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
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
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
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
"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,”
"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
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
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
"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