Joe Hill is a horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction writer. His works include the novels Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, and NOS4A2, as well as the comics Locke & Key and Wraith, and a short story collection titled 20th Century Ghosts.
I interviewed Hill about his latest novel, The Fireman, which tells the story of Harper Grayson, a young nurse who finds herself pregnant and fighting for survival at the onset of a fiery apocalypse.
Q. How was The Fireman influenced by the popularity of apocalyptic storylines in pop culture today? Why do you think people are so fixated on these stories?
A. The popularity of end-of-the-world stories is not a new thing. Mary Shelley followed Frankenstein with the story of a world ending plague. H.G. Wells frequently toyed with the possibility of our extinction. It shouldn’t be a great surprise. We have a natural attraction to the subject, probably because in a sense, every human being has to face the end-of-the-world. Someday you’ll be dead, and that will be the end of the world… for you. Not only that, every generation is, eventually, wiped from the face of the earth, leaving nothing behind but their works, their rubbish, and the memories of their children.
That’s a big, discomforting idea and we naturally turn to fiction to make sense of it. Fiction is the playground where we test out our response to upsetting scenarios through the safe medium of make-believe.
As far as The Fireman goes, I felt I was arguing with the genre’s recent conventions. A lot of these stories – The Road, Walking Dead – tend to show humanity dispensing with empathy and affection as they descend into a barbaric struggle for survival. But I think human beings are a little better than that. We’re chummy little apes. The human impulse to laugh, to make love, to comfort one another… those aren’t luxuries. They’re hard-wired into who we are.
Q. What makes The Fireman stand out among all the Walking Deads and Hunger Games of the apocalypse genre?
A. Is the Hunger Games apocalyptic? It’s just very dire, isn’t it?
In the Walking Dead, the heroes are the healthy – they protect themselves by building walls between them and the sick, the infected. The ill have no humanity and it’s a mercy to shoot them in the face. In The Fireman, my heroes are the contaminated – the people the healthy want to eliminate. I’m the kind of guy who roots for the underdog, and anyone touched with a grim, potentially fatal illness is as underdoggy as you can get.
Q. What are the elements of a good apocalypse story?
A. I think you want heroes you can love and root for struggling to puzzle their way through an apparently hopeless situation. But of course that’s hardly a description of a “good apocalypse story.” More like a description for a “good story,” period.
Q. What was your approach when writing this book? How did you ensure that minor characters weren’t flat when you were working with such a large cast of characters?
A. My approach to character – whether I’m figuring out my protagonist, or producing a minor character for a single paragraph – is to try and figure out how they talk. If I can hear a person’s particular way of putting things, I can usually get the rest pretty easily. Not only that, if I can accurately reproduce her voice on the page, the reader will understand her as well. It’s the Elmore Leonard approach.
What killed me, working on NOS4A2, was for the first year I was writing it, I couldn’t hear the voice of Charlie Manx. I kept trying on different voices, trying to find the one that was right. Then, one day, I realized he’s an enthusiastic old fellow and that his conversation was littered with exclamation points. I’ve never used so many exclamation points in a book, but for Charlie it was right.
Q. Where did the idea for Dragonscale come from?
A. There was another presidential contest underway when I began the book. This was 2008. One of the men running against Barack Obama, the governor of Texas, said he didn’t believe in global warming. And Obama joked that this guy didn’t believe in global warming but his whole state was on fire. Which was true – there was an enormous wildfire rampaging in Texas, in a region where forests had been dried into kindling by years of drought.
I thought it was a good observation. And then I thought about it some more, and I had an idea: what if that fire was everywhere? Not just Texas, but Cleveland, and Seattle, and Warsaw, and London? What if every time you stamped it out in one place it popped up somewhere else, in a catastrophic game of Whack-A-Mole? So then I thought, what could do that? How could fires keep blooming up like that, everywhere, all the time? And what occurred to me was: contagion.
I decided to make Dragonscale beautiful to look at, because I thought that would be more appealing than something that produces lots of pus. Also I knew it was going to be a romance – about two good people discovering how much they love and enjoy each other – and romance doesn’t play well against a backdrop of pus and stink.
Q. How did you come up with the logistics of Dragonscale? Such as how it affected the body and how it was spread.
A. I wrote three supernatural novels back to back: a ghost story, a story about a devil, and a kind of vampire story. So with The Fireman, I wanted to do something rooted in the realm of scientific possibility… something a bit more Michael Crichton. When I knew I was going to be writing about a contagion of spontaneous combustion I tried to figure out some believable mechanism, and came up with a particularly dangerous fungal infection. Of course there isn’t a spore that will cause a human being to ignite. But there are fungal infections that will cause skin to blister and rash from chemical heat. It’s a matter of exaggeration not fabrication. And everything else about the ‘scale – from the way it bonds with the brain, to the way it spreads in ash – can be found in spores that really exist.
Q. Why did you choose Harper to be your main character?
A. In the novel prior to The Fireman, I wrote about a woman named Vic McQueen, a tattoo-inked biker with a hard edge. She represented one idea of strength, one kind of female protagonist – a James Cameron style female lead, like Ripley from Aliensor Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. Nothing wrong with that kind of hero, but I wanted to explore a different kind of strength in the new book. Harper’s strength is in her humor, her sense of compassion, her decency, and her unflinching willingness to do what is right regardless of what it might cost her.
Q. What is the importance of Harper’s pregnancy in the midst of the chaos brought on by Dragonscale?
A. Biology prevents me from ever finding out what it would be like to be pregnant. But it’s amazing, right? This new life-form hijacks a woman’s body to serve its own needs. I saw a clear connection between what a fetus does and the way the Dragonscale operates. It too is a life-form that forces the human body to play host. In a sense, Harper’s body becomes a battleground. the landscape for a fight between two opposing armies: life and death.
Also, though, every pregnancy has three acts, just like a play or a good novel. I have great faith in the three act structure.
Q. One of the things I love about your writing is the way you are able to portray a realistic struggle between good and evil characters on a psychological level in a way that seems relevant to day-to-day life despite the extreme circumstances the characters find themselves in. This was true of Ig and Lee in Hornsand now also of Harper and Jakob in The Fireman. How do you approach these ideas of good and evil when you’re writing?
A. You’re very kind.
I try not to think about capital-E Evil at all. I try to figure out what each person wants and how far they’ll go to get it. My definition of evil is when you want something and you don’t care who you have to hurt to get it.
Jakob wants to do his part to save the world from going up in flames. In Jakob’s mind, he’s the dude in the cowboy hat fromThe Walking Dead. If you kill someone with Dragonscale, you know they’ll never burst into flames and maybe take your neighborhood with them. In his mind, his actions are the work of a good, unselfish man. Everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story.
Q. How did you approach this same idea of good and evil within individual characters in relation to their internal struggle? Such as with Ben who is able to justify violence on several occasions, but refuses to swear.
A. Ben Patchett is a guy who thinks manners are the same as decency. But there’s nothing decent about a polite torturer.
When Ben tortures two men, he’s doing it in the name of protecting 150 lives. In his mind, he’s not engaged in cruelty, but in security.
I go back to what I said earlier. Getting the character’s voice right – that’s a key. Once I’ve got a hold of it, I can unlock their head and step inside their thoughts. Ben finds salty language distasteful. That hinted at his desire for a clean, ordered, polite society.
Q. Why do so many of the characters resort to hurting others (Carol, Jakob, the Marlboro Man) instead of helping others (Harper, John)? Do you think this is indicative of human nature?
A. But Carol would die for the people of Camp Wyndham, all those sick people who have arrived at her secret shelter searching for a way to survive. If Carol kills people, if she hurts people, if she crushes rebellious voices, it’s only because she loves her little community and is frantic to keep them all safe from harm.
And the Marlboro Man is a smug, awful bully, but he never doubts the rightness of his actions. This is a guy who knows he’s doing what has to be done to protect the healthy from the sick. He’s being a man, as defined by a certain kind of 1980s action movie.
When the US launches a drone strike on a terrorist encampment and blasts a hospital instead, they can say honestly they did it to keep us safe and just oops-ed. It’s not that humans are driven to do harm. That’s not the flaw in the design. It’s our genius at morally justifying choices that may in fact not have any moral justification.