Jul/Aug 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Lights Dimmed Down: Reflections on Craft and Authorship with Josh Malerman

by Zach Semel

Josh Malerman, author of Bird Box and over 30 other novels, has been writing within the American sci-fi/horror genre for close to 20 years. As a member of a successful band The High Strung and through years of theatrical readings, his career has illustrated the multi-faceted interests and genre-pushing that can be crucial to a successful author's writing practice. Our conversation focuses on the writing process, as well as the conflicts that arise after one has written.

A few times over the course of the interview, Malerman's cat, Dewey, bursts into the frame, yowling. Malerman picks up Dewey and holds him tightly, lovingly; but the home office in which they sit is clearly designed to tune out noise and distraction and channel Malerman's energy towards what is most important to him. Creepshow masks peer over his shoulder with empty eyes. A meticulously-curated slew of horror records sits on a nearby shelf, ready to be slipped onto the player behind his desk. What choice does a writer have but to seek a way out of the world over and over?


ZS     First, I'd just love to know: what do you get to do in horror that you wouldn't get to do as much in other genres?

JM     I always feel like this answer falls short of what people want a horror author to say, but I'm gonna say it anyway. I'm a huge fan of maintaining wonder and arrested development as long as you can. And to be a legitimate horror fan, you don't have to believe everything you're reading or believe it's even possible for the duration of a book or a movie—but you get scared. Like I get scared. In the same way that someone has a sense of humor, I imagine I have a sense of horror. A non-horror fan would be like, "Dude, but laughing is fun"—well, being scared out of your mind, actually being scared, is a real experience. And there's the making it to the other side of a scare and sense of surviving, even a book.

So what being a horror author does that in another genre I couldn't is freedom of the imagination, a childish sort of imagination, a monster under the bed, but with the lights dimmed down. To me that's such a combination.

Every time I'm not writing, my next piece is waiting around a corner, watching me from behind as I rub garlic on bread and play too many video games. I pick through hanging clothes in my closet and catch a glimpse of my next piece, glinting like a carnivore's cracked teeth. Such tired shame when I turn away from it. Such shaky bones when I open the closet door once I'm ready to peer inside and try to uncover what I've been so afraid of.

ZS     I'm also curious not just about how you've been able to write while having such a successful band, but how those two mediums work together for you.

JM     Well, number one: oftentimes someone will be like, "What do you think about how they adapted Bird Box into a film?" I'll be like, "Oh, my god, I'm so glad that it happened at all and I love what they did." And they're like, "No, but did you like it?" And I'm like, "No, no, I really am glad."

And I started thinking that maybe—because I really am extremely open to other people's ideas when it comes to any of these film adaptations—this is because of years of being in a band, writing a song, bringing it to my best friend, not telling them what to do with it, just saying, "Let's see what you can do." And if sometimes the song didn't come out as good as I thought it could, then alright, maybe this one slipped through, or maybe we can try it again. But oftentimes it came out better because I'm not as good a bass player as Derek or as good a drummer as Chad. I really want to see what these people can do with it. I really want to see what Sandra Bullock does with Malorie. To me, just do what you can do, and we'll take it from there.

It's really hard for me to exit one sphere and enter the other. Imagine you're writing [fiction] all day, right? It's a little hard to just grab the guitar and write a song. They're both creative, but they're creative in different ways, so I find myself having to go on benders with both: let's write a whole album, then I'm going to go write another book. It takes some effort and focus to even exit one sphere, let alone to enter the other one.

One more thing about this: in the early days, when I started writing novels, I wrote something like ten novels before I wrote a short story. And it was obvious to me that a smaller idea became a song and a bigger idea became a novel. But at some point after Bird Box came out, I was asked to submit a short story to an anthology, and I was like, "I don't have any of those. I don't have one!" And they asked, "Well, can you write one?" So now I think I've written 20 or 30 short stories, but for a long time, those smaller ideas—not epic, novel-length ideas—just went to the band! At some point, though, thanks to that anthology, I started to write more short stories, but I started to write fewer songs because of that! So it mixes, but it's also sometimes hard to mix them together. But they influence each other, which I think is unavoidable.

ZS     So you've mentioned it being hard to jump between mediums—what is it like jumping between projects for you? When you're working on a book, is the next book marinating for you; are you making little notes; is there overlap?

JM     Not much. Maybe I'll be wrapping one up, I'll have a sense of the next book, and Allison (my fiancé) and I will be having dinner, and I'll be like "Oh, I have to write this down." Maybe don't forget that the mom's name is Ruth, or little things like that.

There's only one or two books I've actually fully outlined, but it's mostly just by the seat of my pants. Bird Box literally started with just an image; Inspection started with Richard and Marilyn's idea. Inspection's always been a bit of a mad scientist story, to me. From when I started Inspection, I was saying to myself, "When does this blow up in their faces?"

I drum better to my own writing than to actual music, fingertips slapping my thighs under my desk or my blanket. Drumming is the sort of habit that's far easier to develop when you write alone most of the time. I shout "Dammit" and "Oooooooooh!" intermittently; I slap my desk and click my pencils; I sway and nod, all without the guilt of accidentally filling a café or cozy library corner with noise.

Sometimes when I drum, I think I drum along with other readers and writers: riding along waves of words even if it will hurt when the water crashes, leaving us tangled and bruised in shoreline sand.

The last time I went to a reading in person, I remember how often I nodded at the same time as the folks around me. All of us pulled in by the same lines time after time after time.

ZS     That's so interesting! I feel as if, especially when you've written as many books as you have—but for anyone who's writing more than a couple things—it's really important to be open to the projects starting in different ways and the process of the piece being different.

JM     Yes, absolutely! In fact, I did an interview yesterday, and they asked, "What's your routine?" and I'm like, "There isn't one!" It's book by book. For Bird Box, I woke up at 7:00 in the morning, I was writing by 8:00, I was done by 11:30 or noon. And then every night by the time I went to sleep, I was prepared for what I was going to write the next morning. The rough draft for Bird Box was just one of the smoothest experiences you can imagine; it's almost like what we're always gunning for as writers. But the rewrites were extensive, off the charts—I rewrote it from scratch even!

Another book, though, the first book I ever wrote, was written from midnight to 4:00 AM every day until it was done. So for me, there isn't really a routine. I'm very open to the fact that Bird Box was written at 4,300 words a day; I wrote another one at 1,000 words a day; I wrote another at 5,000 a day; I wrote another at 500 a day. But if you do 1,000 words a day, in two months it's almost as long as Bird Box. You're doing a little bit every day!

I dedicate whole days to drafting and revising pieces. On many nights, an idea comes to me after I've turned out my lights—a beeper blaring in my head, the quick flash of tiny letters—and I instinctively throw my sheets to the side, flick on my lamp, and sit up with my notebook in my lap.

Although I shrug off most rejections with ease, I can name almost every journal I'm waiting to hear back from. I itch over unfinished pieces; I have nightmares about my writing, then I write about the nightmares—even if that means they'll keep coming back.

Is it possible to give too much for art?

ZS     I love the idea of especially being open to processes that aren't yielding as much. I imagine most writers have heard that adage "Ten percent of writing is writing and ninety percent is thinking." If anything, that just speaks to the importance of having it in your head, however much you write in a given day.

JM     I read something that Joe Lansdale posted on Facebook, and he said that he has one continuous draft through the whole process, and he just edits as he goes. And I was like, "Oh, my god, that sounds grueling!" but imagine being halfway done and having done that! You reach what you imagine to be the halfway point, and you can say, "Oh, this is all good up to here." Lansdale is like a sharpshooter, and I'm more like Jackson Pollock or something. I've more than once re-written a novel from scratch—without even feeling the burden of that. The rough draft just became an insanely-detailed outline. But I'd love to try one like he does. I don't know if I could get through it, though!

ZS     The problem is: if you're critiquing yourself as you're going, how do you keep going?

Some days and weeks, I genuinely can't believe I'll ever produce a creative piece again. Even as I write first drafts, I don't trust that I will finish them. I am mentally ill—words often fall out of my ears, a sieve that leaves behind fragments, at best.

A part of me demands that I collect what remains. A part of me wonders how I even will.

JM     Right! See for me, the most exciting part of the rough draft is that it doesn't matter if it's good or bad. If you know you're going to rewrite and possibly even rewrite this from scratch, who cares if this draft is good? Then you're so free; you can fly through a story—but not like a speedway. You can almost read it as you write it, or like you're watching a movie that you're writing as it's happening.

ZS     So from what I've heard from you, you're writing about two books a year—is that true?

JM     That's kind of the goal. For a long time, the goal was one album, two books a year. To me, it's like the bands from the 60's that I love: The Who, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones. They were all putting out an album every six months, and we got to literally watch the artistic growth and process. The Stones maybe had some "okay" albums, but then the next one would be awesome—you could see them transition. And that's exciting to me: like looking at photos of yourself aging. I'm a fan of that more prolific artist because there's a sense of like, "Okay, whether this is your best work or not, who cares?" In the end, it's the body of work that matters rather than a singular book that you're hinging everything on or a singular work of art that's supposed to represent you in full. Psycho doesn't represent Hitchcock in full—all those movies do. I'd rather down the line have the body of work represent me.

ZS     I got to see the documentary someone made about you (Quilt of Delirium). In that documentary, your fiancé talked about how, for both of you as artists, the body of work is the most important thing. Is there anything that you haven't gotten to do yet that you want to, within or outside of your genre/medium?

JM     It's funny: I worry about this in both directions. I worry about repeating myself, but then I also worry about being some sort of genre-hopper. I imagine if someone read Bird Box and Unbury Carol, they would have no idea that the same person wrote those two books. That can kind of freak me out a little because it makes me worry a little bit about my identity. I'm not kidding; I wonder Who the hell's doing this? But I think I'd rather have this elastic, varied, colorful body of work. Sometimes I feel like I'm playing with fire a little bit because people read an author and are happy to be with that voice again, and I feel like you're not really getting that with me.

I have a foggy relationship with the idea of legacy. Not too long ago, I had accepted that mental illness would kill me someday. I spent one year mostly bedridden, only able to write essays describing the nightmares I'd have every night.

Since then, I've been able to write. A lot. But maybe too much. Writing a single challenging piece keeps me up at night, puts my brain in a haze. Even a handful of joyful pieces can suck my body dry.

Soon, I will not be in school anymore. Maybe I won't keep writing when the working world wants my warm, compliant body in a chair for eight hours a day. Maybe I can't afford to have the goal of leaving behind book after book.

ZS     I'm really curious about your relationship with Allison. To what extent has she influenced your work, as another artist whom you're constantly with? Would you have done these theatrical readings; would you have even wanted to?

JM     When I was younger and dumber, I guess, I thought one of us has to have a foot in reality, and it's not me, so it has to be the girl I date, right? And some of the girls I dated had artistic tendencies, but not like this. I met Allison, and right away it was just a whirlwind—she's truly an incredible singer, guitar player, painter; she does special effects, she acts, and she does set design!

So when Bird Box was picked up by Harper Collins, they told me that because I was in a band, they wanted me to make a CD of me reading while playing the guitar. And I just kept picturing playing an A-minor while reading this scary story, and it started to sound like a campfire story, like an old Western. So I said to Allison, "What else can we do?" and she said, "Oh, what if we had Julia play violin, and I play Malorie," and I thought, "Oh, you're kind of describing a radio play."

We went into a friend's studio, and Allison was Malorie; I narrated; there was violin; there was organ; there were sound effects! Then we brought that on the road and toured for a while, long before the movie came out, with a suitcase full of blindfolds and a keyboard. And we would pull into a town, go to the library, and blindfold the audience. I'd play all this scary music and narrate while Allison did all the screaming and whatever for Malorie. There was something so fun. There was no stage fright—because they weren't looking at us!

None of that happens without meeting Allison; I would've been standing at a podium, knees shaking, too scared to even talk. I think being in a band prepped me for being open when Allison was like, "Let's try this." It's been really incredible, and it proves everything wrong about me needing to be the artist in the relationship—no, meet someone with the same passion, verve, and interests that you have.

I think of the books that friends and family have brought into my life. The conversations that have changed me: drinks in hand, bare feet playing with spring grass. How many people deserve my thanks?

I start to type a grateful message to my partner. The wording isn't as eloquent as it could be—but like every crude, fragile first draft I've put in her hands, I send the text anyway.


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