Interview: Joe Hill

Nos4r2-Joe-Hill-GollanczJoe Hill’s third novel NOS4R2 has just been released. Known as NOS4A2 in the US (say it out loud and you can see why it was changed for the UK market), it’s a huge story about a mother’s fight for her son against a century-old evil. His previous novels Horns and Heart-Shaped Box marked Hill out as a writer to watch, and his ongoing series for IDW Comics, Locke & Key, is continuously surprising. Hill toured the UK to promote NOS4R2, and Paul Simpson caught up with him for a brief chat before he went out to delight crowds in Liverpool…

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How’s the tour going?

It’s been a lot of fun. The book came out a month earlier in America and I did a very full tour there – I did the East Coast, the heartland and the West Coast – I think I did fifteen different cities. I had a couple of days off the road, and now I’m here.

It’s great to come back to England. I’ve been here a lot; in some ways I kind of got professionally started in England. But at the same time, I’m starting to get a little tired. It’s getting to be time for me to settle back home and do some writing.

You’re probably getting asked four thousand times exactly the same questions…

You never know. I’ve had a lot of interviews, and they’ve been pretty good and covered a lot of different subjects. People come in with different interests: sometimes I get a lot of questions about NOS4R2, sometimes I get a lot of questions about the Horns movie with Dan Radcliffe, sometimes I get a lot of Locke and Key, sometimes I get a lot about my dad [Stephen King]. I’m always happy to roll with whatever way the conversation goes.

We’ll avoid the last one, because I’m sure you’ve had enough of that!

I understand people are curious. It doesn’t bother me too much. I do like the idea of carving out my own space to a degree, so it is refreshing for me to leave that off the table.

HornsOne of the areas that intrigued me, you’ve talked about growing up in a literary household, but what did you learn from your mother’s writing? Her style is incredibly different.

One thing that I see in a lot of my mother’s characters is I see a lot of broken people. My mother has written a lot about people who are trying to tough out the fact that they are deeply unhappy, and have done some things that they wish they could take back and are confused about how to start the next part of their life.

For myself I think that’s a pretty good starting point for writing about a character. The thing about writing about people who are happy is that’s almost like starting in the wrong place. The only thing you can do with a happy character is make them unhappy as fast as possible.

That sounds like a description of NOS4R2’s heroine, Vic – not so much at the start, but once she’s a parent…

Even as a child, it’s not clear that Vic was real happy. She’s got very fighty parents, and there’s not a vibe that they’re terribly interested in her or know exactly what to do with her. In a lot of ways Vic is a prototypical Tabitha King character; but in a lot of ways, Vic is a James Cameron character. In some ways I thought of NOS4R2 as being like a James Cameron novel: I see in Vic a lot of some of the same qualities that pumped me up as a kid watching The Terminator and Aliens. I see a lot of the same things you see in Sarah Connor and Ripley.

She pulls on her inner strengths within the story like those two…

She’s a wounded person and she’s screwed some things up and is scared to damage her kid, scared to infect him with her own confusion and unhappiness, but at the same time, she’s pretty tough. When she’s pushed into a corner, she fights pretty hard, and I like that.

heart shapedThere are a lot of character moments; do you find you spend more time refining those or the action beats?

Do you guys have Juicy Fruit gum? I always think that a great concept, a giddy concept, a high concept, is like a sugary snack that loses its flavour really rapidly. You start chewing it and you get this big blast of flavour and this thrill of excitement, but the longer you chew, the less taste there is there. Ultimately a story that is only a high concept is not a satisfying meal.

I don’t care about crazy ideas all that much; I mostly care about character. So far my favourite summer movie is Star Trek. Structurally it’s imperfect in some ways, but it’s full of these wonderful character moments, where each character gets to step up and define themselves as a hero or a coward or a clown. I love that. That’s what I care about – characters being tested and revealed.

The books are  a thought experiment. One of the things you do in that is you shape characters and then you test them and see what happens to the metal. Is it defective? Will it crack? Or see if it will be made stronger.

Will we see any more of the NOS4R2 characters?

Yes we are. In some ways, NOS4R2 is a cornerstone work for me that has connections that look back to my first two novels, Horns and Heart-Shaped Box, and implies some stuff that might be coming later. At the centre of this book we have this guy, Charles Talent Manx III, who’s over a century old and drives a car that runs on human souls rather than gasoline. Charlie has used the power of this car to keep him fit and young, and the car has drained the spirit out of a succession of children. When Charlie is done with these children he takes them to a nightmarish amusement park called Christmasland. And Christmasland is an interesting place, so I’m doing a five issue comic book series called Wra1th which is about some criminals who are trying to fight their way out of Christmasland in 1990. It also has Charles Manx in it.

You don’t need to have read NOS4R2 to enjoy it, and you don’t need to read the comic to enjoy NOS4R2 but the two stories do have a shared area, with Christmasland, and this one character who overlaps, Charles Manx. That’s kind of fun.

There’s also a character in NOS4R2 called Maggie Lay, a punk rock librarian who has a bag of Scrabble tiles and she can use the tiles in the bag to unlock secrets. Maggie talks about a character who has a power like hers, who can use her wheelchair to bend reality. Eventually I’m going to write a story about that called The Crooked Alley. I think there’s something there that might be a novel.

Thanks to Jon Weir for his help setting up this interview

Click here to order NOS4R2 from Amazon.co.uk

Click here to read our review of NOS4R2

Click here to read our review of Horns

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