The Bookshelf: Joe Hill on Collaboration: 'Story is Our Family's Private Language'

Oct 11, 2019

When Joe Hill launched his career as a writer, he didn't want anyone to know about his famous writer parents, Stephen and Tabitha King. Rather than ride their coattails, he wanted to find success on his own—thus the pen name, Joe Hill.

Now, more than a decade since his first collection of stories was published, Hill is comfortable with publicly discussing his origins as a writer—so comfortable, in fact, that his introduction to his newest collection of short stories features descriptions of early life with his literary family.
 
These descriptions are one way of explaining how he came to collaborate with his father on two of these stories, one of which is being made into a Netflix film. The new collection of stories is called Full Throttle, and recently I went to Hill's home in Exeter to talk about the book.

 

Below is a lightly edited transcript of Peter Biello's full interview with Joe Hill. Find Joe Hill's top five reading recommendations here.

This book has a variety of short stories, two of which were co-written with your father. I was curious about how you went about collaborating with your father and how you might go about collaborating with anybody on a short story, when writing is typically a solo activity.

Yeah, right. So Full Throttle is a collection of 13 stories and it begins and almost ends with stories I wrote with my dad. The first one in the collection is called "Throttle" and that story was actually written in, I want to say about 2008, as a tribute to the fiction of Richard Matheson. Richard Matheson was a masterful writer of suspense, probably most famous for having written I Am Legend, which is a vampire apocalypse story. He also wrote The Incredible Shrinking Man.

He wrote a story called "Duel," which became Steven Spielberg's first film. It's about a man on the run from a faceless trucker. I was invited to do a story honoring Richard Matheson. And the idea was, we were supposed to take one of his plots and then give it a fresh twist. And I instantly had an idea for a story about a motorcycle, an outlaw motorcycle gang on the run from a faceless trucker and decided to write this story "Throttle."

At the time, I did not have my motorcycle license and I didn't know much about bikes. And I intuited that I would have problems writing this story and making it authentic because I just didn't know hogs well enough. But my dad has been riding motorcycles since he was 17. And I asked him if he wanted to jump in and write it with me. And he said yes. One of the things I talk about in the introduction is when I was a little kid, my dad got a Videodisc player, which was the forerunner to the DVD players. And one of the movies, one of the first movies he got was Duel, which we watched over and over again and I want to say the summer of 1981.

And we'd go out for drives and he would begin to pretend the truck was after us and we would put on this whole sort of improv performance, you know, imagining our escape from the truck and our eventual destruction. So in some ways, we actually began collaborating on "Throttle," something like, you know, almost 40 years ago. And it was just the sort of natural culmination of this story we began imagining when I was a little kid.

There's another story in there called "In the Tall Grass," and that's about two people who wander into a giant field where the grass is over their heads and soon discover the time and space aren't the same in this field and that it's almost impossible to escape and that there are some very bad people in the field with them. And we wrote that I want to say about maybe four years ago, five years ago. And it's actually been adapted as a film for Netflix. It was directed by Vincenzo Natali and is out just after the book.

So that's pretty exciting. It's great. It's really scary. It's really it's like Hereditary-level scary.

Is it really?

Yeah, I mean, there's like fun, playful, scary, like, I think of Wes Craven's first Scream movie or Cabin in the Woods by Joss Whedon. And then there's scary-scary, like in Hereditary. 

So it follows the story pretty closely? The story is pretty gruesome at times.

Yeah. The short story was almost like my dad and I having a gross out contest with each other. It's a profoundly disturbing novella. In some ways, the movie is more merciful to its characters. It's more hopeful, but as a lot of fun.

It was really fun to read. So when you're writing a story with your dad, how does it go? Do you agree on an outline and then start pounding out the prose?

So here's how it goes. Imagine Wile E. Coyote unpacking crate from Acme and inside there's a giant rocket and he lights the fuse and he climbs on it and then the rocket breaks the speed of sound and blasts him after the Roadrunner. I'm Wile E. Coyote and my dad is the rocket.

I think we wrote "Throttle" in eight days and "In The Tallgrass" in a week. I would write a few pages in the morning and send it to him. He would rewrite those, write a few more pages and send it back. And then I would rewrite his pages and write a few more pages. And, you know, and we would just play tennis with it.

There was a game invented the 19th century called Exquisite Corpse. In Exquisite Corpse, the idea was that you'd write a sentence and then pass it on. And someone else would write a sentence and then pass it on. I think under the strict rules of the game, you're actually only able to look back a couple sentences. In any event, you know, when I was a kid, I mean, we were a book loving, literary, nerdy family. And it was a different era. You know, you didn't have so many different forms of distraction, so many different forms of entertainment. So one of the things we would do for fun is roll a sheet of paper into a typewriter. And my dad would write a sentence and my mom would write a sentence and I would write a sentence. My sister would write a sentence. My brother would write a sentence. We'd wind up writing these goofy two page stories. And we did that for years.

I think collaboration is a bit of a peculiar thing to do. Writing is largely a solo act, but it's different if I'm writing with my brother or my dad or, you know, anyone in the family because we've done it before. Story is our family's private language.

So you've been writing short stories for a long time now. How do you think your short stories have evolved?

Well, I hope I'm better at it. You know, I think I'm a little more daring in terms of the subjects I'll tackle.

What's a subject you'd tackle now that you wouldn't when you were starting out?

I was about to say, or the characters I'll base a story on. So in my first collection, my first collection came out in 2005. My first published book was called 20th Century Ghosts—13 or 14 stories, but they all had young male protagonists, most of them boiling with regrets and anger. And I wasn't looking too far afield from my own personality when I framed those stories.

In the new collection, for example, the collection closes with a story called "You Are Released," which is about a group of people on a 777 flying from L.A. to Boston on the day World War III breaks out. And it constantly revolves its viewpoint. There is an elderly British actress, there's a young woman from South Korea, there's a woman who's formerly of the Air Force, who's a co-pilot. There's a right-wing Rush Limbaugh type.

And I'm kind of rotating through almost a kaleidoscope of points of view. And I don't think when I was younger, I had the technical skills to leap into, you know, such divergent points of view and hopefully portray them authentically and sympathetically. So that would be one example of something that I think is a little bit of a step forward for me.

And you talk a little bit about in your notes about these stories about at least one of them being a "cover" story in the way that some musicians cover other songs.

You know, it's interesting, because in some ways the book is kind of—I opened with an introduction where I talked about growing up in the family I grew up in. I talked about what was it like to have Stephen and Tabitha King as my parents. How did that shape me as a writer? How did that shape my interests?

I talked about being a child actor in one of my dad's films, in Creepshow, playing this little kid with a voodoo doll who uses his voodoo doll to get even with his bullying father for stealing his horror comic books. I spent a week on the set, hanging out with Tom Savini, who was the godfather of gore, the special effects master who did all the bloody gross-out effects for Creepshow, and Dawn of the Dead, and Friday the 13th. And later, a childhood misspent reading Fangoria magazine, which was all about guys like Tom Savini. It was like Sports Illustrated only for gross-out special effects. You wind up writing stories that reflect your enthusiasms and interests and history, where you're writing about, you know, the cliche, you know, you're writing what you know to a degree.

I'm big Stephen King fan. You know, I love my dad's stories. I spent some years downplaying, putting distance, you know, using the pen name to put distance to create some space for myself as a writer and as an artist. But I love my dad's works. And it is great to have an opportunity to celebrate how much I love those stories.

So in Full Throttle, you get two short stories that I wrote with my dad. But then you also got a story, "Dark Carousel," which is almost like a cover of a Stephen King story. It's an original plot with original characters. And it kind of has the feel, the sound of some of my dad's short fiction, specifically, there's a story called "Riding the Bullet" about a kid who picks up a dead hitchhiker on a drive back from an amusement park.

There's another one, "The Road Virus Heads North" that my dad wrote that also feels a little bit like "Dark Carousel." Two of the characters are—there's a brother and sister whose last name is Renshaw, and I named him Renshaw after a hit man in my dad's story "Battleground," which is also kind of like "Dark Carousel."

And one of the things that that your dad does really well, that you do well in some of the stories here is: the monster is not necessarily an external bad guy, but rather it's the character's own mind.

Yeah.

Like in in "Dark Carrousel" the last character standing (if I'm going to spoil it a little bit) is really tortured by what he's seen.

Yeah. The story takes place in a single night, but then it leaps forward to the modern day and it's clear that it's not over. Everything that happened that night is still happening to him. All that running and he hasn't gotten anywhere.

For me, the goal in any story is you're writing towards a point of revelation. So you have a character that you think is interesting and they face tremendous peril. They're menaced in some way. And under the pressure of this outside threat, they discover things about themselves and we discover things about them that weren't immediately apparent, but which feel true, which feels satisfying, the satisfying discovery. And that's what I'm after every time I write a short story, any time I write any kind of story: a comic book, short story, a novel or a TV show. You're always looking for that discovery.

Usually when I sit down to write a story, I don't know when that discovery is going to come. It may come in 30 pages or it may come in 300. And if it's 30 pages, it's a short story. And if it's 300, I've got a novel.

Are you in the middle of a project right now where it's pushing towards novel territory?

I've got 200 pages of two different novels, neither of which I'm working on at the moment because I'm writing five comic books at once. I'm working on a set of horror comics for DC. One is called Basketful of Heads, which is about a woman who's fighting off these home invaders. And her weapon is a Viking axe. It turns out that when she lops someone's head off, the head keeps talking and thinking. In some way it doesn't kill people to decapitate them with this particular weapon. And so that's Basketful of Heads.

I'm working on a story called "Plunge," which is kind of a riff on John Carpenter's The Thing. I'm doing a backup feature for the comics called Sea Dogs, which is about how we use werewolves to win the Revolutionary War. I've got Dying is Easy, which is my crime comic about the burned out homicide detective trying to make a go of it as a stand up comedian, and I've been working on new Locke & Key. Locke & Key was a long running comic book or has been a long running comic book that I've done with my collaborator Gabriel Rodriguez, who's the illustrator, and that ran for seven years and in some ways is still running. It's about an incredible New England mansion full of enchanted keys. Every key unlocks a different door and activates a different supernatural power. And actually and actually Locke & Key has made a very sort of long journey to television. But will be out next year on Netflix is a 10-episode series.

So when your work gets adapted for the screen, are you heavily involved in that as well?

It varies from project to project. I've been lucky. My second novel, Horns, was made into a kind of cult freak fest starring Daniel Radcliffe. So that was a film. "In the Tallgrass" is gonna be a Netflix film. And then my third novel, NOS4A2, finished its first season on AMC and was a TV thing. And then there's Locke & Key. I've had my hand in on each of them to a degree, but the one that I was really involved with was Locke & Key.

I co-wrote the pilot episode, the first episode, and I worked pretty actively on all the scripts, had a hand in on all the scripts, just as just as I have an amazing collaborator on the comic and Gabriel Rodriguez, I have an amazing collaborator on the TV show in Carlton Cuse, who was the producer and one of the lead writers on Lost, Bates Motel, The Strain.  And Carlton is great. You know, he's been like almost sort of like a mentor to me. I love the guy.

And did I hear you almost had a cameo in the second part of It?

Almost. Almost. Bill Denbrough sells his bicycle to a junk shop and then as a grown up, he tries to buy it back. And it's my dad is, you know, one grown up, Bill Denbrough goes into the junk shop. My dad is the dealer in there. And they had an idea to have me play younger him in the 1980s as the guy who buys the bicycle. But you know It Chapter 2 ended up being two hours and 40 minutes. And I think realistically they couldn't cram one more scene into the film.

Now what I think they should do, my unsolicited advice to Andy and Barbara Muschietti—who I love, great, great people, great filmmakers—my advice is: Quentin Tarantino is taken once upon a time in Hollywood and he's going to chop it up and deliver it as a TV series for one of the streaming services, because he's got like a couple hours of material he filmed that he hasn't used. There's much more material there. There is a feeling of something that could be a premium cable show.

I know that Andy filmed another hour and a half from great stuff that he'd love to use. And my dad has talked about wanting to write a prequel, a prequel, a 45 minute episode that would tell about how Pennywise first appeared in the 1920s.

I think it's a natural for Netflix or HBO. That would just be so great they could take It Chapter 1, It Chapter 2 and film another 45-minute episode as a kind of prequel re-cut the whole thing and use all the extra material they have. Boom. They'd have 10 episodes. I'd even be willing to come back and film the cameo they want if they're ready to do it for, you know, Hulu or something.