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Interview: Joe Hill

March 20, 2012 1:09 p.m.

Cinema Junkie Guest Blogger Miguel Rodriguez interviews writer Joe Hill.

Related Story: Interview: Joe Hill


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: This is Miguel Rodriguez reporting from WonderCon 2012 here at the Anaheim Convention Center, and I’m very excited to be sitting here with one of my new favorite authors. I’m going to have him introduce himself and talk about some of his work.

JOE HILL: Hi, I’m Joe Hill, and I’m the author of Locke and Key, which is an ongoing creepy comic book, and I’m also a novelist. I’ve written a few books—Heart-shaped Box, Horns, and a collection of short stories 20th Century Ghosts.

MR: First things first, I wanted to talk about—as far as the difference between writing prose and writing comics—what do you think some of the key differences are, and which do you prefer?

JH: Well, I don’t prefer one more than the other. They both have their challenges and they both have their pleasures. I was a failed novelist for about a decade. For me, I was actually a comic book writer before I was a novelist. I wrote two or three books I couldn’t sell to save my life. I spent three years on one novel that was turned down everywhere from New York, to England, to, for an extra kick in the pants it was turned down in Canada. But I was lucky enough; I started to have some success with short stories. One of my short stories was noticed by a talent scout at Marvel Comics. I wound up doing a Spider-Man story for them. And that was really my first big professional break, and that happened well before my first novel was published, Heart-Shaped Box. Later, I had some fortunate success with the novels, and it allowed me to return to the comic books world and work on one of my dream projects which has been Locke and Key.

MR: How did you get connected with IDW (Publisher of Locke and Key)?

JH: IDW had started to work with a lot of young writers who wrote genre fiction, and they started to take their short stories and adapt them to comic book form. They’d done this with a writer named Corey Doctorow, who’s done a lot of science fiction. They were interested in doing the same thing with my short stories, and they were especially interested in a short story called The Cape. When they came to me, I had had this pitch for Locke and Key sitting around for a while. It was something Marvel had passed on and some other people had passed on, and that had remained in my mind that I thought was an interesting fresh idea, a fresh take on the classic sort of New England ghost story. And I said, “Well instead of doing my short stories, what about doing this one instead. I would love to write this for you.” And they gave me the opportunity, and it’s been a blast ever since.

MR: The artist on Locke and Key is Gabriel Rodriguez. What’s it like working with him as a collaborator?

JH: Locke and Key is not my story, it’s our story. The plot of Locke and Key is there’s a 250-year-old New England mansion called Keyhouse, and scattered throughout it are these impossible keys, each key with a separate power. The house and the keys have been watched over by the Locke family for generation after generation. This is a story that, while the original plot began with me, this is a story that I have developed with Gabe very much as a co-collaborator, and at this point we’re like an old married couple where he finishes my sentences, and we complete each other’s ideas. Sometimes the best way I can describe the effect he’s had on me is I learned as much about the characters from the way Gabe drew them as he ever learned from me about anything I wrote about them. So it’s been a very satisfying kind of collaboration.

MR: I think that comes out in the artwork. A particular example in Locke and Key where I do is that is the key that allows you to look inside someone’s mind. The imagery with it is strangely both intriguing and terrifying.

JH: Yeah.

MR: How much of the way that looks—when you can see someone without the top of their head—how much of that was you and how much was Gabe?

JH: So there is a key, one of the keys, arguably the most powerful of them is called The Head Key, and you stick it in the back of a person’s neck and you can unlock the top of their head. Inside is their imaginary world. It’s a kind of inscape. All their memories, all their emotions, all their experiences are in there in one form or another, running through the great landscape of their unconscious. When we see the inside of a child’s head, we see this kind of Disneyland. The sky is full of creatures out of video games, giant dinosaurs are running around, and it’s wonderful. We see inside the head of this sociopath Dodge, and it’s horrifying. It’s something out of Bosch, and Gabe is a master of layout so he really brings those worlds to life. I work with him about what’s in those heads and stuff, but ultimately those rich visuals are all his.

MR: The imagery is absolutely striking, and to go with such a clever concept it is a perfect marriage. And speaking of something like that, there’s a lot of really interesting visuals of people looking into their own heads.

JH: Yeah (laughs).

MR: As far as a medium, what do you think makes comics unique? What can they give in terms of storytelling that other mediums can’t?

JH: Hmm, well, obviously you have the visual; you have the pleasures of illustration. You also have the ability to create suspense in an interesting—instead of a movie where you have sound effects and you have flowing visuals, you have a series of static frozen visuals, and each of those visuals can have a weird iconic power over the reader. So there’s that, but I also think that comics are a branch of literature, and that the things that comics offer really aren’t all that far afield from the things that novels offer. In the 19th century, novels were often told in episodes. Dickens wrote in episodes. You didn’t buy Little Dorrit as a book; you bought it like it was like TV before TV. And those stories were illustrated. They had the Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories—everyone knew what Sherlock Holmes looked like because they had the glorious Sidney Paget illustrations. Later, in the early 20th century, I think the pleasures of episodic storytelling and visual storytelling were largely abandoned by writers, and I think that that was a mistake. The attitude was those things were for children. But, in comics, the combination of words and images and episodic storytelling continued. I love America’s history of comic books. I love comic books as a pure form. But I also feel it’s very Victorian in a way, to tell a story in bursts.

MR: This applied to Horns, which I read and loved. It applied to Locke and Key, as well. But really, I’m going to say it applies to The Cape. When I first read that first issue, it’s very rare that a comic will make my jaw hit the floor. There’s a very horrifying scene in that comic, so it makes me wonder—what are some of your earliest memories of something scary or something horror in art or genre.

JH: The Cape comes on like it’s going to be a beautiful story of childhood nostalgia, and then at the end it turns out to be Henry: Portait of a Serial Killer if the dude could fly. I love to reverse a reader’s expectations that way. I think the sudden reversal—the judo move—is always one of the great pleasures of reading genre fiction, maybe any fiction. In terms of what scared me as a kid. . .I remember watching Salem’s Lot on TV, and I was really creeped out by that kid floating outside the window scratching on the glass. That was one that gave me bad dreams.

MR: I had that same nightmare actually. What’s on your DVD or bookshelves right now?

JH: Well, probably my favorite writer of the moment is the young novelist David Mitchell, who wrote The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. He wrote Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas. The Wachaowski Brothers, probably mistakenly, are adapting Cloud Atlas as a film. I actually think that the book is probably unfilmable, but best of luck to them. So David Mitchell is probably the guy I’m reading who I’m most excited about. In terms of what I’m watching, oh let’s see . . . Breaking Bad. We’re in sort of a golden age of television, and I think that Breaking Bad sort of epitomizes the possibilities of—a lot of TV shows starting with The Sopranos and going on have become novels for television. Big stories full of character and dense plot. I love that kind of thing.

MR: Our house is desperately awaiting season 4 of Breaking Bad on DVD.

JH: Yeah, I’m only up through the first two seasons. I need to watch season 3 before I get to season 4.

MR: Oh, you’re in for a ride!

JH: I’m looking forward to it, very much.

MR: You’re at WonderCon. What are you doing to survive as far as food and water and basic necessities in a place like this?

JH: Today they’ve had me running from event to event and I’m going to have to run in a second I can see, but it’s been a blast. There’s a lot of stuff to look at, but there’s also room to breathe, which is nice because you know the biggest convention San Diego Comic Con is a blast, but an absolute crush. Anyway, thanks so much for talking to me, I enjoyed it!