BirdBox author and multidisciplinary creative Josh Malerman shares insights into his writing process, what it's like having a story adapted for the screen, his unique theatrical book readings and more.
Anyone with a Netflix subscription (or with any internet contact whatsoever) is likely familiar with Bird Box, a harrowing post-apocalyptic horror/thriller film recently released through the video streaming service.
But many horror and thriller fans were already familiar with the book that preceded it, authored by the fascinating and prolific multidisciplinary creative Josh Malerman.
Malerman has written more than two dozen books—five of which have been published and another one of which, Inspection, is coming in April 2019—plus many short stories. He's also a singer/songwriter, performing in the rock band The High Strung. That performance artistry extends to his elaborate, theatrical public readings, which you can learn about in Quilt of Delirium, a 2017 documentary all about Malerman.(You can and should watch it in full here.) The documentary notably explores Malerman's uniquely theatrical and immersive book readings, which have involved blindfolding the audience, multiple performers, music, shadow art and more.
Malerman spoke at our annual conference in 2014 upon the release of the book, so we were delighted to catch up with him to learn what it's been like having his book adapted for the screen, what he's been writing and working on since then, and what's next.
Warning: Minor spoilers for the book and movie ahead.
What was your initial writing, pitching and publication process for Bird Box like?
In 2006 I was renting the top floor of an old mansion in Detroit. The place was amazing, and the woman who owned (still owns) the house read the few rough drafts I’d done before Bird Box. I’d just wrapped a long story in a book of novellas—the book is called Goblin and the story “A Mix-Up at the Zoo”—and in that story there were long italicized dream sequences experienced by the story’s main character. I knew I wanted to write an entire novel that way, italicized, present tense, alternating timelines. All those factors together made “A Mix-Up at the Zoo” nightmarish to me, and I wanted a whole book like that.
So when the idea of a mother and two kids, blindfolded, navigating a river, came to mind, I wrote it in the same way I wrote that novella. The rough draft was insane—a madman’s draft. No indentations, no quotation marks, the whole thing was italicized (every word). It was twice as long as what the book is today, and there were 14 housemates instead of the seven or eight that we’ve got now.
I started Bird Box on Oct. 5, 2006, and wrapped it twenty-six days later on Halloween. We threw a party that night. It was incredible. At one point, the girl I was dating at the time, she got up and announced to the room that I’d finished a book that day. We all cheered and another friend got up and did a stand-up routine for us all. Two friends fell in love that night and are married today. It was magic.
From there, I didn’t shop the book. Just like I hadn’t shopped the few that came before it. Instead, I got on the road with my band mates and wrote the next one, and the one after that. Years later, around 2010, I’d signed on with a manager, Ryan Lewis, and I rewrote Bird Box with the intention of Ryan sending it to an agent. He sent it to Kristin Nelson, who picked it and me up, and she shopped it to many houses and in the end we went with ECCO HarperCollins.
You can imagine how thrilling this period was for me: By then I’d written a dozen or more novels and hadn’t shopped any of them only because I was in a band with my best friends touring the country and didn’t know exactly what to do with the books. I blindly believed they’d end up on shelves one day, but I had no idea how that was done. A few months after HarperCollins picked up the book, Ryan shopped her to producers who shopped her to Universal Studios and Universal optioned the film rights. This is 2012, 2013. Eric Heisserer wrote the script and the book came out in 2014, with this film momentum behind it. Netflix bought it all from Universal sometime later.
And now here we, gloriously, are.
What has it been like having your work adapted for the screen? Did you have much say in the development of it?
I didn’t have any say, and that’s totally fine and great by me. It was my first [published] book, and it was optioned before it came out… so talk about an unknown. I had nothing out yet. But I gladly handed it over. Because I wanted to see what someone else would do with it, you know?
Maybe it’s because I’m in a band and I’m used to bringing songs to the boys and watching them do whatever they want with them, but I like the idea of coming up with the story and having someone else turn it into a movie. Maybe not in all cases, there are some in which I’d like to be more involved, and it looks like that’s possible in a few other instances happening right now. But even if I’d made the movie of BirdBox, it wouldn’t be the book, so why not have it in Netflix and Susanne Bier and Sandra Bullock’s hands? I’ve been thrilled since day one, to see where it would go, and I adore the movie they came up with.
Notably, there were quite a few changes to characters in the film adaptation—minor characters added and altered, differences in the way deaths played out. What are your thoughts on those changes?
Again, I’m good with it all. While watching the movie, I got extra excited when I heard a character speak an actual line from the book, but Eric did such a great job and he has his own vision and so does everyone else involved and I’m just glad the story revolved around a blindfolded mother and her two blindfolded kids navigating a river, fleeing an entity they can’t look at.
For me, so long as the core idea is intact, I’m up for almost any change suggested on top of it. In this case, that’s exactly what happened. The book and movie share the core conceit, and so if there were some minor changes upon that premise? Great. I’m game.
I read that you wrote 14 novels before Bird Box. What became of those? Why was Bird Box the first one you pitched for publication?
Some of them have been published now. Of course I didn’t stop writing new ones when Bird Box got picked up. I didn’t see the book deal as the finish line but rather as day one of a new phase, the beginning of a career. So now I’ve written 28 books. Just wrapped one a few nights ago.
The question becomes, How am I going to get all of them out there—while writing new ones, too? Well, there are ways. Other formats, limited editions, maybe trim a shorter novel into a novella. I just need to keep my eye on that: ways to get them all out there, because they’re all as good or as bad as each other.
I liken them to 28 episodes of the same TV show. Of which I happen to be the silent host. Or maybe they’re 28 songs on an album. And I need to decide which song should follow Inspection which is the next book slated for publication through Del Rey, Penguin/Random House.
You’ve published quite a bit since Bird Box. Which work(s) would you say you’re most proud of?
That’s a hard question for me to answer. Wendy was the first one, so she’s got an untouchable place in my heart. The rough draft for Bird Box was electrifying. I felt really, really good about both Unbury Carol and Inspection upon completing them. And I just wrapped an 1,100-pager a few months back that I’m thrilled about, not just for it’s length, haha, but for the emotionality within it.
But when I think of the answer to this question, there is one book that comes up, flares up, in my mind. I’m very proud of one called Pest. In which a man sets out to trap an entity that he believes is zapping his lust for life. It’s based around horror-theater and playwrights and a young man losing his marbles in an apartment building. That one means a lot to me. But they all do. It has less to do with which one I think is the “best” and more to do with which ones marked special moments in my life.
How does your writing process differ among different story lengths—novels, novellas, short stories?
With the novels you’ve got to maintain the enthusiasm for the original idea for such a long stretch that I like to map it out, the words per day, how many days I think it’ll take, to get the rough draft done.
With the 1,100-pager I wrote only 1,000 per day. And while it sounds counterintuitive to write less a day for the bigger book, it was my way of ensuring that I didn’t run out of steam. Say, if I’d come out with 4,000 a day and wrote myself into a corner at 100,000… That sounded like a nightmare.
With the short stories I try to get the rough drafts done in a week or so. And the novellas seem to come from somewhere between these two processes. I can usually tell if the idea is a little bigger than a short, but not always. And sometimes if I see I’ve begun a novella, I’ll kind of sprint to the finish line, get the rough draft done, knowing how much is going to be involved with the rewrites. If I had to pick a favorite form… it’s the novel for sure.
Tell me about Quilt of Delirium. How did that come to be, and how has it impacted you and your career?
I was approached by this amazing guy here in town. Scott Allen had made a documentary on a photographer named Doug Coombe from the area [Detroit], and it was so well done and we all loved it. So when Scott approached me about doing one I was like, Absolutely, I’m in.
I was nervous, you know? How would I look? How would I come off? He told he was planning on interviewing my mom and the band. It was interesting because he first asked for a bullet-point list of events in my life that were meaningful to me. And while they didn’t all make it into the movie, it was cool to see how he pinpointed what he saw as the key people to interview. I was so glad my mom was involved.
And I love the movie. So much. What he did by way of animating the rough drafts and the music that was added by GOLAB. Scott’s the kind of guy you blindly trust, he’s got such good ideas and he’s great at communicating them. So I just trusted it was gonna be good and it surpassed my hopes by a long shot.
As far how it’s impacted my career… well, I’m not sure how to quantify that. But I can say this: It was the first time I saw my own story told and it did a lot for me in terms of fortifying the philosophy of “just keep doing what you’ve been doing exactly like you’ve been doing it.” It sure doesn’t hurt to see your own story now and again.
You said in Quilt that you're constantly writing "the next story"—"you finish one story, you start writing the next one." How do you come up with all of these ideas?
I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with being open, constantly, to everything as an idea. Even this interview, this question, or the letters that make up the word “question” could be the basis for the scariest story ever told.
You also talked about the performative "reading" you did of Bird Box. For our readers, would you mind explaining how that came together and what you did for that?
So when Bird Box was edited and done and the cover art was in, HarperCollins told me I’d be going on a book tour. This scared me senseless. The idea of me standing at a podium, reading the book… It just didn’t feel right. Not theatrical enough. Not scary enough.
So the book is loaded with blindfolds, right? Why not blindfold the audience? That was the first thought, quickly followed by, hey, why not play scary soundtrack music and ask friends to play the roles of the characters from the book?
Each reading for each book has been more elaborate than the last. The readings for Unbury Carol are my favorite so far, insomuch as it’s become more variety show than reading. But we had Steve Greene (check his music out, omg) playing live for the reading of Goblin and Allison (my brilliant fiancée) did a ton of work with shadow play and costumes for Black Mad Wheel and so I just love them all. The reading we have planned for Inspection is something else and I cannot wait to put this together.
What other authors or books have influenced your work?
Oh my. All of them. I went through a William Faulkner run where I could not get enough. I read some 17 of his books in a row. Virginia Woolf was a big deal to me. Huge. A lot of modern people, too. Stephen Graham Jones. John F.D. Taff.
I have a soft spot for the writers who were/are seemingly electrified. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the closest thing I’ve ever encountered to Poe’s electricity. But I posted that once and a friend told me I needed to read Walt Whitman STAT. So I’m on it.
How does songwriting influence your novel writing practice? What about your other creative pursuits—performances, filmmaking, etc.?
It used to be that if the idea was big, it became a novel. If the idea was small? It became a song. Then I started writing short stories and the song output kinda suffered for that. Which is fine, because I like that I have some short stories now.
The biggest bond I’ve discovered between the two, music and books, is the rhythm behind both. In the case of the band, the rhythm is Derek Berk on drums and Chad Stocker on bass. But with the books it’s like there’s an invisible drummer in the office with me. A shirtless lunatic who sits down every time I sit down and starts wailing the second I start writing. The tricky part is when the drummer plays an abstract beat, like a prog thing, so when I come back to rewrite the book I have no idea where the 1 is.
Whatever I learned in the High Strung has been applied to everything else I do. Whether that’s not being so hard on yourself as a writer or working with a team or getting excited by the whole thing, each step, from rough draft to cover art to release.
But maybe most importantly, horror novels and little rock songs have a lot in common for me: They both come from the imagination unchained, with an arrested development that I hope me and my band mates never lose.