Josh Malermen entered the book scene 8 years ago with Bird Box, a novel about the apocalypse. We met Malorie and watched her struggle past the unthinkable. It was highly acclaimed and was eventually turned into the Film Bird Box for Netflix starring Sandra Bullock. Since then Josh has had added a ton of terrifying books to his repertoire: Black Mad Wheel, Unbury Carol, and A House at the Bottum of the Lake to name a few.
But now with the upcoming release of Pearl, a story about a pig that is difficult to describe, but absolutely unsettling and riveting to read. Josh was kind enough to sit down to interview with us and let you know why you should check out Pearl, and maybe sing for precious Pearl if he asks.
GdM: Can you tell me about The High Strung and how you came by your love of music?
My friends Derek and Chad and John were all playing in bands since we were like ten years old. I didn’t think I had that exact bone in me, but I was already writing back then, weird comics and totally emo poems and eventually short stories. Trying to anyway. So… eventually, Chad and John and another friend Adam invited Derek and me to come join their band. Derek because he was amazing at drums and me because… of proximity. We were all hanging out together all day every day and Derek and I came in a package deal or something and they were like, “We’ll get you an organ, Josh, and we’ll teach you some chords, and you’ll play along. Nothing to it.” And while there was definitely something to it, I loved being part of it all. But the real love for it came one night when Derek and I were practicing in the basement of his mom’s house, organ and drums, and our other friend Mark Owen came over and started singing some of his poems and some of mine over the music Derek and I were playing. That was the moment the songwriting door opened to me, to Mark, and we stepped through it without a second thought. We’re working on a new album now. Mark is the closest thing I’ll ever have to an artistic soulmate. He’s unfathomably great to work with.
The biggest link I’ve found is this sense of a drummer when I’m writing a book. An invisible, shirtless, crazy guy who plays the same beat throughout the entire rough draft. Sometimes that beat is weird and I don’t realize it until the rewrite, but other times it’s four-on-the-floor and easy to follow. Bird Box was like that. I think this comes from the fact that Chad Stocker, the bass player in the High Strung, was really our lead guitarist, even though he was on bass, for many years, while I pretty much played rhythm with Derek. So, for me, songs and books, it’s a lot about rhythm. The roll. And maintaining a steady, unsettling beat for the duration of writing the book.
GdM: Your story of writing on the road sounded pretty fun. I read that you wrote a dozen novels on the road touring with high Strung. How did writing work on a tour bus?
It wasn’t easy! And it was also incredible. Derek loved driving, Chad loved reading or practicing the bass in the back, and I had shotgun to myself. I could either read, sleep, call someone, or… write. We’d average some 4 hours driving a day, which was a pretty perfect writing window, a perfect session. So, I started doing it. I got this lap-pillow thing that had a pillow on one side, a wood board on the other, so it was like a little desk top. And I wrote. I wrote freehand, too. We’d be hungover or tired but we were also living so far under the radar, so broke, so outside the box, that writing novels between cities felt like the exact right thing to do. It was a liminal space, so to speak. I miss it.
GdM: Can you tell me about Spin a Black Yarn, (which is a helluva name by the way) and We Need to Do something? It is exciting for me as someone who loves horror to see you and Max Booth III collaborating.
I met my manager Ryan Lewis some thirteen years ago. I was writing novels in the tour van at the time and he was representing a handful of screenwriters. Ryan worked with an incredible woman named Candace Lake and the two of them read Goblin, sent to them by the lawyer Wayne Alexander, and Ryan called me up and said he’d like to represent me. I was horrified because I didn’t know what representation meant in any form at the time. I hadn’t even shopped a book or queried an agent, nothing. I’d been writing and writing alone, believing in a sort of dust devil swirling cloud that would rise like momentum around me and eventually somehow deliver these books to actual bookshelves. Ryan, Candace, and Wayne were the first steps toward that reality. Eventually Candace retired and Bird Box was shopped and came out, and Universal bought the film rights, and eventually sold them to Netflix, and then (a glorious lifetime later) the movie came out and did better than anybody could’ve anticipated. After that, Ryan suggested we start our own production company. Not because we were upset at having no say in the movie, but because we saw how it works, we learned, and we believed we could get movies made in our own way, too. It started as us focusing entirely on my own books but pretty soon into it Ryan suggested we look at books from other writers as well.
We’ve got some 26 projects in some form of development right now, from a potential screenwriter reading a book we like, to books set-up at Apple (Inspection), and everything in between. Fourteen of those projects are books of mine, the rest not, and it’s all a wonderful bastion of creativity. Max had written the script for his book and it was done really well and so Ryan was like, let’s shop it asap. But something really cool happened here: the very first people we sent it to (hoping they would want to partner or possibly even finance the movie) said they wanted to direct it. We were all a bit happily stunned but also worried, right? What if the first person you shop to says they wanna do it and you give them that exclusivity and then they never make it? Then it’s like you never shopped it. So Ryan did something brilliant: Sean O’Grady (the director) had said he wanted to make it “this year” (2020) and so Ryan put that in the contract, that it had to be made in 2020.
And if not? We could bring it elsewhere. I suppose you could look at it like Ryan was saying put your money where your mouth is, but it wasn’t really like that. We had no doubt Sean wanted to make the movie right away, but Ryan was just ensuring that the project wouldn’t end up in some development purgatory. Just… brilliant. So, Sean and co made it! And it was wonderful! And it was shot not three miles from where I am right now. It was shot during COVID and so nobody was allowed on set (including me), but I sure as hell attended the wrap party and it was stone cold glory. Ryan and I got the name for our production company from a collection I’d written called Spin a Black Yarn (which is coming out in 2023 through Del Rey). Marty Feldman is our spirit animal and “mascot.” And I gotta say, sometimes the business side of things is overwhelming.
I’m an artist. I have no shame calling myself that and I find it strange when other writers do. My heart is in the books and the novel is home, but at the same time? Working with Ryan on all this has been one of the joys of my life. And working with these other writers, like Max and Jonathan Janz and Laurel Hightower and Izzy Lee, Sadie Hartmann, it’s all just fabulous. So, way I see it… even when it’s overwhelming, when there’s a lot of work to do, I just imagine what no work to do looks like and I get over it real fast.
GdM: I read that there was early talk about writing and directing Wendy. Is this still something that might happen?
This is a real dream of mine. It’s the first book I wrote, the first I finished, and it ranks as one of the all-time artistic experiences for me. And I still know exactly how the story feels. Do you know what I mean by that? Books and movies change for us over time, but that one… Wendy (which is printed up and sitting almost within arm’s reach from where I’m sitting now in my office), Wendy hasn’t changed on me. I’d love to direct this movie. It’s probably the scariest thing I’ve done.
GdM: You write unflinching unvarnished prose, and you don’t shy away from diving deep into terror and horror. Are there any ideas you would like to build a story around that you haven’t yet, and are there any ideas that are just too disturbing that you mentally shy away from?
I do have a couple recurring ideas that are just too brutal for me. They’re almost like bullies, how they taunt me. They say: come on, don’t be shy, Josh, write us. And I’ve heard people say you’re supposed to write those ideas, the ones that disturb you, especially, but honestly… these ideas… they’re like… they’re darker than I am. They’re artless, too. Which might excite some people. Artless and brutal has a nice ring to it. This isn’t to say that what I do write is somehow less scary… no no. Just… less abusive.
GdM: I have always thought that horror or dark fantasy writers have to remain very close to their childhood experiences with things that go bump in the night because no one understands horror quite as a child does. Do you think that could be true?
I could not agree more with this than I do. For me, my love for horror comes partially from an arrested development that I have absolutely no desire to outgrow. When I think horror, I imagine a big kid sitting cross-legged before an orchestra made of toy instruments. The music is atonal, the lights in his playroom are dimmed, his eyebrows are arched, and he’s saying: Let’s see how this song makes Mommy and Daddy feel. There’s a part of me that believes every scary movie I see, every scary book I read. A big part of me. I walk around, believing the possibility of these things all day. And I hope that never changes. It would be as frightening to me as when you see an animal lose its appetite. Like, it would mark the end of something very meaningful to me. So, yes, remain close to your childhood… I’m with that all the way.
GdM: Many of your novels use dichotomies as a means of storytelling. For instance, in The House at the Bottom of the Lake, the story has a beautiful, wholesome plot, young love, exploration, and being 17 with your life entirely ahead of you. All of this is on the surface, the dichotomy being the house at the bottom of the lake where things are not entirely as they should be. Bird Box has a similar dichotomy. The domestic tasks of everyday living and surviving versus the malice creeping outside the blocked windows. What is it about this kind of dichotomy of two opposing ideas that attracts you as an author?
You know… I’m not sure where this came from. It’s interesting because, as an artist, you can’t really recognize patterns until you’ve finished enough works of art to see patterns in to begin with, right? Like, I was surprised to discover the river in Bird Box is similar to The Trail in Unbury Carol which is similar, in a sense, to a singular setting, the farm, in Pearl. I’ve noticed other patterns, too: a horror story told partially off-camera. Bird Box has a lot of that but so does Dandy, A Nightmare Got In, Two Gods in the House, and at least a dozen more. I think of that scene in Taxi Driver when DeNiro is on the phone and Scorsese pans to the empty hall and keeps the camera there while DeNiro talks. A lot of my books do that, whatever that is. It’s not just a haunted house, but a haunted house under water, right? But I haven’t thought much about this dichotomy thing. Now I’m certainly going to.
GdM: An aspect of Bird Box that I appreciated as a reader was you never showed me what the monster was. The monster was whatever the beast is for the reader. It made the monster take on a very amorphous shape that was so much scarier than if it had tentacles or breathed fire because it could be anything and everything all at once. Was this always the intention when you were writing the story? Or did this idea organically develop as you went along?
About halfway through the rough draft I thought to myself, “Are you going to show these things?” Then, three quarters through I was like, “Ummm, Josh?” And when I entered the home stretch I understood I wasn’t going to. It was no small revelation, in terms of writing the book, because I hadn’t seen something exactly like that in a horror story before. But, like I said, I look for that one unsettling note to play throughout the book I’m writing, that one steady beat, and it was obvious to me that showing the creatures would change the beat entirely. Now, do I know what they look like? Did I ever? Well, I know as much as Malorie knows. And that’s all I ever know.
GdM: Malorie’s experiences in Bird Box, being blindfolded, the trapped feeling she has knowing madness is lurking just outside the cloth, was so well done it was viscerally terrifying. Did you spend time blindfolded in preparation for writing those scenes?
Some. I wish I’d done more. I should’ve attempted an entire walk around the block. But mostly just stuff around the apartment, the space where I wrote the book.
GdM: What was it like seeing your creation on the big screen and people’s reactions to it?
We saw it at Netflix headquarters in Los Angeles. A screening room called “The Upside Down.” The second I saw Sandra Bullock on screen as Malorie, I teared up. How could I not? I’d written the rough draft in 2006. And while the book was completely rewritten by 2014 when it was published, I’d been with Malorie the character for 13 years by the time the movie came out. I mean, this was a big feeling, seeing her on screen, out of my head, outside my imagination. Upside down indeed. As goes the reaction: what can I say other than it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me and I’m grateful for literally every second, every minuscule element of this entire experience. I’m going to write a couple novels a year no matter what happens, this I’ve already proven to myself over a long time now. So, the fact that I get to see them published? The artwork? That I get to discuss them with you? Well, Bird Box the book and movie played a major part in that. For that, I will be forever grateful to it all.
GdM: Pearl had another title, On This, the Day of the Pig. What made you decide to move away from On This, the Day of the Pig to Pearl as a title?
I like both titles. It was definitely my decision. I felt the story is already a beast to pitch and I wanted something more streamlined. I was looking to highlight the fact that Pearl is our slasher here, our monster, our Carrie. The original cover was super colorful and violent (and I love it), but I wanted this edition to be streamlined. A simple rendering of a barn. A simple title. My way of saying, “This story starts small… but becomes a lot more.” The cover and title for the original limited edition feel like how the book ends. And the new title and cover feel, to me, how it begins.
GdM: I liked how, on the surface, the idea of a psychic pig terrorizing a farm is part schadenfreude and part revenge fantasy. But, this story is so much scarier than it has any right being. It is an absolute symphony of horror—specifically the chapters from Pearl’s mind. What was pitching Pearl like?
It was the kind of story that was hard to explain even to my friends at the bar! They’d ask, what are you working on, and I start in about a telekinetic pig and then I’d think, WHAT are you talking about? Because it sounded crazy. I know. Yet… I believe Pearl is one of those scenarios where the actual book is better than the pitch. And wouldn’t we all rather write those books than the opposite? Also: THANK you for the kind words about it here. I’m going to use “an absolute symphony of horror” immediately. And I will credit you of course!
GdM: I watched the interview that you did with The Lasser Cast where you mentioned animating Pearl. It can be done. I think an animated version of Pearl would both traumatize and enthrall kids and adults. Have you watched any of Junji Ito’s work as horror animation?
I have not. But now I’m going to. And yeah… a legit horror movie, animated, truly scary, like the Bernie Wrightson illustrations from Cycle of the Werewolf, only in motion. That may be how this book should go. I could also see an animatronic Pearl… could be scary like going to see the Chuck E. Cheese band was scary when we were kids. Doesn’t that sound fun?
GdM: I read that you listen to horror soundtracks while writing. What kind of music was on your playlist for Pearl?
At the time was probably… the soundtracks for Under the Skin, Creepshow, Troll, and John Carpenter’s Lost Themes I and II. I really do need to start writing down the soundtracks I listened to throughout each rough draft. That’s fun stuff to remember later on.
GdM: So, what is next after Pearl’s release? What are you working on?
Okay, so… Ghoul n’ the Cape is coming out on Earthling Publications in December. The book is a beast. 300,000 words. And I’m working on two books now, well over halfway into each. Working with Ryan on the movie side of things and also making a new album with the High Strung. I have that familiar feeling right now, when you’re mid-project (a few projects here) and you start imagining what life will feel like when these projects are finished, when they’re added to the body of work, as the canon has always been the most important thing to me, a life’s work rather than an individual hit or miss etc. So I’m starting to see these newer books on the shelf and this new album on the record player, as all my friends drink and dance and talk and laugh and we continue along this incredible path we’ve taken.