Monday, July 22, 2013


I’ve been a fan of Joe Hill’s since I picked up his first novel, HEART SHAPED BOX, when it was new.  I’d heard many good things about him, but I had not yet heard who his father was at the time.  I found out just before I started reading it, so comparisons to Stephen King were inevitable.  I’m glad to say that Hill’s work kicks a lot of ass, and I’d put it up against almost anything his old man has written.  (Almost.)

Imagine my surprise upon learning that Hill was going to be signing at Anderson’s in Naperville.  How many writers have I met there over the years?  It’s a great place to go for signings, if a bit tight, but as soon as I learned the news, I went to the bookseller’s website to check out the details.

Woe unto me!  You could only get a ticket for the event if you bought a copy of NOS4A2, his most recent novel, at the store!  I had preordered it from Water Street, and it came personally signed to me.  I had to sit down and think about whether or not it would be worth it to buy an extra copy of the book, just so I could meet the author.

The quandary didn’t last very long.  I ordered it at their website and got my ticket number:  59.  Not bad.  I guessed they could fit about a hundred people in there, so I was around the halfway mark.  Cool.  As for the extra book, I figured I could give it so someone as a gift, maybe my brother, Danny, whose birthday was coming up at the time.

Anyway, I gathered up my copies of HEART SHAPED BOX, 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS, and HORNS, as well as the first issue of LOCKE & KEY, the night before.  I drove out to Naperville the next day two hours in advance, knowing that traffic would be shitty, and that I wanted to get there early enough to get good parking and maybe a seat.

When I first walked into the store, I noticed that there was a camera crew hiding down an aisle.  Then, I noticed they weren’t hiding; they were filming.  Who?  Joe Hill, of course.  He’d gotten there early and was doing an interview.

I think this is the second signing I’ve ever gone to where the author has arrived not just on time, but early.  Chuck Palahniuk was the first.  I can’t get over how cool this is.  I’m just too used to authors showing up a half an hour late, fresh from the plane.

Later, I saw on Twitter that he’d mentioned getting there early and was “secret shopping” for books.  I have NEVER heard of an author shopping at the store before their event began.  How fucking cool is that?

All right, so I showed up early, but I still didn’t get a seat.  Couldn’t find one away from the signing, either.  I’d intended to pick up my book, sit down, relax, and start reading it until the event began.  Instead, I stood and started reading.  I wound up with an amazing spot, right behind the last row of seats.  I had the perfect vantage point of the table where he’d be speaking.

Still, the older I get, the harder it is to stand still in one place, especially if I’m trying to read while standing.  Have you seen how big NOS4A2 is?  It’s about 700 pages long, and I practically killed my arms holding it up so I could read for about a half an hour.  Even typing this the next day, I can feel the pain.

I spent some time getting acquainted with Charlie Manx and Vic McQueen while I waited.  Things got pretty crowded, as I expected.  It was hard to avoid being jostled while trying to read.  And then, Joe Hill strode out and stood behind the table.

At this point, everyone in the crowd held up their phones to get a picture of him.  You think I’m exaggerating?  No.  I mean EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THAT ROOM DID THIS.  Except for me.  I’m not a picture guy.  I think an experience is a bit more magical if you don’t record it.

And then, Hill whipped out his own phone and held it up to the crowd.  “Everyone,” he said, “say hi to Twitter!”

Can you point me out?

Wow.  This was quickly becoming one of the most fascinating signings I’d ever been to.

The next day, I saw his tweet, and I saw my own chubby grinning face near the back, waving my hand.

I’m sure you’ve seen a few pictures of him by now, and you’ve marveled at how much he looks like his father.  As soon as he opened his mouth, I realized that he also sounded exactly like King.  He doesn’t have much of the accent.  I think he tries to hide it a bit, but it comes out every once in a while.  As far as tone and volume go, he sounds like a thoughtful version of Jason Lee.

I will say this:  he reads better than his father does.  Hill read the prologue of NOS4A2, and not once did he ever sound goofy.  Nor did he drone.  King did both of those things when I’d met him about 15 years ago.

After this, he started the Q&A.  He mentioned that people sometimes got kind of shy when it came to this part, so to help matters, he said he would either ask himself questions, or he would find the person who looked the most timid and ask them if they knew the capital of Guatemala.  Everyone loosened up after that, and hands shot into the air.

Hill is an incredibly funny guy.  The only author I’ve seen at a signing who was quicker with a joke was Dave Barry, and well, you know.  He’s Dave fucking Barry.  Hill came off as a very nice, funny guy.  He seems to have accepted this part of being a writer very well, but I sensed there was maybe a little bit of apprehensiveness hidden behind all of this.  Later, when someone asked if being raised by two great writers ever had any negative effects, he mentioned being very insecure as a child.  I think there’s still a little bit of that in him, but he conducts himself very well.

Most of the questions were about his parents, his father in particular.  (One person seemed to know Stephen King but had no idea who Tabitha King is.)  He was pretty forthcoming about how he was raised, along with his brother Owen, who is also an author.  He did mention a family game, though, which I think is amazing.  His mother would roll a sheet of paper into a typewriter, and she’d write a few sentences.  She would then leave it, and whoever came into the room next would continue the story for a few sentences and leave it for the next person.  It would seem that the point was to write something that would be very difficult for the next writer to resolve.  He also mentioned that such exercises lost steam after a while because it would always devolve into obscenity.

When asked about collaborating with others, he said he couldn’t do it with someone outside of his family, mostly because he’s a control freak.  He’s okay with how things work out, provided he gets his way.

He also talked about why he went with Joe Hill as his name instead of Joseph King.  Naturally, it was because he didn’t want to cash in on his father’s name.  He wanted to make it on his own merits.  He knew that if the world knew who he really was, they would publish his book just because of that.  However, if the book sucked, no one would ever read his work again.  Fair enough.

He managed to keep the secret just so long as he was unsuccessful.  His breakthrough was when PS published 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS in the UK.  He was able to sell HEART SHAPED BOX solely on the buzz he’d gotten on the collection of short stories.  However, as soon as people started paying attention, it was harder and harder to keep his lineage in the shadows.  By his estimation, he kept it a secret for 10 years.

And then he started doing appearances.  Signings.  Conventions.  People noticed how much he looked like Stephen King.  People realized that King had a son named Joseph HILLstrom King.  They put two and two together, and before long, people were posting on message boards and blogs about it.

Here’s the interesting thing:  whenever Hill saw something along those lines, he would send a private message to the poster, saying, “Hey, you got me.  I’m Stephen King’s son.  But I’m trying to keep that a secret, so I’d appreciate it if you’d take down your post.”  Shockingly enough, 100% of these people complied, mostly because they liked being in on the secret.

That’s amazing.  Could you imagine 100% of people agreeing about ANYTHING on the internet today?

Not all the questions were about his family, though.  There were some about the book, and about writing in general.  In response to one question, he said that he viewed each book as kind of a mystery for himself.  He wanted to find out who his characters were over the course of the book.  That’s the mystery.

A little girl asked him, “Who’s the main character?”

His response:  “Wow, that’s actually kind of an existential question, isn’t it?”  He then went on to say that every character in the book probably thought they were the main character.  Charlie Manx would probably view himself as the hero of the story.  But he said they would all be wrong except for Vic McQueen.

A young man confessed to being a high school teacher . . . teaching HEART SHAPED BOX to his kids.  First of all, I can’t even conceive of that.  There is no way in hell he could have been telling the truth.  I can’t envision any school letting a teacher assign that book to his students.  It seemed to surprise Hill a lot, too.  But the teacher said that the next test was coming up, and he wanted to put a “Joe Hill wants to know . . .” question on it.  It took Hill a moment to think about this.  It was the only question he didn’t have a quick answer to.  Finally, he warned the crowd that he was about to ruin the end of that particular book, and that if they haven’t read it yet, they should cover their ears and go lalalala for a while.  When people didn’t react to this, he said, “No, seriously.  I’m about to ruin the end to HEART SHAPED BOX right now.”  His question to the students?  SPOILER ALERT!  “Do you think Judas and Marybeth stay together after the book’s done?”  If you feel like answering that question yourself, post it in the comments below.  END OF SPOILERS.

Time started growing short, so he went into the rapid-fire Q&A section, in which he said he would still take questions, but he would answer them a lot more quickly.  Sure enough, he lived up to it.  It went so quickly I couldn’t even keep track of the questions.

After this, it was time for the signing.  He said he would sign 3 items per person, and he would personalize one of them.  If you had more stuff, he’d sign it, but he asked that after their turn, that they go to the back of the line so as to be fair to everyone.  I had three books, plus the one I’d just bought, in addition to the issue of LOCKE & KEY.  I wanted HORNS personalized, since that was my favorite.  I also wanted to make sure he got HEART SHAPED BOX and 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS.  I figured if things went smoothly, I’d swoop around later for the other two.

People moved out of their seats to get into line, so I sat down for a while and read NOS4A2 while I waited for my section of numbers to be called.  I got through about 90 pages before that happened.  Not bad.  I read almost all of SURVIVOR while waiting for Palahniuk, just to give you an idea.

By that time, the hour had grown too late, and since there were about 100 people after me (more than I thought there would be), I just decided to get the three signed.  I had the other copy of NOS4A2 at home, anyway.

I stood in line, thinking I would tell him about my mom.  There was a super-long version of that story, but I knew I would have a brief period of time, so I edited it down.  My mom died a few years ago.  Her and I were kind of distant, but we always seemed to agree on reading material, at least when it came to comic books.  Near the end of her life, she loved THE BOYS, LOCKE & KEY, and THE WALKING DEAD almost as much as I did.  These three books (as well as PREACHER, HITMAN, and EVIL ERNIE about 10 years ago) that brought us together.  However, about two weeks before she died, she went into a coma.  She was put in hospice, and the very last time I saw her, I realized it was probable that the next time would be in a funeral home.

The one thing that scares me about death is that I’ll die before I know how all of my series end.  I knew she would feel the same way, so I held her hand, and I made up how those stories ended.  I knew she could hear me because the last time she’d been in a coma, back when I was in high school, and she’d been in a car accident with a UPS truck, when she woke up, she told me that she’d heard me all those times.

She died the very next day.

As Hill signed my books, I told the shortest version of this story I could.  I’d meant it as a feel-good story, trying to show the positive impact he’d had on my life, as well as my mom’s.  I think my story bummed him out a little.  He was very quiet and nervous when I told him about this.

He did ask me how I’d ended it, though.  I told him I don’t think Ty makes it.  Their mom doesn’t make it, either.  I thought Kinsey would step up and save everyone.  (We’ll find out if I’m right soon.  LOCKE & KEY has two issues to go.)

I couldn’t help it.  As I told him this, I kept a very sharp eye on him, to see if he had any tells, to see if I’d nailed any of this.  He kept a poker face.  In fact, he didn’t even look up at me as he drew devil’s horns on the O of the title HORNS.  After, he said, “I hope you like how it ends.”  I shook his hand, and he told me, “Be safe.”

It was at that point that I realized I must have come off as very depressed.  I hope I didn’t give that impression.  I’m not a suicidal guy.  Sure, my mom’s death gets to me from time to time.  I’m over it, for the most part.  It’s just that every once in a while, when I’m not expecting it, it sneaks up on me and cripples me.

But I didn’t mean to bring down the party.  I saw some of the pictures he’d taken at the event, and they were all pretty cool.  If you missed out, you missed out on a good time.  If you ever get the chance to meet Joe Hill, do it.  He’s a hell of a nice guy.  If you can meet him at Anderson’s in Naperville, also try that.  It’s one of the greatest places to meet an author.  The next time you’re in the area, head on in and keep an eye out for framed pictures on the wall of authors who have held signings there.

And be sure to pick up NOS4A2.  I’m not done with it yet, but so far, it kicks all form of ass.

[EDIT:  I have long since finished NOS4A2.  Yes, it kicks ass.  HORNS is still my favorite, but NOS4A2 is up there.]

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