“Never agree to tragedy”
Author Josh Malerman on Rimbaud,
his upcoming sequel to Bird Box,
and the state of the union
“Never agree to tragedy.” In his most recent novel Carpenter’s Farm (available for free to read in its entirety online on his website), one of Josh Malerman's characters utters this memorable line.
On that note, the prolific, multi-talented author of the hit novel Bird Box – which was adapted into a captivating film starring Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich available to stream on Netflix, and spawned the viral video challenge which became a sensation and swept the internet, involving people putting on blindfolds and running into things – and also the man whose music you’ve long enjoyed as the theme song to Showtime’s flagship series Shameless, THAT phenom Josh Malerman, had been tremendously kind enough to sit down with us at Le Spectre and answer a few eclectic questions about his inspirations, what philosophies inform and energize his thrilling novels, and to fill us in upon his distinctive insights and perspectives into this unique and unprecedented moment in history the world is currently experiencing, and the monumentally impactful systemic changes which are quite thrillingly underway!
As tanks rolled past his home in Minneapolis, with drones hovering ominously overhead, Le Spectre’s managing editor Jerome Berglund had the privilege of interviewing a great hero and inspiration of his, whose oeuvre he’d read in its entirety and enjoyed immensely. Hence, we are delighted to present to you answers to a few very eclectic questions which fans of Malerman's writings and film adaptations will surely find revealing and instructive…
Le Spectre: I was recently perusing the French poet Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” and nearly jumped out of my chair when, in the chapter on “Alchemy of the Word” he mentions a parlor at the bottom of a lake. Is it possible that bore any influence or inspiration towards your own seminal work ‘House at the Bottom of a Lake’? While steeped in opaqueness and mystery, that novel seemed to be one of your most intensely personal and meditative in many ways, what else informed its composition?
Josh Malerman: Well if Rimbaud did influence A House at the Bottom of a Lake, it was of the subconscious variety. I read some of A Season in Hell when I lived in New York City, back in 2000. So it’s possible. It’s rare to be able to trace where an idea came from, most writers (myself included) will tell you we’re not sure, it came from the ether, it was like I got bonked on the head and the birds circling my face sang an idea. But in this case I actually do know where I got it.
Check it out: way back in 2001 I found myself at my dad’s house for an extended period of time. I’d been trying to write books and “failing” (to me, the only stories I consider failures are the ones I don’t finish), but I set the typewriter up in his garage and set to work on one called George Wax: Man of Wax. While working on it, I met a fella who was living in the converted garage of my dad’s neighbor. Weird, tall, blonde dude who claimed to have lived in a treehouse for a number of years and who told me he and some friends were going diving in a nearby lake because they’d heard there was a full house at the bottom. He said it got there when, long ago, someone tried to shortcut it and drag the house across the lake in the dead of winter. The ice broke, the house sank, and it sits there today. I was like holy shit! A few years later, 2004, and I finished my first book. Wendy was one of the brightest artistic experiences of my life. And in it is a bit about this couple who try to drag their house across the lake, etc. Years after that, many years, I was canoeing with my fiancé Allison on a lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That lake led to another by way of a tunnel covered in graffiti. As we floated out to the second lake, I was struck with the vision of Allison and I passing over the roof of that house from Wendy, which was, as you now know, from that dude’s story. The whole concept struck me as an especially great metaphor of falling love. And from there? The book practically wrote itself.
Le Spectre: In that, Bird Box, Inspection, and Black Mad Wheel (most prominently), allegory and symbolism seem to be very bread and butter for you, favorite choices from your palette, some of the territories you favor, exhibit the greatest comfort exploring, have achieved the most potent and memorable results through. What draws you to the rife genres of science fiction and metaphorical satire, what do you enjoy most about the possibilities they provide you as author, for the characters and plots you can harness them towards?
Josh Malerman: I’ve always seen horror as “the imagination unchained.” I’ve never been entirely interested in “realism” in a book, though I’ve loved many books like that. There’s a certain arrested development in horror that I cherish, like a huge wide-eyed child at a typewriter, hammering away at his or her nightmares. It’s not an excuse to be as childish as I want to but rather those of us who write horror come to the genre because we’ve maintained a strong thread from our youth, that part of you that still believes, or can temporarily believe, these insane things exist. And if the stories we write and read are possible, even if only for the duration of the read… What isn’t? That’s empowering as hell to me. And once I took hold of that conceit, I understood, clearly, that I could tell a story any way I wanted to, the more elastic the better, while still suggesting that “reality” that so many people look for.
Le Spectre: Black Mad Wheel is my favorite writing of yours, one I hope more enjoyers of your esteemed works find their way into possession of, so they too can be privileged to wonder at its many rich facets, with similar awe to what I and others who’ve had the pleasure have been so grateful to experience. In it you boldly explore some delicate and far-reaching themes, topics of great sociopolitical import which many established commercially successful authors shy away from, evince fear of overtly delving too deeply into. How do your political, ethical, or moral beliefs affect your writing, the subjects you decide to focus upon? If you could be king for a day, were given a scepter and allowed to make a few critical reforms, what would you change about the world and its/our governance, what do you consider the most urgent priorities?
Josh Malerman: First off, thank you. Black Mad Wheel is the favorite of my kid brother Ryan and so the book comes up a lot over in my neck of the woods. I love talking about it, truth be told. Also, just today, literally today, I received the rewrite for the script. It was written by Barnett Brettler and it’s being produced by Scott Free and Spin a Black Yarn. The rough draft of the script was some 180 pages and I liked it so much I printed it up, knowing it would be rewritten, knowing it wasn’t the final, and I keep it with all my other writing, even though I didn’t write it. It’s electrifying. So, with a little luck, and a lot of work, we may see the movie version sooner than later. Eyes crossed on that (we cross our eyes rather than our fingers, no idea why). Also, a note: the audio book of Black Mad Wheel I incredible. I have yet to meet the fella who did it, Robertson Dean, but he couldn’t have captured the rhythm better than he did. Listening to it, for me, almost felt like hearing someone perform a song you wrote better than you play it. I adore that audio book. Okay, now, to the politics:
I couldn’t be more anti-war than I am. It’s maddening to me that it’s even an option. The book talks about this, right? How because war is an option, wars happen. Whereas, if the option were to paint a country blue, we’d paint the country blue instead. It’s the least intelligent way to solve any problem and as the years pass, everyone who was either involved with the war or was for the war at the time, they all say it was pointless and was never for what they thought it was for at the time. It’s 2020. Can we move on from this even being an option already? So yeah, Black Mad Wheel is essentially a rumination on that idea. War makes a sound. History makes noise. And poor Philip is tasked with locating the source of that sound. But Philip would rather play piano and drink, right? Just like you or I or any thinking human being. Yet, here he is, not only a former soldier, but now given the job of finding the very center of all that inanity. The source.
I’m not afraid of expressing political views in a book at all. I don’t necessarily set out to do that, no book of mine is an intentional treatise, but if I’m feeling it? I write it. And why not? Recently I wrote an 1,100 pager called Ghoul n’ The Cape about a secret service agent gone AWOL when he discovers the POTUS isn’t going to inform the country that an enormous celestial entity is coming to wash over America, to essentially brainwash the whole country. He flees his post, and the book is an epic tale of his escape from the entity while attempting to make heads of it as he goes. Even with this book I didn’t set out to “express my political views.” But how can you not feel something today? How can you not be moved to write something that marks how you feel? I don’t want to turn around in ten years and think, Shit, I wrote a bunch of ghost stories at a time when I had a chance to really say something. So, Black Mad Wheel and Ghoul n’ The Cape mean a lot for me in that way. As goes if I was “king”: I would eliminate the role of King or President and replace it with a think-tank. It’s clear to me that we’re beyond a single human mind as being the deciding factor in anything we do. We’re past “worship.” We need intellectualism. The educator of the year? Let’s put him or her in charge of education. The most brilliant person in regards to fitness? Let’s give him or her the dept. of health. Let’s fill a room with geniuses in their respective fields rather than put any weight on the whims of one person.
Le Spectre: Any chance Unbury Carol might be enjoying its own film adaptation anytime soon? That I would eat 50 hardboiled eggs in an hour to see!
Josh Malerman: You just made me laugh out loud. Cool Hand Luke! So, Carol: I read the first draft of the script and I loved it. Smoke was rendered pitch perfect. And because the book started with him (I know, weird place for this book to have started, but it did), I feel particularly good about the script. I’m told the rewrite will be happening very soon. And from there? We shall see. But wow, can you imagine watching Smoke limp across a screen, scored by someone like, say, Joseph Bishara? I can’t imagine anything more electrifying in my life.
Le Spectre: I’ll endeavor not to spoil anything, but your readership surely won’t be extraordinarily surprised when I mention that Inspection and Black Mad Wheel near their conclusions both contain a certain orgy of bloodshed characteristic to Malerman works which you are so expert at deploying and articulating. It makes me think of the slave revolts which allowed Haitians to achieve their liberty, and those within our own borders waged nobly and impressively by Nat Turner to win people’s rights and freedoms. Similarly, many of your strong, empowered leading women characters bear no small resemblances to feminist icons like Harriet Tubman or Rosa Luxembourg, who did not take oppression lying down.
It makes me wonder, are you consciously seeking to explore the Paradox of Tolerance in your novels, or have they become striking and emblematic examples of related concepts intuitively? With hate crime and racially motivated violence on the rise throughout the world, beyond fiction’s pages do you think there are inroads toward peace through entirely pacifistic means, or would you say people would be wiser learning skills and securing means of defending themselves should they find their safety threatened?
Josh Malerman: Again, thank you for the good words. You know, it all started with Malorie for me, Malorie the character, as goes strong female leads. I wrote the rough draft in 2006 and all I really began with was a mother and two kids blindfolded in a rowboat. The image had no meaning yet, no context. But I started writing the story anyway and very early on I understood I better explain these blindfolds. So began what’s become a career of strong female leads. Malorie, Carol, K, Ellen, Amelia, Olympia, more. I related to these characters on a level I didn’t with the men I wrote. It’s difficult for me to explain. They just felt… smarter than the men I wrote. That’s not say I only write women, of course, that’d be weird, but I did find an immediate bond with Malorie that seems to have persisted and carried over into other books. Then, to see Sandra Bullock on a big screen, playing the role of Malorie, it was almost like all these vague feelings of mine galvanized and I understood that Malorie is closest I’ve ever come to writing myself into a book. That I would behave exactly as she does. Carol felt the same. Ellen. As goes Inspection, K is probably a lot braver than I am. I think I would’ve been more like her best friend B. I would’ve gone along with her, but I’m not sure I would’ve had the backbone to start it myself. So yes, when you write enough books, themes begin to emerge, and you discover you write certain character types more often than you don’t.
As goes the second part of this question: again, I’m full blown anti-war. But the oppressed rising isn’t the same thing as war, obviously. Inspection is probably the best example of what you’re asking and in their case? What else could they do? Their entire existence was oppressed, every facet of it. And when this became clear to K, she had no other choice but to slice her way out of that. I’m a non violent person. Truly. And I think the violence that erupts in Inspection could be taken more metaphorically, as in, cutting the bonds that tie you down. K and co actually cut people in the book, but if you go back to the idea of a think tank over a king or a president, I wonder how many of those bonds wouldn’t be there in the first place.
Le Spectre: There’s an adaptation of a speculative Philip Roth book coming soon to HBO, which I couldn’t help noting appeared to overlap decidedly in Venn diagram with some of the most prominent themes and concerns your works have pressingly addressed. What authors would you say have most significantly influenced you in becoming the proficient, capable storyteller readers so enjoy today? Did any specific work/s (novel, poem, song, or film) contribute most especially towards shaping your personal style and/or worldview?
Josh Malerman: Such a well-worded question and such a difficult one to answer. Like you, I’ve read so widely, and so much, that it’s sometimes hard to trace those initial influences. I know I fell in love with horror for the imagination. Faulkner for the language. Virginia Woolf for the atmosphere and mood. I went on a classics bender in which I read so many reality shattering novels and that run led me to Dracula which served as this ah ha moment for me, a reminder that horror could be “classic,” horror could be as “legit” as Dickens. Genre has come a long way since I started writing and publishing, it’s come a long way quickly, and people like Philip K. Dick are no longer curiosities but seers. I think something happened, some combination of growing up in a cinematic world, so many movies, so many books, that a lot of us had the same idea at the same time: let’s blur the lines of literary and genre so that it’s impossible to tell the difference.
Le Spectre: Malorie will be your first sequel or continuation of an earlier work. What was that like for you? Was it difficult departing from the blank slate you are used to? Did you enjoy returning to familiar territory, seeing old friends rather than making introductions for a change? Any hints at where readers can hope to find that beloved titular protagonist, what she’s been up to these days? Assuming this goes swimmingly, leaps off stands and shelves with predictable frenzy, is a sequel film also in the works? I love seeing “A Bird Box Novel” on the cover, could that allude to a potential trilogy or series on the horizon? I saw a short story of yours appeared in Weird Tales recently, might an anthology of more bite-sized pieces also be in the works?!
Josh Malerman: So you might imagine that I would feel tremendous pressure sitting down to write Malorie. The book Bird Box reached #4 on The New York Times best seller list, the movie was an absolute phenomenon. But I felt no pressure at all. A long time ago, living in New York City, I had a moment where I was trying to record a song and there was something afoot, some sort of fight or some tense issue, I don’t recall, and I remember telling myself to physically put ART and WRITING in a safe place in my head. I told myself that no matter what was happening around me, good or bad, amazing or horrifying, I will always be able to write freely. From there I wrote books in the van as we toured the country. I wrote books in bars. I wrote a song during a soundcheck, and so on. I made a point to protect that childlike wonder that I value so much in writing a book or an album. And, so, that philosophy worked wonders for me with Malorie. I had the time of my life writing that book. And from page one I was glad to see Malorie again.
So, most of the book takes place 12 years after Bird Box ends. Tom and Olympia (if you recall, Boy and Girl were named so at the end of Bird Box), are now 16. They’re living this life, living at an abandoned summer camp, when a man claiming to be with the census arrives. Malorie demands he leaves, won’t let him in. And he leaves, but he also leaves behind a copy of his pages. And among these pages are lists of survivors all over the Midwest. And on that list are a couple names Malorie was sure had died. And so begins an insane, scary trip, never knowing if this is all some kind of trap or if the names on that list have died since being noted. So it’s a sequel, yes. And the movie side is moving forward (!), and I wouldn’t rule out a third book but it would have to be a helluva idea. It’s my first time “returning” to a world and I loved it. Makes me think of writing Goblin 2 or perhaps another story on The Trail. But I’ve got so many ideas, you know? So, so many. So we shall see about all that.
As goes a collection of shorts: hell yes I want to do this. Not sure what that would look like yet. I have a collection of novellas coming out in a couple years, called Spin a Black Yarn (that’s where we got the name for our production company from), but that’s still a ways off.
Exciting, though, right? Unreal.