Chilling Chat Writing to an Invisible Drummer: An Interview with Josh Malerman

 Josh Malerman is an American author and also one of two singer/songwriters for the rock band, The High Strung. Their song, “The Luck You Got,” is the theme song for the Showtime television program, Shameless.

Malerman authored the books, Bird Box, Black Mad Wheel, and Unbury Carol. He has been published in Cemetery Dance, Scary Out There, Chiral Mad, Lost Signals, Shadows over Main Street, and Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories. He resides in Michigan with his fiancée, Allison Laakko.

NTK: Thank you for chatting with me, Josh.

JM: And, thank you for having me. This is exciting.

NTK: Your book, Bird Box, is set to become a Netflix film starring Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich. How did Bird Box come about?

JM: The book started out as any other to me … that’s not to say that I’m writing a string of ideas that arranged on an assembly line, without emotion, but all I began with was a woman, blindfolded, two children in tow, rowing down a river. I just liked the image and started writing their story. This quickly led to … ”What are they fleeing? What can’t they see?” From there, I started thinking of old fears, things that scared me a lot growing up. One of those things was the idea of infinity and how man isn’t capable of comprehending it.

So, I thought, what if infinity were personified in a semi-abstract way. What if the concept arrived on Main Street?

From there the book exploded in my hands. A mother attempting to navigate a river without being able to open her eyes. The rough draft was written in some 26 days. And, while the rewrites took forever, I’ll forever cherish those 26 days and sometimes, I feel like I’m still living them now.

NTK: Does your writing often begin with a single image?

JM: Some of the stories do. A single image or a title can be enough to say, “Hey, go sit down and give this one a shot.” Because, if you’re writing from a “free” place, if your mind is wide open, then you’re probably going to see that small image or idea bloom in double time. I try to stay open to tangents at all times. I try not to stick so tight to the original idea. So, with this in mind, yeah, sometimes a single image can jumpstart the whole shebang.

NTK: You’re also a singer/songwriter for the rock band, The High Strung. How does this background affect your writing?

JM: Every time I write, I do so with an invisible drummer in the room. I’m at the desk, hammering away, always playing to the beat of this unseen musician just out of sight. Like the Wendigo, if the Wendigo played drums. I realize how bonkers this sounds but I really can’t seem to get away from him and I wouldn’t want to. Whether I have a record playing in the room, or a soundtrack going on YouTube or the radio … the drummer is the one giving me the beat for every story. And, I can’t help but think that, since I play a lot of rhythm guitar in the band, there’s gotta be a link there between the band and the books.

NTK: So, would you consider the drummer a muse?

JM: Hmm. I haven’t thought about it like that. But, I love the question. Not a muse. More like … we’re both turned on by the same muse. In fact, the drummer might catch sight of said muse first, start playing, then I fall in, typing over what he plays.

NTK: You’ve written many unpublished books while touring. Do your experiences make it into your novels?

JM: I was just talking to my bandmate, Mark, about this today. I’m sure some of the people we’ve met and the places we’ve been have made it into the books. But, it’s not usually intentional. You know, people say, “Write what you know,” but there’s no way not to do that. So, what I think people really mean to say is, “write the feelings you know.” And a lot of that comes from shared experiences, right? Things you’ve done with your best friends, your lovers, the people you’ve encountered in life. I think it would take you and me going through a book scene by scene for me to say, “Ah, yes! This scene here was from this time in Iowa and this scene here was from that night in Mississippi!”

NTK: Let’s go back to the Bird Box film. How did this come to pass? How were you approached?

JM: So, my manager sold the film rights before the book was published. It had already been picked up by ECCO/Harper Collins but hadn’t even been rewritten with them yet. So, there are parts that made it into the movie script that used to be in the book but aren’t anymore. That’ll be interesting for me to see in a theater. Universal Studios optioned the rights in 2013. Netflix bought it from them in 2017.

NTK: Were you consulted when the film was written?

JM: No. I had no part in the writing of the script. I was on the phone with the prospective screenwriters. Conference calls in which each screenwriter told me what they had in mind, with Universal on the phone to listen to us talk about it. But, that was just so Universal could gauge the individual visions. The script was written by Eric Heisserer. He wrote Arrival and others. Awesome guy. And, I knew very well what I was getting into. Talk about an unknown author—my first book wasn’t even out yet.

NTK: Stephen King is well known for his dislike of Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining and the casting of the film. Are you happy with the casting? Do you think Sandra Bullock will make a good Malorie?

JM: I’ll tell you the same thing I told her. If I had written the script, directed the movie, and starred in it myself, it still wouldn’t be the book. So, I’m glad it’s in her hands and not mine. I’m thrilled she’s playing Malorie. She’s a magnificent actress, and I can’t wait to see her in a horror movie. After watching her film a scene in person, I said to her, “That was intense, huh.” And she said, “The whole story is intense!” I’m excited about it all. The cast, the director, the cinematographer—all of it.

NTK: You were on set when the movie was filmed?

JM: My fiancé, Allison, and I flew to California in January. We went on set on the Universal lot. Saw a scene filmed outside, another filmed on a soundstage. It was incredible. I never felt like I didn’t belong, but I also never felt like “big man on campus.” It was all unforeseeably natural. If it’s true that a director dictates the mood of a set, then Susanne Bier is a warm, intelligent, hard-working, welcoming director. We loved every second of it.

NTK: Susanne Bier is a Golden Globe, Emmy, and Academy Award-winning director. It must’ve felt good knowing you’d entrusted your work to her.

JM: 100%. And, you know, who knows how it will turn out, right? Just like a book … you sit down with an idea, a vision, and let’s hope it soars, right? But, I’m optimistic. Everyone I met is so good at what they do and I know the story came from as pure a place as I’ve ever visited.

NTK: Are you excited about Netflix providing the distribution? Or would you rather the film appear in the theater?

JM: I’m told there’s going to be a theatrical release as well. I don’t know exactly what that means, how many cities, how long, etc. But, in any case, I’m happy either way.

NTK: When will the film be released?

JM: I hear it’ll be around December 21. I don’t know when the premiere is going to be yet, but Allison and I are hoping to bring both our moms. Which is a pretty funny image. Allison, me, our moms, all drinking on a plane to Los Angeles.

NTK: You had a book released in April. Could you tell us a little about Unbury Carol?

JM: Unbury Carol is the story of an impending premature burial and the balance of characters who both want this to happen and don’t. Carol Evers “dies” a couple times a year, when she slips into deep coma states. Because it’s a western of sorts, the instruments the doctors use aren’t sophisticated enough to detect her beating heart when she’s inside, what she calls, “Howltown.” The problem is … what if everyone thinks she’s dead? And then … what if she’s buried alive because of it? Well, there’s one fella who hears about her funeral but knows she isn’t dead. So, he travels north on the Trail in an attempt to bust up this unnatural burial. But, make no mistake! There is no Prince Charming in this book. And, Carol’s gonna have to get the hell out of Howltown on her own.

NTK: Are you a fan of westerns and horror?

JM: Yeah, for sure. I’d like to see more of them. It’s a great setting for a horror story because, one, it’s pre-technology, which leaves a lot of shadows to play with and, two, the “outlaw” is always so “tough” and it’s refreshing as hell to find him or her face to face with something scarier yet.

NTK: Do you have a favorite horror author or movie? What inspired you to write horror?

JM: I wouldn’t say I have a favorite. Of the last 156 books I’ve read, I adored 153 of them. Would give them all five stars. For whatever reason, I’m a little more discerning with movies, but really I’ve got a wide scope of what I’m into. I just love the genre in general. To me, horror admits that it’s fiction. And, for that, I believe it.

NTK: Do you have any advice for the writers out there whose books may be adapted to film? Or, any advice for writers in general?

JM: Well, I’m still early into the “adaptation” scenario. It’s hard for me to impart “advice” other than to say something my girl, Allison, taught me: every time you wanna use the word “nervous,” use “excited” instead. It’s changed my life. As far as advice for writers? Get rid of the words “good” and “bad.” Write a “bad” book for crying out loud. Don’t let silly blanket words stop you from writing a novel. How awful. Get that first draft done. Because what you would rather have? Three hundred pages that need to be fixed? Or, no pages at all?

NTK: What does the future hold for you? What do we have to look forward to?

JM: Well, the moment belongs to Unbury Carol. And I’m going to let her have it. But, come Halloween, I have a limited edition novel coming out on Cemetery Dance. It’s called, On This, the Day of the Pig. And, my second book with Del Rey comes out next April. I’m writing scripts for a horror theater production to be performed here in Michigan. And, The High Strung have a new album, to boot.

NTK: Thank you for chatting with me, Josh.

JM: Ah, THANK YOU. I’m excited for this.

This interview was  published in the June 2018 edition of the Horror Writers Association Newsletter and is reprinted with Editor Kathy Ptacek’s permission.

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