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‘NOS4A2’ Author Joe Hill Expanding The King-dom. Find Out What Really Scares Him & More! (Interview)

Joe Hill has undoubtedly found his fated family footing. Son of legendary writer and master of macabre Stephen King, Mr. Hill has been making his own supernatural storytelling mark with the likes of Heart Shaped Box (2007), Horns (2010), Locke & Key (2008-2013) and NOS4A2 (2013) to name a few. And, as with dad, Joe is garnering the success of screen adaptations. With Netflix series Locke and Key getting the go-ahead for Season 2 and AMC series NOS4A2 continuing to gain traction during its second season, there is simply no stopping Joe!

NOS4A2, Joe Hill, Zachary Quinto
Joe Hill. Zachary Quinto Image: Zach Dilgard/AMC

I had the awesome opportunity to chat with Mr. Hill about his recent TV series successes, fan reactions, effects of politics and the pandemic as well as what wakes him up at night. 😉 Check it out…

Linda: Thanks for taking some time to speak with me. I really appreciate it.

Joe: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Linda: I’m glad to hear that things are well on your end, I mean, in quarantine, but boy, this is kind of the world we live in right now.

Joe: Yeah, fortunately, a whole bunch of TV shows got shot, so we all have something to watch right now. Another few months of quarantine, we’ll all be down to reruns of Wheel of Fortune.

Linda: There you go. (laughing) Well, speaking of shows to watch, I wanted to kick things off with Locke & Key. Congratulations on its success, by the way.

Joe: Thanks.

Linda: I’m very happy to hear season two will be coming our way… hopefully soon? (hesitantly)

Joe: Right? I mean, it’s like, this a reflection of the world we live in, that right now, there’s bigger things going on than shooting a TV show, you know?

Linda: Sure.

Joe: There’s global compulsion around coronavirus, there’s economic repercussions that have been set off. There is a reckoning about race and inequality in America that’s long overdue, that in a lot of ways, America has been trying to put off for over a hundred years. There is a political race, which seems to be somewhat a referendum on authoritarianism versus a kind of more open democracy that operates along the regular lines of rule of law. And with all that going on, boy, it is sure tough to get around to shooting a TV show.

Linda: Yeah, it certainly is.

Joe: Yeah. I mean, we’ll get back to it. Eventually, we’ll get through this particular sticky patch and we’ll all get to go back to playing make-believe again. It will be great.

Linda: I wanted to ask you about Locke & Key and what attracts you to the graphic novel format?

Joe: Comics?

Linda: Yeah.

Joe: Well, I was a comic book writer before I was a novelist. I was a failed novelist. I’d written four books I was unable to sell, and my big break was after… I hadn’t figured out how to write a good novel, but I had figured out how to write a good short story. I had written a handful of short stories, including a couple that won prizes and one that got in “the best of” collections. And on the strength of one of those stories, I won the opportunity to write an 11-page Spider-Man story for Marvel Comics. And that was my big breakthrough and led to the writing of Locke & Key.

In a lot of ways, I still feel like I’ve worked in different literary forms, the short story, the novel, screenplays, comics. I feel most confident when I’m writing a comic book and that sometimes I’m able to crack puzzles in the form of a comic book that I can’t solve in other forms. And to bring it back to NOS4A2, a great example would be… When I wrote NOS4A2, I was chugging along and Wayne gets kidnapped and Charlie Manx is on the road. Vic is coming after him. And then everything came to a screeching halt in the book. And I wrote this 120-page backstory for Charlie Manx about how he discovered his powers. And my dad read it, and my dad was like, “I love this book. I think you ought to cut 20 pages out of that Charlie Manx backstory, because, boy, it just comes out of nowhere and really slows down the action.” And then my editor, Jen Brehl at William Morrow said, “Oh, I love the book, except for this Charlie Manx backstory, and maybe I ought to cut 40 pages of this Charlie Manx backstory because it slows the action down.” And then my English editor, Jillian Redfern, read it. She said…you get the idea… She’s like, “I love the book, [but] Charlie Manx backstory.” They all suggested cutting a few pages out of the book. Ultimately, I beat them by cutting the whole thing out. And my argument was we don’t need to know Charlie’s backstory just yet. It’s like the shark in Jaws. Who cares about the shark’s childhood?

But actually I sort of did care about it. And I did think it was a good story. I just hadn’t found the right way to execute it. And ultimately, I did find the right way to execute it and make a good story out of it that was entertaining to read, but that was in the more visual format of a comic book. So we finally get Charlie’s origin story in a graphic novel spinoff called Wraith. And then, I mean, maybe arguably, the best realization of Charlie’s backstories is in the TV show, where they spread it over two episodes.

Linda: I loved seeing the backstory. Incredible. And since we’re going to dive right into NOS4A2… I had the chance to speak with (showrunner) Jami O’Brien, I think a couple of weeks ago [and we talked about] the characters. They’re so layered, but they’re so real and relatable. Even Charlie Manx, I mean, there are points where you really “feel” for him…

Joe: For me, in the first two novels I wrote, in Heart-Shaped Box and in Horns, the bad guys are just evil. They’re really un-redeemably evil. But as I sort of developed, I started to think, “A story is really satisfying when the bad guy can tell a version of what’s happening where they’re actually the hero of the story.” That’s actually more like real-life people who do terrible, evil things. They do it because they think they had to, and they do it for what they view as the right reasons. You know.

So, when I worked on NOS4A2, I tried to think, “How can Charlie … What’s the version of this story where Charlie is the hero?” And in that version of the story, Charlie is a man who had suffered greatly as a child and as a young man, really went through the wringer, really was not well-loved was probably a broken sociopath well before he developed his supernatural powers. But he has great sympathy with children who suffer. And so, in his version of events, he’s rescuing children from abusive parents and childhoods of deprivation and poverty and misery, certain to end badly. And he’s taking them away to a fantasy land, where every day is Christmas and the fun never ends. And when you look at it that way, he sounds like the Punisher or something, punishing the wicked and rescuing the innocent.

Linda: I love that comparison.

Joe: And in a way that would be true. Right?

Linda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joe: Except that there were some flaws in Charlie’s story. There are some lies he’s telling himself and telling others about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Those kids who were supposedly doomed are probably a lot like Vic McQueen, not doomed at all, totally full of potential. Their parents are not irredeemably evil people, but just parents scuffling along doing the best they can, making mistakes, screwing up, trying to correct the course, deal with their own problems, be the best people they can be for their kids. Charlie doesn’t want to see that because it ruined his own version of events, but it’s there if the viewer’s paying attention.

NOS4A2, Charlie Manx, Zachary Quinto
Zachary Quinto as Charlie Manx. Image: Zach Dilgard/AMC

Linda: Right. And you bring up Vic’s character as well. When I was talking to Jami (O’Brien), I know she said that happens to be one of her favorite characters. A question I had asked her, and I’d like to ask you, with regards to Vic [is]… I mean, she’s a powerful young woman, but she certainly has her faults. What do you consider her biggest strengths and weaknesses when it comes to taking on Charlie (Manx)?

Joe: I’ll tell you one thing too, Vic is a heavy drinker. She’s disappointed a lot of people, she’s made a lot of mistakes, but she’s valiant, and she’s ready to risk everything for the people she loves. And when we get that character and that character is male, okay, you have a character like Philip Marlowe, you have a character of like John McClane in Die Hard. And strangely, people are much more forgiving of that than they are when it’s a female character. I tried to figure that out. I don’t quite buy that people … I think that a female character is judged much more harshly for having many of the same attributes we find in heroic characters that are male that we love.

Linda: I hadn’t considered that, but you’re right.

Joe: In the first episode of season two, if you follow along in the NOS4A2 hashtag on Twitter, there are a lot of people, a lot of viewers, who were pissed about Vic’s stumbles. I just find that as sort of an interesting cultural reaction, because I’m fairly convinced if it was Bruce Willis in Nakatomi Tower, expressing, all the same failings, that people would hoot. I think that’s kind of interesting.

Linda: It’s very interesting.

Joe: But God bless Jami O’Brien for having the daring to give Vic clay feet. And I think in some ways, one of the most settling and powerful elements of the second season is our feeling that the most wicked people in the story are the people with the strongest convictions. They are the steamroller. I mean, Charlie has total confidence in himself and his mission. And Vic and Lou, Chris McQueen, these are people with flaws, who are uncertain and scared and are worried that they’ll screw things up and hurt their loved ones. And that makes them weak and vulnerable. (gaaah) And that’s a terrible place to be in your life, but a great place to be in if you’re telling your drama. You know.

NOS4A2, Vic McQueen, Ashleigh Cummings
Ashleigh Cummings as Vic McQueen. Image: Dana Starbard/AMC

Linda: Absolutely. Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the Wraith.  I can’t help but make comparisons [to], I’m also a big fan of your father’s, and making comparisons to Christine. I’m talking “automobiles with attitudes”, you know?

Joe: Exactly. Yeah.

Linda: How did you pick that particular car for Charlie Manx?

Joe: Well, I’ll tell you two things there. The first thing is, at some point very early in my career, I realized that almost every choice a character makes expresses their fundamental character, their fundamental personality, in some way. You can’t help it. You can’t help doing it. And one choice people make is what automobile they’re going to drive. And for a lot of people, it’s the biggest financial choice in their life, next to buying a house. And inevitably, the car you drive says a lot about you. And so, I use vehicles as shorthand for personalities since the first novel. Judas Coyne, the hero of Heart Shaped Box, drove a souped-up 1965 Mustang. And that car that, that menacing, black car, that’s all engine, says something about Jude, himself, and Jude’s aspirations. In the second book, in Horns, we have this character, Ig Perrish, who is turning into a devil. The funny thing is, is Ig is like the most sweet and innocent nerd you ever met. He is the most unlikely devil of all time. And of course, the car he drives is an AMC Gremlin, which is kind of a nerdy car. And of course, it has that great name. So the name of the car itself becomes a pump.

The vehicles that the characters have in NOS4A2 very much define them and their powers. And the inspiration for the book, in a lot of ways, came from a vehicle, from a car, that I spotted one day. I live on the seacoast, in New Hampshire. And my small town, in the summer, has an antique car show every Sunday. And the old cars go rumbling up and down Main Street, showing themselves, being shown off, being displayed. And I saw a car years and years ago, I saw a sleek car, it was sleek and silver, like a lady’s fancy cigarette case. And it was like a Packard or something. It had big running boards and stuff and silver headlights. And the license plate was something like “Gray Ghost”.

Linda: Oh, that’s great.

Joe: I can’t remember it exactly. But as soon as I saw the license plate, I just broke out in hackles. And I thought, “You couldn’t pay me to take a ride in that car.” And not long afterwards, I began to think about old cars. And I began to think, “What if someone had a car that ran on human souls instead of gasoline?” And in that, you had some of the seeds of NOS4A2.

NOS4A2, Wraith
The Wraith. Image: AMC

Linda: Oh, that’s perfect. Speaking of creepy [things] and ghost cars or the horror genre in general, we seem to exist in a society that thrives on being scared.

Joe: Yes.

Linda: What I want to know is what scares Joe Hill?

Joe: Probably, people would prefer if I wasn’t political, but you know, I don’t know if the country can take four more years of Trump throwing political Molotov cocktails every other day and saying ignorant crap on Twitter. I’d be a little bit scared of that. I just think that you need a steady hand on the helm, and he seems pretty erratic to me. What else scares me? Human beings are fairly simple creatures, as my wife often notes. I mean, I worry about something bad happening to one of the kids. I worry about social media. I worry one of my kids will mouth off on social media or say a thing, post a picture on Instagram or something, or doing something they thought was funny or whatever. And the next thing you know, you’re viral for all the world to see, and your life is over. You’ve been publicly ostracized. You can’t get employed anymore.

Linda: That’s true.

Joe: I mean, people look at you like you’re less than the crap on the bottom of their shoe. I worry about something like that happening because I can’t protect them from something like that. I definitely think shame and embarrassment is almost as bad as death for a lot of people. And we live in a culture where it’s very easy to be made into an unperson just for being stupid. I mean, you could just be stupid for a half an hour one day and never live it down. So I worry about that.

Linda: When it comes to actual supernatural or paranormal, is that something you believe in? Are you a skeptic or believer?

Joe: I mean, I want to believe in it all. You never met anyone who wants to see a real-life UFO more than me. Really, my earliest memory, the earliest memories in my life, involves going and driving to Loch Ness. I was hopeful I would see the creature.

I was just six-years-old, and my parents were both hippies. At heart, they’re still all about flower power. And after Ford pardoned Nixon, my parents both got sick of America, and said, “We got to get the f**k out of this place.” And so, they became expats, living in the United Kingdom. So my earliest memories are all about being in England for six months and going up to Edinburgh to see the creature… which I didn’t get to see. We never even got to the loch, because the roads flooded out. I’m still wishing, I’m still hoping. I’d love to see a ghost. Oh, man, I would love to see a ghost.

Linda: Have you ever been on a real-life investigation?

Joe: I mean, I stayed in a hotel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, years ago, that famously advertised a “room with a boo” which was supposed to be haunted. And I really wanted to stay in that room. I remember calling my parents, and I’m like, “So tell me what happens if I get the ‘room with a boo’, and they find me in the morning and I’m stiff with rigor mortis? My mouth open in a scream, and my hair has turned completely white. Are they still going to run my credit card?”

And ultimately, I wound up staying in the hotel. They didn’t give me the “room with the boo”, because it was already taken. They gave me the room right beneath the “room with a boo”. And I had this very pleasant, 18th-century inn, and if you looked out the window, you were looking out onto almost like this bricked-up 18th-century street. You could almost imagine that you’re in a place not long after the Revolutionary War. I went to sleep that night and when I woke up at 2:00 in the morning, there was a girl standing at the foot of the bed, and I couldn’t see her there. I couldn’t bend my head to look past my feet, but I knew she was there, staring at me. And I was just completely paralyzed with fright, and I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Go away!”

And at that moment, I heard the people in the “room with the boo” above me, screaming and falling out of their bed in terror. And then I woke all the way up, and I realized I had been having half a dream. And of course, there was no one at the foot of the bed. There was no one in the room. And I had that thing. There’s a term for it. I was in a hypnagogic state, where my mind had woken up, but my body hadn’t. And all I can say about that experience is the people who paid for the “room with the boo” got their money’s worth. They had a scream in the middle of the night. They definitely got what they paid for.

NOS4A2, Joe Hill, Tom Savini
Tom Savini, Joe Hill. Image: Zach Dilgrad/AMC

Linda: That’s a fantastic story!  Do you have any appearances coming up once all of this [pandemic] passes? Any projects you want to talk about?

Joe: I’ve got my little comic imprint at DC, Hill House Comics, and we had a bunch of great, scary comics. We had Basketful of Heads and The Low, Low Woods. Hopefully, we’ll get to do some more of that. We’ll see what the comic business looks like in 2021. I mean, I think the worst, this is terrible to hear, I don’t think we’re even halfway through this coronavirus stuff.

Linda: It’s tough.

Joe: I mean, I think realistically, we probably are not going to get back to normal life any earlier than next April or May. I just don’t see how, because even if there’s a vaccine by January, it’s going to take months to roll it out and people will be scared to take it. And the anti-vaccination folks are a pretty strong in American society now. I mean, yeah. So I do think that we’ve got a ways yet to go before we get back to the good old world of conventions and comic conventions, and Comic-Con.

Linda: Yeah. I can’t wait to get back at it, but…

Joe: One day at a time.

Linda: … we just got to push through. But thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I could ask you a million more things, but I know you have other people waiting.

Joe: I really did enjoy talking to you.

Linda: Yes, I enjoyed talking to you too as well, Joe. I’m beyond. And congratulations too, with all the success that you’re having, and I can’t wait to keep watching NOS4A2. Very exciting!

Joe: I hope you like the way it wraps up.

Linda: I’m sure I will.

A big thank you to Joe Hill for taking the time to chat! Hoping it’s the first of many. Catch new episodes of NOS4A2 Sunday 10 PM EST on AMC. Tweet along live with @joe_hill. #NOS4A2

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