May 23, 2016


Author Joe Hill Talks 'The Fireman' & Taking Cues From 'The Stand' & 'Harry Potter': Interview

Shane Leonard
Shane Leonard

The Fireman, the fourth novel by Joe Hill, is a beast. The 752-pager follows a book of similar heft, 2013's NOS4A2, and once again pushes the borders of the 43-year-old Maine native's horror-steeped, exceptionally human work. This time the supernatural takes a backseat while a fictional disease, Dragonscale, steps in to ravage humanity. The contagious spore causes its carriers to eventually spontaneously combust—a simple concept, until heroine Harper Grayson discovers there's a way to control it, and a community dedicated to learning how.

Fuse interviewed Joe Hill about the second attempt to make a TV series out of comic book opus Locke & Key, the important lesson he learned from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how his father, Stephen King, influenced the new novel. The Fireman is available now.

Every time I get an advance of one of your books, it's covered in blurbs. It must be good to get a handful of early opinions before you send the thing out into the wider world.
At one point my dad sent me an email and said it would be really nice if he could get an advance reader's copy of his son's book since every motherfucking person on the planet seemed to have a copy. I wrote him back and said, "I don't know what to tell you! I'd send you one of my copies, but I've only got two."

You're a writer of very large books now. Did you anticipate that?
My next book is gonna be a collection of short novels, a book of four novellas, that will be out in fall of next year, and that's called Strange Weather. I like to work at different lengths. I've loved the luxury of exploring situations at length the way I was able to in NOS4A2 and The Fireman. But there's also a lot to recommend economy, and the skills that come with telling a very compact, straight-line short story or novella or short novel. That's something I'm looking to do more of in the next couple years. I think in some ways having written two long novels was a reaction to having written a lot of comics. Comic books are like writing sonnets: they're very small, very rigid in terms of form. You've got 22 pages, and the events in the comic have to flow a certain way. It's a real question of timing, of beats, of pacing. And I think after spending six years in the tight containment of that form, it was exciting to turn around and do a pair of novels that were huge and sprawled and had lots of characters, that played around with the Dickensian idea of what a story could be.

I was surprised to hear you say of The Fireman, "Any sequel you’re imagining will be better than any actual sequel I could write.” I would've sworn you've been building worlds that you're planning to revisit.
I think the world of Locke & Key and the world of NOS4A2 are sort of my default imaginary landscapes. Those are places I return, they're cozy places for me to settle into and tell new stories. I would say one of the novellas in Strange Weather is actually a story that takes place in the same universe as Locke & Key

Yeah. I've never done a prose story in that universe before. One of the stories might fit into the world of NOS4A2 and Horns and Heart-Shaped Box. The other two are kind of their own thing.

There was just some news that you're going to try for a Locke & Key TV series again.
We're gonna take another swing. We're just gonna do it again and again until we get it right [laughs]. No, I'm midway through the first draft of the pilot episode and we have hopes to relaunch it as a TV series. We came so close with Fox, with the pilot episode they filmed about five years ago. And I think everyone feels like this is a story that could work on television really well, that it could live on television in a really interesting way.

Yeah, people seemed really excited to hear about this second chance.
Well, y'know, the thing is, if we succeed in getting it on the air, it won't be because we did it better than Mark Romanek and Josh Friedman did. They knocked it outta the park. A lot of people in the world of film and TV had seen that pilot, even though it's never been officially released, and almost uniformly, everyone thinks like, "Wow, how did that not get on the air?" It's one of the handful of pilots that has a terrific reputation for something that is essentially a failure. I just think you could not possibly have asked for better work. So if we're lucky enough to get a show on the air, it will be because we were lucky.

It's a different landscape. Preacher is on AMC now, The Walking Dead is so successful...
It is a different landscape, and I'll tell you something I'm not embarrassed to confess to: At the time, when we filmed the pilot and Fox passed on it, we started looking to see if there was someone else who was interested. One of the producers said, "Y'knowww, those Netflix guys are talking about getting a TV series going." I remember being like, "Really? The Netflix guys? They're not gonna do any TV that anyone's gonna care about." In, did I call that one wrong.

The Fireman's already on track to become a movie by Louis Leterrier. The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk, Now You See Me, Clash of the Titans—he pretty much only directs large-scale, action-packed movies.
That's what Fox is talking about. They wanna do a big, y'know, two-hour, two-hour and ten-minute, big-budget science fiction-y, action-y thing with The Fireman, which is great and kinda how I always saw the novel. In a lot of ways, The Fireman is a superhero story. It could be part of this whole pack of superhero films we've had. Because the Fireman himself is sort of 50 percent the Human Torch, 50 percent Charlie McGee from Firestarter.

The first time I saw the Fireman do his thing, I was reminded of what I'd just seen Iron Man do in Captain America: Civil War.
I worked on The Fireman for a little over three years. That's a lot of time for a lot of cross-currents to appear in a book. Certainly one of the things I had on my mind when I wrote it was: I love those Marvel Universe films. But what hasn't the Marvel Universe done well? There's this one, big blinking light over the Marvel Universe, identifying where they've fallen down, and that's on female characters.

Thirteen movies, and in all that time they've developed like two female characters: Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, and Scarlet Witch is a relatively new addition. Black Widow is sort of this disaster as a character, because she's had to be every superhero's love interest. She's had to represent every single woman on the planet. And that's untenable. You just can't do that with a character. One of the things I wanted to do with The Fireman was supply a kind of corrective. Although the book is called The Fireman, it's a little bit of a bait-and-switch. My lead character is a woman called Harper, an elementary school nurse who's infected with the Dragonscale, this disease that causes spontaneous combustion, and who wants to survive. And her choices drive the action. It's her foot on the gas pedal, throughout the story. And most of the other key characters in the book are also women.

How long had spontaneous combustion been in your head as a story device?
When I was 12 I read about spontaneous combustion and for the next two years I was sure I was going to die of spontaneous combustion, that that was how I was going to go. In retrospect, this idea of your body's chemistry turning against you and causing you to explode into fire is a pretty good metaphor for what you're experiencing in puberty. 

Really horrible way to go, too. And it happens plenty of times in your book, so you've got plenty of chances to ruminate on it.
Yeah, uh, burning to death is bad. It's not as bad as being bitten in half by a wild animal, but I would argue it's definitely top five worst ways to go. I wouldn't wanna be bitten in half. It wouldn't just be seeing the shark open its mouth, that would be bad. But I think even worse would be paddling along while my guts unspool into the water behind me.

Jen Salt
Jen Salt

Can you tell me about your increasing willingness to wear your influences on your sleeve? Right after the dedication page in this one there's a list of six inspirations. You say J.K. Rowling's books "showed me how to write this one," you cite your mom, Ray Bradbury, P.L. Travers, Julie Andrews and then "my father, from whom I stole all the rest." Then I turn the page to see the same epigram from Firestarter.
If you look again, you'll also notice one of the epigrams is from The Stand.

That Springsteen one? Oh, wow. Yeah, your dad's really gone to the Springsteen well for the epigrams a lot.
[Laughs] What's funny about that is I'm more of a British invasion guy. Don't get me wrong, I love Bruce. I've seen Bruce in concert more than I've seen any other artist. He is to rock what John Steinbeck is to literature. But I have a weird, almost obsessive fixation with Beatles and Stones, which I've worked into every single book. My comfort zone is The Kinks, the Small Faces, The Faces, Led Zeppelin. That's my happy place.

But back to your influences...
I think all the books are me sort of having conversations with my influences. There's all this stuff that turns me on and the books tend to reflect that. I don't think many people who look at The Fireman will realize that the underlying structure is identical to the first six books of the Harry Potter series. I used exactly the same narrative scaffolding that J.K. Rowling relied on to tell her stories. There are also a lot of echoes of The Stand in it, because it's a big plague novel, it's a story about the way our civilization collapses. I didn't really realize how much it owed to The Stand until I was about two-thirds of the way through the first draft. Which I guess was just a sign I was too close to my own work. I think anyone standing back would've said, "Oh, wow, it's like The Stand if there was fire instead of snot, instead of flu." When I realized it, the question was: Do I disguise it or do I embrace it? I just thought that embracing it sounded like a lot more fun. 

In her New York Times review, Janet Maslin wrote this great note about your parentage: "[Joe Hill] deserves not to have it mentioned in reviews of his books anymore, so look up his pedigree if you really need to. The only relevant references for Mr. Hill are now his own books."
Yeah, that was cool. I used the pen name so I could try to succeed on the merits of the work as opposed to succeeding on a famous last name. I spent so much of the early part of my career shy of comparisons and sort of anxious about that subject, but over time I've kinda got comfortable in my own skin and in some ways I feel fairly easy in my mind about the subject of my dad's work, which I love. I kinda feel like I've gradually gotten into a position where I can sort of publicly celebrate it now and then and it's not too weird. 

One dad-oriented question: It was published 30 years ago this year, so I treated myself to my first reread since I was a kid. What's your opinion of that one?
Y'know, I think that's the first book of his that I read that was just him? The first one I read was The Talisman, which he wrote with Peter [Straub]. It, though? Loved it, loved it. Completely loved it. I can't remember if when I finished I started again right away, but I'm sure it was pretty close to that, or maybe I leapt right into something else by him.

This interview has been condensed and edited.