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Joe Hill’s Sympathy for the Devil

Joe Hill made a name for himself with his crackling debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, the story of an aging rock star who buys a ghost on the Internet, only to discover he's unleashed a vengeful spirit. The book was hailed by the New York Times as "a wild, mesmerizing, perversely witty tale of horror" and became an instant bestseller.

Then Hill's name was remade when he was "outed" as Stephen King's son. The press latched onto the story, and a lesser writer might have been crushed under fans' expectations that he would continue the family legacy.

Hill proved himself once and for all with his follow-up, 20th Century Ghosts, a first-rate short story collection that had won the Bram Stoker Award in 2005 when it was published by a small British press. It remains a personal favorite, a book that I press into the hands of anyone foolish enough to ask me for something to read. Along the way, Hill began writing the comic series Locke and Key (illustrated by the insanely talented Gabriel Rodríguez), which is one of the best comics I've read in years.

Now Hill has published his second novel, Horns, which should finally exorcise the "Son of King" label. It's the story of Ig Perrish, who wakes up, a year after his girlfriend Merrin's murder, with horns protruding from his temples. People suddenly feel compelled to confess their worst secrets and darkest impulses whenever Ig comes near, and he decides to use this ability to hunt down Merrin's killer. What starts as a gripping, darkly funny supernatural revenge thriller veers into unexpectedly emotional terrain as Hill shifts the ground under readers' feet time and again.

Perhaps only fitting for a writer who sends his readers on bumpy, unpredictable rides, my interview with Joe Hill was the most memorable one I've had.Perhaps only fitting for a writer who sends his readers on bumpy, unpredictable rides, my interview with Joe Hill was the most memorable one I've had. Moments after arriving at Powell's City of Books — having already gone back to his hotel once to retrieve the materials he'd forgotten for that night's reading — Hill's escort, Kevin, spotted a gaping hole in the back of Hill's jeans — right over his ass. So we improvised, climbing into the backseat of Kevin's two-door Geo to speed back to the hotel so Hill could change. And there our interview began.

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Joe Hill: My knickers are showing. They're not even my hot knickers.

Chris Bolton: Which ones are they? Can I ask?

Hill: These are the pretty straight... I don't really know.

Kevin: I think they're sort of grayish.

Hill: [Laughter] They're the gray ones.

Bolton: That's a hot scoop.

Hill: They're not the tighty whities. Have you seen Breaking Bad?

Bolton: I just watched it, actually.

Hill: Okay, the guy who plays Walter White, Professor White -- that is a bold man, because he has done some extended sequences in tighty whities.

Bolton: And he didn't hit the gym beforehand.

Hill: No, he didn't, and those are some gutsy sequences, no question about it. Probably easier to be naked because you just look cooler.

Bolton: I didn't know if you'd have a chance to get to Voodoo Doughnut, so I figured you need to try a legendary Cocoa Puffs Voodoo doughnut.

Hill: Believe it or not, Voodoo Doughnut was almost the first thing I did after I touched the ground. [Laughter] It was great coming up here. I found out at the last minute that I was flying out of Seattle on a propellor jet. I was actually hoping for a dirigible, but the propellor plane would do. My publisher spares no expense. They rented the plane from Tales of the Gold Monkey — it's like a wooden plane or something. They should have named it the Amelia Earhart.

I was terrified; I was pissing myself. But then I got on and it was such a peaceful flight. We flew over Mt. Saint Helens and the whole mountain range, and it was like flying over Mordor. There are all these rifts and valleys filled with clouds, it was really the most peaceful stretch of the tour. And then, this afternoon, I had a free hour and we wound up at the Chinese Tea Garden. It was great. Portland's been an awesome stop. And in between, there was Voodoo Doughnut!

Bolton: Sounds perfect... up until the wardrobe malfunction. I hope that's not going to leave a black mark on the experience.

Hill: The wardrobe malfunction has not scarred me. I'm pretty immune to embarrassment.The wardrobe malfunction has not scarred me. I'm pretty immune to embarrassment. I'd written for a long time, and eventually I had a book of short stories — a lot of people think the book of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, was my second book. It was actually my first book. It was turned down everywhere in America and almost everywhere in England, but one of the last places it went to was a very small press in England, PS Publishing. It was just a case of exactly the right stories for exactly the right editor, because the editor at PS Publishing is a short story writer himself named Peter Crowther, who writes stories of the strange and fabulous, and he really responded to what was going on in 20th Century Ghosts. So, even though he didn't see any money in it, he took a chance on it. Then we had a great run. Very unexpected things happened. The collection got great reviews and won some prizes. And created such good buzz that it gave me the chance to sell Heart-Shaped Box to an American publisher.

Bolton: It won the Stoker, didn't it?

Hill: It did, and I'm just coming to this. So, it was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. My wife and I went to the awards ceremony. I had not done a lot of public speaking and I was very nervous, and I won for best collection and I had to go up and accept. My mouth was dry, my legs were kind of trembly, and I got up there and made some incredibly lame crack and there were titters of laughter all through the room. And I said something else that wasn't all that funny and there was more laughter. Then I got done and I held up the award and there was a great audience response. I sat down and I said to my wife, "How'd I do?" And she said, "Great. Next time zip your fly." [Laughter] My shirt was hanging through my open fly.

Bolton: It's a great trick to get the audience on your side. I think it's a shame that Kevin called you on it this time.

Hill: That's the true version of the fictionalization. I'm trying to work out a good story about the hole in the pants, but I haven't got one yet. So, after that, it was pretty easy. I was still pretty new when Heart-Shaped Box came out. Heart-Shaped Box is partially about the relationship between this burned-out heavy metal musician in his 50s and his groupie girlfriend. When we first meet them, they're both on the rocks and fighting a lot. I had to read from it at Waterstreet Books in Exeter, New Hampshire, and there's a big hometown crowd, a hundred people there. Again, I had no experience with public speaking and I was very nervous. I got up there and — the language is pretty salty. I thought, "Well, am I gonna go for it or not? Yeah, I'm gonna go for it. It'll just be a way to relax." So the girlfriend says, "You're a sympathetic son of a bitch, you know that?" And he says, "You want sympathy? Go fuck James Taylor!" And as soon as I said it, I looked out into the crowd and these three little kids popped up that hadn't been there 30 seconds ago. [Laughter] And the kids had huge, shit-eating grins on their faces! [Laughter] Their parents were holding their hands, looking way less happy. But it did relax me.

Bolton: Yeah, because you didn't have to have the conversation with them on the ride home. [Laughter] So, is this old hat now? You've had Heart-Shaped Box and 20th Century Ghosts come out, and now Horns is the third book.

Hill: Well, it's not old hat; I'm still very green at this. I think that my public presentation has sharpened a little in the time since, and I'm a little more relaxed. I've managed to loosen up and I've gotten to a point where I can be in front of people and have fun. My trick is just to look at the room and only see a dozen people, whether there's actually a dozen people or a lot more. So, I've loosened up a little bit.

Horns was a struggle to get there. I spent about two years kind of muddling through before things finally took off.Horns was a struggle to get there. I spent about two years kind of muddling through before things finally took off. When I was working on Heart-Shaped Box, I had a very low public profile. I'd had some success with a few short stories, but I was pretty anonymous. Before Heart-Shaped Box, I'd written four novels that I'd been unable to sell, and I had no reason to think it would be any different with Heart-Shaped Box, so I had no real fear of failure or anything. I had fun working on it and no real expectations. When the book came out, it did very, very well — it did better than my wildest daydreams. I had 10 years to build up fantasies about what it would be like to have a successful novel, and the reality blew them all away. But afterward I fell into something of a second-novel problem, where there's a weight of expectations that you sort of put on yourself. And the other thing is, it came out about my father. Before Heart-Shaped Box came out, no one really knew. After Heart-Shaped Box, it was much more widely known that my dad is a well-known writer. So I'd never had to write anything as the son of Stephen King. And then I sort of felt with Horns a little bit that there was that awareness out there, and for the first time I felt a kind of pressure. And now I'm gonna go put a pair of pants on.

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Hill hopped out to run into his room and change. A few minutes later, he returned wearing a similar-looking pair of jeans, but with the ass intact.

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Hill: It wasn't too bad. It actually was kind of punk rock, once I got a chance to get my pants off and look them over.

Bolton: Did you leave them on?

Hill: No, I switched them.

Bolton: I was half-hoping that you'd be like, "You know what? I love this. I love this little rip and I'm gonna go for it." [Laughter]

Hill: Yeah, I changed my underwear instead, to something tiger-striped. [Laughter]

Bolton: I've read all of your books and I thought it was interesting that, when Heart-Shaped Box came out, this publicity about your dad started to emerge —

Hill: Right.

Bolton: — and the press was like, "Oh, let's compare him to Stephen King." Then 20th Century Ghosts got sort of a proper release and I heard some people saying, "Ooh, it'll be another Night Shift!" Which it wasn't. And now, Horns is out, and suddenly it's become just this parenthetical aside: "Oh, by the way, he's Stephen King's son." It feels like you've become your own writer, and the press is saying, "We're not going to attach that to him anymore."

Hill: Well, that's a very kind thing to say. I do think that my dad has forgotten more about writing than I'm ever gonna know.I do think that my dad has forgotten more about writing than I'm ever gonna know. He has no peers; he's really in a field all of his own — both the quantity of fiction and the level of quality is pretty astonishing. But one of the reasons, when I was in college, I decided to drop that last name, was because I thought the danger would be that I might write a really mediocre work of fiction and a publisher might publish it anyway because they saw a chance to make a quick buck on the last name. As a short-term plan, that might be a way to make some dough. But it's a bad long-term plan because readers might buy your first book because of the famous last name. But if they don't like the first book, they won't buy the second one.

Before Heart-Shaped Box, I had these other four novels that I was never able to sell — including one that I worked on for three years and was never able to place with anyone, and that was kind of a heartbreaker and tough to absorb. Ultimately, I look back at all of that as the pen name really doing its job, doing what I needed it to do, which was give me a chance to make some mistakes in private. It gave me time to develop my craft. Writers don't just have to find their own voice, but they have to find their subjects: What is it that they like to write about that's unique to them? That they can write about in a special way that maybe very few other people can write about? Let's go ahead and jump out.

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At this point, we'd arrived back at Powell's and hopped out of the Geo. Since it was a nice night, we decided to walk around and find a place to sit. This involved getting out of the parking lot, which had an automatic gate that didn't respond to humans, only cars. So Hill, Kevin, and I squeezed through the gap between the metal fence and a tree — a tight squeeze, in which Hill very nearly ripped his pants again.

Our first destination turned out to be closed, so we kept going along NW Couch Street. We passed a bar I'd never seen before (which turned out to be the new-ish Eye Candy Ultra Lounge and Bistro Bar) and debated whether to go in.

Hill: It kind of looks like a titty bar.

Bolton: That would be a good story.

Hill: It might be distracting.

Bolton: So there'd be 30 minutes of silence. [Laughter]

Hill: Then, "Take it off!!"

Bolton: "Huh? What? Did you ask something?" [Laughter]

Hill: My understanding of Portland is that it's almost impossible to go a day without spending at least an hour or two at a gentlemen's club. You almost can't throw a stick without it bouncing off a door of one strip joint and shattering the window of another.

Ultimately, we ended up at Noodles Express, a fine dining experience that I felt sure would give Joe Hill a proper sense of Portland's renowned foodie culture.

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Hill: Okay, so, I would say that the early books that got rejected were a case of the pen name doing its job. I would say that the early books that got rejected were a case of the pen name doing its job. And when Heart-Shaped Box and 20th Century Ghosts came out, people seemed to really like the stories and respond to that. I also write this occasional comic book, Locke and Key. It's been coming out off and on for a couple of years now, and it's going to come out off and on for a couple more years before the whole story's told. It's been really fun to work on. I noticed that when the first issue came out, every review mentioned my dad. By the third or fourth issue, though, no one ever mentioned my dad anymore, because all they cared about was what happened in the story, and the characters, and trying to work out the solutions to the various mysteries. All of this, I think, is basically... I don't know what to say about it except that I think we're in such an information-saturated culture than any little nugget of information gets old and stale really quickly. And so the idea that that was interesting has already passed, and now the only question is, are the stories any good? And hopefully people will feel like they are, so I can keep doing this.

Bolton: Well, they are.

Hill: Thanks.

Bolton: I'm a big fan, and I don't say that just to kiss your ass. [Laughter] I love Locke and Key, and 20th Century Ghosts is the book that, if somebody says "I need something to read on this plane," it's the first thing that I think of.

Hill: Oh, thanks.

Bolton: I went through an entire, nightmarish seven- to nine-hour train ride to Seattle that kept having to pull over and wait for the freight trains to pass, and I read the book cover-to-cover. So it was seven or nine hours that just blew right past.

Hill: That's awesome.

Bolton: Actually, I started to read Heart-Shaped Box before 20th Century Ghosts, and I think I had different expectation of what it was going to be. And, I hate to say it, but about halfway through, I ended up putting it aside on the nightstand. Then, after 20th Century Ghosts, I went back and realized I'd been reading it all wrong, that it was a completely different story than I'd thought it was.

Hill: One thing about Heart-Shaped Box is, there's a calculated risk involved. It happened organically, because originally I thought it would just be a short story. The story is about Judas Coyne, this burned-out heavy metal musician, who has a collection of macabre oddities, like a witch's confession and cartoons by John Wayne Gacy. When he hears about a woman selling a haunted suit online, he thinks it's the perfect thing to add to his collection and he buys it. This ghost attached to the suit is very real and very dangerous, and I always thought it would eat him for breakfast by page 30. Instead, Jude, my hero, hung around. He refused to die on my schedule. He was like the original rock 'n' roll cockroach; every time I stepped on him, he'd get back up and scrabble away.

But I do think that, initially, when you meet Jude, he seems like a pretty unpleasant fellow. Self-involved and vicious to people. Over the course of the book, I think he's revealed to be a better man than the reader thought he was at first, and he may even be a better man than he thought he was at first. That some of this colossal bad mood that's dragged around for 30 years stems from deep feelings of regret about basically having done a lot of the right things.

And this is something I've done sporadically throughout my career. I seem to be drawn to write about unsympathetic characters, and then see if I can't trick the reader into liking them anyway.I seem to be drawn to write about unsympathetic characters, and then see if I can't trick the reader into liking them anyway. Certainly that's true with Jude. And with Horns, I think, is there any character in all of fiction more unsympathetic than the devil? There really isn't. The devil is the figure we blame for everything bad in the world: war, disease, cellphones. And I just thought, if I can get the reader to root for a devil for a few hundred pages, that would be an accomplishment.

I also thought, though — and I didn't start out with this idea, but as the book went along it kind of evolved into this. I also began to think that devils are a cop-out. The idea that we need devils. Humanity is bad enough without them.

Bolton: Sure.

Hill: I'm going on and on. I'm like the chattering teeth you wind up and they hop around the table. [Laughter] I have this woodcut on my computer, this image of a woodcut; it's a classic 19th-century woodcut showing the devil dancing on his goaty little hooves, and his fists are clenched and his head is tossed back and he's laughing at the sky. And that was the devil I wanted to write about. Not an instigator of evil, but someone who's got a front-row seat and is laughing at it. He's laughing at humanity. Maybe now and then he gives a little nudge, but for the most part he's content to just enjoy the mischief we do to each other.

I'm not sure where that woodcut comes from, but it seems to represent the whole tradition of American stories about the devil. These stories are always the same. They're always about the wicked and the unworthy getting their just deserts on the business end of the devil's pitchfork. And Horns is very much a story in that tradition.

Bolton: I think it's interesting that you talk about wanting to take an unsympathetic character and make him sympathetic — the devil — and also, Ig starts off in the first part... I mean, [*SPOILER ALERT*] he pushes his elderly grandmother down a hill. That's pretty unsympathetic. So you start off with this impression of Ig as an A-hole, a real badass, maybe an antihero. Then you find out so much more about him, and suddenly you're in love with the guy.

Hill: When he grows the horns, Ig develops this power where suddenly he is privy to everyone's worst urges and darkest secrets. So he knows the worst about everyone. And when we see Ig, we're also seeing him at his worst, in the beginning. And to me, that's always the right place to start a story. I don't know what you could do with a character who's happy, content, and emotionally well-balanced, except take it all away as fast as possible.I don't know what you could do with a character who's happy, content, and emotionally well-balanced, except take it all away as fast as possible.

Bolton: Yeah.

Hill: In the movie business, producers talk about identifying with the characters. And what they mean is they want the characters to be pure and... superheroes, really. I actually think people tend to identify with fuck-ups more than they identify with people who have done it all right. Nevertheless, Ig is, in spite of the fact that he pushes Granny down the hill — which is maybe his darkest moment in the book — in spite of all that — and it's gonna be hard to persuade anyone reading this interview of that, but Ig is actually a very decent man, a good man. Over the course of the book, he has to face a lot of darkness. But in spite of having the devil's powers, he struggles to hold onto his humanity. He sees the worst in people but continues to believe there's more to the picture.

I read a movie review once where a critic was talking about an action picture and he said the movie's a failure because it's not about anything except itself. I always thought that was a fascinating thing to say. I thought about it and, yeah, that is what's wrong with it, it's just about guys hitting each other and stuff blowing up.

When people come to fiction and they have an emotional response to fiction, it's almost always because it asks questions and explores ideas that we're a little afraid to explore in everyday life. And so we use fiction almost as a pair of lead-lined gloves to handle a radioactive substance. So we have these questions like, "What would it be like to die really badly? What would it be like not just to die, to face my own death, but to suffer horribly on the way down?" No one wants to experience that, no one wants to think about it, but we can approach it in fiction, and we can poke at it, and I think it does do something for people, emotionally and psychologically. It's like rehearsal for the worst, in case you have to face it. And a safe way to think about it.

So I always hope that my stories will poke at some of those questions — not necessarily provide answers, because I think the reader has to find their way to those themselves. I always hate those books that have the neat, pat, morale homily at the end. They're selling something. They're selling an ideology or something...

Bolton: Often they're selling the status quo right back to you.

Hill: Yeah, exactly. And they're arrogant. When you have a question like, "Why is there evil in the world?" and someone thinks they have the answer to it, I just think that's arrogant. Those kinds of questions don't have one answer, they're too big. Although, I did come up with a couple of ideas about why there's evil in the world while writing Horns. One of them is, sometimes you just really want it and you don't care who gets hurt.

Bolton: Right.

Hill: That's partially in there. The real thing that Horns is about is: if you knew the worst thing in the people you love, could you still love them? And could you forgive them? Ig struggles to, over the course of the book, and I think it's frightening and hard, but I think Ig sees there's still much that's good in the people he loves, even when he's seen their ugliness.

Bolton: Everybody has something that's ugly about them, and it's the thing that they've hidden the hardest, buried it the furthest down. And then that's the first thing Ig gets to find out about everybody.

Hill: I've read some reviews that say that opening sequence... I wanted the opening sequence to play like a paranoid fantasy, to be like a Hitchcockian thing. Hitchcock was the master of the wrong man scenario, where he'd take a character and he'd plop him down, and suddenly the person is accused of something they didn't do, and everyone he thought was a friend betrays him, and all the authorities that he thought he could trust are after him.

People thought that Hitchcock was directing horror back in the day. Now we look back and we say, "Oh, it was crime, it was suspense." We don't say it was horror because there are no bodies hanging from meat hooks. But it was horror back then. And I still think that's closer to the true nature of horror fiction than, say, the guy with the mask made out of human skin running around with a meat cleaver.

Bolton: Yeah, definitely.

Hill: Some reviewers have said that the first hundred pages really get at the hypocrisy of small-town life, and how people who are pious don't really mean it. They act good, like they care, but they don't really care. I actually don't think that's what the first hundred pages say.

Everyone has a dark side. It would be terrible to be exposed to it, but everyone thinks things they wish they didn't think. Somewhere in your life you've made one choice that you almost try never to think about, because when you think about it, it just hurts.Somewhere in your life you've made one choice that you almost try never to think about, because when you think about it, it just hurts. "Why did I do that awful fucking thing? Why was I so ignorant?" That's what I wanted to poke at. That's my idea of the devil, is someone who what he sees first is the worst in us. I think that's almost like the devil's characteristic mark — he knows what tempts us and what we want. He knows the worst in us and he plays to it.

But I don't think that means that the people that Ig meets in the beginning have no love in them, or can't care. I think they do, every day, it's just the devil inside undermines those tendencies.

Bolton: I think you start to understand where the devil gets his bad behavior [Laughter], because you see it happening to Ig. And if you knew the worst about everybody, you might be the devil, too.

Hill: You might want to push Granny down the hill.

Bolton: I should mention here that, when I read that scene, I cheered. Luckily I was alone, but I was cheering because it's a great moment. It's not an alienating moment. You really understand why Ig pushes her.

Hill: It's time for the devil to get his due.

Bolton: Absolutely.

Hill: It's time for the devil to put his pitchfork into someone. And that's the satisfaction... It's funny because, especially in American fiction, everyone understands the devil as God's adversary. And yet, when you read American fantasy stories about the devil, people are secretly rooting for him because usually he's out to punish someone who we identify as an evil person, the wicked, someone who really has it coming to them. So the devil has this dual nature, where you know he's evil personified. And at the same time, he's there to punish the sinners. And we all want that to happen. Seeing the bad folk get their comeuppance is satisfying.

Bolton: The devil's sort of like the janitor who gets blamed for the messes he has to clean up.

Hill: He is.

Bolton: The poor guy.

Hill: This is something that the book also wonders about, because the devil's kind of been cobbled together as a character over two thousand years. He's God's enemy, but on the other hand, he punishes all the sinners, and God hates sin. Kind of like they're on the same side...

Bolton: Yeah, a little bit.

Hill: In [the Book of] Job, the devil — or devil-like figure, an angel who seems to be playing the devil's advocate, literally — keeps poking at God's own belief about the best in humanity: "Hmm, do you really think that's true?" So the idea of the devil being someone who toys with the human experiment being headed for failure, the diabolical scientist, that's kind of interesting.

Bolton: It's interesting that you mention that first scene playing out like Hitchcock, because it felt sort of Lynchian to me. It has that dream logic.

Hill: Now we're veering into film. But in some ways, Lynch more natural descendant. When you look at some of the stuff he did with Blue Velvet, and the early Twin Peaks, you see Hitchcockian elements. You see Hitchcock perverted. Horns is surreal, and it's perverted, and it's dirty — it's a really filthy book, especially in the first hundred pages. But you don't think it's that filthy?

Bolton: I don't. It's all relative.

Hill: It has its filthy moments. But beneath the filth, it's actually a fairly classical structure, of someone who is cut off and forced to rely entirely on their own abilitiesbeneath the filth, it's actually a fairly classical structure, of someone who is cut off and forced to rely entirely on their own abilities and figure out their own problems. Because no one is going to help them, everyone is against them.

Bolton: And it's a really beautiful story. There's this incredible heart in the story, and it sort of feels like three or four different novels that have been put together into this mosaic.

Hill: You know, one of the things I'm particularly proud of about the book is that it is really, in some ways, three novels. There's the main story, which is about Ig turning into a demon, but I kind of slipped these two mainstream novellas in there, as well. The opening hundred pages is this kind of malevolent, paranoid fantasy. In part two, though, it leaps to the happier days of Ig's youth and recounts how all the characters met each other, from Ig to the sociopath, Lee Tourneau. I don't care if it's a spoiler or not, because I let people know early on that Lee Tourneau is one of the bad guys. We learn about Ig's charming brother, Terry, and we learn about Merrin Williams, who Ig falls in love with. That was the place, when I was working on it — I really struggled to write the second book. But when I began part two, "Cherry" — which is completely mainstream and is very much a story about the journey from innocence to experience, and about youthful hopes and about young romance, young love — that section of the book was really the first part where I felt like I was settling back into myself, where I was happy again and I felt like I knew what I was doing. And I just had a blast writing about those characters. That's why I always read from it on the road, I read from that part.

So there's this mainstream novella, which I think I wanted to have kind of the feel of "The Body" — Stand by Me. And then there's another part of the book called "The Fixer." And "The Fixer" is about the inner life of Lee Tourneau, the nasty sociopath who out-devils the devil — who is more satanic than the devil. And that I wanted to read like a Jim Thompson novel — the guy who wrote The Killer Inside Me. You read Jim Thompson, and his protagonists do something awful. And you think this is the worst, and then you turn the page and they're doing something even worse. And I like the idea of exploring the machinations of a complete sociopath. I thought that would be an interesting challenge. It would also add perspective to where Ig was coming from.

Bolton: It's an incredible counter-balance to Ig, because Ig is evil, he's the devil, because he feels so much and these feelings are leading him to do things that, from the outside, look terrible. Lee is the real evil, and it's because of that absence of emotion.

Hill: Right. In some ways, Lee is a person who feels like he's never done anything that was wrong. That, in fact, he's made logical choices to do what he felt was right.

Bolton: And it's amazing the way that you structure the narrative, because you lead us to believe this one version of events — and then, when we find out what really happened, it's so shocking to have it twisted around.

Hill: It's a form of recursive storytelling that in many ways began with Rashomon, the Kurosawa film.

Bolton: Right.

Hill: In the last few years it's become an eminently popular form of storytelling. The whole appeal of Lost, especially when it was at its best, was this recursive form of storytelling where you skip back and forth between the present and the past, and a storyline in the past informs what's happening in the present.

I also like the idea that one of the powerful things stories can do is look at an event, and then take that event and turn it ninety degrees. And suddenly you're seeing it in profile, you're seeing it from a different point of view, and all your initial assumptions about it may turn out to be very incorrect, because you didn't have all the facts. And I think this is true of most of the important events in our lives. We see such a small fraction of what's there, and then we construct our own narrative, the one that suits our own emotional needs, and maybe never really get the whole picture.We see such a small fraction of what's there, and then we construct our own narrative, the one that suits our own emotional needs, and maybe never really get the whole picture.

Bolton: Right, because we never actually get Merrin's perspective.

Hill: Right, the night that Merrin dies, we get the story four times, and every time it's a little different. And this is one of the joys of fiction, because it offers the promise of understanding things. And in our ordinary lives we understand so little. We wish we did, but we're locked in our own heads. When you suffer that incredible break-up, you know, that heart-wrenching break-up, or you're witness to something horrifying and unexpected, what you saw, or what you heard, is a small slice of the whole story. And only in fiction can you freeze an event, circle it, and see it from all sides. And that's satisfying for me, as a reader.

Bolton: I want to shift gears for a moment to Locke and Key, which I love. It's one of my favorite comic series currently running. Do you have the ending figured out already?

Hill: Sort of. Because it's essentially a live performance, it's an ongoing thing, it's not the same as a novel or a short story, which I can rewrite and rewrite and rewrite in private, as long as I want. Then I can turn them out when I feel like they're right. Whereas, with Locke and Key, there are deadlines, the thing is moving, it's alive — a storytelling experiment.

I didn't have an ending initially, but... I revere Alan Moore. Outside of family, Alan Moore's probably my favorite writer in the world. [Laughter] He did an interview where he said, basically, "Only a chucklehead would go into a long-running comic without an end in mind." And I thought, "Oh my God, I'm a chucklehead!" [Laughter] After I read that, I did some hard thinking. I tell people I don't know where it's going, but in truth I really do know what will happen in the last issue. More or less. So, getting there should be fun.

One thing I do know, which I think is important is, I'm a fan of a certain kind of story that Lost represents, and also The X-Files. The X-Files was great in the beginning, the first four seasons, but over time it piled mystery on top of mystery, until you began to feel there was no bottom. It was, you know, the next big shock, the next big mystery. And eventually it got to the point where there were so many mysteries, so many storylines, so many hints and clues, that it could never wrap up in a satisfying way.

Bolton: Right.

Hill: One of the things I've tried to do with Locke and Key is never introduce a mystery I didn't know the answer to. And hopefully before it's all wrapped up, everything that's been raised, all the questions that have been asked, will be settled to the reader's emotional satisfaction.

Bolton: Great, that's reassuring.

Hill: We'll see. So, I guess I would say, I know less about where it's going but a lot about where it's been. All the back story. I know how Dodge wound up in the well, and I know where the keys come from... so hopefully we'll get to all that stuff.

Bolton: It's weird that you have the answers, and I want to know but I'll just have to wait. [Laughter]

Hill: Gabe is drawing the third story arc, I'm writing the fourth story arc. It's interesting because, the way it's structured, most of the big questions will be answered to everyone's satisfaction within about three issues of the fifth story arc. Very early: boom, boom, boom. Big fall. And hopefully people won't think it's expositional crap. I think it works on the level of story. We'll see, though. I've never done this before.

Bolton: Readers will let you know, I'm sure.

Hill: Yeah, if it really sucks, everyone will let me know.

With his pants intact, Joe Hill made it to his reading at Powell's City of Books on Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010.

÷ ÷ ÷

Chris Bolton co-created the all-ages webcomic Smash, which will soon be published by Candlewick Press, and created the comedy series Wage Slaves. His short story "The Red Room" was published in Portland Noir from Akashic Books.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Portland Noir (Akashic Noir)
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  2. Locke and Key
    Used Hardcover $17.50
  3. 20th Century Ghosts
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  4. Heart-Shaped Box Used Trade Paper $8.00
  5. Hitchcock Revised Edition Sale Trade Paper $12.98
  6. Horns
    Used Hardcover $9.50
  7. Night Shift
    Used Mass Market $4.95
  8. Head Games (Locke & Key #02)
    Used Hardcover $17.50
  9. The Killer Inside Me (Vintage...
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  10. Different Seasons Used Mass Market $4.50



3 Responses to "Joe Hill’s Sympathy for the Devil"

  1.  
    CChambers March 11th, 2010 at 11:13 am

    I waited an hour and a half at the UCLA Book Fair in 100 degree heat to see Joe Hill and get his autograph on 20th Century Ghosts. He was exceptionally gracious and seemed a bit amazed that people would stay in the sun and heat just to see him. Thanked everyone who came up to him profusely and drew a tiny cartoon on every patron's book presented to him. A class act and a fresh writer. He might be King's dead-ringer double (several people were squeaking in line that they didn't know Stephen King was coming!), but he's also a very nice person. Best of luck with the new book!

  2.  
    adrienne corbett March 21st, 2010 at 10:31 am

    I too felt like I'd waited in 100 degree weather...but because Chris Bolton's interview was tooooooooooooooo long to read, tedious...Started out ok.... but then... either I or it deteriorated...and I gave up...at about the point where the spoiler alert is. I scrolled down to see how much is left and arrrrggggh!. Funny, 'cause I will probably read the book...but I won't read another interview with Bolton.

  3.  
    Mandy March 22nd, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    I loved this interview! It feels really fresh and unscripted, and I can't stop laughing at the thought of the three of you crushed into a two-door Geo.

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