A Conversation With Josh Malerman


Credit: Josh Malerman

In his debut novel, Josh Malerman examines an apocalyptic world in which humans are terrorized by unseen forces.  These “monsters” are completely invisible to the naked eye, but if your gaze happens to fall upon one, the consequences include possession, violence, and eventually, suicide.  To survive, the characters wear blindfolds to protect their vision, but the full capabilities of the unseen creatures are still a mystery, so the world of Bird Box is one of chaos, fear, paranoia, and desperation.  If horror is your preferred genre, you NEED to read Bird Box.

As a debut novelist and singer/songwriter/musician for the band The High Strung, Josh Malerman has a lot of creative energy, and luckily we were able to briefly chat with him about his double career in music and literature.  What follows is a conversation about creativity, fear, inspiration, and the psychological motivations behind his spectacular novel:

TE: Who is Josh Malerman?

JM: I’m a man, who was once a boy, who fell deeply in love with fiction, with horror, and (later) with music. I believe you can’t be an artist unless you finish works of art. I can’t watch television anymore because I saw behind the curtain (or whatever the current phrase is that means: saw through it) and now even the show credits feel too planned, too stylized, and like they’re for somebody else. It worries me that our most popular musicians are usually good looking, too. What are the odds, I think, that the greatest artists of our generation are also the best-looking people? Will somebody run the numbers on that for me? It worries me also when people say, “He’s a great artist and he knows how to market himself. He’s the whole package.” I side with the artist who doesn’t know how to market himself, who isn’t very good at that sort of thing at all, who’s so madcap moved by songs, movies, and books that he hasn’t put any time Bird-Boxinto anything else. I’m an extreme optimist (most the time.) I’m neither Democrat or Republican. That shit’s embarrassing. Politics are the adult WWF. I believe in monsters. I believe in momentum. I worry that I stopped maturing at around age 14, but I also don’t mind that if it means I get to spend the rest of my life with the awesome open mind of a 14 year old boy.

TE: You’re in a band, right? Could you tell us a bit about your music and what led you to the world of fiction writing?

JM: In a way, the writing led to the music. My best friends had been playing music since we were about ten years old. Derek Berk played drums, Chad Stocker played bass, Jon Gornbein played drums, too. They were the musicians in school and I was one of the runners, track and cross country. But I wrote, too. I tried writing scary stories in middle school, high school. Stories about models with two glass eyes. Cannibals who ate cars to get at the people. I wrote poems, too. And one day a great friend of ours, Mark Owen, he picked up some of my poems and began singing the words over some music the other guys were playing and I thought, Wait! I’ve been writing songs this whole time! It got real fun from there. Learning the guitar, learning the organ. We started a band. Our first album had all kinds of dark songs (“There is Someone Beneath the Ground,” “Serum 51”) but eventually the songs got more playful, and the fiction, the stories got better, more colorful while they were getting darker. The blue was bluer, the black more black. Some members of the band (myself included) moved to New York City. That’s where we really got started. The High Strung. Recorded a ton. Hit the road for a long time… close to 6 years I think. Toured like dreidels. And all the while I was trying to write novels. I failed at ‘em for a while and by “failed” I mean that I couldn’t finish ‘em. You know that feeling? Bad feeling. I made it 300 pages into a story called A Silo Maid. A hundred into Moxie Bravo (which we later used as the title of our second album.) Fifty into George Wax, Man of Wax. But we were having so much fun playing our songs, touring, that it didn’t really start eating away at me until it did and then I tried to break the curse by writing two novels at once. Bad idea, but it worked. I made it two pages into one of the story ideas and then exploded through the other one, finishing the rough draft (and my first book, Wendy) in 28 days. What a feeling. What a joy. And from there I experienced a sort of… I’m not sure what to call it. The doors were opened to me then. I was invited in. This is where we finish books, someone said. This is the place to go where you can line up all your books on an imaginary shelf and count ‘em. You can interview yourself here. You can really be an author in here and never feel ashamed or weird or like you’re not. Never again. Not in here! Delusions are welcome. Please, delude yourself! Here you are a success by virtue of finishing your books. Here you are an artist by virtue of finishing works of art. I spent a long time in that room. I’m writing to you from inside that room right now.

TE: Creatively speaking, what’s the biggest difference between writing a song and writing a piece of fiction? And which do you enjoy more?1002519_10151591390026732_1098779807_n

JM: I think writing an album is a similar marathon to writing a novel. You can get real excited when you got the first couple songs written, those first few miles under your belt, and you might think “I’ve practically got an album here.” Same goes with the first 10,000 words of a book. “Who would turn their back on 10,000 words?” But then you reach this middle area… where both shorelines feel very far away… you can no longer see the beginning and you can’t see the end and you almost get scared out there. But I’ve learned a few tricks, you know, ways to keep from freaking out. It seems like Time is going to pass either way, so if you do a little of it every day suddenly it gets done. I love ‘em both the same. Books and songs.

TE: There are a number of terrifying elements in Bird Box, but the characters’ inability to see their predators is the most unsettling. This idea of the “invisible monster” is not uncommon in literature (I’m thinking of ghost stories and supernatural tales like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House), yet there is something uniquely unsettling about this scenario. What do you think it is about vision deprivation that resonates with the human psyche so deeply? And how did you go about incorporating such a variety of psychological responses?

JM: I think most of us believe what we see and so without the proof afforded by sight we really might not know what to make of the sounds we hear on, say, a river in Michigan in October. Thing is, I used to cover my eyes during scary movies. I got too scared and I thought, I’ll just kinda peek through my fingers. But my fiancée showed me that if you cover your ears all these scary images lose 90% of their power. That’s interesting, yeah? Try it out with the next scary movie you see. I mean, only if you’re a nervous wreck like us.

I wasn’t as stuck on seeing things while writing Bird Box as I was interested in the idea of Infinity scrambling the mind. I remember being a kid, sitting upstairs in the hall, sitting on the carpet with my back to the wall while my family all got ready for a night out, dinner and dessert. I started thinking about where Time began and where Space ends and I got really frightened. I must have been 12 or 13 and my brothers were walking back and forth and mom and dad were getting dressed and I just couldn’t quit thinking about these concepts that were too lofty for us to understand. I guess it was that evening that Infinity became something of a monster to me and so… much later in life, writing, I was thinking about it again. I thought, What if Infinity were an actual entity that could approach your 1380805_10151720069556732_2044524177_nhouse? Knock on the front door? That scared me. So… the blindfolds in the book were a simple defense against this. If you could go mad by viewing something, don’t view it, yeah? It wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I realized I’d been writing about a thing, sight, that we use so often in the horror-context. The gruesome images. The splatters! The thing in the corner. The thing in the bed. And here I was, whittling away at a story that removed sight from the equation. I sat back in the chair and thought about that for a while. Then I wrote the rest.

TE: What do you imagine the “monsters” in your book look like?

JM: I don’t know them any better than Malorie does.

TE: Movie adaptations of novels (especially thrillers) are quite popular these days. In your mind, what would a film adaptation of Bird Box look like? Or do you think it’s even possible?

JM: I’d love it if the director included long periods of complete blackness. I keep thinking of the sound systems in today’s theaters. It’d be incredible to be in a pitch black theater… the sound of the river centered… the Boy to your left… the Girl to your right… Malorie talking… sticks cracking… something in the water. I’ve never seen a horror movie use the theater darkness before and I think it’d be a real innovative thing to do. Us horror fans would love [it].

TE: You’ve mentioned the possibility of a sequel to Bird Box. Is that something we can look forward to?

JM: I’d be up for it. But I’ve got too many ideas for a sequel to be the second book I put out. Let’s just say not yet. I don’t think I need to wait twenty years to do it either, but just not yet. Maybe five or six books from now. Maybe not. We’ll see.

TE: What books, films and music have inspired you as an author?

JM: I love Dr. Seuss. John FD Taff. The Kinks. Horror movie soundtracks are big in our house. We’ve got a great collection. Some of my favorites are Vertigo, Creepshow, Chopping Mall, Insidious, The Thing, The Twilight Zone, so many of them. You know, it’s not easy answering a question like this. I certainly don’t want to write just like someone else. Nobody wants to do that. And yet, we don’t really have to worry about that, do we? The novel is so panoramic, so wide, that it’d be impossible to hide whoever you are. You might think you’ve found a place to hide but it just doesn’t exit. If you and I were given a detailed outline of a story to write, the same outline, it would be the little things that gave away our individual worldviews. Whether you said the sun was rising or climbing. Whether your said it was dark or it was night. So, it’s hard sometimes to name what influenced you when you understand that you’re incapable of aping somebody else completely and it’s just as hard to say what’s inspired you when you born that way. Born Inspired. Even the old price in the corner of old paperbacks inspire me. Just like the typesetting from the 80s does. I love the genre and therefore, in a way, I love it all.

Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box is published by Ecco Press and is now available in paperback wherever fine books are sold.  You can learn more about Josh Malerman by visiting his Facebook page

About Karli Cude

Karli Cude, previous moderator of Hooked Bookworm, is an avid reader and former bookseller. She graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in English Literature in 2010 and completed a Master’s degree in Library and Information Sciences in 2013.