Interview: Joe Hill, Author Of 'The Fireman' Novelist Joe Hill's latest, The Fireman, is an apocalyptic plague tale about a pathogen that makes sufferers explode. He says his father Stephen King has had a great influence on his storytelling.
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Joe Hill On 'Fireman,' Family And ... Fart Cookies?

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Joe Hill On 'Fireman,' Family And ... Fart Cookies?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Novelist Joe Hill has a pronouncement to make.

JOE HILL: The world is really divided into two kinds of people - people who adore plague novels and wimps.

MARTIN: Joe Hill's newest apocalyptic plague novel puts me firmly in the first camp. Here's the premise. A highly contagious pathogen is burning across the country. It's known as Dragonscale for the lovely black and gold marks that appear on your body. Eventually, though, you'll burst into flames.

The heroine of the book is a school nurse named Harper who is infected and pregnant. She is determined, however, to survive her pregnancy. And she knows there's a chance the baby will be born healthy. I ask Joe what it was about Harper that hooked him.

HILL: You know, I'm not sure exactly why I settled on her. I know I wanted to write about pregnancy. I do think it's kind of interesting, the idea of a life forming inside you and hijacking your body's biology to serve its own ends. And when I began to think about the Dragonscale as this kind of living organism painted on your skin that's making use of your biology, I saw a connection to that.

So I sort of wanted to explore almost the way this one woman's body has become a battleground between two opposing forces. The other thing is is Harper is very sunny and optimistic. And so many end of the world stories are grim and bleak, which is totally understandable 'cause it's sort of a grim subject.

But I like the idea of this plague as an unstoppable force pouring over the nation. And I sort of had this picture of Harper as the immovable object that it would dash itself against.

MARTIN: She's got a horrible husband.

HILL: Yes.

MARTIN: She leaves him, and she's out on her own for a little while.

HILL: Yeah. Her husband, Jacob, is this narcissistic wannabe writer who dreams of being on NPR someday and being - I have no idea where he came from or whatever. But she does get out from his clutches and encounters the Fireman, an almost mythic figure to the infected. He's also carrying the contamination. But somehow, he's mastered it and can actually use fire as a weapon to protect the helpless. It's kind of a superhero story.

MARTIN: He introduces her to this community of...

HILL: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Survivors. They are all afflicted. But they have learned to channel this power. It does become a kind of power.

HILL: Right.

MARTIN: Explain what they learn about their disease.

HILL: They've learned that certain group communal activities that bring happiness - that bring a sensation of approval - social approval - sort of shuts the Dragonscale down. And it actually causes it to glow like fluorescent paint and gives you a great natural high.

And when Harper first gets to Camp Wyndham, it is a happy place of benevolent where people support each other. Mishaps arise and the camp turns toxic and dangerous and suspicious. Everyone there is suspicious of each other. And it was really a chance to write about both the positive sides of social networks and the negative sides of social networks. I mean, weirdly, Camp Wyndham is - could sort of be Twitter.

MARTIN: OK. So I want to read, actually, a little bit of the epigraph at the beginning of the book. This is where you give tribute to the people who inspired you. You thank Ray Bradbury, from whom I stole my title.

HILL: Right.

MARTIN: And my father, from whom I stole all the rest. At this point, we should acknowledge that your dad is also a writer.

HILL: Yep. I just finished reading his last book, which was a thriller called "Finders Keepers." I mean, I just thought it showed tremendous promise.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HILL: I - you know, I hope he'll keep - I hope he'll keep at it and write some more stuff because this is a guy who I think has a real future.

MARTIN: He's got a real future.

HILL: Yeah.

MARTIN: His name is Stephen King.

HILL: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, he's, like, the master of this kind of work...

HILL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Supernatural thrillers.

HILL: Absolutely. And my book does carry a lot of echoes with "The Stand," which is a novel that I adored. And, you know, I sometimes joked that the book is "The Stand" if it was soaked in gasoline and set on fire.

MARTIN: So what was going on in your family? Because we should also say it's not...

HILL: What was wrong with your family?

MARTIN: Well, it's not just your dad who's a creative genius.

HILL: Right.

MARTIN: Your mom is an acclaimed writer. Your siblings are writers.

HILL: Yeah, my younger brother wrote - I mean, I know I'm biased - but he wrote a novel called "Double Feature," which I think is the funniest novel of the last decade. It's hysterical. He's married to Kelly Braffet who writes these wonderfully sick and twisted crime novels.

MARTIN: What was the secret sauce? I mean, really what - I'm sure you get asked this all the time - but what was happening in your family dynamic to stimulate that kind of creativity? Did you guys...

HILL: Happiness I think.

MARTIN: Really?

HILL: Basically. It was a really happy family. And it sounds very 19th century, but when we were finished with dinner, we would go into the living room and pass a book around and read aloud. That's how I read "The Chronicles Of Narnia." That's how I first read H.P. Lovecraft.

There's a great Jay Leno joke where Jay Leno says, you know, Stephen King says to the kids, let's have a bedtime story, kids. And the kids all go no. Actually, my dad told hysterical bedtime stories. I remember he wrote one called "The Fart Cookies," which was about three children, Naomi, Owen and Joe, whose parents were sick and they went to a witch for help. And she gave us cookies. And you ate them, and you began to fart out of control.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HILL: So he told, like, the best bedtime stories in the history of bedtime stories.

MARTIN: What were you scared of when you were young?

HILL: I was an anxious kid. I struggled with anxiety for years and years, into my 20s. In a lot of ways, that's why I wound up writing as Joe Hill. When I was in college, I had an anxiety that - I knew I wanted to be a writer. And I was afraid I would write mediocre fiction that would get published anyway. And I didn't want people to accuse me of riding on anyone's coattails. And I wanted to earn it.

And I needed to know for myself, for my own confidence, that when I sold a story that it sold for the right reasons - because an editor was genuinely psyched about it. What I really liked was ghost stories. And at a certain point, I realized - hey, no one knows you are. And if you want to write a ghost story, you have permission to now. You're not Stephen King's son anymore. You're just Joe Hill. And almost as soon as I started writing weird tales, I was having fun and I began to get published.

After the pen name came out, I was still kind of shy about talking about it for about four or five years. But the truth is is I love my dad. I'm an enormous Stephen King fan. We talk every day. And there's never going to be a writer whose influence is going to be on my work like his.

MARTIN: What kind of criticism does he give you? I mean, do you guys have that relationship?

HILL: Yeah.

MARTIN: Does he read things before you publish them?

HILL: You know, the whole family shares work.

MARTIN: Yeah.

HILL: The whole family passes around manuscripts and offers suggestions and criticisms. It's really a horribly unfair advantage over other writers.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HILL: Think about how terribly unfair that is to have to write a first draft and then a second draft and then have Tabitha King, Stephen King, Owen King and Kelly Braffet make editorial comments. It's like the 1927 Yankees lineup. It's out of control.

MARTIN: What have you learned? How have you come into your own as a person who writes this kind of fiction?

HILL: I like to think I'm a much better writer, that I write more compact, more interesting sentences. I like to think I've learned to write fun dialogue, dialogue that rips along and is entertaining to read.

MARTIN: How do you write a cliffhanger every single time? Every time the chapter ended...

HILL: Oh, that's such a kind thing to say.

MARTIN: No, really. And I'm not a fan of this kind of stuff. But I'm like I cannot stop. I need to know what's happening on the next page.

HILL: But if you don't have something like that at the end of a chapter where people feel excitement to go on, there's a horrible danger that they'll put the book down and turn on YouTube. I mean, have you ever looked at YouTube?

MARTIN: (Laughter) It's amazing.

HILL: All the cat videos and - it's a tough world out there. You have to fight. You've got to put the gas pedal down on page one and keep it there until the last page, or you'll lose them.

MARTIN: Well, you did not lose me.

HILL: I'm so glad.

MARTIN: And I'm sure you have made many more fans with this book. It is called "The Fireman." It's written by Joe Hill. He was in our studios here in Washington. Joe, thanks so much for talking with us.

HILL: Rachel, thanks so much. This was a blast.

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