Folks in the horror lit scene have been very aware of Josh Malerman since his debut novel, Bird Box, was published back in 2014. Since then, he’s released a truly impressive catalogue: A House at the Bottom of a Lake, Black Mad Wheel, Goblin, Unbury Carol, and On This, The Day of the Pig. He also is a member of the rock band, The High Strung, which perhaps is most notable for doing the theme song for Showtime’s Shameless (check out all of their albums; they’re fantastic). In past interviews, he’s discussed in length how he wrote over twenty novels in his tour bus over the years, long before he ever got published. Thanks to a recent film adaptation of Bird Box released by Netflix, Malerman’s name has become bigger than ever, and I couldn’t be more thrilled for the dude. Next month, his next novel, Inspection, will be published by Del Rey. Considering the massive success from the Bird Box film, it’s never been a better time to be a Malerman fan.
During one of the coldest weeks the entire human race has ever experienced, I called up Josh and demanded answers to a series of questions. Because I work the night shift at a hotel, I tried to get a couple hours of sleep in before our conversation. We had agreed upon a certain time to talk. When I woke up, I found a series of messages from Josh asking me if I realized we did not live in the time zone. I, of course, did not realize this. He lives in Detroit, and I live in San Antonio. The interview hadn’t even started yet and I had already screwed things up. What follows is our Skype conversation, slightly edited for length and coherency.
Max Booth III: I am baffled Detroit is not in Central Time.
Josh Malerman: Yeah, I know, a lot of people are. It looks like it should be Central, right? Like on a map.
MB: Dude, I grew up in Indiana, and most of Indiana is on Central Time, and Detroit is like…right next to us. So, I apologize for standing you up.
JM: Yeah, it’s all right, it’s not the first time this has happened to me. I will forgive you. What a terrible occurrence it was.
MB: How many of these interviews have you done since the movie came out?
JM: I have done…I think, four a day for two weeks now.
MB: Oh my god.
JM: It’s been absolutely wild, man. Yesterday Netflix hired a car service that came here, picked me up, and drove me to a bunch of interviews around Detroit. Like, an oldies radio station, a woman who runs Film Obsession, a podcast thing, and then also like the Fox 2 thing here. And it’s funny, because I saw “Fox” and I thought, “I’m not doing an interview with Fox,” and they were like, “No no no no, they’re just an affiliate, dude,” and I was saying, “I’m not talking to Tucker Carlson,” and they were like, “No no no no, you’re not doing that.”
MB: Trump calls in during the interview.
JM: [laughing] I’m not giving my time to those assholes.
MB: Are you sick now of just answering the same questions over and over?
MB: No? Okay, fine. Then tell me…what inspired Bird Box?
MB: No, don’t. Please don’t. If I wanted to know that, I would just go read every other interview you’ve ever done.
JM: No, as you know, dude, that’s one of those…oh my god. I think, to the non-writer, I don’t know—like, what answer are they expecting there? What answer do they want?
MB: Maybe some kind of traumatic childhood history. Like, “When I was a kid, my mom would blindfold me.” Something juicy that’s gonna make a good headline.
JM: Okay, I’m gonna do that next time. I’m gonna at least do one.
MB: I’ve discovered, in interviews, any time someone wants to know what inspired a book, I always give them a different answer. I just make something up. They don’t give a shit about the truth. They just want something to be entertaining.
JM: Yeah, I read a couple of yours that were like that. You’re like Bob Dylan in your interviews, like, “I’m not gonna give a straight answer, dude.”
MB: You just gotta make up all these false truths, and some crazy fan can piece them all together in the future.
JM: And it’ll all finally make sense.
MB: It’s kind of like Bentley Little. You ever read his author bios? Every bio is something insane.
JM: He’s one of those dudes who’s like Thomas Ligotti, who seems like, “Hey, dude, stay away.” I remember before even joining the HWA [Horror Writers Association] or anything, reading about Thomas Litgotti, because he’s from [Detroit], right where I’m from, and I didn’t know that. I saw an interview where he said that he is annoyed by prolific writers. I was like, “Fuck you.” This was before Bird Box came out or anything.
MB: [laughing] Mr. I Have Twenty-Eight Novels Already Written.
JM: And he was like, [doing an impeccable Thomas Ligotti impersonation] “Oh, it bothers me, writers that write so much—like two a year.” And, seriously, I was thinking, “Fuck you.” You know?
MB: So, how many books do you have written at this point?
MB: Oh, okay, good guess on my part. Any of these books that have already come out—were they all written before you got picked up originally? Before Bird Box came out.
JM: The rough drafts for Unbury Carol, Inspection, Goblin, and Bird Box were all written before Bird Box was picked up. But…[shivers]…if I showed you the rough draft for Inspection, it’s missing at least half of what it has now, and the other half was rewritten entirely. It almost feels like all of those—maybe Goblin was close—but the other ones, they all feel like the greatest outline you could have left yourself. There hasn’t been one yet where I’ve opened it up and went, “All right!”
MB: Are you afraid that you’re going to die before these twenty-eight books come out?
[long, awkward silence]
[another long, awkward silence]
JM: Yeah, I do. We made a crazy movie together, me and my friends. I called the production house—just us, right—I called it a Casket Full of Rough Drafts, for that exact reason. I’ll send you a photo of our logo later. That’s a great question, man. No one’s ever asked me that before.
MB: That’s what I think about every time you mention you have all these books written. I would be terrified of it. I mean, there’s no way you’re going to just be like, [doing an impeccable Josh Malerman impersonation] “Well, I have twenty-eight written. Guess I’m done writing now.” Obviously by the time you do kick the bucket, you’re probably going to have two hundred books written, the pace you’re going.
JM: [laughs nervously] I…I hope you’re right. I’ll even sign up for, like, twenty-nine at this point. But yeah, at some point there has to be, like…Okay, how do we get these out? Because, after Bird Box got picked up, the editors were like, “You can take five years to go work on Black Mad Wheel. Go drink scotch in a cabin and work on it.” And I was like, “Wait, what? Five years? Five years is going to be ten more books.” And it was kind of a real moment where I realized oh shit, if I want these all to come out, I need to figure out other ways. So I looked at the contract and I was allowed to put a novella out—or, really, anything you and I would just call a novella, because I think I can get away with just 50,000 words and they’d still call it a novella. And a couple of those books are like 60-to-70,000, and I can trim those down to novella-length, get them out. So, A House at the Bottom of a Lake, that was one way of doing it. And then I asked about limited editions, and I was allowed to do that; Goblin and On This, The Day of the Pig were both those. I’m doing something with The Wolverine Line, which is another one. It’s like in a trunk here at my office. That one’s about 70,000 and I’m going to try to get it down to like forty or fifty. Then my manager’s talking to me, like, “Oh, let’s do this one as a serial audiobook, that kind of thing.” And that’s only to keep up with writing two books a year. I don’t know how…[sighs]…it’s going to be a casket full of rough drafts no matter what I do.
MB: It has to be difficult to remain excited about a book you wrote how many years ago when you’re in the process of working on something new and that’s what you want to talk about.
JM: Yes! Totally, dude. I was on the phone with my kid brother before we started talking, and he had read Pig, and I’m talking to him about this new idea. So, he hasn’t read Inspection and he starts talking about it, and it struck me: Inspection is coming out like in a month. And here I am, talking to Ryan about this other book, we’re talking about Bird Box some because of everything that’s going on, and it’s like oh my god, I need to focus on this. I don’t know. Some things happen along the way. Maybe it’s because my manager, Ryan—his name’s Ryan as well, I’ll mention him probably a lot. Don’t picture a dude with a cigar in Los Angeles. He’s like my age, he’s really nice and amazing. He’s read every single book and, I think, every short story [that I’ve written]. So, he helps a lot in that way, because we’ll be talking about Inspection or whatever, and he’ll be like, “Oh, have you considered Marbles being your next book? Have you this or that?” And I’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, Marbles. Maybe Marbles should be…” So I have someone, I’m not just alone with all these ideas or something, or all these drafts. There’s someone in the room saying, “Hey, man, think about Marbles as the next one,” and you can’t help but start to think about that.
MB: It’s good to have someone like that on your side. I can see how easily you could go nuts. Like a man at the bottom of a tower with a red piano.”
[we both laugh a very long time over this extremely clever joke, which only makes sense if you either a) wrote or b) read Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel]
MB: The folks reading this at home will not understand how great of a joke that was.
JM: I will. Forever.“After a while, it was like, oh wow, this a different world, writing a crime book. It made me really respect that genre, trying my hand at that.”
MB: Anyway, let’s end this interview with a question that’s actually relevant. This is a website called CrimeReads, after all. So…when the fuck are you going to write a crime book, man?
JM: [laughing] Okay, so, the one time I ever, like, completely ripped off another story or literally intentionally aped another book, I read a book called Darker Than Night and it’s about two dudes, like where I’m from, who go to North Michigan to go hunting, and they’re never heard from again. And it’s all these investigations into what happened to them. This is a true crime book. It’s pretty much intimated in the end that, while hunting, they came across some crazy ruffian hillbilly dudes, this family that eventually fed them to their pigs. Like…beat them up and fed them. The worst story you can imagine, right? And, for some reason with that book, I was so thrilled by it, and I was playing a lot of pool in those days with my drinking buddies. So I wrote a book called The Two Drunk Pool Players, where two dudes go North to a pool tournament, and they’re never heard from again. But that investigation leads to, like, they maybe ran into a ruffian group, or maybe they ran into something supernatural and awful up here, something like The Blair Witch Project sorta. It’s the only time I ever gleefully, shamelessly was like, “I’m gonna write a fucking book like this one.” Rather than…you know, like if you read a vampire book you love—or anything—like, let’s say Bracken MacLeod’s Stranded. You read the book and you love it, but it’d be very unwise of us and ill-advised to then go write our own ice-locked adventure. Well, with Darker Than Night, that’s what I did. The only thing is, it kind of showed me how delicate writing in the crime genre is, because that stands as the least favorite thing I ever wrote, and I feel like the reason is I didn’t have the…I don’t know how to explain it, because it was “real”…the crime, the timeline, the investigation…it didn’t have the same elasticity that Bird Box has to me. It didn’t have the same anything goes in the imagination that Unbury Carol or Goblin has to me. After a while, it was like, oh wow, this a different world, writing a crime book. It made me really respect that genre, trying my hand at that.
MB: Wow. Way to kiss ass to the crime-writing community.
JM: Yeah, totally.