Interview: Josh Malerman, Part I – Songwriting, Horror Fiction, and Rock and Roll

Josh Malerman GuitarJosh Malerman is an individual who needs little introduction to the horror community at large. His novel, Bird Box, is one of the most remarkable and unique visions of a post-apocalyptic world that’s ever been penned, and it’s also one of the best debut novels to come along in recent years. That book received high accolades from readers and critics alike and made the name Josh Malerman instantly familiar to devoted horror fans. He’s recently had stories published in Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing’s anthology, Lost Signals, and in Crystal Lake Publishing’s Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories alongside such greats as Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, and Neil Gaiman. He has a story in the five author, shared title anthology, I Can Taste the Blood, coming August 23 from Grey Matter Press. Josh very graciously took some time out of a chaotically busy schedule to share his thoughts on horror fiction and fronting the rock band The High Strung.

For starters, please tell us a little about yourself and your work.

JM: I’ve got a stranger story than most. I’ve written some 26 novels now and only one of them has been published. Thing is, I never shopped any of them. Not a one. I was writing stories and silly dark poems before any dream of music came rushing into my life. My best friends were all playing music and they knew I wrote stories and so they asked me if I wanted to write songs. This was total 19 year old logic, as in: “You know nothing of music. Wanna write the songs?” We’d been best friends since we were ten and I’d seen them all play in talent shows and bands and suddenly here Mark is singing my poems over Derek playing drums and I’m learning to play an organ so that I can play along. It was a wild period, man, but I got it, got bit, bit by the Songbird. Even in the beginning, Mark and I saw ourselves as Brill Building types, like Goffin and King, Diamond and Kim, songwriters first who also happen to play their songs live. In our case we had a holy-shit rhythm section which transformed us from somewhat introverted songwriters into something more like showmen. Along the way, I kept writing stories. Some were bad, some were good, some were real good. Thing is, I’ve never been afraid of writing a bad book. Way I see it, halfway through a book your writing, you think it sucks. You finish it, you realize it doesn’t suck and now you can rewrite it anyway. Not to mention the confidence you’ve gained by writing the book in the first place. I don’t believe in inspiration or talent; writing for me is a matter of blind-mad-magnificent love. True love. Either you fall in love with the process and you wanna be with it every day, or you don’t. And who cares if you don’t? I also didn’t fall in love with Susan Richards in high school but, shit man, somebody else did! So back to the history bit: in the early days I was doing a bit of a juggling act… writing stories, writing songs, always with a mind on the huge prize, the Babe the Blue Ox of All Artistic Fantasies: writing a novel. Ten years of “failing” hurt, you know, “failing” meaning not finishing any of the novels I started. There were some good ones in there. A Silo Maid. Moxie Bravo. George Wax Man of Wax. But I just couldn’t seem to end one. Then, at age 29, alone in an all night diner in Michigan, I broke through. I was working on a real scary story about a witch in the woods who messed with the minds of young men and I saw the ending and I saw that I was going to reach that ending and I just about howled when I wrapped Wendy, my first finished novel. It was as bright an experience as any I’ve had, though there have been many now. In the years since Wendy I’ve written another 25 books, but like I said, I didn’t shop them because… I don’t know why because. Maybe it’s because the band was touring so much (we didn’t have apartments or homes for six years… just toured the country… some 240 shows a year… usually playing for 10 to 20 people a gig, an equally brilliantly bright experience.) Or maybe it’s because I never saw the rough drafts with dollar signs in my eyes. But I wanna make sure I say this: writing has never been a hobby for me. Holy no to that. I took it as seriously as a man can without being an asshole about it. I worked every day. I still do. But to shop them? To make money? I suppose that woulda sounded to me like filming my love making sessions with my girlfriend, or trying to pay rent based on how much I love Mom. And if all of this sounds tiresomely noble, well good, because it was and it still is. The books were/are kept in a very special place in my heart, body, mind, soul, third eye, wherever. I’m not telling. And there they remain! And yet… an incredible thing happened. I’d writeen some 15 or so when a friend from high school heard all about the “stack of rough drafts growing in Josh Malerman’s house” (we, the band, did eventually rent rooms in houses and what not) and he called me up and asked if I minded if he send one of the books to a lawyer he knew who represented authors. I’d always thought that, if ever the day came in which I was gonna show someone like that a book I wrote, well I would be glad to have so many to choose from. But instead it turned out to be a hard decision to make. Do I send him Wendy? Maybe that one was too sexy? How about the one about the mad artist Merry Impresario? Too… dark? I decided on Goblin (one of my favorites) and Dave (my friend from high school) sent it along and the rest of everything fell like dominoes from there. With the guidance of the lawyer and a pair of managers, I rewrote one of the books for a year and a half and just about when we were ready to shop it to agents, I stopped us and said that I thought Bird Box might be a better debut. They were like, “What’s Bird Box?” And so we spent another year and a half on that one and then, finally, sent her out.

When did you know that you wanted to write fiction for a living?

A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh MalermanJM: This is impossible for me to know. History in general is so vague and my own history reads like Technicolor display of fogs and bogs. I tried writing a novel when I was five. I failed at it. I tried other stuff. I don’t know. But there was a moment, maybe, when I’d just returned from a basketball tournament (I played in a travel league in high school) and we’d won the tournament by coming back from 11 down with a minute and a half to play in the final. The night we got home I fired up the computer in the den and wrote a thirty-five page retelling of the games. That was probably the moment for me. I was 17 years old. A thirty-five page story should’ve sounded impossible. But it didn’t. It was as electrifying as sex. Ran through me like crazed adrenaline. Like sneaking out of the house and meeting up with friends. Like smoking a cigarette in the woods. It was a “first” of some kind, all glory and legend to me now.

Why horror?

JM: Unlike politics, horror admits that it’s fiction. For that, I trust it.

If you had to choose an occupation other than writing, what would it be?

JM: Stage magician.

If you could give just one bit of advice to a fledgling author, what would it be?

JM: I’d tell a first timer to write a bad book. Go on and do it. And once you’ve written that book you’ll see it wasn’t bad at all, and you’ll start a second book with the confidence of having written the first. It’s the Theory of Momentum (for artists): you go go go, stay in motion, and the ripples you create may not deliver you what you planned on getting, but your motion will make something happen for you. Be sure of that.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given as an author?

JM: At a party in NYC I was told I ought to slow down or I was gonna “burn out.” That was 26 novels and 15 albums ago. Don’t tell someone they’re gonna burn out when they’re in love. Ask them what it feels like instead.

Who are some of your major influences?

JM: Mostly the guys and girls who write regularly, put out a movie or a book every year. The bands of the 60s were putting out two albums a year and we really got to watch them grow. Nowadays it’s a lot harder to pull that off. Why? The conglomerates? I guess so. It seems like only people who are either “outside” the system or have names as big as Mount Hood can release material with that sort of regularity. That sucks, eh? My influences have changed over the years. These days I can’t get enough of Jim Steinmeyer, who writes mostly about the history of stage magic from the 1800s till the mid-1900s. It’s the perfect blend of everything I’m into: dark arts, whispering red devils, illusions, fright, theatrics, and the thrill and wonder of art.

Josh Malerman Bird BoxDo you have a personal favorite author? If so, what is it about their work that appeals to you?

JM: I don’t have a particular favorite. It’s more like I’ve got a list of authors, enough to fill a dive bar. And we’re all together in there, whooping it up. Larry Bird is in there, too. So is Alfred Hitchcock and Harry Houdini and my Mom and so many friends I’ve made in this incredible life. They all appeal to me. They all make me wanna tell a joke, tell a story, turn the lights off and scare everyone silly. Then, when the lights come back on, me or Larry is standing on the pool table and everyone starts laughing again.

Is there one book in particular that you consider a personal favorite?

JM: Well yeah. Many. Right now I’m real nuts for Laura Lee Bahr’s Haunt. Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney has one of the greatest premises in town. But I like a lot of books. In fact, if I’ve read a thousand, I’ve liked 990 of them. I just like reading. And I understand how hard it is to write and to write well. I don’t have low standards, it’s not that. I just get real excited whenever I crack open a book and it would take a lot to turn that enthusiasm out.

Before we get into specifics about your career as an author, let’s talk about another significant aspect of your creative life. You’re the lead singer for the rock band, The High Strung. How did that come to pass?

JM: We’ve all been best friends since we were kids. Derek and Chad were playing music by ten years old and everybody in school knew how good they were. I was writing short stories, poems, and a weird comic book in which each page was a new character, with a full description and sloppy illustration. I remember watching Derek and Mark playing a Doors song one night at the camp lodge when we were all counselors. It was the first night I ever smoked grass and I just sat at a round table and pounded M&Ms thinking, “Wow, Derek and Mark really sound like the Doors!” And you know how it goes with friends, close friends, if one or two of you are into something you try to get the third into it or he just falls into it by proximity. So John (another friend who was playing) bought me a Farfisa organ and asked if I wanted to join up with him and Chad and Adam and then Derek, too, on drums. Chad taught me a C chord and from there I figured out a few more. But it wasn’t until Mark started singing those emo poems of mine over the organ and Derek’s drums that I realized, holy shit, I can write songs. If I wanna. People will tell you that a poem is not necessarily a song and, whatever, they’re right, but to me a song can also just be you banging on a lead pipe and crying out about whether or not your father is happy. So that was the “open door” moment for me. From there, I fell in love with it, just like I was already in love with writing. We played shows, we recorded a ton, and then Derek moved to NYC and Mark and I followed him out there because we figured Derek was the only drummer in the world who knew or liked our songs and also he was our best friend. I called Chad for months (he was still in school back in Michigan), trying to convince him to come join up. By then I was playing guitar and Chad is an incredible bass player and we just wanted him, you know? Badly. So Chad never said yes and then one day there’s a ring o’ the doorbell and Chad’s on our stoop in Brooklyn saying he’s in, let’s do it. By then we also had a fella named Jason Berkowitz in the band. So that was the start of the High Strung. Derek, Chad, Mark, Jason, and me. We were in NY when the Detroit garage thing exploded, we weren’t a part of any of that at all. And after playing a show in Ohio, we decided that the road was where we wanted to be. So we booked a three month run and that three month run turned into a 6 year run in which we had no apartments, no homes, nothing. Just the van, touring like truck drivers. By the sounds of all this you’d think we were in a punk band, but we weren’t. And yet… something punkish to us. We were always too rockin for the hippies and too happy for the punks.

Has that been a successful venture for you?

JM: We played our songs in different cities every night for 6 years. Yeah, “successful” isn’t a big enough word. It was a fantasy playing itself out. If the High Strung played 2000 shows, we probably played for a total of 40,000 people. About 20 people in the crowd per night. That might be generous. But I like to think that those six years added up to like one Pink Floyd reunion show and that makes me happy. We weren’t making real money, we weren’t really seeing any rise in sales or crowds or any of that stuff. I was writing novel after novel on the road and I wonder now… what kept us going? And then I think, “What could have possibly made us stop?” It was the grandest road trip ever staged. A 6 year carnival where we were paid in booze, met hundreds of friends, and wrote songs so fast that we had to practice them during sound checks for the first time. We saw America, all of it, and we were kind to people and we were funny and we played our hearts out. That road was magic for us. No money, no crowd, huge enthusiasm.

How does that mesh with your writing career? Do you feel that it enhances your creativity in any way?

JM: Well, once I wrote Wendy there was no turning back. I wanted to write another, and another, and on and on. Thing is, we were on the road. So… many of the early rough drafts were written in the passenger seat as Derek drove and Chad read in the back of the van. I’d hand out the rough drafts to other bands on the bill. I’d email them to a group of 20 or so friends. I know many of my friends still have the Bird Box rough draft, which was written entirely in italics (I was trying to be dreamy… and it worked), without any chapter breaks, no indentations, no quotation marks, and it clocked in at 113,000 words. Just an italicized brick of a nightmare. Experimental for sure. The released version is something like 68,000 words. But back then, I didn’t mind sending the roughest of rough drafts out. I still don’t. Want one? Working on one now.

I think the songs used to be short stories but now that I’m writing short stories I’m not sure what the songs are. I’m working on figuring that out. To really answer your question, they must enhance one another… the songs and the books. If they don’t, then I’m not paying enough attention, or not feeling the moment enough.


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Cover Reveal: A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman

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