This is part two of Shane Douglas Keene’s interview with Josh Malerman. Malerman is the author of the breakout debut novel, Bird Box, and has stories published in the recent anthologies Lost Signals from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, and in Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories from Crystal Lake Publishing. He’s also got a story in the five author, shared title anthology, I Can Taste the Blood, out now from Grey Matter Press, and has a new novella, A House at the Bottom of a Lake, forthcoming right here from This Is Horror this fall.
There’s a rumor that The High Strung once left their tour bus on the front steps of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Is that true? If so, what were the circumstances that led up to that?
JM: We’d driven the same bus around the country ten or fifteen times and it was covered in graffiti and sharpie because we let anybody who wanted to write all over it. The inside was even crazier cause I’d written novel outlines on the ceiling and the walls and then I’d refer to those outlines while typing away in the passenger seat between, say, Iowa and Colorado. Well, when the time came that we needed a new van, Derek (our CEO!) suggested we scrap it for two hundred dollars. I was drinking wine with my mom and I drunkenly told her that I didn’t want to scrap the thing; I wanted to drive it through the front doors of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. She said, “That’s a little much. Why not leave it at the front door instead?” I shot up off the chair and called the boys and told them we ought to “donate” our tour van to the Hall of Fame. Derek made a plaque for the van, as if it were a legitimate exhibit, a real good looking plaque behind Plexiglas that detailed the mileage and said things like, “THIS CHEVY STEP VAN WAS USED BY THE HIGH STRUNG TO TOUR THE COUNTRY FIFTEEN TIMES…” and I wrote the Hall of Fame a letter. Mark drove the getaway bus (the new one) and we drove from Detroit to Cleveland, arriving at something like 3AM, and Derek was the only one with the backbone to actually drive the bus up the front concrete steps. We parked it there, Derek set out the plaque, and we took off, leaving it there looking like it could’ve possibly been displayed by the museum itself.
Weeks later I received an email from a Cleveland police officer. He asked if I was the guy responsible for leaving his bus on the steps of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He then said, “Don’t worry about it. We all thought it was a very funny prank. Send my daughter a t-shirt and we’ll sweep this under the rug.”
One of my favorite songs by the band, “The Luck You Got”, is the theme song for the Showtime Comedy/Drama Shameless, which means it’s been heard by a huge number of viewers. How cool is that?
JM: It’s amazing. I wrote that song outside an after party in Athens, Georgia. I brought Mark out to show him. I was worried it sounded too much like Billy Joel and he was like, “What? This doesn’t sound anything like Billy Joel.” When the show premiered I got together with a bunch of friends to watch it but I was too excited and the whole night was a bit blurry for me. And now, every time I see a cover of the song online, on youtube, I feel incredible and I write them how much I like their version. It’d be impossible to do a version I don’t like. It’s all incredible for us.
Do you listen to music—or anything else—while you write?
JM: I listen to movie soundtracks. I’ve got dozens of them on vinyl. Some of my favorites are Troll, Under the Skin, Creepshow, A Woman Walks Home Alone at Night, Chopping Mall. But the non-horror ones are good, too. You can write a hell of a scene to Out of Africa.
I wonder if maybe it’s time to start writing books to rock n’ roll radio. I’m looking for a “new drummer” behind the books… a new beat. We’ll see!
Your novel, Bird Box, was something of a phenomenon for a debut novel, enjoying remarkable success. Talk about that book just a bit if you don’t mind.
JM: When I was thirteen years old I was in science class and the teacher was talking about Infinity. He said, “If a man were to attempt to comprehend infinity, he would go mad.” This terrible idea haunted me for weeks. I remember sitting on the carpeted floor of the upstairs hall as my parents and brothers were getting ready for something and all I could think about was going mad. Don’t try to figure out where Time begins, I told myself. Don’t even attempt to understand where space ends! Years later I was struck with a vision of a blindfolded mother rowing two blindfolded kids down a river. I started writing it and about ten pages deep I paused and thought, “What are they fleeing? What can’t they look at?” The science teacher came sprouting up from the earth in my mind, admonishing, warning me about Infinity once again. “So they’re fleeing Infinity,” I thought. “A creature they can’t comprehend or it would drive them mad.” From there the book was written at 4,300 words a day and finished in 26 days.
I’ve always seen all the books as episodes of one bigger show. Maybe I’m that show, or maybe I’m the host. Either way, Bird Box is no bigger/better than Goblin, Merry Impresario, Pest, A Woman A Woman A Window, Howlsong, or any of the others. She’s just the first episode. My second book, Black Mad Wheel, comes out in May 2017 and feels like the perfect second episode of the show. Whereas Bird Box reads like a black and white book to me (not a black and white film, but a black and white book) Black Mad Wheel is more of an oil painting; deep greens and browns, blacks and reds. You can see the brushstrokes of the reds particularly. So, while I’ve been beyond thrilled with the reception of Bird Box and the people I’ve met through her coming out, all of that, I’ve had my eye on a bigger sequence, a career I suppose, the whole time. It used to be that I would interview myself, all alone, you know, about the books I was writing. I’d walk around the house asking myself questions and I’d give thoughtful answers. I scheduled pretend meetings with imaginary editors. I got into a heated debate with an imaginary manager. I saw all the books on shelves in my office (I also didn’t have an office back then) and I would leaf through them, these invisible stories, thrilled by the font that didn’t exist, the smell they didn’t make. Some would call that delusional. One time a friend asked to meet me at a bar and there she told me that I needed a plan B. I was 36 years old and I was writing a book every three months and yet I hadn’t shopped one, hadn’t got a lick of attention for any of them. She told me I should think about getting a real job, etc. Thing is, I’d imagined conversations just like this one already! Imaginary moments in which I made a stand about being a writer. How could she know that our conversation fit so perfectly into the delusional world I’d built? I think that conversation with her was a turning point for me. Not because I worked harder to spite her, I was already working every day, but because she had made manifest one of the many delusions I’d maintained. And if this one had come true … why not the other ones, too?
In addition to the sales success and general popularity of Bird Box, it was also nominated for the coveted Bram Stoker Award. Is that important to you? Were you disappointed that you didn’t win?
Awards are goofy. How can I vote for one book unless I’ve read every other book in the category? And what of the thousands of books that we just haven’t heard about? I don’t subscribe to “the cream will rise.” I’ve known too many brilliant writers who just have no idea who to give their stuff to. No idea where to start. Hell, I had no idea where to start either. So, awards, in the end, only represent that tiny fraction of books that have seen the light of day. To knight one of them, or anoint one “the Best,” isn’t a real process, title, or event. It’s all a bit embarrassing to me. Like the Oscars, the Grammies, or the Voice. Pageantry in art’s house. You know what’s it like? High school. “Best Smile.” Bird Box didn’t win for “Best Smile.” Who gives a shit? I know the fella who casted the losing vote for Bird Box. I met him and he accidentally told me he didn’t vote for her, though he doesn’t know that he revealed that to me. What am I supposed to do in a conversation like that? Ask him why he didn’t subjectively vote for my book so it could win an imaginary ribbon? It’d be like getting angry with my dog for barking at the front door when there was nobody there.
I have no interest in awards. Stokers or otherwise. But I’m 100%, all-in, all for the after-parties. And I love hanging/talking with other writers, artists, fans, people. Screw “Best Smile.” I’m interested in the girl who writes cause her pants are on fire and the only way to put out the flames is to go go go. I wanna talk books with her, whether or not she’s any good, whether or not she’s been published, whether or not she’s won any awards. Her smile is good enough for me.
In I Can Taste the Blood, the forthcoming anthology of novellas from Grey Matter Press, you had a chance to work with four other authors starting with a very unique premise. Talk some about that project.
JM: I’ve been a fan of John F. D. Taff from the minute I opened The End in All Beginnings. It’s no secret that he’s one of the best in the field. Even his emails are well written. I got the chance to eat lunch with him and his lady while at WHC and I loved him even more in person. Soon after that convention he sent me an email with a photo attached. It was a picture of some curious mens room graffit that read: I CAN TASTE THE BLOOD. He asked if I wanted to write a novella with that title, what I thought about five authors writing novellas, all using the same title and no link besides? I was thrilled. To date, my contribution to I Can Taste the Blood is one of my favorite things I’ve done and a lot of that has to be attributed to the spirit of what John started. I recently read J. Daniel Stone’s Blood Kiss and that book was outstanding, too, and so the whole collection, I Can Taste the Blood, is a real coming together, a mish-mash of very different writers. And yet… we’re all big spirits. Like we’re from the same tribe. Wear the same leather jackets. Worship the same moon.
Do you think you’d enjoy working on that sort of book again, or any other collaboration for that matter?
JM: Already talking to John and Tony (Grey Matter Press) about the next one. It’s a hell of a concept. Can’t wait.
Are you currently working on or planning any other writing projects you can share with us?
JM: Sure. The follow up to Bird Box (not a sequel) comes out in May, 2017. Black Mad Wheel is about members of the army band who are sent into the Namib Desert in Africa to locate the source of a really scary sound. Imagine musician-soldiers toting boom mics instead of guns. It’s thrilling, it’s strange, and like I said above, it’s a fitting episode two to whatever television series Bird Box began.
I’ve also got a novella coming out on Halloween through THIS IS HORROR. A House at the Bottom of the Lake is about two teens who, while on a date, discover a helluva lover’s clubhouse. Working on the script for that one now as well.
Also working on other scripts, short stories (one about Larry Bird haunting a kid in his room at night), and rewriting what I hope will be book 3 right now.
Where do you see yourself as an author/musician in five years? Any solid goals you hope to attain?
JM: In five years? I’d like to have ten books out. I’d like to be working on another one. I’d like to live on a lake with Allison and Valo (our dog) and our cats. I’d LOVE to put out a triple album, too, with the band, some kind of big story told in very small songs. Every year on my birthday I say, “Two more books and one more album by this time next year.” If I can maintain that for the next five years and beyond, great. I’m happy when I’m working. And I don’t believe in inspiration. Inspiration is an inverse monster: it haunts you by not showing up, by keeping you waiting, by making you look everywhere for it. I don’t trust it. Write every day instead.
Any other exciting news or information you want to share with us before we wrap this up?
JM: I just wanna thank you. The questions were wonderful and you really got me thinking about the past, the band, the books… all good stuff for me to be thinking about. Thanks, Shane.
Thank you Josh, for sharing your thoughts with us.
SHANE DOUGLAS KEENE