TORONTO – It might seem surprising, but when he first decided he wanted to make a living writing, author Joe Hill didn’t embrace the horror genre right away.
“I actually tried writing mainstream fiction,” Hill, the son of horror-fiction great Stephen King admits over coffee on an unusually mild spring afternoon. “It didn’t work. My stuff was listless on the page.”
But even after he decided to dip his pen in the same literary waters as dad, Hill, 37, found the process slow going – especially after dropping the King name.
“My strategy was to stay anonymous and it sure worked, because for 10 years I couldn’t sell anything.”
When the book world finally took a gamble on him, neither his agent nor his publisher knew who he really was. But the bet paid off. His 2007 debut, “Heart-Shaped Box,” was a bestseller before audiences knew he was King’s son.
Hill’s recently-released supernatural thriller “Horns” is also selling well; further proof he’s no flash in the pan.
But he’s convinced none of this would have happened had he decided to keep the family name.
“I really believe that had I come out as Joseph King, and I wrote a mediocre work of fiction, there would be a danger that a publisher would have published it just because they saw a chance to make a buck on the last name,” Hill says.
And using a pen name, he says, was the best thing he could have done to hone his skills.
“There were things I needed to learn about [the craft of writing] that I hadn’t done yet,” he says
“Horns” holds up against some of his dad’s biggest-selling page turners by taking on one of literature’s most reviled characters – the devil – and turning him into a hero. Hill says the book was a struggle, but telling the story of a man who wakes up after a night of drunkenness with a pair of “knobby-pointed protuberances” coming out of his head was one he couldn’t resist.
QMI Agency sat down with Hill to find out why every book needs a devil, what made him follow dad down the supernatural path and why staying anonymous was the best career move he ever made.
QMI Agency: Your take on the devil might seem new to readers because he’s presented as an almost heroic figure. Why did you go that route?
Hill: There’s a whole tradition in 18th and 19th century American folklore that paints the devil as the ultimate bad guy; God’s biggest adversary. But there’s still a sense that the audience was rooting for him because those stories were always about the wicked and the unworthy getting their just desserts on the business end of the devil’s pitchfork. Yes the devil is bad, but he’s cleaning up the mess. He’s going to get the people who really have it coming to them.
Every story, really, needs the devil in it. You don’t have a story until the devil shows up and upends the social order, lures people into temptation and pokes at the hornet’s nest. And Horns very much falls into that tradition.
QMI Agency: The horns that are growing out of your main character’s head have the power to bring out the worst in people. But there’s a really tender love story that works its way into the book. How did that figure into your plot?
Hill: To me, the most interesting thing to write about is how two people become aware of each other and start to fall in love with one another. I felt that when the story opens we’re seeing my hero, Ig Parrish, at his worst. But for that to have real emotional power it was important to see him at his best, when he was young and his life had promise.
QMI Agency: When you were starting out, why was it important to stay anonymous?
Hill: I decided in college that I was going to drop the last name. I wasn’t going to be Stephen King’s kid, I was going to be Joe Hill and I would keep that as close a secret as I could so the work could rise or fall on its own merits.
[Keeping King] might have worked for the first book; the first book could have lured in a lot of readers because of the famous last name. But if it was no good, they wouldn’t come around for the second. I didn’t see it as an advantage; I saw it as something that might work against me, so I dropped it.
Consequently, I wrote four other books that I was never able to sell over the period of 10 years. It was a real blow when they were rejected, but in the end I accept they were rejected for the right reasons. It was a case of the pen name doing its job.
QMI Agency: What made you want to follow your dad into the realm of the supernatural?
Hill: I tried writing mainstream fiction, but that wasn’t very successful. But I read an essay entitled, ‘Why Fantasy?’ that talked about how it’s a mistake to get trapped in realism. Ghosts, angels and demons can be very potent metaphors. Phillip Roth’s New Jersey is as much a place of make believe as Alice’s Wonderland. That was really what I needed to hear right then and after that I started writing fantasy stories, and those worked.
QMI Agency: Your dad has had an incredibly successful run in horror fiction. Why do you think those books, and others like them, resonate with readers?
Hill: I think that horror fiction and fantasy are lead-lined gloves that readers use to handle the questions we don’t like to face in ordinary life like, ‘What happens to us when we die?’ We don’t want this in our head every day, but in the safe realm of entertainment we can approach that question and deal with it and even have fun.
QMI Agency: Could you leave the supernatural behind?
Hill: Absolutely. People seem to have enjoyed Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, so maybe they’d follow me along. One thing I’d be reluctant to leave behind is suspense. Suspense is the element that keeps people turning the pages. I’m always afraid people will put the book down and go and watch Jersey Shore or something like that. I could imagine writing mainstream fiction, but is there a way to keep the pedal mashed to the floor in a mainstream book so that you’ll keep turning the pages?
I don’t know. Maybe you’ll find out sometime.
On the Net: