Joe Hill is the author of the horror novels Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, the short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, and the graphic novel series Locke & Key from IDW. His latest novel NOS4A2 is out now.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
Tell us a little bit about your new novel, NOS4A2. What’s it about?
The new book is called NOS4A2, which is actually the vanity license plate of the villain’s 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith. The book is about a very old fella named Charlie Manx. He’s one hundred and forty years old, and he has this terrible car that runs on human souls. He’s survived for years by draining the spirits of his passengers who tend to be children. He drains them until there’s not much left inside them, then he dumps them in this place that isn’t in our world, called Christmasland—this sort of terrible amusement park.
The story is about the one kid who got away from him, and what happens when that kid grows up and Charlie comes back looking for revenge.
You mentioned the vanity license plate—NOS4A2—did you see that actual license plate somewhere? Or did you decide on the concept for the book and then come up with the license plate?
I don’t know where I came up with the license plate, but I do like titles that are puzzles. I think any time you can play a game with the reader or ask the reader an interesting question, you’ve started a conversation, you’ve engaged them, and readers want to be engaged.
As we started to bring the book to press, there was some concern that the title might turn people off, because they’d look at it, “NOS4A2” and think, “What’s that mean?” But I always thought getting people’s attention and forcing them to pause for a second to try to puzzle out what it meant would be an advantage, not a disadvantage, because it makes the book kind of…intriguing.
It’s funny because I got the galley for this book, took a quick look at it before meeting John at a conference where he said, “The new Joe Hill book, ‘NOS4A2’,” and I was like, “No, that’s not what it was called,” and he said, “Yeah, it is, I figured out what it spells.”
I do think some people get it right away, some people get it after a few minutes, and some people don’t get it for a couple of weeks. The book is preoccupied with puzzles and games, and how two people can hear the same thing but hear different things. The lead character is a woman named Vic McQueen who, when we first meet her, is a child. A child with a quite remarkable gift, an unlikely power, and it corresponds to the power that Charlie Manx has.
Vic has a Raleigh Tuff Burner bicycle, and when she goes for rides on this bicycle, she can find her way to an impossible bridge. The bridge spans the distance between lost and found, and if she’s looking for something, whatever that thing is, is always on the other side of the bridge, even if it’s hundreds of miles away. She’s looking for the answer to a question once, and she takes her bicycle down this bridge and she rides across it and comes out in Iowa where there’s a woman, a sort of punk rock librarian, who can answer this question that she’s been carrying around inside her. Vic gets older over the course of the story, Vic encounters Charlie Manx and that changes the course of her life, and she grows up to become a troubled young woman and mother. She’s also a woman who creates a series of books called, “Search Engine.” These books are kind of like Where’s Waldo?—a Where’s Waldo? for the twenty-first century. The fact that she makes a living from these kinds of puzzles, these abstract puzzle books, plays very well into the idea that her life is full of unresolved puzzles.
This is all a very long way of saying I wanted to the title to reflect some of those preoccupations. So the title itself is kind of a lateral thinking puzzle.
You mentioned Vic’s bicycle: was it a Tuff Burner—
It’s a Raleigh Tuff Burner. When she’s a grown-up, she loses that bicycle, but when she’s a grown-up, she comes across a battered old Triumph Bonneville, a 1968 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle, and fixes it up, and that becomes her new ride. And can serve the same purpose that the old ride could.
You’re very specific about the models of the bicycle, the motorcycle, and Charlie Manx’s car, could you just talk about why you chose those particular vehicles for the story?
One of the things about NOS4A2 is that NOS4A2 in some ways is sort of my unified theory of everything. You have these characters—Vic, Manx, a character named Maggie Leigh—who have very unnatural and incredible powers. I provide what, I hope, is a very elegant explanation for where these powers come from, and that explanation actually plays back into my earlier books. It explains some things in Horns and in Heart-shaped Box. Basically, the idea is that everyone lives in two worlds. There’s the real world, or what we think of as the real world: the world of gravity and physics, the world of bad jobs and bad hair. That’s the solid world that we all know. Everyone also has one foot in another world: the inner world of thought. I think that some philosophers would actually argue that that world is more real, that that world is the only world that we ever really know. So we all have our own inner landscape, or an inscape, and in our inscapes, our emotions have the force of gravity, imagination has a kind of solidity to it, a kind of inner reality. Characters like Vic and Charlie have vehicles that they can use to pull the stuff of their inscape into the real world. Vic can use her Triumph Bonneville to bring this imaginary bridge into actual being, in the same way that Charlie Manx can use his Wraith to bring the world of Christmasland into being, in the same way that Ig Perrish, in Horns, can use a treehouse to bring his devilish powers into existence. So that’s where we get Vic’s motorcycle and Manx’s car. Maggie has a bag of Scrabble tiles that she can use like an oracle to spell messages about hidden truths. And my only rule is that it has to be something you love. You can only access that inner world of thought and bring it through into our world by using some sort of talisman that you love, that you care about passionately.
Your author photo shows you riding a motorcycle, and I saw a video of you riding what I think was a Triumph—
Yeah, it’s not a cool 1968 Steve McQueen Triumph Bonneville—it’s a modern-day Triumph—but, yeah, that’s my bike of choice. I’m not a hardcore motorcycle guy, but I do think it’s cheap therapy. Therapy is $100, $125 a session, and you can get an hour of therapy on a Triumph for three bucks and forty cents or whatever it costs for a gallon of gas right now.
I thought it was funny that on your blog you said, “In this video, I’m not wearing a helmet, but, kids, you should always wear your helmet.”
The guy who shot that video said, “There’s a lot of motorcycle stuff in the book. I think we should film you on your motorcycle.” I said, “That’s great. You know, it’s the first week of March, and there’s three feet of snow on the ground.”
I said we would go for it if we had even halfway decent weather, and we did. It turned out the day we shot that video, it was a little over fifty degrees and pretty clear, so I said, “Let’s go for it.” He suction-cupped a video camera to the gas tank of the Triumph, and I realized at that moment that I wouldn’t be able to wear my helmet because you wouldn’t be able to see who is riding the bike if I did. That was some bitter cold riding. Oh! I was crying. I was out there for about fifteen, twenty minutes, and I had tears running down my face. It was just a nasty blast of cold. But kind of fun. It’s always fun to get on the bike.
Was Charlie Manx’s car being a Wraith a nod to the 1986 movie Wraith which is about a demon car?
Is there a 1986 movie about a demon car? I had no idea.
The Rolls-Royces have had a lot of great names. There’s the Phantom, there’s the Silver Wraith, there’s the Ghost, and I really spent a lot of time trying to decide between the three. At one point, I think it was a 1938 Silver Wraith, but when I did my research…I try never to do any research until I’m up to the second or third draft because it makes so much more trouble for me that way. I could do the research up front and know what I’m talking about. I prefer just to make crap up and bury myself in trouble, and then later I have to figure out how I’m going to dig myself out when it turns out that the facts have nothing to do with what I state in my story.
There was no Silver Wraith until the 1940s, and I wanted the car to be almost as old as Charlie himself. Charlie Manx is about one hundred and forty years old, so I knew it had to be a really early model of Rolls-Royce. And what I came across, the best one, the one that was sinister-looking and powerful, and had a great name, and suited the character was the 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith which was the very first model of the Wraith.
I’m very interested in the research you did do. For example, the sevoflurane—is that a real thing? How did you find out about that?
I was dosed up with sevoflurane when I had to have my molars removed. It was an interesting experience, and afterwards, I thought, “Wow, that stuff is evil. I have got to stick that in a book.” So I’ve been holding onto sevoflurane for a while.
For those who haven’t read the book, Charlie Manx is a kind of vampire, he is the Dracula of the American highways. I find most vampire novels soooooooooo disappointing. I don’t think vampires are sexy—just like I don’t think leeches are sexy. I have not been able to get into the whole romanticization of vampires that’s been popular since the Anne Rice books and has increased with time. I didn’t want Charlie Manx to be the kind of vampire that sucks blood and sleeps on dirt. He’s a soul vampire. He uses his car to drain his victims. It makes him young, it makes him powerful, and it ties him to the car, makes him kind of immortal. Charlie has a henchman, just like Dracula had Renfield. Over the course of time, Charlie has had several henchmen, but the one we spend the most time with in the book is a fellow named Bing Partridge. Who has a bit of a tragic past, did some things to his parents that probably weren’t very nice, and has a bit of a fascination with gas masks and toxic gases. He works in an industrial plant, spends a lot of time working with chemicals and gases. He has easy access to sevoflurane which is a gas you can use to strip people of their will, and knock them out. You can knock them out, but in real light doses you sort of turn them into zombies.
Bing is very useful to Charlie. Charlie wants the life force that’s in children, but doesn’t have much use for their parents. So usually he has Bing deal with the parents. The deal that they have is that Charlie gets the children, and Bing gets the mothers.
The sevoflurane smells like gingerbread which ties very nicely into the whole Christmas theme.
Yeah, it smells like gingerbread in my story. In real life, I think it can be flavored any of a number of ways or have no smell whatsoever.
Charlie Manx is really obsessed with Christmas, and, throughout the book, Christmas is made to be really sinister and creepy. Was that a strategic move on your part to get Fox News to decry it as part of the “War on Christmas”?
I was thinking about Lon Chaney who had line about, “There’s nothing funny about a clown at midnight.” I think that’s part of the horror writer’s job: to create unsettling juxtapositions. You find something that seems harmless and innocent, and pair it with aspects that are disturbing. Christmas is a joyous occasion, it’s a time of pleasure and family, but there’s something about Christmas songs in the middle of the summer that’s not quite right.
Charlie’s victims who end up in Christmasland—they’re these kind of frozen ghouls with too many teeth. They’re still children, but there’s nothing left in them except for a sense of fun. For them, every morning is Christmas morning, and every night is Christmas Eve. Everything is a chance for fun. Playing games, riding on amusements, the Christmasland amusement park, and playing sadistic games like scissors-for-the-drifter: it’s all a good time. I think fun is important in a life, but if that’s all there is, you can’t be a morally fully-formed person without regrets, without guilt, without a sense of shame. How would you ever learn decency? Much is made, in American society, about the wonder of childhood innocence, but innocent children are happy to burn ants with a magnifying glass because they don’t know better. It takes a sense of guilt, shame, and maturity to realize that sometimes your actions can be really unpleasant or painful for others.
There’s a line in the book where Manx is trying to justify himself, and he says the children that he takes away live forever—which seems to be a pretty compelling argument, no matter whatever else you might say—
I think if you asked Charlie, he would say he’s the hero of NOS4A2, no doubt. He is absolutely the good guy. He has dedicated his life to saving children from death, from shame, and all the painful stuff that comes with adulthood. The only problem is it’s cost them their souls, so I don’t think that that is a good trade-off. But one of the mistakes you get in a lot of genre entertainment, whether it’s horror or fantasy or science fiction, is you have these bad guys who are so horribly bad, to the point where you just have to write them off as sadistic sociopaths because there’s no reasonable moral position for their arguments, for their beliefs. Real life doesn’t really work that way. When someone commits an atrocity, and you ask them why did you do it, they say, “I had to.” They can explain, not always very cogently, but they can explain why they had to do it. It had to happen, those people had to die. Oftentimes, it has to do with their being wronged, or the world is unfair, the world is unjust, and so someone had to get shot in the face a couple times.
I really wanted the bad guy in NOS4A2 to be someone who could say, “No, no, you misunderstand, I’m the good guy, I’m the hero here. It’s these other people who are to be blamed for the evil in the world, for the evil in this story.”
Speaking of explaining the villain, I heard you say that you wrote a whole novella to explain Manx’s backstory, and you ended up taking it out. Could you talk about that?
I write a lot of material in the first draft that never makes it into the finished book. People’s time is so precious, people have so little free time, and, right now, this is the best age for entertainment that has ever been. We’re just drowning in a sea of entertainment. There are so many wonderful games, so many great TV shows, so many amazing novels: people can’t keep up with it all. You can only pick and choose a few items from the buffet.
I feel like, in the case of my novels, every bit, every scene, has to fiercely defend itself as a scene that stands, that’s exciting and entertaining in its own right. Every scene should almost be like a miniature little short story that does something compelling and gets the reader pumped up and makes them want to keep turning the pages. But it takes a while to get there. In my first drafts, a lot of them are very, very messy. There tends to be mountains of material that the reader doesn’t really need: stuff that I wrote for me. There’s a lot of stuff, a lot of character moments, and a lot of backstory that I wrote so I can understand who I am writing about, fully.
So, for example, in the course of working on NOS4A2, there was a novella that was a hundred and ten pages long that talked about when Charlie Manx was a younger man living in Kansas. He was on his first marriage and he had a couple daughters, and it tells the story of how he bought the Wraith, and when he made his first trip to Christmasland. I had a really good time writing that story, and I think, in some ways, it’s a pretty interesting story. When I got into the third draft, I made the decision to just chop the whole thing out, because I came to feel that Charlie was more scary the less of him we saw.
I think that often that’s true, that that’s a good thing to keep in mind about villains: the shark in Jaws is the most terrifying bad guy in the whole history of film because he’s almost never on camera. We almost never see him. It’s not seeing him that makes him scary. I think if you look at a character like Hannibal Lecter—Hannibal Lecter was never more terrifying than in Red Dragon: the first book in which he appears, and he’s only in it for about fourteen pages. He’s almost as scary in Silence of the Lambs where we only get him for about twenty-five pages. He’s onscreen with Jodie Foster for only about twelve minutes. But when you walk away from Silence of the Lambs, it’s your memory of Hannibal Lecter that dominates your memory of that picture. His relationship with Clarice Starling is what you remember about that film. The problem with Hannibal Lecter is there’s been book after book since then about him, movie after movie, and now they’re going to make a tv series, and familiarity breeds contempt. The more we know about Hannibal Lecter, the less terrifying he becomes, and the more comfortable we are with him.
I think you can see the same, in an even more exaggerated way, with Darth Vader who is The Baddest Ass in All the Universe in the first two Star Wars films. But, you know, we have the prequels and we had Return of the Jedi, and we found out that he was a whiny, pathetic teenager with mommy issues. He just wasn’t frightening anymore. He was just kind of a weenie with a nasty, burned face and a helmet.
So does that mean you are going to burn that Charlie Manx novella or is there any hope that it might be released in any form?
The Charlie Manx novella is actually going to appear as part of the limited edition package that Subterranean Press is doing, but I’ve sort of included it there as a kind of literary curiosity. I do think it has some appeal, but I just think there was no place to put it in the book where it wouldn’t slow things down. But for the truly interested, it’s included in the limited edition of NOS4A2 that Subterranean Press is doing.
Some of that material will be lightly adapted for a comic book I’m doing. It’s called Wraith and will appear later in the year from IDW, and is a kind of NOS4A2 spin-off. Meaning, it includes a couple of the characters we meet in NOS4A2, but is largely a different story about a completely different set of characters and set in different time periods from NOS4A2. It somewhat fleshes out Charlie Manx and the whole of Christmasland. It’s not essential to read NOS4A2, and you don’t need NOS4A2 to enjoy the comic book, but the two things do sort of hold hands in, hopefully, an interesting way.
I guess we should say that NOS4A2 is already an extremely long book. It’s longer than your previous two novels put together. I’m curious, did you start out saying, “I’m going to write a big, ambitious book”?
Yeah. I felt like the first two books were compact in a way that I felt I had a high sense of safety about. I felt comfortable. I felt like they moved very quickly, and had a lot of good set pieces in them, and at only 325 pages, there was no real risk for people who didn’t like it to have to plow through. But I don’t want that to be every book. I wanted to see if I could press myself a little harder, do something with a slightly larger scope. I had never really done a book that shifted across multiple perspectives, and I wanted to do that in a book. I wanted to do a book where we had many points of view, instead of just one, or two. I wanted to cover a lot of time. Heart-Shaped Box largely takes place in about three or four days. Horns does look at a reasonably long period of time, but, for the most part, it’s focused on a single weekend. In the case of NOS4A2, we have a much larger scale, both in terms of time and numbers of characters, and I thought it might be fun to try to go big and try something on a larger scale. If I succeeded, it won’t, hopefully, feel like a big book to people, it will feel like a fast book. It will be something people can read quickly and have fun with. You always want to leave people wishing there were more instead of less. There’s that old show business adage: “You don’t want to stay on stage until the applause stops.”
I was curious about Manx’s backstory. You mentioned that Charlie Manx is one hundred and forty years old, so he speaks in this very amusingly, out-of-date way: did you base that on any particular person or where did you come up with those little out-of-date phrases?
I had a hard time with Manx’s voice, at first. Charlie Manx was the hardest part of the book to write, and I circled around him for most of a year. I wrote as much of the book as I could without really dealing with Manx. I’m just talking about the first draft, because, by the time people read the book that comes out, Manx is right there, right out front. Eventually I got it; I formed a vision of his character that I was happy with. But he was hard to do at first. The first thing that I got about him, that really made sense to me, was realizing that he doesn’t usually speak in contractions. He won’t say, “I can’t do that;” he’ll say, “I cannot do that.” He won’t say, “I’m;” he’ll say, “I am.” For me, that just feels, somehow, more nineteenth century. Something about his speech: he’s both sort of a country guy but also weirdly prim. There is a kind of primness in his speech and an unwillingness to use a certain kind of language.
I haven’t seen Deadwood, and I’m looking forward to seeing Deadwood, and I’ve very reluctantly come around to the idea that people on the frontier might have used a certain kind of language that you won’t normally get in network tv, for example. But, in my heart of hearts, I don’t think most people talked that way in the nineteenth century. Not if they wanted to be accepted into polite company. So Charlie Manx almost never uses obscenities, and I think he finds the sound of obscenities, especially in the mouths of women, very vile and upsetting. It makes him want to reach for the soap to wash someone’s mouth out. And to me that just feels like the point of view of a somewhat ignorant dude from the nineteenth century, who has ideas about Daddy knowing best and women belonging in the kitchen or in the bedroom. That may tie in a little bit to his idealization of children.
You mentioned that you are writing this Wraith comic book, and one of the characters is a comic book fan named Lou Carmody. Has your experience as a comic book professional shaped that character at all?
For sure. Lou was easy to write about because I know Lou. You can find Lou Carmody in the comic business or at comic conventions. I feel a lot of good will for Lou because I know exactly where he is coming from, and I like a lot of the same things he likes. Lou has his issues and stuff, but he has a lot of courage, quiet courage, and that’s one of the reasons why I love that character. I do think he formed that sense of courage from reading Captain America.
I’ve been at Comic-Con, I think four of the last five years, this is the San Diego Comic-Con, and WonderCon, and you do hear stories now and then about people cutting in line or being rude or being inappropriate, but it’s amazing to me how basically decent most of the people at those conventions are. If someone in the crowd is moving through in a wheelchair, people are aware of it and try to make space and help out, make sure that that person is having a good time.
I do think people who love comics and superhero stories and cape stories have internalized some good messages about being decent to others.
One character in NOS4A2 that’s never going to be mistaken for a hero is the security guard, Hicks. This character is just so fascinating to me, because his one role in this story is to get knocked unconscious in one scene. You give us this whole colorful backstory for him, it’s just so funny, so could you just talk about how did that character come to you and why did you decide to flesh him out so much?
For a little while, Charlie Manx dies. It’s not as big a deal for him as it is to us. He’s briefly inconvenienced by death, but don’t worry, he gets over it. But he does spend about twenty-four hours in a morgue in Denver, and while he’s there, there’s this unpleasant security guard named Hicks who likes to take selfies. You know, use his cell phone to take pictures of himself, usually with dead celebrities. And we get this whole story about the different famous people who have died who he has been able to take pictures of himself with.
He decides he wants to take a picture of himself with Charlie Manx because Charlie Manx has a reputation as a serial killer and child murderer. A somewhat false reputation because he’s not exactly a serial killer, but, in any event, it’s believed that he is and he died. Hicks decides to go take a picture with him, which is where he is when Manx stops being dead and starts being alive again.
Originally, that scene, which was sort of darkly comic, it was the original prologue for the book, and then later was moved into chronological order. Later I was persuaded to stick it in the middle of the book. But I kept it in. It tells this one short story about this guy, this character named Hicks, and his encounter with Charlie Manx, and we never see Hicks again. It’s just this one thing.
Basically I wrote that and kept it in the book because it’s really funny to read in public. That fifteen page segment reads really well, and I thought, “Well, I’m going to go on the road on a book tour, and I want to have something to make people laugh, and this is it.” I think that’s an okay reason to keep the scene in the book.
I saw that that is online, so if people are curious, they can go check that out.
Yeah, we wound up sharing three different scenes from the book online. I think there’s a few places where you can download or read portions of NOS4A2. I do worry about spoilers, but at the same time, the book is seven hundred pages long, so I guess if we share thirty, we haven’t done too much damage. That’s less than ten percent.
There are also these really interesting illustrations in the book, and one of them is a map of Charlie Manx’s dream world. It’s called, “Inscape.”
Yeah, I think it’s the map of the American United Inscapes.
There are these different cities along the route, and one of them is called, “The Pennywise Circus,” which is, presumably, a reference to the evil clown in Stephen King’s novel, It. Is that just an in-joke or do you see something bigger coming out of it?
Yeah, the elephant in the room there is that Steve King’s my dad, and I hear you stepping around that, because I spent a lot of the first twelve, thirteen years of my career stepping around it. But I’ve relaxed about that, a little bit. There’s a certain amount of Stephen-King play in the book. I just, at some point midway through working on NOS4A2, I thought I’ve kind of wrestled my whole life with how best to deal with the fact that I’m a writer, that I write scary fiction, and that my dad does that.
I went to exaggerated lengths very early in my career to avoid being connected to my dad. I dropped my last name, I started writing as Joe Hill, and I was able to write and publish as Joe Hill without anyone connecting me to my father for a little over ten years. I was able to sell my first book of stories, and then, later, Heart-Shaped Box, before it was largely public knowledge about who my dad was. At some point though, working on NOS4A2, I just kind of felt myself relax about it. I’m really proud of my dad, I love my dad, he’s one of my best friends, I love his books: much of what I write, I write because of who my dad is and the things that I learned reading Stephen King novels.
At a certain point working on NOS4A2, I thought, “Maybe I’d like to have fun with it.” Instead of shying away from it, avoiding it, like a dangerous infection. Maybe it would be fun to goof on Stephen King a little bit, to sort of goof on some of my dad’s stories, and so, there’s a reference to the Pennywise Circus in Maine, there’s a reference to Mid-World, and there are a few other sort of Where’s Waldo/Stephen King bits in NOS4A2 that I’m kind of proud of, that I snuck in there. They don’t mean anything, they’re just a goof. It’s just me fooling around.
Speaking of the period of your life where nobody knew who you were, when you were just another aspiring writer who submitted work to magazines, you submitted a bunch of stories to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, when John was the assistant editor there, and he kept passing your stories up to the main editor, Gordon, who rejected them.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was always really nice to me. I mean, I got my share of form rejections. Sometimes people ask how was I able to keep the connection to my dad a secret for so long, and I had a powerful weapon on my side, and that weapon was failure. It was really easy to stay anonymous when I could barely get published. I wrote dozens of stories that never saw the light of day. I wrote three novels that I was never able to sell, including one novel I spent three years on and was turned down by everyone in New York, everyone in London, and for an extra kick in the pants, it was turned down in Canada.
But, in retrospect, I look at that as the pen name having done its job. Because I was scared that if I wrote as Joseph King, when I turned in a novel, and it wasn’t that good, some publisher might decide to publish it anyway, because they saw a quick buck in the last name. That would have gotten me a quick buck, but readers are tough to fool. They might buy your book because you’re related to someone famous, one time, but if the book sucks, they won’t buy the second one. I wanted to have a long career; I was selfish that way.
So I went and tried to sell stuff as Joe Hill and saw a lot of rejections. But I think that was a case of the pen name doing its job: giving me a chance to make my failures in private, which is where your failures belong.
[If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to tune in next month for part 2 of our interview. –eds.]
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