Over the course of a decade, Joe Hill has gone from “promising new horror writer” to one of the industry’s most reliably striking, exciting creators. His horror series Locke & Key is one of the richest, most chilling comics series currently being published, and his books—the 2005 short-story anthology 20th Century Ghosts, the 2007 ghost-story novel Heart-Shaped Box, the 2010 dark-fantasy novel Horns, and the chunky new horror-fantasy NOS4A2—are all weird, immersive, gripping genre-fiction standouts.
NOS4A2 is a change of pace for Hill in many ways. It’s much longer and more expansive than his previous books, it sprawls over decades and a large cast of characters, and it centers on his first female lead protagonist, Vic McQueen. It also features his most playful, personable, complicated villain to date: Charlie Manx, a perky monster who kidnaps children and spirits them off to an eternity in the imaginary world of Christmasland. In many ways, it resembles a book written by Hill’s famous father, Stephen King—and it directly ties into King’s books as well. With NOS4A2 headed for bookshelves, Locke & Key wrapping up later this year, the film adaptation of Horns finished with principal photography, and Hill starting a new TV pilot, the writer had a lot to talk about with The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: From the beginning, you’ve distanced yourself from your family connections, and your father’s work. But NOS4A2 repeatedly references his books, especially It and The Stand. Have you become more comfortable or confident about people connecting your writing with his?
Joe Hill: There’s probably a few ways to reply to that. One is, I’ve been describing NOS4A2 as my senior thesis on horror fiction. But, in some ways, that makes it my senior thesis on Stephen King. Because the two things are almost the same. One thing I absorbed from my dad, that I’ve heard him say many times, and that I’ve come to believe, is that anything that seems like a problem can almost always be used to your creative advantage. And I had an idea with NOS4A2—you know, I like to write dark fantasy. I like to write stories of the supernatural, and… here’s my dad. And I thought, “Maybe in this book, instead of ducking from it, I’ll confront that, and see if it’s fun to play with, and goof on people’s expectations.” So yeah, there’s a little Stephen King sampling in the book.
I also think that you’re stuck writing—the book has this idea that everyone carries around an Inscape, that they have an inner landscape furnished by the products of their imagination. An inner world of thought, where emotions are as real as gravity. And that’s really a bizarro concept; I think that’s basically true. And my dad did a lot to furnish my inner landscape, and that’s a world I want to own all of, not just a little corner of. So I think that means acknowledging something.
AVC: The Inscape concept almost amounts to a Unified Field Theory that incorporates and explains all horror and fantasy stories. Is that an idea you want to develop further, to use in other books?
JH: Absolutely. I actually said at one point on Twitter about a year and a half ago, when I was working on NOS4A2, that NOS4A2 was my underlying theory of everything. That it makes an argument that the rest of my writing is acting from. And absolutely at some point—one thing I’d like to do is, in NOS4A2, we get this throwaway story about this girl who has a wheelchair, and once she’s in it, she has access to a unique power. And I’ve already got a whole novel figured out for that character, called The Crooked Alley. I don’t know when I’m going to write it, but I see the shape of that story very clearly.
AVC: The Inscape map in the book features a reference to Pennywise from It, and the Treehouse Of The Mind from your novel Horns, but “Orphanhenge” wasn’t familiar from past fiction. Is that an upcoming story?
JH: [Laughs.] I have an idea for a book called Orphanhenge. I don’t know whether I’ll ever write it, but I have an idea.
AVC: NOS4A2 feels more like a Stephen King book than anything you’ve ever written, in terms of structure, in terms of some of your characterization. Do you see it that way?
JH: Um… huh. Yes… somewhat. I guess a little bit. It’s certainly a novel informed by a guy who read a lot of Stephen King, but it’s also a novel by a guy who has read a lot of David Mitchell. Not that I consider myself in David Mitchell’s league, but I learn from anyone I can learn from. I think comparisons to my dad’s work are especially strong because the book is so big. It’s so much bigger than my other two books. But I wanted to do a story that was bigger, that was spread out across a lot of years, and that incorporated multiple viewpoints, which is also something I haven’t done a lot of. In Horns, at one point we shift out of the main character’s head. But even that is done is a way where this character is leaping into another character’s mind. And so even Horns is almost really just from one point of view. And I wanted to explore the possibilities—from one point of view, Charles Manx, certainly to himself, can almost seem like the hero of the story. Certainly Charlie thinks he’s the hero of the story.
AVC: Whose voice did you find the most difficult to nail, in terms of how they saw the world?
JH: Charlie was very difficult. Charlie was the reason the book took three years. I got most of the other characters relatively effortlessly. But I had a hard time figuring out who Charlie was, and why he did the things he did. I must have written and thrown away hundreds of pages trying to find that voice. And the first thing I figured out, the first thing that seemed true to me about him, was that Charlie doesn’t speak in contractions. He won’t say “isn’t,” he’ll say “is not.” And for some reason, that seemed to me to be something from the early 20th century, the late 19th century: a more formal kind of speech, a more mannered kind of speech.
It’s like trying to take the tape off of a CD. You claw at it and you claw at it, and eventually you get through it, and then you can peel it all off. And that was it. I found this one little thing, and I used that to get through it. And gradually, he unfolded himself to me. Another thing I figured out about him was that he feels there is something impressive about children, and that children shouldn’t have to suffer. That children should know fun—every day should be like Christmas, children should be bound in joy. Of course, even kids don’t get to have a childhood or a life that’s nonstop fun. It wouldn’t be healthy if they did. Setbacks, problems, disappointments, grief, regret. These are things you have to learn to wrestle with. And if you don’t deal with those things, if you don’t have those feelings, I think it’s pretty easy to become fairly monstrous.
AVC: He is a monster, but he’s also so gleeful and so friendly and so open. Do you think that he’s aware on any level that what he does is horrible and hypocritical?
JH: Well, at one point, he takes Bing to an imaginary place called “The Graveyard Of What Might Be” and persuades Bing that they’re saving children from their terrible parents. But is that really true, or does all that stuff just exist inside Charlie’s head? He looks at Vic McQueen and sees her tattoos, and assumes she’s a prostitute. He has a set of views about women and about society that are very retrogressive and 19th-century and paternal. I think with all that in mind, he doesn’t have any idea what’s going to happen to those kids. He just knows he wants them, and that they’ll be happier in Christmasland. And on that, he’s completely correct, because everyone is happier in Christmasland.
AVC: Between Charlie’s malicious sexism and Bing’s rape house, there’s an immense amount of emotional and mental violence largely aimed at women in this book. How do you use this approach to characterize your villains without going overboard or making it a caricature?
JH: I think that when you have a 700-page story where the hero is a woman who is constantly in jeopardy, in physical and emotional and psychological peril, you’re going to see a lot of violence against women. You’re going to see a female character who has to fight some really tough battles. It comes back to who the main character is and how you shape her. Whether she’s a complete person or whether she’s a “Polly Save Me” tied to the railroad tracks.
I’ve always detested when horror in the late ’90s turned into torture-porn. Into stuff that was cheerfully getting off on shoving moderately unlikeable protagonists into degrading situations that would end in the most violent way you could imagine. And I’ve always thought those situations failed at accomplishing the aims of horror. Because successful horror is all about empathy. You have to really care about that lead character, and root for her, to feel like she has a soul worth rooting for. And then, when she’s in trouble, you go through it with her. You flinch from every swing of the ax.
AVC: You said in your last interview with us that you could write for three days based on a hook, but after that, the characters have to be worth investigating. But one of the significant things about NOS4A2 is that all the character hooks become plot-significant. How important is it to you in the writing that everything that makes a character nuanced also moves the story forward?
JH: Well, I think there are a couple of things there. The first is that really dynamic characters want things, and aggressively go after them. They’re willing to take really aggressive action to get what they want, or protect what they want and what they care about. So if you have a really strong lead character, that character will generate plot, seriously. A great, active character is as good as a V-8 engine under the hood. It can’t wait to rev up and go. So that’s part of it. But I think the other part of it is… In the first draft, at least in my case, I tend to write a lot more than I need. NOS4A2 is just about 700 pages in hardcover, and was well over 1,000 pages in manuscript form. But I cut several hundred pages out of the book, because there’s a difference between what I need to understand the characters, and what the reader needs to have a great time, and to really enjoy the story. I think about The Princess Bride, written by S. Morgenstern, he called it the “good parts” version. [William Goldman’s novel The Princess Bride, the basis for the movie, has an introductory story claiming it’s an abridgement collecting the “good parts” of a much longer, denser, duller novel by a man named S. Morgenstern. —ed].
And I think that’s the only version you can afford to publish. It seems like all the characters are feeding the plot, but I left out all the parts that weren’t feeding the plot. And to give you one stark example: We follow Vic from her childhood into her teenage years, and into her first confrontation with Charlie Manx. And then about 50 pages later, she goes from being 17 to being 34, with an 11-year-old son. We didn’t completely skip the years between, but we touch on them pretty lightly, because there wasn’t anything to say there that would advance the overall story. Nothing I couldn’t let readers know about anyway, in the course of telling the part of the story they really want. It’s kind of like that saying, where the difference between a great photographer and a lousy photographer is that the great photographer only shows you the really good photos. He took all the same photos as the average, mediocre photographer, but he knew enough to only show you the 11 great ones.
AVC: Is writing and cutting an easy process for you? Do you miss the hundreds of pages you discard?
JH: Nah, I don’t care about that stuff. Everyday I get to sit here and play make-believe. Brian K. Vaughan, who wrote the comic-book series Y: The Last Man, he talked once about working on a story that was hard. And he said, “Please note that by hard, I don’t mean it’s like coal-mining.” On the worst day ever, this is still a pretty great job. I love the act of make-believe. I love sitting there and inventing five pages of story. But I’ve been doing it every day since I was 12, so I don’t feel any special emotional attachment to the stuff that the reader won’t care about.
There was a novella in NOS4A2 that told about Charlie Manx’s first trip to Christmasland, and about his first wife and his two daughters. That was about 100 pages long. And going into the third draft, I decided to cut it out. I thought there was some really nice writing there, a few moments of suspense, but ultimately, it was like Silence Of The Lambs: Hannibal Lecter was so scary and so great, but he was only onscreen for about 12 minutes. Since then, there’s been movie after movie about him, and now there’s a TV series. And the more we find out about him, the less scary he is. The more we discover, the more steadily his power diminishes. An even stronger example of that is Darth Vader. Look how great he was in the first two films, but then we found out all about him and he turned out to be a shrill, whiny teenager with a petulance issue. And then he wasn’t scary anymore, he was just kind of pathetic. So I came to feel that Charlie Manx was like the shark in Jaws: The less we see, the scarier he is. So I took out all the stuff that showed him when he was still a normal man.
AVC: You’ve often talked about building memorable heroes. Do you have more overall philosophies about building memorable villains?
JH: I think it’s great if you can work out some way where the villain can say to himself, “I’m the good guy in this. I’m doing an important service for the world here.” And if I can find that hook, if I can find that handle I feel like I’ve done my job pretty well. And I do feel like I did it best in NOS4A2. I’m very, very, very proud of Horns and Heart-Shaped Box, but if there was one thing I was going to pick at, it’s that the monsters are pretty monstrous. It’s a little more satisfying if the bad guy is a little bit more emotionally complex, and can say to himself, “No, I’m the one with the moral high ground here. I had to decapitate that person and eat his face. If I didn’t do it, think what terrible things would have happened.”
AVC: Horns had a hugely long backstory, with a decade of different iterations as different books. Does NOS4A2 have anything like that in its DNA?
JH: No, not really. I got to working on a motorcycle with a friend of mine, and I thought, “Boy, it’d be fun to write a book about a motorcycle.” [Laughs.] And there you go, I wrote a book about a motorcycle.
AVC: Is that how your stories tend to start? Just “It’d be fun to write a book about a ghost, I’d like to write a book about a key”?
JH: The author Larry Block said he got his ideas from a store in upstate New York, and that they have them on shelves, and you can buy them. Like, a really good idea would be behind the counter, in a glass case. And I always loved that story, because nobody really knows where they get their good ideas. You kind of flail around…. I don’t know, I think ideas are really easy. I think ideas are the easiest part of it. A lot of people believe, “I could be a great novelist or a filmmaker if I had just one good idea.” But really, I think the execution is more important than the ideas. An idea is just an adhesive that you use to stick a reader to a character. But the adhesive doesn’t last for very long. And then if the reader hangs in, they’re only hanging in because they care about that character.
It’s almost like—the best and worst bubblegum is Juicy Fruit. Because it tastes so good when you first chew into it, but the flavor goes out of it after about 30 seconds, and then you’re just chewing this nasty lump of concrete. And a good concept can be a little bit more interesting than a stick of Juicy Fruit, it can have a little bit more flavor to it. But I do think all the nutrients are in characters. The satisfying meal is who these people are. Which is why, for example in Horns, the really good scene, the scene that gets people where they live, isn’t when Ig discovers he has a pair of horns growing out of his forehead, it’s where he breaks up with his girlfriend. Because at that point, you’re so deeply and emotionally invested in how kind they are to each other, and how much they genuinely love each other, and then they start saying these terrible things to each other. And you think it can’t get worse, and it steadily gets worse and worse and worse. It’s like a slow-motion car crash.
Working on the end of Locke & Key, I thought a lot about Joss Whedon, and the way he handled The Avengers. The thing I like about Whedon’s work is, he’s always very careful to give every character their moment. A moment where they will stand revealed as hero or villain or clown. And that’s what I believe about both literary fiction and genre fiction: You can have great setpieces and a great concept, but people really want to fall in love with characters. They even want to fall in love with your bad guys. People love that; people love Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from The Avengers. They even want to think, “Oh, I love when the bad guy is going to do this. What this person said is so perfect for that character.” That’s what you really want to aim for in a character. You want a character that is so vivid and so real and emotionally satisfying on their own, in their own right, that it’s just a pleasure to watch them in situations.
AVC: The Avengers had a huge amount of fan service and series payoff, but before that, Joss Whedon’s philosophy as a writer has leaned heavily on never giving the audience what they think they most want. How do you feel about that?
JH: I think there has to be a combination of knowing when to give the reader what they want and when not to, when to deny them the thing they most desperately want. I think The X-Files ended the first time Mulder and Scully kissed each other. The X-Files is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and I harsh on it a lot in interviews. I sometimes say the show failed because it asked too many plot questions. At a certain point, people care about character, not plot, so at a certain point, we came to feel like there were so many questions about the aliens and the black oil and the conspiracy that they were just making it up as they went along, and there weren’t really satisfying answers. But the other possibility is that The X-Files ran its course because we loved those characters, and we wanted them to get together, and they did, and it was the end. Maybe the end of The X-Files was that Rolling Stone cover where [David] Duchovny and [Gillian] Anderson were in bed together. We were kind of like, “Oh yes! Finally! Okay, all set, we can move on.”
AVC: In a recent USA Today interview, you said you said you don’t outline before you write, so you won’t know how the end of Locke & Key will go until you get there. Where are you in the process of wrapping it up?
AVC: Did it go the way you hoped?
JH: There were some surprises, but I’m really happy with it. It worked out really well. Hopefully readers will feel the same way, but I’m really happy with it.
AVC: How definitive an ending is it? Is it something you might want to continue in other forms, or spin off of?
JH: It’s preeeeeetty definitive. It’s pretty definitively over. But there will be some other Locke & Key stories. I always feel when I’m saying to people that it’s going to end, that I have left myself a little bit of wiggle room there. What’s ending is the primary story about Tyler Locke, Rendell Locke, and Dodge, the story that started in the very first issue of Welcome To Lovecraft. But Keyhouse has been around for 250 years, and there are a lot of keys we didn’t get into. Going back to The X-Files, I feel like the keys were like the monster-of-the-week episodes. There’s always more you can do with the keys, there’s always more stories you can tell with them. And for sure, Gabriel [Rodriguez, Locke & Key artist] and I are going to do some more one-shots set across the history of Keyhouse, along the lines of what we’ve already done in “Open The Moon” and “Grindhouse.” And at some point, I’d like to write a five-issue miniseries called “Battleground” about what happened during World War II, because I think there’s a pretty good story to tell there. But Gabe and I might not get to that for years. I can imagine not getting around to writing it until… I’m turning 41 this year, and I can imagine being around 50 before I get around to it. But who knows if anyone will even care about it.
AVC: Has there been any update on the possible Universal movie deal to do Locke & Key as a movie trilogy?
JH: Hmmm… That I can admit to? Eh. You know, you always hope things are going to work out, and sometimes they don’t. I think there’s still a lot of interest in Locke & Key either as a feature or as a TV thing, so we’ll have to see what happens. Was that a completely cloaked answer, or what?
AVC: What did you think of the Fox pilot for the series?
JH: I thought it was pretty wonderful, even in spite of a couple of problems. I thought it was better than what got approved, which was Alcatraz and I think Terra Nova. It looked like we were in, and then at the last minute, Alcatraz jumped ahead of us, and we fell out. I even think American Horror Story, which has done pretty well on FX, is a pretty good show with good scares in it, but it doesn’t have much heart. It’s a very cold show. It’s not the kind of show that drives in a big audience, because it’s hard to root for the characters. I think Locke & Key was similar to that, only it had likeable protagonists. And Josh Friedman’s script was just an absolute grand slam, totally great script.
If the show was hurt by anything—this sounds terrible to say, but I think it was hurt by the decision to shoot in Pittsburgh in the winter. Because they weren’t able to film all of the script, they were only able to shoot 70 percent. The pilot was missing some key scenes, and they were scenes of physical peril, scenes of action. And I think viewers felt the absence of those things, and felt it was more talky than it needed to be. And the reason they didn’t film those scenes is because they were filming in Pittsburgh, and there was a huge snowstorm. And instead of filming a page of the script a day, they were filming a page of the script every three days.
AVC: What do you ultimately want out of screen adaptations of your writing?
JH: You hope they’ll be successful on their own terms. That they won’t be just the book with pictures, but that they’ll live and breathe as their own works of art, and they’ll have the same spirit and energy as the original. If you want to look at a successful adaptation, look at Woman In Black. Great book, remarkable play, great movie. And each is really its own thing. The book is this very, very tasteful, tragic M.R. James-style novel. It’s barely a novel, it’s almost a novella. And it has this quiet, tragic force. The play has some jumps to it, and it’s terrifically witty, basically this two-man play. Almost a one-man play. And it’s inventive and scary and full of dry wit. Moments when you think you’re going to scream turn into a laugh. And then the film is a blood-drenched Hammer horror picture, and it’s instantly the best of the Hammer horror pictures. [Daniel] Radcliffe gave a great, grim, stoic performance, and came off as a fully adult action hero, and it has terrific, wrenching scares. It was one of the best horror films of the year. It was one of the best horror films of the last three or four years. I would love if Horns was in that league. We’ll see.
AVC: How closely were you involved with production on Horns?
JH: I read the script in several iterations, and shared thoughts and notes, and I came out for a couple of days of shooting, but for the most part, I was just cheerleading. I have been very high on the project since they cast Radcliffe. I think he’s the perfect Ig. He captures something about Ig’s wounded decency and Ig’s big, naïve, open heart. It’s terrific to watch him make that transformation, and wrestle with his own soul, with whether he’s an angel or a devil. But I haven’t seen the film, so we’ll see. I know some people who have seen a very early rough-cut who are ecstatic, but I haven’t seen it myself, so you never know.
AVC: Just judging from the script, how close do you think it’s going to be to your book?
JH: I think it captures a lot of the spirit of what was going on in the story. I would say that the plot melds with the book about 80 percent, maybe even a little more. It’s pretty close. A lot of the changes [director] Alexandre Aja made, they made because it’s not a novel, it’s a film. So they made it lighter on its feet. And Aja also has a very painterly eye, so the film—I have seen some clips, and the footage is just absolutely breathtaking. It was filmed by the same man who filmed The Ice Storm [Frederick Elmes], and the images just really shimmer. It’s really great.
AVC: I was recently allowed to read an unpublished essay that your brother Owen wrote, in part about your experiences co-writing and pitching a horror film called Fadeaway in Hollywood. What was your take on that whole experience?
JH: [Laughs.] It was an education. It was a real education. Owen and I had a job writing this mystery, this dark-fantasy mystery. And in the course of re-writing it for—I’m blanking on the production company. How Hollywood is that? I can’t even remember who I was writing for now? [Laughs.] In the process of working on this murder mystery, every single character got to be the killer at one point or the other, and it was an amazing experience, seeing how much we were capable of in rewrite. And there was one form of that script where we were just glowing with happiness. We were so satisfied and proud, and we just thought we completely nailed it. And we sent it in, and the producer we were working for said, “Guys, I think this is a wonderful script, and I think the people taking over my job will feel the same way. I’m moving on to another company.”
I could feel this little chip of ice sinking in my heart. Me and Owen went out there for a conversation with the new guys producing the film, and we’re sitting across the table from them, and one of the producers said, “You know, we really don’t like the girlfriend character. We’d like to see less of her. This isn’t really about her, we could almost lose this character.” And Owen and I are taking notes, and we’re like, “Yep, yep. Gotcha.” And the guy sitting next to him said, “The girlfriend character is wonderful. Can you stretch her out and explore her? There’s a real power there, and an element of romance.”
And Owen and I just shot each other these panicked looks, like, “Can they hear themselves talking? What’s going on?” [Laughs.] I mean, they were sitting right next to each other, and this was moments apart! And neither of them so much as blinked. It was like that scene in Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman has to dig a ditch, and the guy walks over and says, “What’s this dirt doing in my yard? Fill that ditch.” So he fills it again, and the guy says, “What’s this dirt doing in my ditch?” [Laughs.] So yeah, that one. Nothing ever happened with that one. But it was a living, and me and him made some dough on it for a few years.
AVC: Are you still invested in writing original screenplays, in spite of that experience?
JH: This spring, I’m writing a pilot for a TV thing. I was asked if I want to do something, and after thinking it over and talking it over, I decided yeah, I do want to do it. So I’m working on a pilot this spring. But my bread and butter are novels and comics. I’m always wary, and I do think something really special has been happening in television over the last decade, and it has to do with writing. So I want to keep that door open. I have a lot of friends in comics who have a foot in the TV world. Guys like Brian K. Vaughan and Ed Brubaker. And I’m also interested in that. I’m interested in visual storytelling and episodic storytelling, and the two places you go to do that are the comic business and television.
AVC: Can you say anything about that pilot project?
JH: Nope. [Laughs.]
AVC: Even in terms of genre, whether it’s in your usual wheelhouse?
JH: It’s in my genre and wheelhouse, but they haven’t announced it. So I can say I’m doing something, but I can’t say what it is.
AVC: When do you expect that news to be out?
JH: In the next month or two.
AVC: You’ve planned a five-issue comic series called WRA1TH that connects back into NOS4A2. What can you say about that? Does it connect with Charlie Manx’s car, the Wraith?
JH: It does, but I debated whether to call it WRA1TH or Christmasland, because it’s really a sleazy ’70s horror film set in Christmasland. It also will tell, in part, Charlie Manx’s origin story that I cut out of the novel. But it will tell it differently, more suggestively, in a tighter, smaller format—hopefully a good-parts version of that story. I should add that it only has two characters from NOS4A2. Well, not counting the kids from Christmasland, because they’re all there. One of the characters is Charlie Manx, and then another character who is briefly mentioned in NOS4A2, so briefly that if you blink, you’d miss it. But he also is featured in WRA1TH. Hopefully that comic will be out in the fall or winter.
AVC: You and your dad and your brother Owen all have books out this year. Is there ever a sense of competition between you?
JH: [Laughs.] No. I think it would be very, very, very foolish to try and compete with my dad. He’s forgotten more about writing great stories than I’m ever going to know. Owen is doing his own thing. Owen is publishing under his own name, but what he’s publishing is 180 degrees different from what my dad writes. I thought Double Feature was a wonderful novel. I thought it was one of the funniest things I’ve read since The World According To Garp. And between the satyr and the destruction of Sam Dolan’s first film? I just thought it was hilarious.
AVC: He has a very mature, polished writing style for a first-time novelist.
JH: I’m very envious of that book. I can’t say what his next project is, but it’s a hilarious follow-up project. It has him all over it, in the sense of it not being something anyone would expect him to follow up with. So people will probably be hearing about that in the next few months.
It’s funny, because going into writing was the least imaginative thing Owen and I could ever have done, because both our parents write. I love my parents, and we had great conversations—what’s that thing Tolstoy said? Every bad family is unique, but every good family is kind of boring and the same? We had a very happy family, and I think when you come from a happy family where everyone supports each other, and you look at your parents doing a craft that brought them a good life, you say to yourself, “Huh. Maybe that would be a good life for me, too.”
I do think writing and crafting stories is a trade as well as an art, but by the same token, you can look at another Maine family, the Wyeth family. There’s obviously a thread of talent in the DNA of that family, but painting also must be a dinnertime conversation for that family. It’s not just an art, it’s a trade, and they all learned something about how to hold a brush, and how to mix paint, and how to use the canvas. They learned something about that craft as a family, and there’s a shared pool of family knowledge. So maybe going into writing isn’t all that terribly interesting, but I think Owen does it really well, and I’ve had some good luck, and things have gone okay. People tend to like the stories.
AVC: Is it worth the trade-off of knowing everything written about you will put you in the context of Stephen King, as a writer or as a family member?
JH: I don’t know. I did have years and years of publishing stuff that wasn’t compared to my dad’s work, because nobody knew. So I did have a few years to build some confidence that I wasn’t just getting published because I had a well-known dad. I had some time to build up some confidence that things were getting published because of the merit of the work. If I hadn’t done my pen-name experiment, which lasted about 10 years before I was outed, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to write horror and fantasy. Because I would have just assumed, “Oh, I’m getting published because I’m doing horror, and that’s what my dad did.” But I was published before anybody knew, and now I feel comfortable writing about the kinds of weird, fantastic possibilities that exist in people’s Inscapes. Mapping the inner landscapes of characters is what really interests me as a writer. And doing it through the tools of fantasy is one way to take what’s inside the character and get it out. Give it an almost physical presence.
AVC: NOS4A2 directly references people and places and things from your other two novels, suggesting they all take place in one world. And then you directly link them into Stephen King’s big crossover world as well. At this point, are you actually thinking of everything you guys are writing as taking place in one gigantic universe?
JH: [Laughs.] Nah, just goofing off. I know that’s really disappointing, but I was just fooling around. I think at one point, Charlie Manx mentions a door to [King’s Dark Tower setting] Mid-World, but I’m just fooling around. I did think, however… One question I was sometimes dogged with was, with Horns, where did the horns come from? How did he acquire that power? And when I wrote the book, I never cared, because explanations suck. Any explanation I would provide would be lame. It was always supposed to be a Kafka thing, where we never know why Gregor Samsa turns into a cockroach, we just know he’s a cockroach when the story begins. But working on NOS4A2, I realized he grew horns because he brought them back from his Inscape. He was one of the strong creatives, and the treehouse was his vehicle, and when he was able to get in there, he was able to get what he needed.
AVC: The Inscapes do explain just about everything in your work, possibly whether you want them to or not.
JH: I’m going to do a revised version of the book. Where I explain the horns, and have Lee Tourneau shoot first. We’ll put some banthas in, too—some banthas in the background. Also, because I’m so upset by violence, I’m going to take all the guns out of the book and replace them with walkie-talkies.
AVC: That’s going to make it really hard for Lee Tourneau to shoot first.
JH: He’ll keep his gun. But he’ll just throw a walkie-talkie at Ig’s head.