The Fright Stuff
How the high strung’s Josh Malerman sealed a six-figure horror book deal while scared silly.
Published: August 21, 2013
On the surface, Malerman isn’t the stereotypical horror movie fan, decked out in Texas Chainsaw T-shirts and eager to describe in minute detail their favorite torture scene from a Hostel movie. Rather, Malerman wallows in the thrill of the fright. He enjoys that feeling you get after the movie has ended and you don’t want to turn the lights off, the movies that linger in your head hours after they’re over. In fact, Laakko tells us that, after recently watching The Conjuring, Malerman made her escort him to the bathroom at 4 a.m., too afraid to go pee by himself. He wouldn’t have it any other way; Malerman understands that to not find a horror film scary is akin to not finding a comedy movie funny. What’s the point?
“I think there are two types of horror fans,” Malerman says. “One laughs at the gore and wants to see the best kill possible. ‘Did you see that she was hung on a meat hook?’ It’s all about taking apart that sort of thing. The other type of fan is legitimately scared. I’m in the latter category. With The Conjuring, I’m 38 years old and I’m literally watching it with my hands over my eyes. I think some horror authors are trying to scare you, but with me, I’m as scared as the reader is of the story. I’ve always been that way, since watching the Twilight Zone movie — watching Firestarter when my parents were out, or sneaking out to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street at a friend’s house because I couldn’t watch it at my house. That makes you doubly scared — of the movie, and of the possibility of Mom finding out.”
Just to set his mother’s mind at ease, Malerman went off and formed a rock ’n’ roll band then set about touring the nation in search of adventure and the occasional paying gig. The High Strung has the sort of admirable work ethic that sees them on the road more than not. The band made the news when they planted their old and dying tour van outside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland (homemade plaque included) without being invited, and they tasted some top-level success when their song “The Luck You Got” was picked to be the main theme to the William H. Macy show Shameless. With all of that going on, when does Malerman find the time to write?
“We were off the road for two months when I wrote that first book, Wendy,” he says. “The next eight came riding shotgun while Derek [Berk, drums,] was driving us around the country. Derek loves driving. Chad [Stocker, bass,] loves sleeping in the van. For years, Derek would be driving, I’d be frantically typing out a novel — I only use two fingers — and Chad would be asleep behind us. Then we’d drink and play a rock show. But if you think about it, there is a lot of downtime on the road. If you write two or three hours a day, you can get a lot done in that time.”
High Strung bassist Stocker says that Malerman rarely switches off when the band tours. “He’s always creating environments, situations and the characters to go along with them,” Stocker says. “When he’s not doing that, he’s steeping himself in reading or listening. Just driving around the country over and over again, he’d be coming up with these characters half-based on his fears, or ambitions, half-based on his true experiences. I think having so much empty space and time to fill in your day, when traveling like that, promoted his creative drive. It was that or waste away thinking about the other side of the coin: ‘Shit, man, I live in a truck with two other dudes, I’m stealing Snickers bars and hot dogs from truck stops to eat, and we are going to sleep in the truck tonight in Mississippi in August. I hope to get a shower soon. I’m just a glorified bum!’”
Malerman knows that too many details can ruin a surprise, so he’s reluctant to give too much about Bird Box away. He carefully teases us, saying, “Bird Box is essentially a young mother’s tale of raising two children in a macabre, shadowy and extremely dangerous world. You can’t look outside, you can hardly go outside, and a blindfold is your greatest protection. The book alternates between two key moments in [the mother] Malorie’s life: when she is pregnant and arrives at a house where other people are attempting to understand what has happened to the outside world, and when she is desperately traveling a river, blindfolded, with the two children. Where they are going, what they are leaving behind, and what they might encounter on the river makes up the meat of the story. The bird box is an alarm system that they use.”
In this case, the story of the writer’s success might be as compelling as the story he has written. With no knowledge of the publishing industry to guide him, Bird Box really did seem to fly into the hands of all the right people before becoming the subject of a bidding battle. “The book went to auction, and there were a few publishing houses that I spoke to on the phone,” Malerman says. “They told me what they had in mind for it, and they were all amazing. It seemed silly to say no to anybody — I wanted to give everyone a book. HarperCollins’ editor, Lee [Boudreaux], is absolutely fantastic and that’s what sold me on them. She’s super intelligent and full of good ideas. Allison was out of town at the time. I was at home, on the balcony, freaking out while talking to my agent. The agent sent the book to publishing houses, and then their answers started to come in. If anybody wanted to join in on the auction, they told her as much. I knew that one of the houses was going to put Bird Box out. It was just a matter of which one.”
Malerman’s agent Kristin Nelson is no fan of horror, but when she couldn’t put the book down she felt that she was on to a winner. “I just couldn’t stop reading,” she says. “I had to find out why Malorie is blindfolded, why is she on the river, what the heck is going on in this world and will she survive. And the editors I gave it to all felt the same way. In fact, I sent Josh’s editor, Lee, the manuscript on a Thursday. The next day, she sent me an email around 7 p.m. on a Friday night cursing me. She had popped open the novel to just give the first chapter a look and then several hours later, hadn’t finished making dinner for her family. She couldn’t stop reading until she had reached the end. That following Monday, she made an offer.”
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