An Interview with Josh Malerman
Josh Malerman is the author of Bird Box, a standout, Stoker Award-nominated horror debut. He is also the lead singer and songwriter for the band The High Strung. Bird Box continues to receive acclaim and win new fans more than a year after its initial release, and we’re pleased that the author was able to take some time away from preparing his follow-up novel to talk with Cemetery Dance Online.
(Interview conducted by Blu Gilliand)
CEMETERY DANCE ONLINE: Bird Box was your debut novel – was it your first published work? Are there short stories floating around out there fans should be obsessively trying to find?
JOSH MALERMAN: Bird Box is my first published book, the first one to come out, yes. Since then I’ve released a couple stories; Ghastle and Yule (a novella you can get on Kindle or in the back of the UK paperback of Bird Box) and “A Fiddlehead Party on Carpenter’s Farm” (a short story in the great anthology Shadows Over Main Street.) But the next twelve months or so will be better in this way. A novella on Halloween, three short stories, and the follow up to Bird Box with HarperCollins/ECCO.
I understand that you wrote a large number of novels – 15-17? – before Bird Box was published. Did you submit those anywhere, or was Bird Box the first one you felt was ready to go out in the world?
I didn’t shop any of them and I don’t have a great explanation for why. Maybe it’s because I was on the road so much, 240 shows a year for something close to seven years. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe it’s because I’m just a weird guy. I’m not sure what it was that kept me from shopping the books. I’m definitely not shy. I think I was just in love. With writing, with reading, with horror. I used to interview myself, have meetings with imaginary editors, pull volumes of my own stories off invisible shelves. I would finish a rough draft, post something about it, and start thinking of the next one.
A friend from high school called me one day, said he’d like to read one of the books. He told me he knew a lawyer who represented authors. That phone call ended up being the key that opened the door to publishing for me. Without it, I’d probably still be doing what I was doing before, which is actually very close to what I’m doing right now. But there’s no question that ECCO/HarperCollins changed my life.
I realize this all sounds insane. What do you mean you didn’t shop the fifteen books you wrote? But I didn’t care about that. Not in that way. I believed it was all going to happen the way it is now, but I had no business believing that then. And yet, I wasn’t so righteous, either. I wasn’t trying to avoid the life of a published author. Here: imagine you were asking a ten year old the same question: Danny, why aren’t you shopping these comic books you’re writing? That’s pretty much where I was at. Where I’m still at. I’m motivated to write books the same way a five year old is motivated to draw cartoons.
What happened to those other novels? Any thoughts on revisiting them, reworking them for future publication?
I’m gonna’ release every one of them. Bird Box, to me, was/is an episode in a bigger body of work. None of the books are linked, it’s not like that, but I see them all as novel-episodes of the same big show. Bird Box is no better/worse than any of the others. But I love her so. And I thought she’d make a good introduction, a good debut.
I read in another interview with you that you wrote the first draft of Bird Box in 26 days, and that the manuscript had no indentations, no chapter breaks, no quotation marks, and was all in italics. How did that unorthodox approach help you get the story out of your head, and how did it shape subsequent drafts?
Ah, it was dreamy as hell. Nightmarish and fast. Foggy, strange, scary. I didn’t set out to write an experimental draft but that’s sure as hell what it is. There’s something lo-fi about that draft and I think lo-fi is always scarier than hi-fi. A shitty, crackly microphone makes you wonder what’s going on in the vocal booth. A grainy film makes you wonder who made it? The rough draft of Bird Box was like this. And yet, the final draft, the one we have now, is just as misty, just as ghostly, and certainly scarier overall.
Which do you prefer – writing, or re-writing?
Haha. You kiddin’? The rough drafts are fantastic manic benders. 3,000 4,000 words a day. A blur of heaven and hell and people and places and monsters and colors and chaos. And the rewrites? Too real for me. And yet, the rewrites are where the book soars. Where it becomes something special. So… I don’t know. I have enough Ed Wood in me to live and die by the rough drafts. But I’m grateful for my editor, too. That’s for sure.
How does being a musician shape your writing, and vice-versa?
I used to think the answer to this was “nothing.” But that’s totally not true. I write to a beat, a rhythm, internal, every time. Some people call that pacing or some people call it voice. But for me it’s beat. Every book you write comes with its own drum set and you gotta’ play it with every scene, every sentence. Mine’s blue. Without a logo. Some sparkling silver on the rims.
Are there themes that you find yourself examining in your prose AND in your music?
Well, I’d like to write a double-album that was packed with sci-fi shorts… tiny wild ideas that work as songs. The songs wouldn’t need any beginnings, middles, or ends. MAN WASHES HOUSE WITH MIND is good enough for me. I’m not sure if the two mediums share themes, but I know I funnel the same spirit into both.
Do you think you’ll ever transition to either music or writing full time? Would it be possible to give up one or the other?
I’ve done both full-time forever. I was writing stories and poems when the boys asked me to play in the band. And I was writing novels in the passenger seat when we were touring the country. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any kids, but I’ve discovered that there is enough time in the day to write books and songs, make movies and write more books, all at once.
In a move that I assume was influenced by your background performing on stage, you did a number of live readings for Bird Box that might be more accurately described as performance pieces, accompanied by your fiance Allison Laako and featuring blindfolds for the audience. What was the appeal for you to do something like that other than a straight reading, and what kind of feedback did you get from those who attended?
When ECCO/HarperCollins told me I’d be touring, my first thought was something like what the band does; I imagined myself driving from town to town for a full year, reading for a few people a night, meeting the world at once. But the idea of me standing a podium sounded terrible. The blindfold idea was partly because, back then, I was pretty horrified to get up in front of people and read. I’m over that now. I like it now. But for a minute there the idea of a public reading, with no band to back me up, scared the shit out of me. In the end, the blindfolds solved all my problems. And the feedback has been great. I’ll never do a straight one, that’s for sure. I’m already thinking of how to present book 2.
Bird Box has been out for more than a year, but the attention and accolades keep rolling in. What kind of pressure does that put on you in preparing a follow-up?
None. Not in that way. I wanna’ write a great book and I want it to come out as soon as possible, so sometimes I feel a time crunch. But as to writing something to follow up Bird Box, I feel free and good about it. Like I said earlier, they’re all episodes to me. Not sequels. But part of the same show. I can’t wait for episode 2 to come out.
What’s next from Josh Malerman?
Book 2 for HarperCollins. Tentatively called Every Good Boy Does Fine.
A novella (a physical copy) set for release on Halloween through the website This is Horror. Tentatively called We Should Introduce Ourselves.
A novella called I Can Taste the Blood in an anthology by the same name, coming out on Grey Matter Press.
A pair of short stories “Danny” and “The Bigger Bedroom” (the former is part of Simon and Schuster’s Scary Out There (edited by Jonathan Maberry) and the latter will be included in Michael Bailey’s Chiral Mad 3.)
So there’s a lot happening… and I’m working on others now. Like I said before, there is enough time in the day. And if you’re in love with it? Then time is silly anyway, and doesn’t register the same way it does when you’re not.