Welcome to part two of our interview with Joe Hill. Part one with Joe Hill.
This Is Horror News Editor Dan Howarth caught up with Joe Hill at the Twisted Tales signing event at Waterstones in Liverpool One. Joe was over in the UK on a seven date signing tour to promote his new novel NOS4R2. Dan took the opportunity to sit down with Joe and ask him about female protagonists, vampire mythology and horror in general.
For the full audio of the interview (and pre-interview banter) and a brief review of the event as a whole check out Episode 009 of the This Is Horror podcast.
In terms of Charlie Manx, what was it that inspired you to share your take on the vampire mythology and the culture that some would say has been overdone?
JH: That was part of where I was coming from when I started writing about Charlie. It was this feeling that conventional vampire stories are completely played out and I didn’t want to write one. So, Charles Talent Manx III has been alive for over a century, and the way he has kept himself fit and young is with the help of his 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith which is a car which runs on human souls instead of gasoline. By draining the spirits of his passengers out of them – siphoning out that spirit – he can put it into himself and keep himself alive. I wanted to write a story about someone who operates like a vampire – who feeds off others – but I wanted to steer away from the obvious tropes. I didn’t want him to drink blood. I didn’t want him to have to sleep on dirt. I didn’t even want him to think of himself as a vampire. He has a licence plate that says NOS4R2, or 4A2 in the American title, and if you sound it out it spells Nosferatu. He’s got that licence plate on his car as a joke. I wanted him to be frightening and I don’t think what we are left with, with vampires [in pop culture] is very frightening or impressive. I don’t know how they got sexy, it seems to me there is nothing very sexy about a mosquito or a leech and that’s what a vampire is. I don’t think sleeping on dirt is particularly erotic. I don’t completely understand why they’re all hanging out in high schools these days. My impression was if you were in college and you went cruising the high schools looking for a date that was pretty skeevy. These guys are way past college, they’re like six or seven hundred years old now.
So there is in NOS4R2 a retelling of Dracula, if Dracula was a car instead of a person. We have our central bad guy; we have a Renfield figure in Bing Partridge – The Gas Mask Man. My hero Vic McQueen is kind of haunted and shattered like Jonathan Harker but is still heroic. Vic has dealings with a punk rock librarian named Margaret Leigh, who is kind of a Van Helsing figure. We have an analogue to Mina in Vic’s son Wayne. So the gender roles are reversed, and I messed around with ages and times and the whole mechanism of vampirism works differently. But if you scratch at the surface enough its kind of like a car that has a new paint job – you can see the old car underneath it which is a lot of the same elements Bram Stoker was playing with.
You touched on Vic McQueen there, this is the first time you’ve used a female lead in one of your books. I thought she was an incredibly strong character, I don’t know about you but I thought if this was going to be filmed I was thinking this character is Jennifer Lawrence.
JH: Wouldn’t Jennifer Lawrence be terrific? Wouldn’t she be great?
She’d be fantastic. I was wondering, you talked about changing the gender of people involved in Dracula, was that a conscious decision to have her at the forefront of the book or was that something that came naturally once the character came into your head?
JH: Well I had done a novel called Heart-Shaped Box about a fifty-something heavy metal musician, male. I did a story called Horns about a guy in his early twenties who grows devil horns and acquires all the powers of a demon. I wrote a book of short stories 20th Century Ghosts; there are fifteen stories in it. Every lead character is male. My whole career was starting to look like this one big sausage party. On those grounds alone I thought it was time to write about a female character, also I’m a single parent and I think that the monster in the closet is frightening – the bogeyman under the bed is scary but parenting is terrifying because every day there is a new opportunity to screw it up. The world is full of sharp edges that are just waiting to scar your child and there is only so much you can do to protect them. I wanted to write about that and I decided I wanted to write about a mother instead of a father as I wanted to do something with gender that was different to what I had done in the past. I wanted to have that female lead; also I wanted to write about aspects of motherhood that aren’t often discussed especially in genre fiction. Usually in genre fiction a mother character is there to pull muffins out of the oven and to dispense wisdom. But I wanted to write about someone who loved her child but was maybe a reluctant mother; maybe being a mother wasn’t her first choice.
There is an element of taboo about how she looks at her child. As if she’s thinking “this wasn’t the life that was meant for me”.
JH: Absolutely. Vic has artistic ambitions; she has bouts of depression and paranoia that she has wrestled with. She has a whole broken history of mistakes and regrets that she wishes she could take back. She has a problematic relationship with her own mother and those are all things I wanted to explore. I wanted to say she is a mom but motherhood is not the only thing that defines her and that felt like something important to explore.
JH: When I was growing up that was a big James Cameron thing. I love James Cameron’s films. One of the first works of art I became truly obsessed with was Aliens which I saw over and over again. Later I bought the script; I read the script several times and then deconstructed it to try to figure out why it worked. In many ways Vic McQueen is a very James Cameron type protagonist. She is very much of the same mould as Ripley or Sarah Connor.
As with some of your previous novels, the family at the centre of NOS4R2 is fractured and troubled. Is that a reflection of something else that is ongoing at the moment?
JH: Do I wanna unload? No – I’ve been very happy. I came from a great happy family, a very close tightly knit family. It’s true I wound up a divorced guy but I’m still real close friends with my ex and things have worked out well with the kids. I think that structurally it’s tough to write about happy people, if you start with a character that has everything and is really happy and content then you have to spend twenty pages taking it all away. Best to start with someone who is already damaged. It’s a little disappointing to say but it’s just happy characters don’t make for interesting fiction. I certainly hope that most of my readers are happy people but when they sit down they want to explore a more extreme emotional environment.
Of course, it’s always good to get that little break away from your own happy life.
JH: You can always walk away from a really harrowing story and think “boy I have it easy”. But more than that I think even if your life is really happy or you are very content, we turn to fiction to explore some feelings and stuff in the safe playground of make believe that we don’t want to explore in every day life but sometimes have to. Most of us aren’t going to face a pitiless remorseless monster like Hannibal Lecter that wants to eat our liver with fava beans. But some of us will have to face cancer in our life which might want to eat our liver, and will come for our life whether we like it or not. No amount of pleading or begging will turn off that disease.
When we turn to a story like a Silence of the Lambs or a NOS4R2 or whatever we’re reading it’s partially emotionally rehearsal but it’s also a way to begin preparing an answer to that question “what would I do if I was in a real corner? What if I was facing a real bad situation?” No one wants to lose a loved one but so many stories are about loss and that’s because people need to deal with it, people need to deal with that possibility before it happens and then after it happens they need to deal with it even more. Fiction gives us a zone that we can go to that is very safe and protective. Where even if we’re reading a terrifying, horrible action scene or something where someone is getting attacked, you can just put the book down and walk away and come back to it which you can’t do in real life. Furthermore I think most of us can say this is terrible, this is terrible – I’m loving it! Flying through the pages to find out what happens next because it’s also exciting and on some level you’re aware it’s play. So that’s one way in which I think fiction is very healthy.
We would like to extend our thanks to Joe Hill for giving up his time in his busy signing schedule and also to Jon Weir for his help in making this interview happen.
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