Horror writer Joe Hill on following in dad Stephen King's footsteps
As the child of two authors – one of them Stephen King – grisly suspense is in Joe Hill's blood. The award-winning novelist tells Hannah Stephenson about curbing anxiety, why he'll never be in competition with his father and the 'masochistic' nature of writing
ASK horror and suspense master Stephen King's son Joe Hill what scares him, and he launches into a rhetoric that clearly shows he's a chip off the old block.
"I worry about bats when I'm on my motorcycle," he muses. "I imagine buzzing along on my motorcycle with my visor up on my helmet and then a bat hitting me in the face and its wings shattering and the visor clamping down and trapping the bat in my helmet with me."
His voice becomes more frenetic, the words spilling out in an explosion of fearful excitement. "And the bat is broken. It's shrieking at me and the little staples of its fangs are there, biting me in the face again and again and again..."
And that's just when he's talking – pick up Hill's latest novel The Fireman, an apocalyptic tale in which a deadly virus known as Dragonscale causes people to spontaneously combust, and you'll see more grisly imaginings on the page, often peppered with humour.
The 768-page epic focuses on school nurse Harper Grayson, infected and pregnant, who escapes her nice-turned-nasty husband and meets the eponymous fireman, who has managed to harness the illness and helps her join a community of infected fugitives learning to control their sickness.
It's difficult to know when Hill (44), who is the spitting image of his famous father, is joking.
Asked how he came up with the idea for people bursting into flames, he recalls: "When I was 12, I read about spontaneous combustion and became convinced that's how I was going to die. For the next two years, I was sure at any moment I might burst into flames.
"Now I'm in my 40s, I can look back and see that what I was actually experiencing was puberty. It's like all your hormones are coming to the boil and the possibility that you could ignite at any time seems very reasonable."
This is Hill's fourth novel; using a pen-name, however, allowed him to forge his own successful writing career without being accused of nepotism.
"I was very insecure and I had a fear that if I went out as Joseph King, I would get published because I had a famous dad. I really needed to know for myself that if I sold a story, I sold it for the right reasons, because people liked it and not because they saw a chance to cash in on celebrity. I was able to keep it a secret for about a decade."
His big break as Joe Hill came when he sold an 11-page Spider-Man story to Marvel. Shortly after, he had a book of short ghost stories published – after which he was outed as the son of the world's most famous horror author.
"By then, it didn't really matter, because I had what I wanted, which was the validation and confirmation I needed," he says. "I'd made my mistakes in private."
He is very close to his father (his parents live in Maine while Hill has moved to New Hampshire); they speak on the phone regularly and meet up a lot.
Stephen King's new book End Of Watch (his 55th), was published the same day as The Fireman in the UK, but there's no competition between father and son.
"It would be a terrible mistake to start competing with my dad. He's forgotten more about writing than I'm ever going to know. I'm excited to read his new book," says Hill. "I bet I can sell at least one copy of The Fireman for every four End Of Watch sells. That would be a totally respectable number."
They're a family of writers – Hill's mother Tabitha pens thrillers, and younger brother Owen is a writer (there's also sister Naomi, a minister) – and each new manuscript does the rounds with each of them.
When he was growing up, they'd pass a book around the table after dinner, reading consecutive passages aloud.
"Books were – and still are – my favourite thing," says Hill. "But I was socially clueless and a big dork."
He battled with anxiety from his teens to his late 30s.
"I had a lot of hypochondria and later, when I was working on my second book, my marriage fell apart, I wound up divorced and I had a bit of an emotional crash. At the time, I had increasingly paranoid anxieties about surveillance.
"When I went on tour for Horns [his second novel, which was adapted into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe], I would do public events which would be very funny, with great audience participation, but when I got back to the hotel, the first thing I'd do was take the room apart looking for hidden cameras. I was fixated that I was being secretly watched.
"I had talked with my parents about getting on an anti-anxiety drug for years and had rejected the notion again and again, because I was afraid that if I got on a pill, it would harm my creativity.
"But after Horns, I had three little boys, and I got to a point where I wasn't under contract for another book and I thought, 'You need to see someone about these paranoid fantasies and if you get on a pill and it destroys your creativity, that's just the price you're going to have to pay'.
"I got a very low dose, which I still take, and I got into therapy, which I still do, and I discovered that what was harming my creativity was being a paranoid idiot."
He doesn't know the root cause of the anxiety.
"I've always been a highly strung dude. I don't know if there's a single satisfying origin story for my anxieties, and weirdly, I don't really care. What's important is that they can be held in check so I can have a happy, productive life.
"It may just be a simple matter of biology, that my brain doesn't produce this particular chemical in abundance like it does in a normal brain, and that by taking a little chemical tweak, it all works out."
Since his divorce he has remained single, seeing his three sons every other week.
"Being single has been fine. I'm an inward dude who likes to spend time pottering around. If I'm not writing I'm usually reading. And I do have my three boys for company.
"An inclination towards loneliness can be a good thing for a writer. The whole gig is sitting in your office by yourself in the silence, hugging your frustration to your chest," adds Hill.
"If there isn't some weird masochistic part of you that sort of enjoys that, you really need to find another line of work."
:: The Fireman by Joe Hill is published by Gollancz, available now.