Josh Malerman talks about his new novel, Bird Box, his love of horror movies and his endless writing
For years, Josh Malerman has been scribbling in notebooks whenever and wherever he gets the chance. For his music — he's the frontman for the band High Strung — but also as the writer of scary stories, all of which have gone unpublished until now. “I never shopped them, never looked for agents, just kept writing like a maniac,” he says. Then came Bird Box. His debut novel, it's a creepy look into what happens when something is out there—but can't be seen.
What was the first thing you wrote and what was the reaction to it?
I tried to write a book in fifth grade. It was about a space-traveling dog who was Earth’s ambassador to Jupiter. It was too big a story for me back then. So I turned to comic books. Wrote a ton of comic books, all weird characters, half men-half buildings, that kind of thing. The first thing I read was something about foxes stealing crabapples from trees. It was a present. I remember opening it and reading it to my family. When I looked up, mom and dad were beaming. “You just read a whole book!” they said. That sliver of encouragement ignited a lifetime of writing and reading. I’ll never forget it.
When did you decide to start writing books?
That was always the plan. At summer camp, as a kid, I remember counting on my fingers the books I needed to write. “OK, there’s the one about the monster in the woods… OK, that’s good. There’s the one about the monster in the water. OK. There’s the one about the monster in the woods. Wait, you already said that. Shoot. There’s the one about the monster in the…”
What was your inspiration for Bird Box?
Being a horror fan, as well as (at turns) a madcap, a nervous wreck, an obsessive thinker, a tall person, a man child, and a pool player, my eye is always traveling the room, looking for an idea that could balloon into a novel. I can’t be sure when or where I was when Bird Box came thundering down the hall. Truthfully, it never did. Instead, there were two ideas that followed me into every room I went. One was of a group of people forced to face infinity, and what that encounter might do to their minds. The other was only an image, a woman traveling down a river, blindfolded. When I got to work on the latter, I realized she was fleeing the former, and the book became suddenly clear.
How much of the novel was inspired by real life; ie., news headlines re random attacks or the decline of Detroit? (Filmically, parts of Detroit would make the perfect setting…)
I wrote Bird Box in the attic/servant quarters of an old, wonderful mansion in Detroit. It’s a crazy neighbourhood; used to be Motown stars had homes there–Berry Gordy; the people who started K-Mart; Mark Twain built his daughter a house across the street from the one I stayed in. But if you went two streets too far in either direction things got sketchy in a hurry. I suppose that sort of island feel, a good neighbourhood surrounded by freaky ones, could’ve padded the isolation in the book, but I don’t think so. Every time I sat down to work on the book I felt like I was entering its world, rather than it being a reflection of mine.
What is it about horror that appeals to you?
So many things. On a headier note, I love that horror admits that it’s fiction. Realism has never numbered me a friend, and I don’t look for any realistic anchors in anything. Even documentaries are slanted, we all know that, so to turn to art for a photorealistic reflection of life always feels awkward. I can’t trust it like that. But horror admits it’s the imagination at play, just maybe with the lights dimmed, and it’s a feeling I can really get behind. On a less philosophical note, I love it. The sounds, the colours, the creatures. More often than not I believe in them. I’m scared of them. And that makes me an ideal fan.
Is there one essential theme you find yourself trying to convey over and over, in your writing, whether for music or otherwise?
Once you’ve written a number of books or albums or whatever it is you write, you start to see themes popping up and you can’t help but wonder, “Is that what I’m after?” At the same time, regular themes could indicate a lack of imagination: “Why do I keep writing about this? I hope it’s not all I know!” I’ve caught a few themes, here and there, between the songs and the books, but it always feels like I’m stretching when I find them and I don’t love finding them to begin with. One thing I’m enamored with is “abstract horror”–the idea that anything could be a monster. A coat. A bar. A pool table. A pair of glasses. A point of view. Sometimes I wonder if I look for this extra layer of oddity because I’m trying to bury the themes deeper into the story. But that’s a scared way to write and I really hope I don’t write scared. I want to honest, wide open, and reveal everything, even the embarrassing stuff. In a book, the time you spend with the reader, the relationship between author and reader, is more intense and probably more personal than any other medium. The real you is going to come out anyway, so you may as well present it.
What’s your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is that one day I’ll go see a psychic, and we’ll sit across from each other at one of those classic psychic tables with the woven psychic tablecloth. She’ll be telling me how I may come into some fortune soon, how change is on the horizon. And as she talks, giving me these rote sort of predictions, she’ll slip me a piece of paper, without acknowledging it. She’ll keep on talking, but now I have this note in front of me. As she goes on, I read it and it says: There is someone standing next to you, he’s staring at you, and I think he’s been staring at you your entire life.
What research, if any, did you do for the book?
In the rough draft, there was no mention of “real” concerns; electricity, water, food. I wanted to pull off this “encounter” story without spending any time on physical needs. Who cares how Malorie eats! Let’s find out how she feels about Don! But after a couple read-throughs, the facts kept nagging at my shirt-sleeves. So I ended up doing some research, but not much. Too many facts make me nervous. My friend Mark once wrote a great song lyric that I think about all the time: “You’re more loved in fiction than you are in fact.” I try and stick to that idea.
Did you blindfold yourself to see what that was like and how difficult it would be doing things?
While writing Bird Box I had five finches, and I adored them. I didn’t have the heart to lock them in their cage–they flew around the place freely. After a while you can figure out where they’re gonna’ shit, so you put newspaper in those couple spots and let ’em fly. I’d start writing at about 8 a.m. and I’d go till 11 or noon. All the while, the five birds were flying from one windowsill to another, chirping to one another, pausing to watch the writer, typing away. Often, I’d close my eyes and wander about the apartment. The birds would be sailing by, and I touched more than one mid-flight with my hand. That’s the closest I came to blindfolding myself.
One of the themes you explore in the book is how people face fear. You turned that on end by preventing your characters from being able to literally “face” their fears, making them have to turn inward and away from terror. Why did you do that?
Some say that if ever you were to meet yourself and shake hands with yourself, the Universe would implode. I like that. Other people say that if you were to see the face of God, you’d go mad. I like that, too. A man who stands at the end of space or witnesses the beginning of time, that man will go mad. I like that as much. Ultimately it’s the idea that people are unable to wholly fathom themselves or their existence. That’s scary as hell to me. Why can’t I process the real me? The entire me? You say I’ll go mad if I do? Sounds like we’ll have to pretend these monsters don’t exist (ourselves, Time, Space) though we know they’re with us everywhere we go. I think it’s monsters like those that are outside the house in Bird Box. It makes deciding to open the front door a big deal.
In Bird Box, readers never “see” anything happen and are as sightless as Malorie and the other characters – they never even get a glimpse of anything terrible until close to the end of the book. Why go that route instead of being more explicit?
Horror authors kind of have a choice to make. Show the monster or don’t. I love it both ways. I love seeing the blood explode from a popped eyeball, and I love the simple suggestion a silhouette can make. I hope I get to publish a lot of books and I hope some of them are covered in blood and others are white as a whisper.
Could you talk about the relationship between Malorie and the children? She loves them and has to mother them but also has to be incredibly rough, some would say abusive, with them to get them into shape to protect them and enable them to survive the journey down the river.
A strange thought came to me while writing Bird Box. One afternoon I wondered, “Does Malorie like the Boy better than she likes the Girl?” It felt that way to me, little things were popping up, the way she talked to the Boy, the way she scolded the Girl. By the end it levels out, but I think there’s more trust put in the Boy throughout. Malorie kind of looks to him first for help.
Speaking of the journey down the river, was that there from the beginning? Rivers typically represent life and renewal and that’s certainly the case here, although the passage is also a terrifying one of uncertainty and danger (somewhat like life…).
The first few chapters I wrote were river scenes. At that point, I wasn’t sure if maybe the whole thing wasn’t going to take place in that rowboat. I still like that idea. The novel/movie that takes place in a confined space: Cujo, Rope (Hitchcock), the Village (Shyamalan). There’s so much potential tension in a one-setting story! Makes me want to write a scary play. But Bird Box turned out to be a little wider than that, and so up to two settings it went.
You’ve written many books, but this is the first you’ve sold. Did you ever think, “Screw it”?
Looking back at the years that led up to meeting HarperCollins and Ecco, I can see now that I took a bizarre route. I wrote a dozen, 15, 17 novels before Bird Box was picked up. I never shopped them, never looked for agents, just kept writing like a maniac. The band was playing in a different city every night for years and that meant there was a lot of driving. Our drummer, Derek, loves to drive. I was usually riding shotgun, thinking, “I could read, or I could write.” I ended up doing a lot of both. As the rough drafts started to mount I did start thinking, “What are you going to do with these?” I had blind faith that they’d find their way to being published, it felt like they had to. But, yes, there were definitely scary moments, times I’d look at the stack of pages and feel like I’d been writing in a vacuum. There was never a “screw it” moment, but I got freaked out more than a few times.
You leave some questions unanswered in the book. Any idea of a sequel?
I like that idea because I loved writing in that world. That said, I have a lot of other stories, and I might feel strange, like I’m not being myself, if I were to write a sequel right now instead of turning to something new. But, you know, let’s get some other tales rolling, and then? Sure. Let’s reopen Bird Box’s door and see what Malorie’s up to. One interesting take on a sequel would be a story of another house, unrelated to the one on Shillingham, and what goes on there. Maybe they’re farther along than Tom, Don, and Malorie were, like, maybe they’ve been holed up for two years? A family might be fun to peek in on. A man living alone. I don’t know. What’s Gary up to?
Is your cat really named Frankenstein??
Haha, yes. Frankenstein is a girl and she’s really graceful, like a little deer. My fiancé Allison brought her into my life. She named her. We also have Dewey (6 months old.) I’ve always wanted an ominous black cat who would stare at me while I was writing. Instead, Dewey turned out to be a clown. He sits on toilet seats, stares off into space, and sleeps with his arms extended above his head, and sounds like a 200- year-old woman when he asks for food.
You can’t be a musician or novelist. Instead you are…?
A playwright. I still hope I get into that. Horror plays? Are you kidding me?? Imagine sitting in the front row of a small theatre. The lights are dim, there’s smoke on the stage. A fella runs out of the shadows, pleading with the audience, “Help me! He’s after me! HELP!” He’s crazed, you’re a little anxious (it’s good acting, he’s freaking you out), then some bearded maniac appears behind him and lops his head off with an axe. Said head rolls to the foot of the stage and you and your date are splattered with stage-blood. If that doesn’t sound like a fun date, come on!