Joe Hill on new novel The Fireman

Feature by Ross McIndoe | 06 May 2016
  • Joe Hill

Joe Hill – aka Joseph Hillstrom King – has followed up his hit novels Horns and NOS 4R2 with the post-apocalyptic tale The Fireman. Ahead of its publication and a visit to Scotland, he talks BBQ babies and end-of-the-world empathy. Oh, and Slade.

“If there was a benevolent god, Slade would have been playing arenas in America.”

And with that, the fundamental question of the existence of a higher power is put to bed. Slade never made it big in America while Quiet Riot – “a bad photocopy of a bad photocopy of Slade” – stole their act and ran. God is dead and has been since at least 1983.

US genre author Joe Hill is a self-proclaimed nerd, out and proud. As a fellow geek, probably the best thing about sitting down to riff with him is the way conversation bounces all across the web of pop culture, riding synaptic flares from new novel The Fireman to his love of the 60s British Invasion. From the Cumberbacklash against Benedict’s new accent in the latest Doctor Strange trailer, via the potentially destructive effects of a group mentality, to the importance of making time in your life for Dwayne Johnson’s Tumblr photos. All the better when those conversational wanderings stumble into definitive answers to major philosophical quandaries.

Talking via webcam from his home across the pond, Hill is burning brightly with the energy of a guy with lots to say, and just enough time to get most of it said before returning to the three million other things he’s got to do that day. He jumps up as we get started to adjust the lighting while admitting: “Normally when I’m videochatting with someone I’m not wearing anything except my horse mask, so this’ll be a new experience.” He rocks from side to side like an excited Weebl when he gets the chance to gently troll his interviewer’s homeland.

“I know you guys love the idea of your independence but, you know, it’s the 21st century and I think it’s time to admit that you are pinned under the imperial boot," he teases, visibly pleased with his mischief. "At the end of the day, you are in the clutches of the crown every bit as much as the Queen’s corgis.” Appearing magically on a monitor from across the globe to issue gleeful taunts, it’s suddenly no secret where this writer of things both sardonic and demonic gets his inspiration from. Write what you know.

The Fireman and the apocalypse

Hill’s new novel The Fireman (an allusion to Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451, the front cover of which is emblazoned across Hill’s t-shirt while we talk) will be released this June and revolves around a plague of spores which swarms the globe, infecting those it touches with a condition called Dragonscale that causes them to burst into flames if they become overly stressed – kind of a catch-22, what with the inherent stressfulness of potential spontaneous combustion.

A lot of what follows plays pretty close to the dystopian blueprint: society crumbles, militias arise, cults form and everyday life becomes a desperate scramble to survive. A genre writer by nature – Hill previously wrote the horror-fantasy Horns (filmed starring Daniel Radcliffe) and the out-and-out horror NOS 4R2 – he happily works within the post-apocalyptic framework while also aiming to write back against some elements of it.

“One of the things that The Fireman is is a reaction to a certain type of apocalyptic story which seems to insist that when society collapses people will stop caring about kindness. That somehow empathy and humanity, decency, a sense of humour, affection; somehow all these things are just luxuries, they’re just optional. And I think that’s a little bit reductive. I think that empathy is not optional; it’s how we’re wired. So I wanted to write a story where we had some of the familiar end-of-the-world tropes but people aren’t cooking babies over the campfire.”

Which is not to say that Hill’s picture of a world on fire is all hugs and drum circles with everyone sitting down to talk about their problems in a calm and rational manner. Some characters do that. Some reach for a twelve-gauge, a mask and a megaphone. (For the latter, those whose response to adversity is to turn violently on the people around them, Hill admits that “I drew my inspiration from the Trump rallies”).

Suspense and sadism

When things go south in one of Hill’s novels, they usually do so in explosive, bone-crunching, blood-spurting fashion, with one hero in particular – like Iggy in Horns or the titular Fireman – pretty much getting the almighty shit kicked out of them for a handful of pages at a time. I mention this and Hill picks up immediately on what he’s really being asked – “Oh right, am I a sadist?” – before moving on to talk about the vital role these ass-kickings play in his creative process.

“What I am is insecure. My fear is that there is so much to distract us now: there’s so much interesting stuff on Tumblr and YouTube, there’s so much binge-worthy TV, there’s a new Marvel movie out every weekend. It’s a real fight to get a reader to invest time in a book. And so I have faith in suspense. If you take a character that readers feel fond of, and you put them through the wringer page after page after page, people will stay with you. So if the characters have to absorb a lot of punishment, that’s just the price they have to pay to keep people interested. Sorry!”

And so Hill’s novels tear forward Mad Max-style, with firing-on-all-cylinders momentum, leaving a character hanging by their fingernails at the end of every other chapter and then watching them crawl to safety with just enough time to make another cheeky Stones reference before the ground falls out beneath them and they’re plunging towards the inferno once again.

Whether it comes from insecurity or not, it takes real skill to sustain that kind of intensity for novels that roar past the 500-page mark, and it’s a quality which Hill has drawn from the types of story he himself enjoys: “So many of the stories I like are relentless. I love the very first Indiana Jones film, which sometimes seems like a single action sequence which lasts from the opening frames to the final frames. I mean, it just never slows down.”

"Optimism is not so easily crushed"

The balance of light and dark that this all-action approach entails is also vital to Hill’s style, bringing to life characters with the heart and humour to make the reader root for them, then unleashing all manner of hell to tear them apart. He does it with a devilish sense of humour that can spark in even the darkest, dankest places: the aforementioned baby-over-the-campfire scenario is a reference to a scene where exactly that happens in Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed dystopian novel The Road, and which Hill describes as “either the most horrifying moment in any single post-apocalyptic novel, or the funniest. Maybe both at the same time, I’m not sure.”

The flipside to his tendency to revel wryly in the darkness is the indomitable decency his heroes display, even as the world around them catches fire. This is never more cheerfully embodied than by his latest heroine, Harper.

“I wanted to write a story where, in spite of everything, the lead character is basically optimistic and a hopeful person, and likes other people and wants to be helpful and loves to laugh and probably sings too loud in the shower. Part of what I think I found out writing The Fireman is that optimism is not so easily crushed.”

He writes characters with kindness at their core and usually leaves at least one of the good guys standing at the end, returning always to a heartfelt belief that at least not all the people all the time are monsters. It just so happens that the ones he likes to write about tend to have at least a little monster in them.

The Fireman is out on 17 May on Kindle, RRP £9.99; the hardback edition is out on 7 June, published by Gollancz, RRP £20

Joe Hill is visiting Scotland on 9 June to launch The Fireman at Sauchiehall St Waterstones in Glasgow (1pm), and Blackwells Bookshop, Edinburgh (6.30pm)