BY DREW TURNEY
Author Joe Hill worked as a writer for nearly a decade before revealing his relationship to legendary horror author Stephen King. (For the uninitiated, Hill is King's son.) Hill has stated that he wanted to prove himself on his own terms, and so chose to work under a semi-pseudonym. His three novels—Heart-Shaped Box, Horns and NOS4A2 (pronounced Nosferatu)—are all bestsellers, and his collection of short fiction, 20th Century Ghosts, won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection in 2005. And now his novel Horns is a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, and his latest release is his bestselling book yet.
Here, Hill talks about his family, his writing, and what it's like to step back and let someone make a film from your book.
Are you ready to write an engrossing thriller that readers can't put down? In this series, bestselling authors share their firsthand experience and techniques both in writing thrillers and in getting their careers established. Get the inside scoop on the changing publishing industry, explore strategies for portraying point of view and pacing your story appropriately, examine the ins and outs of writing villainous characters, authenticating your story with psychological details and using forensic evidence. With help from these experienced authors, you’ll be ready to create edge-of-your-seat suspense and complete a thriller novel that agents can’t resist.
DT: How involved were you with writing the screenplay for Horns?
JH: I spent about three years writing Horns, and after that length of time I was ready to be done with it. Mandalay optioned it and wanted to make a film, and they asked if I had any interest in writing the script. I said 'Not really,' so they passed it onto Keith Bunin, who did a wonderful, wonderful job.
In terms of my contributions, we had a lot of great conversations when Keith was working on the script including Keith and I, Cathy Schulman who is a producer at Mandalay, and Adam Stone who's also a producer on the film. And eventually Alexandre Aja when he came onboard.
We had lively arguments and broke the story down a dozen times and built it back up. It was a lot of fun. When Alex actually began filming, I viewed my role as to not get under foot and not to create trouble so I showed up on set for a couple of days to goof off and watch what people were doing and then I made myself scarce again. I came back in on the end to talk about editing, as they put the film together and I had some suggestions and some ideas. But at the end of the day, I felt like the film could only work if it was Alexandra Aja's version of the story.
I told my version; it was time for him to tell his. I hoped that he would be true to the spirit of the characters and he was. Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple made sure of that. But beyond that I wanted Alex to feel free to have fun and to make a movie that lived on the screen, not something that was trying so hard to be faithful it just kind of plods along. I think he found a nice balance.
You know the thing about the film and about Alexandre Aja, he has a very light touch. And I know that's a strange thing to say about the guy who directed The Hills Have Eyes, but he does have a very light touch. The film has this kind of lush romanticism to it. You know, I think that Alex has a romantic heart, and that's sort of wonderful. It comes through in the film even in the most painful scenes.
DT: Do you have the distance yourself from it to some extent because it's someone else's baby?
JH: Yes, this is why I didn't write the screenplay, too. I have written screenplays and I have fun doing that but I've never tried to adapt my own work. I don't think I'd be a good collaborator if I were the screenwriter of something I spent three or four or five years writing as a novel because after I've spent three or four years meditating on a set of characters and on the situation, I've really got to have it my way. I just don't think I could be flexible. I don't think I could adapt.
I can do that if that's my starting point. I wrote a pilot for a TV show called "Dark Side," which is a reboot of an 80s TV show, "Tales from the Dark Side." My version's pretty different. But I had no trouble taking notes and collaborating and working with the network on that. It was fun and exciting. And I liked the challenge—if something's not working, coming up with a fresh set of ideas. But there my starting point was the screenplay; however, with Horns I [had] just spent so much time with those characters and situations. Best to stay out of the way in a situation like that.
DT: Is it tricky to keep that distance?
JH: Yeah, it is. I always feel uncomfortable saying this. I was in so much pain when I wrote it. And you always find people like that annoying, right? Because it's like they sound so self-important, so full of themselves and so full of their own sense of drama, you just want to smack them up the side of the head. But I kind of understand. I was in a really bad place mentally when I wrote Horns.
It's a really unhappy and paranoid book by a really unhappy and paranoid man. That's not to say I'm not very proud of the book—I think it's a lot of fun, I think readers enjoy it. But I have a hard time revisiting it. And so for me, it's actually easier to enjoy it as a film than it is to enjoy it as a book. I just don't like thinking about where I was mentally when I wrote the story. ... But it all turned out okay at the end.
My first novel was Heart-Shaped Box and it was a tremendous success. And I know it's a cliché, but fell into that second-book trap and at one point I had 400 pages of a novel called The Surrealist Glass and every scene was terrible. Everything about it was bad. I was 50 pages from the ending and I threw the whole thing away. I just couldn't stand it and I remember thinking, Forget it, I'm done. If there's never another book, there's never another book. I don't want to be a guy who wrote a crappy book just to have a follow up. I'd rather just be a one-book writer.
And so I stopped the writing for a little while. And then at some point after I stopped writing, the mental fist came unclenched. I started thinking about what I needed to make a story work. I decided that what I needed was the devil. Stories always come to life when the devil walks on stage, a character to tempt people into sin and to reveal secrets and that was sort of the starting point of Horns.
DT: Were you afraid that the rich inner lives of your characters wouldn't translate to the screen?
JH: Well, it is hard, but that's the challenge—that's an actor's challenge. One of the things I've said over and over again is that, in the course of the story, Perrish (the hero) covers this enormous emotional terrain. He experiences grief and loss and rage and madness and delirious joy. He goes from innocence to experience, and a lot of that is internal. Daniel Radcliffe was able to bring all those emotions to the screen and make it look easy, make it look effortless. I always think that whenever you see an artist do something that's difficult and make it look easy, you're seeing someone who's worked incredibly hard. I do think that Dan is a really remarkable young actor, and with every role he shows more range and an almost athletic range of skills. We were just so lucky that he wanted to play the part.
DT: So do you have any plans or action on movies of any of your other books?
JH: Some good things have happened with a short story called "Best New Horror." Some interesting things have happened with my novel NOS4A2 that I'm not allowed to talk about yet, but they're sort of trucking along in an interesting way. Universal is waist-deep in the preliminary work on adapting Locke & Key as a film trilogy. My understanding is they have a pretty big chunk of the script that they're all really happy with. My tendency is not to say too much about any possible film or TV stuff until the cameras are actually rolling because until then I don't really believe in it.
DT: Have you ever thought about acting?
JH: Well, I'm a former child actor. I was in Creepshow. I was the little kid with the voodoo doll. My feeling is that that particular performance was gold, and so perfect that there's really no reason to return.
I explored everything there is to explore in the field of acting with that film and there's no reason to tarnish the greatness of that initial performance with another role. I view myself as very much like Daniel Day-Lewis, you know—years and years between parts. Daniel Day-Lewis and I are almost exactly the same guy.
DT: You definitely showed some incredible range in that role.
JH: I think so. It was right there. Way better, way better than those, way better than those second-rate child actors who worked on Harry Potter. Oh my God, blew that right out of the water!
DT: That Daniel Day-Lewis guy, what's he got on you really?
JH: Nothing. He's got longer hair.
DT: You and your father seem happy for the worlds of your books to cross paths a little. So it seems that you don't want to be too disconnected from his work.
Well, not so much anymore. When I was a younger guy, I was really insecure. I was afraid if I wrote as Joseph King that publishers would publish a lousy work because they saw a chance to make a quick buck in the last name. I was afraid of that. So I decided to write as Joe Hill. I was able to keep it a secret for about a decade.
In the course of that time, I made my mistakes in private—which is where you're supposed to make them. I worked my craft and learned the things I needed to learn and, eventually, when I did sell my first book of stories, I sold it to a small press in England. I felt like it sold for the right reasons because the publisher didn't know anything about my dad. He didn't know anything about my family. He just really liked those stories. Each of the short stories sold individually for the same reason, in little magazines where the editor said 'This is great, we really like this story. We'd be happy to publish it.'
I desperately needed that encouragement. I needed to feel like I was succeeding on my own merits, not because my dad was someone famous. I'm a little bit more secure now, and in many ways NOS4R2 has a lot of joking references to Stephen King novels in it. In some ways, NOS4R2 is a book about Stephen King novels. It is a kind of response to my dad's book It, which I loved as a kid. If you scratch the surface, it's possible to see that NOS4R2 and It share the same underlying structure.
A brain isn't very big. It's just a few pounds of gray matter stuck in a very small living space. You've only got so much space to move around in, and so you are stuck writing about the facts of your own life. You may be inventing fiction, but you're stuck using your own childhood and your own experiences and your own emotional responses to things. So it's really impossible to have a lifelong career as a novelist and not write stuff that is occasionally reflective on my parents.
Far off lands set among the stars. Creatures that go thump-bump-crash in the night. Stories you can't wait to sink your teeth into. With this exclusive collection from Writer's Digest, you will be on your way to being the next Isaac Asimov, Stephen King or Charlaine Harris.
Drew Turney is a filmgoer, movie industry watcher, technology expert and books and publishing reporter with more than ten years experience. He writes about everything from the latest mobile phones to special effects to book reviews to author profiles, and everything in between. Find more at drewturney.com and filmism.net.