If you're an avid reader of horror who regularly ingests and searches for the next big thing, there is no doubt that in the past year you've come across the words "Bird Box" more than once, as you scoured Goodreads, Google, blogs and Facebook for recommendations on what to read next. If you've already read Josh Malerman's BIRD BOX then you're on that long list of people who share the suggestion of this claustrophobic tale about incomprehensible terror, insanity, and extreme perseverance.
When Josh isn't tirelessly writing fiction he's writing songs for his band The High Strung. And while he may be sitting on a mountain of manuscripts since the release of BIRD BOX, he promises to give his readers more very soon. Much more. One such piece can now be found in Crystal Lake Publishing's new anthology GUTTED: BEAUTIFUL HORROR STORIES with his story "The One You Live With."
C.Lutzke: I read your contribution to GUTTED: BEAUTIFUL HORROR STORIES last night (The One You Live With). One of the more nontraditional stories in the collection, and I very much enjoyed the voice. I'm curious about the genesis of it. Any cool story that goes along with how you came up with the idea?
J.Malerman: It was the idea of a woman being haunted by her own self. Not a possession and definitely not a split personality thing. But to consider your “other” self, the private you, as its own entity... that freaks me out. Because then you’re not alone in there and who knows who is leading who to do what. I do think we all have a private self no matter how open we are. It’s just impossible not to change, to get geared up, when you’re around other people. In this way, I guess it’s a little abstract: a woman’s public persona is haunted by her private one. Or is it the other way around? The real psycho-crack here is... which is the real Dana? And if it’s somewhere between the two... then who is she at all? That’s an identity crisis on a billboard right there. And yet, maybe the freakiest thing about Dana is that, while she’s aware of this (thanks to Mom), she’s somehow managed the balancing act. She gets ugly in front of the mirror as an eighty year old woman, same as she did when she was a kid. I like that about her, that she never tipped all the way in one direction or the other, never declared ‘THIS is me.’ But of course, that’s also what makes her frightening. She’s a kind of living ghost in that way. The only real genesis of the story would be my own worries about maintaining my personality no matter who I’m around. You ever notice that you’re funnier around people who think you’re funny? And I don’t mean that they laugh at the same jokes others don’t laugh at. I mean that your content is actually funnier when you’re around them! Like when you dream in languages you don’t speak. It’s astonishing to me how much of our personalities are guided by the vibes we get from the people around us. If you walk into a room full of people who think you’re a brilliant man, you’re more liable to say something brilliant. This all worries me. Because, ONE why can’t we consistently be our whole selves at all times? And TWO who’s to say you’re around the right people, the people who bring out the good shit? All your life you’ve said, “Oh, it’s not me to be spontaneous.” And yet, would it have been you if a bunch of kids called you spontaneous on the playground, thirty years ago? To me, that’s horror. The alternate yous. The inner yous. All compared to the current you.
CL: Based on what Dana's mother says in your story, would you consider Josh the musician and Josh the writer two different yous? And do you prefer one over the other?
JM: Great question. I would say they’re different people, yeah, but they’re close. Kinda like how Dana’s mom tells her that her two yous are still close together because she’s just a kid. Writing scary books and little songs have always been a fountain of youth for me. So, while the two are different form one another, they’re both juvenile, together, and close, like young Dana’s two sides. The real “other” me is the guy who freaks the fuck out in the middle of dinner and thinks, “My God... all this time you thought you were an artist... but you’re only a shadow of one.” That guy has got to go. But he doesn’t! As you know, as we all know, he doesn’t. But I’ll tell you what, he’s got a sweet tooth, Superman ice cream, and I found a parlor he likes, and I can distract him for long periods of time.
CL: Lyrically, what is one of your favorite songs?
JM: Check this one out (and it’s somehow fitting with “The One You Live With”):
You think we look pretty good together
You think my shoes are made of leather
But I'm a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young, but I'm just back-dated, yeah
Substitute your lies for fact
I can see right through your plastic mac
I look all white, but my dad was black
My fine-looking suit is really made out of sack
I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth
The north side of my town faced east, and the east was facing south
And now you dare to look me in the eye
Those crocodile tears are what you cry
It's a genuine problem, you won't try
To work it out at all you just pass it by, pass it by
Substitute me for him
Substitute my coke for gin
Substitute you for my mum
At least I'll get my washing done
The Who’s “Substitute”
That line, “The north side of my town faced east and the east was facing south.”
And this verse, by my friend Mark Owen, is out of this world:
“Buried in the cellar,
there’s a fortune teller.
One time she read, my palm she said,
‘You’re no Rockefeller.’”
From his song, “Never, Never, No”
CL: When I write, the only thing I can listen to in the way of music is instrumentals (usually soundtracks) or I get too distracted. Is there a genre of music that gets the creative juices flowing for you?
JM: Soundtracks, for sure. I’ve got one helluva collection of horror movie soundtracks on vinyl. I’d love for you to come over and listen to some right now. I’d love for every reader to hear ‘em. Some of the best are Under the Skin, Creepshow, Troll. Up until recently I would say the same thing you said about songs with lyrics, that they distract me while writing, like I’m listening to Chuck Berry and suddenly one of my characters is riding along in his automobile. But I’d like to give rock n’ roll another chance. I’m gonna try writing the next book to a rock soundtrack and see what comes of it. Let the pace run me. I’m game. I’m ready for that now.
CL: What scares you?
JM: Probably being out of control scares me most. Back when my friends were trying LSD I gave it a single go and I made the unutterable mistake of trying to stay rooted in reality while surfing the rings of Saturn. Bad idea. So there you had a situation where a fella (me) got freaked out because he was trying to stay cool at a time when he should’ve been a freak. And yet, the ‘letting go’ was the scariest idea of all. I realize it’s something I gotta work on. I'm not a control freak with my friends or band or lady (Allison), that’s not the kind of control I mean, but I do tend to keep one foot on planet Earth until I start reading or writing. Those are the only times I truly ‘let go.’
CL: Any weird rituals or practices you do when writing that you wouldn't want us to know about unless put on the spot for an interview?
JM: Well, as you know, you drop a lot of your good ideas all over town. In the bars and restaurants, on a friend’s couch, in the alley behind the shoe store, and so I gotta go run and pick them up before writing them down. Gotta go scurrying around town, looking for little piles of ideas, bag em up and bring 'em home to the office. Then I dump them all out on the floor. Our new puppy eats one or two. So then I gotta jam my finger down her throat, get her to throw up the story idea about a woman who is stalked by two stalkers (who don’t know about one another) and then I can sit down to write it.
CL: If there was one writer you wish you could collaborate with, living or dead, who would it be?
JM: I would love to write a book with John F.D. Taff. I would love to write a book with D. Alexander Ward. My great friend Mark Owen. My mom. My kid brother Ryan. My older brother Derek.
CL: You're putting together a four-person supergroup and you have to have at least one female in it...who are your members and what do you call it?
JM: Let’s put my girl Allison Laakko on vocals. You gotta hear her. Gonna blow your lid. And let’s surround her with Steve Cropper (Booker T and the MGs) on guitar, James Jamerson (Motown) on bass, and someone simple but fun like Doug Clifford (CCR) on drums. Ray Manzarek on organ with them. Ray and Allison would shine like the moon in that band. Let’s call them...
CL: What's next for you as far as writing goes?
JM: Book 2 for ECCO/HarperCollins is done and they’re working on the cover art now. I’m rewriting the first 50 pages or so of books 3, 4, 5 (they’re already written) so that I can show them those. For me, it’s taken way too long between Bird Box and Black Mad Wheel (that’s my next book, book 2, not a sequel, and this is the first time I’ve mentioned the title anywhere) but I’m learning. I think I understand the pace of the publishing industry now and I won’t let a gap like this one happen again. And yet, I’m freakin thrilled about Black Mad Wheel so... I guess it doesn’t matter how or when it came to be. Sometimes I forget that Bird Box is my first book, and that I’m gonna need to learn some things about the business side. Other good news: A novella in the fantastic collection I Can Taste the Blood comes out August 23rd. Short stories in the Jonathan Maberry edited anthologies Scary Out There and Out of Tune 2. A short story in the Max Booth III and Lori Michelle edited Lost Signals. And a free standing novella (170 pages I think?) coming out later this year with This is Horror called A House at the Bottom of a Lake, which is about two teenagers who discover a helluva clubhouse under water. Also working with Dark Regions Press on a “definitive/illustrated” edition of Bird Box. And a short story in the Michael Bailey edited You, Human. That’s a lot of great stuff. Scripts, too. And a new novel, as yet untitled, about a bitter psychiatrist who sets out to frighten his patient.
CL: Throw out a link or two for those interested in finding out more about you and your work.
JM: Facebook is about it for me. My agent, Kristin, has someone working on a website now. I’m very excited about that. But yeah, Facebook is about it right now. I need to stretch out in that way, huh. But like I said... I’m learning.
I also wanted to make sure I said thank you, to you, and to Doug Murano and D. Alexander Ward who published my first short story (ever) in Shadows Over Main Street. I love you all, and this is what we’re all living for, excited for, working toward. Writing and reading and the thinking that follows. So, to Doug and D, THANK you for having me with Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories and I see an endless golden literary future for them both.