Josh Malerman is soaring with Bird Box and a few other flight plans right now. So he can certainly be excused for being a very busy man of late. He still rocks with The High Strung. He adheres to a disciplined (almost merciless) writing schedule. He’s seeing one of his books, Bird Box, being translated to the screen with Sandra Bullock on board with the principal role. He’s been interviewed by the locals here, the nationals there, and the foreign press is making up for lost time with a few belated entreaties for a word or two.
Josh Malerman was kind enough to sit down and give us a perspective on where things have been and where they’re going. We hope you enjoy the following – and we also hope it prompts you to discover the fictional and frightening landscapes he has fashioned with his mind and pen.
NOTE: We don’t believe in spoiler alerts here, so if you HAVEN’T read Bird Box yet, here are a few details: Something has gone terribly and unexpectedly wrong with the world … an unknown “presence” is driving people to madness when they glimpse it … and society is breaking down within a collective nightmare.
Let us put it this way. Bird Box makes The Road come across like an ill-planned vacation.
And here is Mr. Malerman
“Though I didn’t know what the words meant, I understood the tone.”
del valle: The world is replete with horror these days, but what is genuine horror to the writer of horror fiction?
Malerman: The things I like to read about/write about have been watching man hurt man forever. They’ve been here longer than us. They stood shirtless as the dinosaurs froze, pretended to be only drawings upon cave walls. They’ve witnessed all our idiot cruelties and either it’s popcorn fun for them or they’re keeping a ledger on who’s who, I still can’t tell which. The first monster I encountered was in the womb, a tiny black thing that looked much bigger at the time. He’d built a little ledge high up the womb wall and he’d belch atrocities the echoed down to little me. And though I didn’t know what the words meant, I understood the tone. Yes, the world is indeed replete with horrors and the monsters that scare me deeply are the ones capable of physically touching our worldviews, nudging them in directions we shouldn’t be looking.
del valle: Horror is genre fiction and we find you keeping company today with everyone from Bram Stoker to Stephen King. But does being categorized as a genre writer worry you or are you content with the label?
Malerman: It doesn’t worry me at all. I’m aware that whenever I tell someone I write horror novels, they imagine werewolves, gore, vampires. That’s fine. It’s also a leaping off point for a much wider conversation. “I write horror novels.” “Oh, I don’t read those.” “Well… you might. Here… listen to some of these ideas…” Then you can talk about other writers you’ve read or your own books, or just a fucked up dream. Despite the recent Rise of the Genres, people still do tend to shy away from the word horror. But what a good word she is. She sounds exactly like what she represents. HORROR. Those two Rs… the two Os. It’s almost as if the word fools you with that H. This is a gentle word, it says, before scratching you, like a cat got into the word. I’m just foolish enough to believe that it doesn’t matter what we call the pages, people can feel the energy of a book they pass on a shelf. Can feel them watching us before we look back.
del valle: Your novel BIRD BOX is now being filmed. How has your life changed since making a book/movie deal? And do filmmakers welcome the input of the original writer or does he/she lose any and all control over how the pages become scenes on the screen?
Malerman: I’m an aware enough person to say of course my life has changed. But in what way? I’m still in my office, writing another book, the same thing I was doing before Bird Box was picked up, obviously, or there wouldn’t be any book in the first place. I’m still alternately nervous and elated 24 hours a day. I still think guilt propels me (the guilt of not doing something extraordinary when you’ve got all day to do it). I love Allison [Laakko] more now than I ever have. I don’t feel different.
Yet… there is a movie being made of one of my books. And it does star Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich and the truth is, if that doesn’t put a little pep in my step, then I’m doing something wrong. I’m completely thrilled this is happening. And doesn’t every thrill do something to us? Of course. Just like every pitfall does. So, yes, something has changed. An incredible experience has been added to my life. And for that, I’m different.
As goes whether or not I have any say… I don’t. Back when they were deciding which screenwriter to hire, I was on the phone with the studio and the prospective screenwriters because what better person is there for a screenwriter to bounce his vision off than the guy who wrote the book? But I didn’t have anything to do with who they choose and the script that followed. And I don’t mind. At all. I’ll tell you the same thing I told Sandra Bullock in person on set, “Even if I wrote the movie myself, starred in it, and directed it, it wouldn’t be the book. So I’m glad it’s in your hands.”
A note on being on set: Allison and I flew to Los Angeles in January, met up with my lawyer, agent, and manager, and went on set. Netflix is producing the movie (I’m told there will be a theatrical release as well) and the scenes we saw live were shot on the Universal lot. While there, I never felt like I didn’t belong and I didn’t feel like the “big man on campus” either. It was a very warm, welcoming, intelligent experience. The people we met were focused, smart, and fun. They say the mood on set is dictated by the director. If so, Susanne Bier must be a hardworking, intelligent, artful woman. That’s just how the whole thing felt. I saw some great footage. Saw a couple scenes live. Talked with the effects crew. Met the boy who is playing Boy and his mom, too. Ate too much at the food truck. Got rained on. Bought a Universal Studios hoody in the gift shop because I was underdressed for the rain and cold. It will all remain forever in memory exactly as it was.
de valle: You cited William Faulkner as a writer who inspired you and also lauded his ability to put horror in his fiction so subtly that the reader does not immediately recognize it as such. Would you elaborate on that?
Malerman: Faulkner was my first bender. The first time I read everything I could by one author, all in a row. I think I read seventeen of his books in a row. Then I did the same with Virginia Woolf. Marcel Proust. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. In hindsight it was a weird stretch for me. Why focus so hard on each writer? I didn’t feel like I was studying them, felt more like I was just loving the books. But I don’t know. With a lot of them I started to see threads of horror woven into books that would never be called such. Obviously with Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” but someone might cry horror on all the stories in Go Down, Moses, too. Especially the end of “Pantaloon in Black.” Faulkner was something gothic without the castles, though Thomas Sutpen tries to build one in Absalom, Absalom! (his darkest, to me).
NOTE: This trip through the classics eventually brought me to Dracula’s door. Dropped me right off. As if the books themselves were saying, Alright, buddy, no more hidden threads… no more time unearthing horror… here it is straight. Welcome back. But I’ll never forget how much fun it was to unearth it, to find the threads on my own.
del valle: The Midwest has given us horror writers like August Derleth, Thomas Ligotti, Kathe Koja, and a great many others including yourself. Is there something about this region that encourages visceral or contemplative fear?
Malerman: Okay, so the idea that’s coming to mind (and stick with me here) is that… maybe the genre stretches, actually stretches form, as we travel from east to west in this country. We’ve got the foundation of American horror stories out east. Irving, Lovecraft, Poe. Even Shirley Jackson (born in San Francisco) started writing in Vermont. And all the way west we’ve got Eraserhead Press and Fungasm, a Bizarro hub. So I’m just thinking… bedrock out east… kaleidoscope out west… and Mister Ligotti, Kathe, myself, and many others here in the middle. What do you think? Has this polarity done something to the way we write and what we write about? Us here in the middle? A little rooted, a little far out? I have nothing to add to this theory yet, I’m thinking it up for the first time with you, here, right now. Let’s bust out a map, write some names down, and see what we come up with. But I like the idea of the spirit of a genre stretching, as we physically travel through space. Kinda makes you wanna spend a season in the opposite poles, write a book in LA, another in New Hampshire, and note the differences therein.
del valle: You once defined horror fiction as a meta-genre. Would you elaborate on that descriptive, please?
Malerman: It’s almost as if every horror story is a meta-horror story in that, by virtue of the reader knowing they’ve picked up a scary story, the experience is happening twice over: once within the reader’s expectations and once with their real-time experience. What’s meta if not self-referential and what’s self-referential if not a genre that says, Why hello, I am horror? I suppose the same could be said about every genre, even a romantic-comedy, but it feels especially true of horror, probably because, like Rod Serling, we’re all always trying to re-box the scary story, always trying to stretch it and stick a bit of it to the wall then run through the house with it. House of Leaves. Is that a meta-story? Why… cause of its incredible form? Yeah, I think so, too. You know, when you pick up a horror story, you’re expecting a scare of some sort to arrive. And so, in this way, until then there’s an invisible character, the Scare, waiting off camera. And we know he’s coming. He’s gotta come. So it’s almost as if we’ve never read a horror story alone… cause the Scare is off page… and off page means in the room with us.
del valle: You marked the recent death of Jack Ketchum with a tribute to both his writing skill and his influence on you and others. What made Ketchum so unique as a horror writer?
Malerman: So I started reading The Girl Next Door out loud to my fiancée Allison. I hadn’t read it before and Allison and I like reading books out loud to one another, let’s give it a try. And for the first sixty pages or so I felt like I’d been misled, that what people were calling the most disturbing book ever was actually poetic, with a similar smoky rhythm as the Beats.
Then… well… then.
I stopped reading the book out loud and experienced the rest of it on my own and had never before felt so compelled to stick my hand into an actual book and fix things for the players therein. I was devastated, as anybody should be who reads that book. And when I was done, mercifully, it struck me how Jack Ketchum had somehow succeeded in telling a story that was as much nostalgia for the narrator’s youth as it was his guilt for not having stopped the terrible things from happening. It blew my mind straight up the middle, as it’s blown all our minds, and I’m not sure that, no matter how many times we read that book or talk about it, we’ll ever be able to say, ah, that’s how he did it. And isn’t that how it is with the magic books? The how is never brought out into the light.