Between the pages
Exeter author Joe Hill on his famous dad, making his own name and crafting 'Strange Weather'By CHRIS BIERI
Special to the Union Leader January 11. 2018 4:42PM
If you go...WHO: Joe Hill, as part of the Writers in the Loft author series
WHERE: The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday
INFO: themusichall.org; 436-2400
For nearly a decade, Joe Hill worked in plain sight, with a thin sheen of anonymity obscuring his identity.
The son of author Tabitha King and famed horror novelist Stephen King, Hill was determined to make it as a writer on merit, not family name.
Because even without the King surname, Hill, whose given name is Joe Hillstrom King, believed he’d already hit the literary lottery.
“Sometimes I think people have a hard time believing that I kept it secret for 10 years,” Hill said of his use of a pen name. “But for me, I had a whole set of ridiculous advantages. I came from a well-off, supportive family. I had money. I had a lot of things to fall back on that most writers didn’t. I had two parents who were fabulous teachers. If there’s one thing about Stephen and Tabitha King, they know their way around a story. This was always the family conversation. If I had one really grotesque advantage, the whole profession had been normalized as a kid.”
An Exeter resident, Hill, whose most recent work, “Strange Weather,” was released late last year, will appear as part of the Writers in the Loft series Friday at the Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth.
Early in his career, Hill made a living as a working writer, crafting short stories and collaborating with his brother Owen on screenplays. And while he wasn’t aspiring to sell millions of copies of his work, he did have greater ambitions.
“When I started writing as Joe Hill, I really did that because of insecurity,” he said. “I was afraid if I got published as Joseph King, I was afraid I might have bad work getting published because someone would recognize my name. I really needed to know for my self-confidence, if I sold a short story, I sold it for the right reasons. I had success, but it was a very modest kind of success. I was selling short stories to smaller literary journals, but for a long time, I couldn’t get published by really good magazines. Success is a matter of perspective.”
Finally in 2005, after penning some novels he was unable to sell, Hill’s “20th Century Ghosts” was released by a British publishing house. It was around that time that some literary bloggers started making the connection between Hill and his famous father.
“Most people figured out who I was pretty quickly by looking at my face,” Hill said. “In the early years, a few people would say, ‘Hey, I think Joe Hill is related to Stephen King.’ I’d contact them and say, ‘Would you take that off your blog because I want to keep it a secret.’ They completely understood and took it off.”
Growing up in a household headed by writers, Hill read “widely and indiscriminately” as a youth, but gravitated to comic books, noting those written by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.
“I’ve often talked about how the influence (they) had on me when I was an impressionable teenager,” Hill said. “‘Swamp Thing,’ a walking pile of talking moss. ‘Sandman,’ which was a horror dark fantasy thing. It was to comics what ‘Books of Blood’ was to prose fiction — just kind of a game-changer that woke everyone up to the genre.”
The attachment to comics followed Hill into professional life as well. He said his first big break came when had the opportunity to write “Spider-Man,” and his own “Locke and Key” comic series was well-received and is being produced as a Hulu series.
Hill may have produced his most diverse work with “Strange Weather,“ a collection of four short novels. “Loaded” examines mass shootings in America and reads “more like something Elmore Leonard would write,” Hill says. “Snapshot,” set in Silicon Valley, has already been optioned as a film and “Rain” is a climate-change tale that features nails falling from the sky.
“I’m always delighted when a new book comes out,” Hill said. “ For me this is just the sixth book. It still feels fresh and exciting and new.”
“Sleeping Beauties,” a collaboration between Hill’s brother, Owen, and his father, also was released in the fall around the same time as “Strange Weather.”
“For one week all three of us were on the bestseller list together,” Hill said proudly.
While Hill isn’t married to the horror writing, he said one of the genre’s trademarks — suspense — is now a more important tool than ever.
“I can’t imagine writing something that doesn’t have a strong core of suspense,” Hill said. “I think I still have a healthy amount of insecurity. It makes me look for that element of suspense.
“More than ever, it matters for authors of fiction. There’s Netflix and Hulu and so much better stuff on TV, and there’s social media and YouTube. People are very distracted, and it’s very hard to attract their attention,” he said.
Hill said he’s comfortable with readers knowing his family history, but wouldn’t have chosen a different career path.
“Here’s the thing: I’m not half the writer that my dad is, but it turns out that half the writer my dad is is still a pretty good writer,” Hill joked.