An Interview with Joe Hill

Joe Hill‘s compelling quartet of novellas, collectively titled Strange Weather, hits shelves tomorrow, riding a wave of anticipation and positive reviews (including our own). Strange Weather is the latest example of what has become a hallmark of Hill’s career: versatility. The author roams from horror to fantasy to sci-fi….from comics to prose to screenplays…..from massive 700-page epics to to short novels to short stories….fearlessly and effortlessly. Likewise, our discussion covers a lot of ground, beginning with his latest release, then touching on his comics work before teasing a bit about what’s in the future.

(Interview conducted by Blu Gilliand)

CEMETERY DANCE: Let’s start where writers always start — with inspiration. Tell us about the inspiration behind each of the four short novels in Strange Weather.

JOE HILL: “Snapshot” was the first of them. There was a sweet, affectionate woman named Edna who used to look after me when I got home from school and my parents were working. Sometimes she’d bake me these amazing cake-like date-filled cookies. Thirty years later I was on tour for NOS4A2 and I got a sudden craving for them, and then found myself remembering how kind she had been—and how much I took her for granted. It got me thinking about all the people—nannies and teachers and camp counselors and next door neighbors—who wander through your life and show you love, largely without any expectation that you’ll really recognize what they offered you. I was a lucky kid. That’s what the story is about: acknowledging how lucky I’ve been, to have been showered in so much kindness over the course of my life.

As for “Loaded,” that’s one about the uniquely American impulse to jack off over guns. Some dude painted the walls with children in Newtown, Connecticut, and the best we could do as a nation was suggest maybe teachers should start carrying guns to school. (GREAT IDEA. That way if a disturbed kid can’t get a gun at home, maybe he can swipe it from a teacher. Or a disturbed teacher can walk into school with a weapon unchallenged. What, don’t think teachers commit mass shootings? Google “Amy Bishop University of Alabama” sometime.) So I kind of wanted to get to the bottom of that—the iron grip guns have on the American Imagination.

“Aloft” came to me while I was staring out the window of an airplane.  “Rain” began after some superstorm wiped out some part of the world, and I was watching the talking heads have the same old bullshit debate about global warming. It reminded me of the line Hooper says in JAWS: “I think you’re going to ignore this problem until it swims up and bites you in the ass.” I began wondering what would force people to stop ignoring what we’ve done to the climate.

To hear me discuss the inspirations, it sounds like I wrote a political book. But in the end, ain’t no one want to pay $20 to be preached at. No matter where the stories began, the job is always the same. You try and find some fresh, exciting, believable characters, and then you put them through hell. You go after them with your knives drawn. I’m too insecure to give a speech. I don’t have faith in anything except suspense.

The two novels preceding Strange Weather— NOS4A2 and The Fireman — weighed in at over 700 pages each. Now we have four short novels that go just over 400 pages combined. Were these novels conscious efforts to scale back, or is the length dictated by the story and nothing else?

I love a big sprawling epic. I love discovering a huge immersive world to fall into for a month. But sometimes I think the novella is the purest, most satisfying form in all of fiction. You get the depth and texture of a novel, but the bullet-in-the-brain force of a short story.

The secret of NOS4A2 is that it’s really two short novels, connected by a lean narrative bridge (maybe a covered bridge?). The secret of The Fireman is that it’s actually eight tightly connected short stories, each building on the last.

We published a version of “Snapshot” in our special Joe Hill issue of Cemetery Dance last year — any significant changes to the version that appears in Strange Weather?

Two. The first is the title—it was “Snapshot, 1988” when CD published it, but at my Dad’s suggestion, I made it a one word title to match the others in Strange Weather.

And I also added a couple of new chapters, about what happened between the events in 1988 and the narrator’s life in the modern day. I think the new material adds some interesting wrinkles.

Sometimes I think I screwed up the titles, you know? The third story is called “Aloft,” but a part of me believes I should’ve called it “High.” That way, when you buy my book, you get “High” and you get “Loaded.”

Let’s say you cut a deal for adaptations of each of the four Strange Weather novels. What medium (movie? television? streaming? comics?) do you think each would work best in, and what creative teams would you like to see in charge of each?

I’m very fortunate in that Mike Flanagan, who directed Hush and Oculus (EDITOR’S NOTE: And, most recently, Gerald’s Game), has signed on to direct and co-write a feature based on “Snapshot.” I read his first pass at the script, and it was wonderfully fucking executed. It’s a very scary and humane adaptation and I hope he’s able to make it.

Given its subject matter, “Loaded” feels like a cable movie kind of thing. “Aloft” is a bit like Castaway in the sky and is almost a one-man piece. You know, maybe it would make a pretty cool play! “Rain” is a grungy, street-level apocalypse, and might actually be made on the cheap.

I wouldn’t want to speculate on directors or casting or anything like that. You want to leave the door open wide for talented people to express their interest and tell you about their version of the story. As soon as you say, “I’d only work with this director” or “Aubrey Griffin must be played by X,” you’re slamming the door on other, possibly more exciting possibilities.

Speaking of adaptations, is there anything you can share about Hulu’s Locke & Key series? 

It’s been an unbelievable ride so far… that’s the main thing. I just spent a week in the writer’s room in L.A., plotting out the first season with a team of brilliant, creative, funny, wonderful scriptwriters. They’re like the screenwriting Avengers… I’m like Agent Coulson. It’s unbelievably cool to get to hang out with these folks and an unbelievable honor to work with them.

We’ve got Andy and Barbara Muschietti behind the camera for the pilot and they’ve been a total dream to work with. They’re grounded and empathic and insightful and big-hearted. If you spend even a few minutes with them, you start to see that IT wasn’t any kind of a fluke, but a direct result of their warmth and humanity and dedication to craft.

Anything can happen but I’m very hopeful for the series.

The regular Locke & Key comic series ended in 2013. You’ve done plenty of comics work since then, but can you see yourself taking on another ongoing series? Or, maybe, more Locke & Key?

If Hulu commits to a full first season of Locke & Key—and at the time of this writing they’re only on the hook for the pilot—then, yeah, I’m going to jump back in and write the first arc of World War Key, the sequel to Locke & Key. Gabe is on board, Chris Ryall who edited and made us look good is on board… we should be back with the full team.

But World War Key would probably telescope out to another six books. It’d prolly be a lot of work. Let’s see if Hulu gives the show a ride.

Over at there’s an option for people to sign up for my newsletter. At some point in 2018 I’m going to get my rear in gear and start publishing the newsletter weekly—and it will contain a four panel strip in it, for some new comic. But the details are still pretty hazy in my mind. I just know I want to do something with the newsletter beyond just selling people my shit.

You were once extremely active on Twitter and other social media. Why did you scale back? Are you ever tempted to jump back in at the level you were at before?

That’s… a surprisingly hard question to answer.

The shallow answer is that I did Twitter and Tumblr and stuff like that when it was fun, and I stopped when it wasn’t anymore.

The slightly less shallow answer is that I’m 45 and running out of time to read the books I want to read. Every minute I spend online is a minute I’m not reading that novel or that short story or that comic I wanted to get to.

But at bottom, I just don’t think social media is healthy… not for the individual and not for society. The social media companies don’t have an incentive to confront their users with uncomfortable truths or disagreeable facts. The money is in telling you what you want to hear by surrounding you with people who confirm your opinions. There’s big dough to be made by dividing us, carving us up into little tribes, and making us loathe one another. Hate is a big growth sector in this economy.

What, if anything, has changed for you about writing and storytelling since you began your career?

I’m a lot less uptight. For years, I was desperate to convince people I was good enough to do this for a living—even after the books started to sell. I was pretty insecure. I’m more comfortable in my own skin now.

Although I’m coming off two very long novels, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s important to work in short, hard strokes. A good sentence is one that strikes like a blunt force instrument. I do love a lean and mean thriller, something that comes at you hard from the first page to the last. I’m a suspense junkie! I’ve always been a suspense junkie.

I like shifting forms. Writing for TV has been a shot in the arm. Lately I’ve been thinking how much fun it would be to write a couple original feature length scripts. I’ve also been reading Martin and John McDonagh, the Irish playwrights, and wondering what it would be like to write something for the stage. I’d like to try my hand at historical fiction, too.

I want to be liked—to win approval (possibly too much, which is another reason I basically bagged social media). I always hope I’ll be writing stuff my existing readers dig. But I also don’t want to stand in one place too long. That’s how you wind up recycling yourself, doing work that’s familiar instead of fresh.

What are you currently working on?

After two months of working on teleplays, I just started a new short story. I wrote exactly 100 words and then suddenly remembered something: short stories are hard! Pray for me.

Leave a Reply