Author Joe Hill (NOS4A2, Horns, Heart-Shaped Box) describes his parents, Stephen and Tabitha King, as “the best writing teachers in the world.” Here he offers a few more thoughts on what he has learned from them, and shares a story about collaborating with his father on “Throttle.”
(The following is bonus content to our profile of Joe Hill in the July/August 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest.)
What’s the best thing your parents have taught you about the craft over the years?
To finish. Just to finish. It doesn’t matter how bad it is, you can always make it better in a rewrite. But if you don’t finish, you don’t have anything to work with. So you have to try to bear through it. And sometimes you can’t bear through. Sometimes you’ve screwed it up—it’s time to chuck it and move on. But I tend to keep flailing at a thing. If I quit on something, even then I’m usually not really quitting on it, I’m just putting it aside, and I’ll come back to it three months later.
… Maybe also not to get too high or too low. It’s a job. Keep working at it. I don’t think it serves a writer well to take any one piece of criticism too intensely. I don’t think it serves any writer well to argue with people—if your early reader reads something and says, “I thought this character was phony,” “I hate your dialogue,” you know, that hurts. It can be tough. You want to fight back. You want to say, “No, you didn’t understand it.” I don’t think that’s very productive. You’ve got to try to shut off your emotional attachment to your story. … It’s the only way to improve. I’ve always been good at shutting off my feelings about the finished piece of work and focusing my emotions on whatever I’m working on now. So when an editor comes to me and says, “I love this—I think you’ve got to revise the ending,” I’m not already in a defensive crouch. I can think, OK, well, let’s talk about it.
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I think a lot of your readers adore how you work in small references to your dad’s story world—things like Derry, the Pennywise Circus …
Me and my dad have written a couple of stories together over the last few years, and that’s been a blast. And in some ways I’m more comfortable with those kinds of references [now] than maybe I would have been earlier.
What was it like working with him?
It was wonderful. The first one we did together was a short story called “Throttle,” which was a spinoff of Richard Matheson’s Duel. The plot of Duel is, ‘man on the road is persecuted by a faceless trucker in an 18-wheeler.’ It was actually the film Steven Spielberg did before Jaws. And when I was a kid in the late 70s/early 80s, my dad brought home a videodisc player. It was like a DVD player, only the discs were as big as records. … And he bought three movies: He bought Jaws, Duel and Close Encounters. And I remember one summer we watched those movies over and over and over and over again. It’s sort of strange, but back then that was a new concept, this idea that you could rewatch a movie. Normally when you saw a movie, you saw it in the theater, and that was the first time you saw it, and that was the last time you saw it, unless they aired it again on TV. Because obviously there was no Internet, there was no downloading, there were no other forms of rewatching stuff. And then in the late 70s/early 80s we began to have videodiscs and videotapes. So this was a new experience for us, and we watched Duel over and over and over again, and then we’d go for drives—you know, if we had to go to the grocery store or whatever—and I would pretend that the truck was chasing us. That we were trying to escape. And so we would start to tell the story back and forth, about what maneuvers we would take to escape the truck. And then 30 years passed and I was asked to write a story for this Richard Matheson tribute, and I instantly thought, I would love to write a story that spins off of Duel, because its one of my favorites … and then that was followed by, boy, it would be fun to write it with Dad. And so we sort of picked up where we left off when I was a little kid, and wound up writing this story that was a spinoff on Duel. It was fun. We wrote the whole thing in about a week.