Ferndale-based author Josh Malerman’s debut novel Bird Box comes out May 13th on Harper Collins’ Ecco Imprint. (Yes, the Ferndale Library will be adding it to our collection).
The singer/songwriter of Detroit’s rousing rock outfit The High Strung has always had a knack for punchy narratives and provocative characters, pitching them into absurd, alarming, or even astounding scenarios -either in lyrical pop-songs or on the pages of his books.
Malerman’s band, The High Strung, have released seven full length albums, including last winter’s I, Anybody. Their music has been featured in commercials and on television (the soundtrack to Showtimes’ Shameless), as well as attracting a loyal local (and national) fan base.
Bird Box is a story where we don’t so much see things through the eyes of our protagonists as much as we have to hear through their ears…blind-folds are an imperative for your survival and for your sanity. Creatures, some heretofore undocumented new species, some kind of new being or a beast…have begun roaming our countrysides, our cities, our suburbs, our riverbanks and our roads… one sight of them and you delve into suicidal delirium within hours. One look at these things inflicts a mania so malignant it’s as though your exposed retina were really timed self-destruct buttons.
Ferndale Library Author Q&A: Josh Malerman on Bird Box
Jeff Milo: This book deals with a lot of un-seeable and thereby indescribable things – What was that like, describing and narrating so much sightless-ness and did you ever get an image in your own head, your own personal image, of WHAT these devils MIGHT look like, if just to you?
Josh Malerman: Writing Bird Box was a dreamlike experience. I wrote it between the hours of 7am and 11am, for twenty-six days, without chapter breaks, indentations, quotation marks, and the entire thing was in italics. I also had five finches back then, who freely flew about the apartment, uncaged. All this added up to a very dreamy writing experience and a nightmarish book. Because there were no quotation marks, you sometimes didn’t even know who was speaking. Characters simply emerged from the fog and spoke, then vanished again. Therefore, it was natural to write about things unseen, unseeable, and (yes) indescribable. The world outside came to me like it does to the readers; in impressions, flashes, muted colors, before disappearing into the pages again. To say all of that was “intentional” is probably giving me more credit than I deserve. It was something I felt, and something I adhered to. As far as knowing what the creatures look like? I may or may not know. How’s that?
Milo: Much of the enticing melodrama of a “post-apocalyptic” novel is in the visceral punch, the sight of destroyed buildings or wiped-out landscapes or crazy omega-man zombie hordes coming right up to your face. But you have a quieter, teasing, imperceptible world, here… Can you talk about how you feel about that and putting your reader into a limited-sort of “there”-ness, while, yet, there’s so much “anything&everything”-ness that’s “possibly” happening “out-there…”
Malerman: I don’t consider Bird Box to be a “post-apocalyptic” novel. For starters, we don’t know if it’s end-times or not. Since the characters can’t look outside, who knows how things are out there? When I think end-times, I imagine silos smoking, ashen skies, people constantly searching for sustenance and shelter. The neighborhood in Bird Box sounds like a pleasant place, on any other day, and the green grass and blue skies just go unseen.
Michigan is who my heart belongs to.
Milo: …But then, considering just genres of Horror or explicit Suspense, there’s this idea of The Terror or a kind of A Terror, a monster…be it Jaws or Cujo, that needs that big TA-DA reveal – where the teeth are bared and the monster (or The Slasher) is finally reaching for you… and we can SEE them. That big scare is subtly implied here through what the characters, like Mallory, our lead, can hear –
A reader of fiction is seeing through the eyes of their protagonist. Indeed, but we’re ONLY HEARING THROUGH THE EARS of Bird Box characters…Did you realize that that’s what you were setting out to achieve earlier or later, when you were writing and how hard was it to have the scare factor be more of a turn of the screw (cough cough…Henry James…cough…throat-clear) rather than an explicit Shark lunging out of the water for us
Malerman: I hear there are two types of horror-men: one will show you the monster, the other leaves the door closed. I know of a few other varieties, but sometimes it really does just come down to these two. I’ve discovered that I’m both. I’d like to say that it’s a matter of the story, that the characters will lead you, the author, to where the book should go. But, truthfully, sometimes it’s just a matter of what kind of mood you’re in. I’d love to write a book that was essentially the equiviliant of a blakc and white movie for the first 290 pages, then BLAMO! the book exlodes into red for the last few pages. Bird Box went the way it went organically, I believe, but I’ll never underestimate the power of the mood. Mood pokes Perspective. Perspective whispers into the ear of Decision.
Milo: How important (and perhaps why) was it for you to place this in Michigan?
Malerman: If I’ve written seventeen novels, sixteen of them take place in Michigan. Where? I like to point to the middle of my raised hand and say. “Somewhere around here.” It is important to me because 1) I know the state really well, and 2) I love it here. After traveling the country 20 times over with the High Strung, I’ve decided I just love it here; this state, this area, the people and friends. So, setting it in Michigan feels like I’m home, with each story. And the one I set in Iowa? I felt like a stranger the whole time. And maybe that works, that awkwardness, for that story. But Michigan is who my heart belongs to.
Milo: What do you respond to most in a story, when reading a book or an author…? Whatever that may be, was it something that you feel has carried over into your own works, and how you craft narrative/character/story-arcs?
Malerman: I feel the same way about this that I do about music: I’ve never set out to be the world’s greatest guitarist, singer, writer, storyteller. For me, it’s alright for things to be a bit clunky, stilted, undeveloped, awkward, as long as the colors and spirit of the book emerges. If I read the book, and walk away with the right impressions, I don’t mind how that was achieved. So, I guess my answer is that I’m always looking for the spirit in an artist/a work of art. And if I feel it, in a good way, then I’m devoted to him/her for life.