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DarkEcho Interview: Joe Hill

11.27.05

"Most of all I try like hell not to be boring. I make an effort to avoid adverbs. I guess that's how I'd describe my fiction. 'Horror stories with few adverbs.'"

20th Century Ghosts CoverPS Publishing recently published 20th Century Ghosts, a collection of short stories, by a almost unknown writer named Joe Hill. He won't remain unknown for long, though, at least in the fantasy literature world. I haven't found anyone yet who has read the book and not been bowled over, blown away, and utterly impressed with the high quality of the writing and the singular voice of the author -- and that includes a bevy of reviewers who aren't easily impressed. You -- if you have any appreciation for the short form or for modern fantasy and horror -- will feel the same way. Go out of your way to buy 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill and be the first kid on your block to appreciate the arrival of an incredible new talent. (Read the DarkEcho review.)

Don't wait for a U.S. edition -- that will take at least a year -- contact PS Publishing in the UK (editor@pspublishing.co.uk) or your your favorite specialty bookseller online or off and get a copy in hardcover or trade paperback. And here's something I don't think I've ever said before: If I were a book collector, I'd invest in that "Deluxe Slipcased Hardcover" -- it might be the best £60/$90 you ever invested.

Yeah. This guy is that good.

So, who is Joe Hill? (He's no relation as far as I know to the IWW martyr and labor folk hero of "Don't waste time mourning, organize" fame.) At the moment, he's a full-time house dad in New Hampshire and pretty happy with the situation. "When the kids are in school, I have a good stretch to work, and can usually wrap up five or six pages a day, plus an hour or two of revisions. Then, when they're home, there's time for the stuff that really matters: baseball, comic books, building stuff. I have three boys, so it's a lot like living in the monkey house at the zoo. You never know when one of the kids is going to take it in their head to try sledding down the back stairs, using one of their brothers as the sled."

Around age fourteen Joe Hill stumbled across The Drive-In by Joe Lansdale and read it in a single day. He remembers thinking after, "Damn, I wanna do that." Around the same time he started writing for an hour or two every day, because he read in an essay by Ray Bradbury that's what you needed to do to become a writer. "It wasn't hard for me to pick up the habit," he says. "I liked listening to my music and being alone. I wrote a pile of stuff in high school, but I never bothered to rewrite anything. I didn't get serious about that part - revising and revising until you get it right -- until college. Then, my junior year, I wrote a short thriller called Paper Angels, and spent a lot of my senior year polishing it. I never was ever able to sell it, but it earned me the interest of an agent I'm still with, Michael Choate, and nabbed a few admiring responses from editors."

Joe Hill After graduation Joe Hill turned out three other novels "and who-knows-how-many stories," none of which sold. Then about four years ago he wrote a story, "20th Century Ghost", and "with that one I kind of turned a corner."

"It was different than my other stories," Hill says. "Not that the other stuff I wrote was bad. Most of it was professional, technically sound work. But 'Ghost' came to life in a way most of my other fiction never did."

After compiling the collection a couple of years later, it made the usual rounds. "We sent the collection around to all the big New York publishers, and one by one, they all turned it down. They'd say they loved the stories, and they couldn't wait to see a novel from me, but that there was no market for a first book of short fiction by a writer with no reputation.

"So I took it to the small presses, expecting more of the same. But the reaction there was very different, very enthusiastic. [PS Publishing's publisher]Pete Crowther read it in one weekend and wanted it and said we could do a print run of almost two thousand books, including a limited trade paperback, to make it affordable for people who might not normally buy a limited edition. But other guys -- Richard Chizmar, Bill Schafer, Paul Miller at Earthling -- were also interested and positive and supportive. The bunch of them are among the very best people I've ever come across in publishing. They don't make decisions based on what they think is going to make them money, they just get psyched about a book and decide to publish it, end of story. Peter Crowther, especially, is a tireless soldier when it comes to supporting the short story form."

When pushed to describe his own work, Hill explains, "They're stories of the surreal and fantastic, stories built around curious concepts, like the one about the inflatable boy, or the one about the guy who collects dying breaths and shows them off in his Museum of Silence. None of them are experimental. No throw-aways. I'm not the kind of guy who can or wants to write thirty stories a year. It takes me a month or more to write a good story, not a week. I try to be deliberate. There aren't different rules for fantasy stories, or horror stories than from other kinds of fiction. The same rules that apply to mainstream stories apply to all the other genres. Stories need a believable, psychologically interesting main character to anchor them. And then you need to take that character and hold their feet to the fire. Most of all I try like hell not to be boring. I make an effort to avoid adverbs. I guess that's how I'd describe my fiction. 'Horror stories with few adverbs.'"

Despite minimal adverbs, Hill's stories are varied and readers are already debating which story they "like best." The lead story in 20th Century Ghosts, "Best New Horror", is one that horror anthology aficionados will appreciate -- and there's an odd story behind the story. "I was lucky enough to get a story in Stephen Jones' annual anthology, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror," says the author. "Just after the book came out, Steve sent a mass e-mail around, to all the people who had been in the collection, asking if any of them could help track down one of the writers in the book. He wanted to send this person a royalty check, but the guy had just vanished from the face of the earth. Letters mailed to his address came back unopened. His phone had been disconnected. He wasn't online. Steve's search for this writer -- this young guy who had written one remarkable horror story and then disappeared -- kind of grabbed my imagination. So I started writing.

"Now here's the funny part. I finished the story, and showed it to Steve Jones. But when I told him how he had been the inspiration for the story, he was totally confused. He said none of what I remembered ever happened. He hadn't lost touch with any of the writers in Best New Horror, and hadn't sent out the mass e-mail I recalled reading. He probably thinks I suffer from delusions."

"Wait," Hill ponders, "what if I do?"

Other than delusions of Stephen Jones's e-mail, several other influences are apparent in Hill's writing. Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Bernard Malamud seem to have left impressions, but he also notes the importance of Alan Moore. "I really write with Bernard Malamud on one shoulder and Alan Moore on the other. They're my latitude and longitude -- they're how I find my way from one end of a story to the other. I know they probably seem like an unlikely pair. Malamud was quiet and professorial and wrote powerfully about loneliness and moral confusion and Judaism. Alan Moore is this hairy, overgrown shaman who's written powerfully about superheroes and talking piles of moss. But I think deep down, they have a lot of the same strengths. A gift for jolting transitions, and honest, wrenching dialogue. A passion for getting the structure right, insisting that form match content. When they write a character, every line of dialogue, every gesture, becomes a pure extension of who that character is.

"Malamud wasn't afraid to write fantasy or a ghost story or science fiction -- one of his last books was an end-of-the-world novel. Moore isn't afraid to get literary, to twist a genre story inside out and make it bigger than itself. I love that. I also think both of them, deep down, show an almost brutal instinct for creating suspense. In the end, that's the difference between winning a reader over or not. Because if they're bored with your story, there's always something on TV."

Hill's agent is currently shopping a new novel, Heart-Shaped Box. "It's about a guy who buys a ghost online, and what happens to him after UPS delivers it. I started work on it not long after Peter Crowther accepted 20th Century Ghosts for publication, and I wrote it in a very quick period of time, for me, just nine months from the time I started, to the completion of the third draft. It's the most fun I've ever had writing anything. Psychologically, selling 20th Century Ghosts to PS was an incredible boost, and made it that much easier - that much more of a pleasure -- to get the book written. I'll be interested to know what publishers make of it."

Another novel, The Briars, is still a work in progress that he's "been banging away at, off and on, for the last couple years. It's the story of two miserable prep school kids who go on a killing spree one summer...kind of Catcher In the Rye meets In Cold Blood. There's a lot of good stuff there, but it still needs work. With Heart-Shaped Box, everything was right from the beginning, and it just leap-frogged The Briars completely."

If you visit Joe Hill's Web site you'll find a nifty little game called "Last Breath". It's more than just lagniappe for the visitor. "'Last Breath'" is investment banking at work," according to Hill. "Artists also need to be investment bankers. You need to create a diverse creative portfolio. That's the lesson of Neil Gaiman's career. He's written in every possible form, books, scripts, comics, children's stories. Even Christmas cards...one of his most memorable short stories was originally published as a Christmas card. So I write short stories, but I also try and work in other forms. I've done some writing for comics, and enjoyed that. I've always written novels, and hopefully I'll break through with this new one. The game was another form to explore, and it was a great chance to work with Vincent Chong, a remarkable digital artist operating out of London. Vinny also did the covers for20th Century Ghosts, and damn if he didn't do some awfully eye-catching work.

"The other way to diversify your artistic portfolio is to write different kinds of stories. So while the collection and the new novel are anchored in horror and fantasy, I'm exploring science fiction in a new story, and I'm also working on some stuff that's a little more planted in mainstream fiction. There's a story in the new Postscripts, 'Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead', that doesn't have any fantasy element in it at all. It's this straight-forward relationship story. Guest-starring Tom Savini and a pile of human body parts. Hopefully people will think it's funny. So I like to explore other forms, but also other dramatic material, not just dark fantasy. That said, you never want to force anything. I take an organic approach to my own work. I don't write anything unless I think it'll hold my interest, and a reader's. If I can't get wrapped up in what I'm doing, why would anyone else?"

Now, go get wrapped up in Joe Hill's work. -- Paula Guran


Joe Hill's Web site