readers is with my books, and the short stories, and the comics — the magic. That’s inherently more interesting than anything in my Twitter feed. And I also kind of agree … there are so many things about Jonathan Franzen that bug people on the internet, but I do kind of agree that if you’re spending a lot of time on social media, you’re probably fragmenting your concentration in a way that’s not real great for your writing. Don Delillo was talking about this just the other day — about the importance of having your sort of uninterrupted, undistracted space to work.

Definitely. I listen to a lot of podcasts about that kind of space, about developing that kind of space. It’s a hard thing to do sometimes.

It is, it is! Because you get stuck. You’re having trouble figuring out what the next sentence is, and you think, “Weeell, I’ll just check my newsfeed on Facebook,” and then 45 minutes later, you’re still on social media, and you haven’t gotten anything done. Sometimes you have to sit there in uninterrupted silence and be uncomfortable. You have to sit there hugging your frustration to your chest without any relief. It’s not fun, but it is how things get written. It is how a novel gets finished.

I had one other question for you, completely off-topic. I apologize, because this is a wonderful conversation, but I was curious: your namesake had a significant anniversary last year, it was the centennial of the death of Joe Hill, and I was curious if you take anything from your namesake — if you have any sort of connection to the labor movement, or politics in general; if that enters your life in any way.

The reason I was named Joe Hill is because my parents fell in love in the ’60s, and the folk music of the ’60s was sort of the soundtrack of their courtship. And there was the great — I think it was a Pete Seeger song originally, but Joan Baez covered “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” and my mother loved that song, and my parents are fierce, fierce flower power liberals from the sixties, and passionately connected with Joe Hill’s story.

Years after I started to publish as Joe Hill, I read Wallace Stegner’s novel about the labor leader. It is a novel, not a biography, but he hews very close to the existing facts, and he made a pretty convincing argument Joe was probably guilty of the murders he was hung for in Utah, which is not a popular point of view. It’s better to believe he was hung for trying to organize people, and essentially big business did away with him, had a show trial and had him hung for a crime he didn’t commit. But Stegner did the footwork, and … Joe looks pretty guilty!

You know, I love John Steinbeck, I am a left-leaning guy, my sympathies sort of naturally fall with labor, and I think Joe Hill was a fascinating, sort of amazing American figure, even if he probably shot a couple people.

I’ll have to pick up that novel; I haven’t read it. That’s really fascinating.

It’s a beautiful book, and it’s very like the kind of stuff that John Steinbeck wrote. I will say that in a lot of ways, I connect with John Steinbeck much more strongly than I do with, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Ernest Hemingway. Somehow, Steinbeck seems like he’s a secondary figure in American letters … somehow he slightly lacks the factor of someone like William Faulkner … I’d take Steinbeck over Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald any day. The guy could flat out write; those are wonderful novels.

He definitely valued economy! He knows how to use a word.

His stories were such great stories, and so well written. He wrote great dialogue. He has the famous line where he said, “I like a little pretty writing, but I don’t want too much pretty writing,” and “I want to know how a character looks from the way he talks.” And I love that, I think that’s really true. If you can get someone’s voice, if you can really capture a character’s voice, you don’t need to describe what they look like; everyone knows. They can see it in their head. I love that.

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