Joe Hill: An Interview



Daniel M. Jaffe  

Joe Hill is quickly running out of fingers on which to count the awards and recognitions garnered by his fiction. He is the recipient of a Ray Bradbury Fellowship, the A. E. Coppard Long Fiction Prize and the 2006 World Fantasy Award. His first book of stories, 20th Century Ghosts (PS Publishing, UK), earned the British Fantasy Award, The International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Award for best collection. His recently published novel, Heart-Shaped Box (William Morrow), is a hit with critics and the public alike.

I had the good fortune of meeting Joe several years ago while I was compiling With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction. Joe submitted a short story, “Pop Art,” that was fresh, fun and profound. The story follows the friendship between Art, an inflatable plastic Jewish teenager, and a flesh-and-blood non-Jewish teen who defends Art from taunting. The story struck me as a metaphor for anti-Semitic persecution throughout the ages; indeed, Art’s suffering is comparable to that of any minority anywhere. After I first read the story, Joe and I discussed the text in depth, and Joe revised the story several times before achieving satisfaction that it was ready for publication.


In the introduction to 20th Century Ghosts, Christopher Golden praises each story in the collection for different reasons. He closes by saying, “‘Pop Art,’ though . . . ‘Pop Art’ is transcendent. The single best short story I have read in years, it brings all of Joe Hill’s abilities to bear in a few short pages; the weirdness, the tenderness, the complicity.”

During our recent interview, Joe offered background on how the story came to be:  “I had been writing a lot of straightforward, realistic literary stories and not having much luck selling any of them. I would send them out and get back these very warm, supportive rejection letters. Editors would say they admired the quality of my writing, but my stories didn’t excite them. They lacked a crucial something, a dynamic internal life. They sat there dead on the page, beautifully crafted exercises, but nothing more.

“At the time, I was reading a lot of Bernard Malamud. I remember being especially fascinated with his tale, ‘The Jewbird,’ about a family that adopts a talking Jewish raven on the run from an anti-Semitic cat. I remember reading that story three times. On my final pass through I was making notes in the margins, using a high-lighter on particular passages, trying to reverse-engineer how he had put the thing together.

“Not long after my encounter with ‘The Jewbird’ I came across one of Malamud’s essays, ‘Why Fantasy?’ In it he argued that since all literature is make-believe, fantasy is more valid and more honest than realism, and that a writer ought to feel free to bring a ghost or a fallen angel or a talking animal into his stories if it served his purposes. My immediate response to ‘Why Fantasy?’ was ‘Why not?’ The concept for ‘Pop Art’ occurred to me not long after.

“As a side note, while I was working on ‘Pop Art,’ I believed Malamud was the guiding spirit behind the story. Looking back now, though, I see the influence of another major Jewish fabulist: Steven Spielberg. When I was growing up, my imagination was fed on a steady diet of Spielberg films, and the story very much has the feel of his aesthetic.” The story is now being adapted into a thirty-minute film by Amanda Boyle.

Several of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts deal with lonely or isolated protagonists. Is that sort of protagonist a conscious model that Joe chooses to work with? “Most of my stories,” Joe explained, “begin with unhappy, angry, morally adrift men. I like writing about people who have lost their way because right off you have a soul to root for. Also, on a functional level, when you have someone troubled, someone struggling emotionally, these characters are ripe to intrusions of the fantastic—something to shock them out of the rut they’re in. Most of my stories are really that simple. They’re built around the collision of the real and the impossible, and the result of such a collision is usually that the main character is knocked out of the groove of his or her own unhappiness, and into some new orbit.”

The opening of “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” another story in the collection, tells of a boy who wakes up as an insect. The story's very much in conversation with Kafka's. “I had just read ‘The Metamorphosis’ while on vacation in Florida,” said Joe, “and I had the misfortune to put my foot down in a hill of red ants. Yee-owch! In the Kafka story, Gregor Samsa turns into a roach, and then harmlessly wastes away, succumbing to his own feelings of misery and alienation. But my run in with the red ants reminded me that most bugs have a bit more fight in them.

“‘The Metamorphosis’ also got me thinking about the school shootings we’ve seen in the last few years. The kids with the guns always turn out to be these confused, sensitive, emotionally scrambled loners . . . children who have been treated almost as insects by their peers. I saw a connection there, between the psychology of the typical school shooter, and the sort of transformation Kafka was writing about, and I followed it.

“Just as ‘Pop Art,’ in the end, turned out to be more Spielberg than Malamud, I think ‘You Will Hear The Locust Sing’ turned out to be more THEM! than ‘The Metamorphosis.’ You know THEM!, the famous giant ant movie from the fifties? Clearly, my imagination has been poisoned by a youth wasted in movie theaters.”

I asked Joe how, in general, his stories tend to germinate and develop. He replied, “I tend to begin with concept, with a what-if type question. For example, the title story in 20th Century Ghosts is about a young man who meets the girl who haunts his small town movie theater. She lived for the movies, loved them so much that she just went right on showing up for the afternoon matinee after she died. When I started, that’s all I had. I can write on concept for about two days. Then I need a character. And as I wrote that story I began to be interested in and care about Alec Sheldon, the boy who has this life-changing brush with the ghost. When we meet him, Alec is a grief-stricken kid who doesn’t know how to deal with the loss of an older brother. His personal story is about the way the movies, and art in general, can teach people how to feel, how to experience emotions fully.

“My initial concept need not involve the supernatural. It just has to excite me. And I’m not hung up on horror particularly. What I care about is suspense. One of the things I learned, over the years I was collecting rejections, is the tremendous value of suspense. If you can get the reader wondering what will happen next—preferably by the end of the first page—you’ve got ‘em.” 


Joe’s highly acclaimed novel, Heart-Shaped Box, has alternately been called “a fantasy-tinged thriller” (Associated Press), “a wild, mesmerizing, perversely witty tale of horror . . . a Valentine from hell” (New York Times), and “a top-notch piece of horror fiction” (Time). How does Joe see the novel? “Heart-Shaped Box,” he explained, “is about an angry, burned-out, fifty-something rocker named Judas Coyne who buys a supposedly haunted suit online, thinking it will be a bit of good publicity for him. Only when the suit arrives, it turns out the ghost attached to it is very real, and very bad.

“There again, I started with concept—a man buys a ghost online. But after working on the story for just a couple days, the concept had become almost incidental, secondary to the main character. Nothing about Jude is as it initially appears. Even his name is a disguise. No one is born with a name like Judas Coyne—that’s a stage name. His tough, cold-blooded, bad-tempered attitude is also a deception, a kind of armor he wears to protect himself from the world’s sharp edges.

“I wanted to know who Jude was before he became so successful and famous and unkind. While the book is usually described as a horror novel, I see it as a mystery—not a whodunit, but a whoishe? It turns out that Jude is a much better man than it seems at first, a better man than even he thinks he is. He has great, surprising reservoirs of decency and courage.”

Did the complex plot come to Joe at once or piecemeal? “It came to me a little at a time,” said Joe. “Outlines are the tools of the devil. I avoid them at all costs. For me, the thing I need to do is make an emotional connection with that main character. I need someone with a complicated inner life to write about, someone worth investigating. If I can develop a character who excites me, and then get them into an appropriately suspenseful situation, the rest is easy. All I have to do then is sit back and watch them fight for their lives.”

Joe was offered the opportunity to adapt the novel into a screenplay, but he chose to let another writer take on that task, explaining that “I had already spent two years writing about Jude and his ghost problem, and I felt like it was time for someone else to take a whack at them. Neil Jordan just signed on to write and direct. That sounds like a good choice to me—he’s a careful, literate director, someone good at unearthing a character’s secrets, someone with an aptitude for examining regret, fear, love. I just hope he won’t feel too obliged to treat the novel like holy writ. Adaptations die when directors are afraid to make it their own, when they get too reverential about the author’s original work. I told my version of the story, now he has to tell his. The same goes for Amanda Boyle in regards to ‘Pop Art.’”

Fans can read more of Joe’s ongoing experiences at his web site.

Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , and his web site can be found here.

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