Award-winning author Joe Hill (Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, NOS4A2, 20th Century Ghosts, Strange Weather) is in the middle of a 10-date tour across the country to introduce his latest short story collection, Full Throttle. Stop five on the calendar placed Mr. Hill in Milwaukee, Wisconsin- which just so happens to be about forty-five minutes from my front door. Naturally, my fellow horror fanatic day-job boss and I marked the event down as Must See TV.
We arrived about forty-five minutes before the event began. The first several rows were already full, as we expected. My horror partner for the night, the day-time boss (who just so happens to be independent author Christian A. Larsen) noticed a few rows of empty seats to the right of the podium. Books in hand, we popped a squat and settled in for a few minutes of chit-chat before the man of the hour was scheduled to take the stage.
During the talk, I recognized a tall, shaggy-haired gentleman walking towards us. Making a beeline to the makeshift “green room” that was set up for the event was Joe Hill and a few book store employees. One of my horror heroes was going to be walking right past me. I offered a nod and without missing a beat, Hill extended his hand and thanked me for coming out for the event. My face is still sore from the ear-to-ear grin I was wearing as he slipped into the back room and I was left wondering just how long I could go without washing my right hand after that experience.
The time finally came for the reading and Q&A to begin. Hill, who has become a horror icon much like his father before him, sauntered out of the back room and intently scoured a few bookshelves as the Boswell Books presenter introduced the man who needed no introduction to those in attendance. It doesn’t get much cooler than seeing a best-selling author in his element, scanning the shelves for a potential next read.
Hill didn’t just do a reading- he did a reading, effortlessly navigating through a thirty-minute excerpt of his story “You Are Released”. I won’t provide spoilers, but the tension and dread was palpable up until Hill read the last line. I am quite confident I could listen to this man read the ingredients off of a ketchup bottle and I’d be enthralled.
After that, it was Q&A time. Hill was gracious with his time and even more generous with his responses. Five questions took up about a half hour. The horror-loving gods were smiling down on me last night and I was able to end the chat with this question, “What has been the most personal piece you’ve published?”
The question was met with direct eye contact and an insightful response that absolutely made my night.
“I think the introduction to Full Throttle, actually. When I was in college, I knew I wanted to be a writer and I was always a terrificly insecure guy and I had this fear that I would write a bad novel and it would get published anyway because someone saw a chance to make a quick buck at a famous last name. The thing is, I believe readers are smart and they might buy one book because you’ve got a famous daddy but if the book’s no good, they won’t buy the next book and I really wanted to have a long career and so I dropped the last name and I wrote as Joe Hill for about a decade while I was able to keep the secret. In that time, I wrote a lot of stories that I couldn’t sell, I wrote four novels that I was never able to sell and I wrote some pretty good short stories that did sell and got put in “best of” anthologies and won some literary prizes. It was important to me to have that room just to be “Joe Schmo” and for people not to know anything about my family so I could kind of find my own voice and know that when I sold stories, I sold them for the right reasons- because they were good, not because I was related to someone. I was I was thirty-three when that first book (20th Century Ghosts) came out, I’m forty-seven years old now and the thing is, I love my parents and I’m a huge Stephen King fan. Most of what I know about storytelling and about being a father, I learned from my parents. I wanted to boast on them a little bit and talk about them a little bit so in the intro to Full Throttle, I talk about why I made the choices I made and where I came from, so that’s the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.
Hill is a professional, through and through. He’s got the lottery-winning talent, the charm and charisma as well as the thoughtful insight that every creator wishes they had. Some of us have one or two of those boxes checked, but rarely is someone able to do it all as seemingly effortlessly, as efficiently, as Hill does. It must run in the family.
Book signing and photo opps came next and to say Hill was generous with his time would be a massive understatement. He treated each interaction with appreciation, casually discussing T-shirts and sharing a few anecdotes while signing. It was as if he and the audience members had known each other for decades. In many ways, we have. October 4th in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was a culmination of years of reading, support and love for the genre that will never be forgotten. For that, we have a true champion of horror literature to thank.