Interview with Joe HillPosted by Goodreads on May 2, 2016
Hill's latest novel, The Fireman, is undoubtedly his most ambitious work to date. Set in a near future where a pandemic of spontaneous combustion is literally incinerating humankind one soul at a time, the story follows pregnant elementary school nurse Harper Grayson as she is forced to maneuver her way through a world on the verge of collapse, a world ruled by fear, prejudice, and ignorance. As murderous cremation squads search for those afflicted with Dragonscale, Harper—who has the contagion—must somehow find a sanctuary where she can give birth to her child. Goodreads interviewer Paul Goat Allen talked with Hill about his provocative cautionary tale and the art of writing apocalyptic fiction.
Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, King's The Stand, Colony by Ben Bova, etc.). Tonally The Fireman brought me right back to that glorious time period. Do you think the era in which you grew up played a role not only in your obvious love of postapocalyptic entertainment, but also in the initial inspiration behind this novel?
Joe Hill: Mmmaybe. Then again, people have been depicting the last days since Revelation. In a sense, everyone has to face the end of the world. When you die, that's the end of the world (for you). Time is an ongoing apocalypse that inevitably wipes out every generation. The idea that you and everyone you know will one day be dust—man, that's pretty grim. How do you even begin to deal with a bummer like that?
Well, we deal with it the way we deal with all the concepts we find terrifying. We shrink it until it's small enough to fit inside a story. Fiction is a romper room where we make toys out of what scares us...and then we play.
GR: Although this is a very different novel from The Stand, the comparisons to it are going to be inevitable (a world-changing pandemic, a deaf character named Nick, a main character who is pregnant, etc.). But I feel using the comparison is almost a disservice—they're two completely different novels, and in my mind the similarities are simply homages to your father's landmark work. In what ways, if any, did The Stand shape this novel?
JH: At first when I was writing The Fireman, The Stand was never in my head. I was really thinking about the Harry Potter novels. It might not be obvious at first, but the architecture underlying The Fireman is modeled very closely on the scaffolding that J.K. Rowling used to construct six of seven Potter novels.
In Harry Potter we are introduced to a hero in an unhappy domestic situation. Our lead character is different from everyone else and eventually is swept from his home and into an enchanted place of shelter, where he meets others like him. There he makes friends and enemies, learns to develop his special gifts, and is confronted with a brace of mysteries. At the end of the story these mysteries are solved in a series of escalating confrontations that call upon all his decency, courage, and newly learned skills.
And all that's there in The Fireman, in a different costume. Instead of the Dursleys, my heroine Harper contends with a paranoid husband. Instead of magic, she carries a dreadful contamination that could kill her at any moment by way of spontaneous combustion. Instead of Hogwarts, she finds her way to a secret community of the infected, Camp Wyndham. And instead of Professor Lupin, Harper has the Fireman to teach her how to survive.
The Stand when I was two-thirds of the way through the first draft. But as soon as I noticed, I thought, "Ooo, this is fun. I've got some great echoes here. Let's use them."
I made a game out of amplifying some of the things the books had in common. Then I took other elements of The Stand and inverted or undercut them. For example, maybe the scariest scene in The Stand is Larry Underwood's walk through the blackness of Lincoln Tunnel, surrounded by the dead. Harper faces a similar test, but it's half-comic: She has to crawl through a dark drainpipe where she finds herself confronted with a fearsome, possibly half-rabid porcupine.
You've got to get your kicks where you can.
GR: The multilayered themes of this novel really struck me. There's so much here: the dark influence of fear and prejudice, the meaning of love, so many redemptive journeys, the interconnected Utopia of those who have embraced the Bright. But, for me at least, the most powerful theme was the importance of simple kindness. "...we need kindness like we need to eat." Without kindness, compassion, we're doomed as a species. What do you hope that readers take away from this novel, at least thematically?
JH: Maybe that it's more important to be an individual than a twig on the shaking branch of a social network. Or at least to be an individual first. Also that fondness and laughter and empathy aren't luxuries that would be abandoned without a look back if humanity had to confront a bleak season. We're affectionate little monkeys. Our innate sense of humor is inextricably tied into our creativity. We'll be laughing all the way out the door.
GR: The novel opens with elementary school nurse Harper Grayson—who has an unhealthy obsession with Julie Andrews and Mary Poppins—whistling a few bars to "My Favorite Things." Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens...what are a few of your favorite things?
Chris Bachelder's short novel, The Throwback Special, which I've been reading in serial form in The Paris Review. It's so funny, and its sprawling cast of worn-out, disheartened men is so beautifully observed.
I'm a big British Invasion guy. The Kinks, the Stones, the Faces, Zeppelin...those are a few of my favorite things. I've worked my Stones-Beatles fixation into every book, including and maybe especially The Fireman. My heroine, Harper, really wants the world to be more like A Hard Day's Night, with every special moment underscored in song.
GR: Former MTV veejay Martha Quinn plays a wonderfully bizarre role in The Fireman (as does '80s music in general). Have you contacted her to let her know of her potential future role as messiah at world's end?
JH: I had a wicked crush on her when I was 14. Those skinny ties! No, I haven't tried to reach out to her. But I know some folks on Twitter have mentioned that the book features a cameo by a brave, inspiring Martha Quinn, who offers both salvation and a sugary selection of '80s pop.
GR: If you had to pick one MTV-era music video to describe or exemplify your teen years, what would it be?
JH: I was shy and anxious, and the videos I liked—Motley Crüe, Whitesnake—were selling sex fantasies that had nothing to do with my reality (or with real girls). Probably the Pumpkins video for "Today" expressed something about my secret, carefully guarded sense of hopefulness. I always woke up believing today might be the greatest day I'd ever know. I still wake up feeling that way sometimes.
GR: Goodreads member Amy Elizabeth asks, "I have read your graphic novels, short stories, and longform novels and think Heart-Shaped Box is the scariest story I have ever read. I had to put it down, then away, then avoid the room it was in for a while. It just stuck with me. What is the scariest story you have ever read? P.S. Love the crossover references to your dad's work."
In Cold Blood wiped out a few nights of rest, though, probably because it's all true(ish). Reality is much more frightening than fiction.
GR: Goodreads member Sarah asks, "What nightmare keeps Joe Hill up at night?"
JH: Aside from the idea of home invaders, like the guys from In Cold Blood? Two words: President Cruz.
GR: Goodreads member Ricardo asks, "I would like to ask Mr. Hill how does he approach his craft? Does he write daily? For how long? Does he read material related to what he is writing while working on a specific project? And finally, what advice would he give a struggling writer?"
JH: I write every day, including weekends and holidays (although recently I've been experimenting with letting vacations be vacations). I like myself better after I've written. Writing every day is a good professional habit, but for me, it's also even more important as a personal practice, a way of centering myself.
I almost always write the first drafts longhand. Even this interview was completed in a notebook before I copied my replies into a Word document. I look to get between 1,000 and 2,000 words a day. I try not to go back and strike things out too often. That feels like revision, and when I'm writing longhand, I want to avoid the mind-set that comes with editing. When you're working on a first draft, you want to switch the critical mind off.
Some writers say they won't read novels while they're writing novels of their own. I think that's crazy. I care a lot more about my reading than my own writing. I feel like reading 40 pages a day is at least as important as scribbling my 1,500 words. That said, when I was writing Heart-Shaped Box, I stayed away from other ghost stories. While I worked on The Fireman, I avoided books about End Times. The best thing about being done is now I can make time to read Station Eleven.
Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Writing contains some fine (and funny) advice, but if you really want to learn how to write a masterpiece of crime, read his damn novels.
GR: What postapocalyptic novels affected you the most growing up?
JH: Aside from The Stand? I Am Legend by Richard Matheson was the first iteration of the zombie apocalypse, even though it's about vampires. Everything from Dawn of the Dead to The Passage to The Fireman owes it a debt. I've read that one at least half a dozen times.
GR: What are you reading now?
JH: I'm halfway through a crime novel called Finders Keepers by a young, upcoming writer of thrillers. This guy shows a lot of promise—I'll be watching his career with great interest.
GR: You're right—I think the future is bright for that guy...
Interview by Paul Goat Allen for Goodreads. Paul has been a genre fiction book reviewer for the last 20 years, working for companies like BN.com, PW, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus, and BlueInk, to name a few. He has written more than 8,000 reviews and interviewed hundreds of writers, including Anne McCaffrey, Michael Moorcock, Dean Koontz, Terry Goodkind, Laurell K. Hamilton, Patrick Rothfuss, and Charlaine Harris. He also works as an adjunct faculty member in Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction program.
Would you like to contribute author interviews to Goodreads? Contact us.