- Oct 05, 2018
Finding success in any line of work is challenging, even more so when a relative has already established
themselves in your chosen field.
So, it isn't hard to understand why American horror writer Joseph Hillstrom King – son of legendary author Stephen King – made the switch to pen name Joe Hill before launching his own writing career.
"My father is just about the most famous living writer in the English language, and I was haunted by the idea that I might write a terrible book, and it would get published anyway because I had a famous last name," explained Hill.
Sometimes, he added, he toys with the idea of writing a novel about his dad, musing: "I’d reimagine his life as a Methodist preacher in backwoods Maine. But that is probably too weird a story to write, even for me."
He managed to keep his identity under wraps for a decade, during which time he wrote four novels he was never able to sell and collected close to a thousand rejections. This ten- year period also saw Hill successfully publish four novels - Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, NOS4A2 and The Fireman – along with two collections of short stories titled 20th Century Ghosts and Strange Weather. He is also the author of the comic book series Locke & Key for which he won an Eisner Award.
"It was hard to get a career going, but I wanted it to be hard. I wanted it to be real. I needed to know that when I sold a story, I sold it for the right reasons, because an editor loved it. I didn’t shatter the literary universe, but I sold a few short stories to good magazines, and won some prizes, and got in a couple of ‘best of’ collections. More importantly, I learnt my craft and developed my own voice," said the writer.
It was 2007 that saw Hill publicly confirm his identity after an article in a 2006 edition of Variety broke his cover. Although rumours regarding his background had been circulating since 2005.
By the time that happened though, Hill had gained more than enough independent success, including receiving a number of esteemed honours and awards like the Ray Bradbury Fellowship, the Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection, British Fantasy Award for Best Collection and the International Horror Guild Award for Best Collection – all for 20th Century Ghosts. Other awards include the AE Coppard Long Fiction Prize as well as the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella for Voluntary Committal.
Like many writers, Hill's interest in writing was sparked at a young age and further encouraged by his parents' profession (his mother Tabitha is also an esteemed writer).
"When I came home from school in the afternoon, my mother would be in her offce, clattering away at this tomato-coloured IBM Selectric typewriter, telling her stories. My father would be in his offce on an early computer, the Wang Word Processor, telling his," said Hill.
"By the time I was twelve, I just thought that was what you were supposed to do with your free time. You sat down for a few hours every day to make things up, and if you kept at it, sooner or later someone would pay you a lot of money. Which turned out to be true."
All this, along with growing up playing roleplaying games with his friends and watching horror flms with his siblings, served to feed his imagination and talent for inventing fantasy narratives. King doesn't attribute any single moment as triggering his choice to write horror though, and instead, credits several instances.
"Sometimes I think it's because I spent some time, as a child, on the set of one of my father’s films, hanging out with Tom Savini, the famous makeup FX man behind the most gruesome bits of Friday the 13th and Dawn of the Dead,” he said.
"Other times I think I fell in love with horror reading the hardcover reissues of Tales from The Crypt, a famous gross-out comic from the 1950s that was so disturbing and scary it led to government hearings. And then still other times I think I wound up writing frightening fiction for functional reasons – if you can create a powerful sensation of suspense, you can keep people reading. Suspense is the glue that holds your audience in their seat."
WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT
Writing a novel is hard work, undoubtedly. It involves imagination, research, dedication and a lot of revision, so saying that this is a difficult skill to acquire is hardly a stretch. And the process of any writer differs from person to person.
For Hill, this process involves writing at least 1,500 words a day which is the mental equivalent of a good hard run in his books.
"Sometimes that takes four hours and sometimes it takes forty-fve minutes. I start in the morning and I don’t eat lunch until I’m done," he said.
"I like a sentence which has a little music in it, a sense of lightness and zip. But I try to avoid writing sentences that feel quotable. A sentence that really jumps off the page also has the effect of yanking the reader out of the story. Plus, trying to blow people out of the water with every sentence comes off as insecure."
When it comes to research though, he prefers to absorb basics by reading a book or two before cranking out one draft after the other with the most important part of a story being a character that excites and interests enough to keep the story going, according to him.
"If you don’t have a great central character – someone with regrets, unique ideas about the world, secret desires – you don’t have anything. My novel NOS4A2, for example, has a pretty good hook: it’s about a wicked man who has a car that runs on human souls instead of gasoline," he said, adding that the sparks for this novel came from his Triumph Bonneville with the classic 1960s era styling, a motorcycle he bought from his frst advance over twenty years ago, and one which he still rides.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Ask most writers what their day-to-day challenges are, and you'll get many groaning the phrase "writer's block". Hill says he doesn't believe in the concept, saying that writer’s block is always about the same thing.
"There’s something your unconscious wants you to write about, and you’re resisting, because the subject embarrasses you, or makes you uncomfortable, or frightens you. When you reject that subconscious direction, you’re really turning off the idea spigot.
"Ultimately I don’t believe a writer gets to decide on his or her own material. Their material chooses them. If you don’t accept it, you’re left with nothing to write about," he added.
The trick is to accept that writing asks you to jump in for the long haul, where no single good day gets a novel written. Similarly, he added, a single bad day doesn't stop the novel either.
"It takes a long time to write a novel, and, to be honest, your frst novel probably won’t be publishable. It will be a work full of clichés, uninspired characters, and unlikely plot developments," he said.
And if it's a lack of inspiration that's getting to you, Hill has a clear philosophy on that as well, saying: "An actress once asked Alfred Hitchcock what her motivation was, and he said her pay check. It’s a job. I don’t sit around hoping something will inspire me. That’s a recipe for getting nothing written."
And if he couldn't write, he mused that he'd probably be the proud owner of a failing movie theatre, with him being good at only one part of the business - wearing a waistcoat.
"When you own an American movie theatre, you’re practically required to wear a waistcoat to work. I look good in waistcoats," he added.
At the time of the interview, Hill was 100 pages into a new novel but is superstitious enough to not share anymore on it than that. "The only way to finish is to shut up, put your head down, and keep going," he said.
For more information about his upcoming works, visit joehillfction.com