Joe Hill has written some truly great stories over the years, but my personal favorite is his 2013 novel, NOS4A2. My love for the book is so strong, in fact, that I initially passed on watching the AMC series adaptation. In my mind, there was no way the incredible tale told within the novel’s pages could be transferred to the screen in a way that did it any form of justice.
Yes, I can be like that sometimes. Yes, I’m appropriately embarrassed about it.
After a while, however, strong word of mouth (and pandemic-induced boredom) convinced me to give the show a try…and never have I been so glad to have been so wrong. Much like the novel it’s based upon, AMC’s NOS4A2 took one of the most unique/bizarre premises imaginable and produced a piece of brilliant, character-driven storytelling that’s also all types of terrifying.
Someone who’s been a big fan of the show from the start, however, is Joe Hill himself. While you could argue that he’s a bit biased, the multitude of failed/subpar book-to-screen adaptations make it easy to see why he’s such an unabashed fan of this highly successful and entertaining effort.
The prolific author was kind enough to sit down with us and share his thoughts on the series, storytelling, and a few hints about some of his future projects (answers have been lightly edited for brevity/clarity).
AIPT: It’s been a lot of fun watching this show take off and catch on with a larger audience. You seem to be enjoying it just as much as the fans, especially during the episode live tweets.
— Joe Hill (@joe_hill) July 13, 2020
Joe Hill: There’s a lot of stuff I don’t like about Twitter. The longer I’m there, the less I like it. It’s become a very toxic and judgmental environment over the years.
That said, Sunday nights when we all get to live tweet NOS4A2 is a really great time.
In the time of coronavirus, everyone’s kind of huddled and locked down. The social world in general has to be held at arms’ length while we wait for the plague to pass. Something like being able to live tweet a TV show when it airs gives this terrific, restorative feeling of sharing an experience with other people. I think it’s the next best thing to being able to go see a movie in the theaters with a live audience.
AIPT: When I first clicked on the #NOS4A2 hashtag, it was just nice to see other people going out of their minds about how great the series is. Now it also shows how much the audience for NOS4A2 is growing finally.
Joe Hill: I do feel the first season was successful, but a little bit of a sleeper success. The second season was kind of bubbling along the same way, but somewhere around Episode 4 or Episode 5 seemed to deliver a charge that brought people streaming in, which is pretty exciting.
Also, back to the discussion about live tweeting: There’s a lot of talk these days about linear television vs. streaming television. For people who aren’t complete Hollywood nerds, linear television is television that airs on a time schedule. Streaming television is stuff like Netflix or Hulu where you log in and watch whenever you feel like it.
There’s been a feeling in the entertainment industry lately that linear television is sliding a bit. That said, being able to live tweet something when it airs and share it with others turns the experience of watching a show into something a bit more like a party. I think it shows that there’s still a pretty strong place for linear television in the entertainment world.
AIPT: Like I told Jamie O’Brien (NOS4A2 showrunner), I initially had no interest in watching one of my favorite novels turned into what I feared would be poor adaptation. Thankfully, I was dead wrong.
What’s it been like watching something you wrote over a decade ago translate so successfully into a television series?
Joe Hill: I think the thing that’s important to understand about my take on an adaptation is that I got to tell my version of the story exactly the way I wanted. I spent three years on the book and was pretty happy with it when I turned it in.
When Jami O’Brien read the novel, she saw things that she really emotionally identified with. She had a childhood that was a little bit like Vic’s and grew up in the same part of Massachusetts, which she ended up escaping for a life of creativity. Obviously, there were some things there she wanted to explore.I felt that my job with the NOS4A2 television series was to support and enable Jami’s vision as much as possible. I already had my version of the story. The question for the TV show was “What’s Jami’s version?”
What I find most gratifying is that the TV show occasionally zigs where the novel zags. It takes some lefthand turns when you expect it to go right. But the soul of the characters is true to the characters in the book. That really starts with Ashleigh [Cummings], who’s done such a convincing and deeply felt performance of a woman trying to work through her sorrow and regrets, but also trying to be the person the people in her life deserve.
Then you’ve got Zachary’s [Quinto] sly, wry, dangerous, amusing, and great turn as Charlie Manx, a character whose sensibility of what’s funny and how people should be appears to be stuck in about 1910.
You’ve also got great work from Olafur [Darri Olafsson] as Bing, who is in some ways maybe Charlie’s most tragic victim. There’s something childlike about him, which really makes him another one of Charlie’s spoiled/poisoned children. Charlie sees in Bing someone who was abused and damaged, so it’s easy to manipulate him in the service of kidnapping children.
Bing can be convinced that he’s saving children from the type of childhood he himself endured. That may not actually be true, but it’s to Charlie’s advantage for Bing to think it is.
As far as changes to NOS4A2‘s narrative, Jami and her team have made some pretty clever moves with the story while the characters have remained the ones people loved from the book.
I’m a characters first guy. The only reason I was able to write NOS4A2 was because I cared about the people in it. I basically fell in love with Vic, Lou, Vic’s parents…even Charlie (in a disturbing way). As long as the characters are right, you can do whatever you want with the narrative. There’s all types of games you can play and fun to be had with it.
AIPT: Jami O’Brien has mentioned a number of times when you’ve helped develop ideas for the show, including the original pitch for the Hourglass Man. What made you want to add this new (and extremely creepy) character to your mythos?
— Jami O'Brien (@jami_obrien) July 20, 2020
Joe Hill: You know, the Hourglass is a scary, unsettling dude. I am so relieved that he’s definitely, absolutely, certainly dead. I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief because there’s absolutely no chance he’ll ever come back.
AIPT: *extreme sarcasm detected*
Joe Hill: Back to your original question: If there’s only two seasons of NOS4A2, then we can walk away with our heads held high and know we told a pretty good story. But if there’s interest in continuing, then that world is full of people like Vic and Charlie. Some of them good, some of them very, very bad.
I think it’s to our advantage to begin exploring those characters early–especially if they can point a direction for where we can go in the future if people want more and AMC wants to do more. I don’t think we’ll know about that for a while, but it’s at least a possibility.
AIPT: Last episode, we got to see Manx as child, which was horrifically brutal. He’s still an evil dude, but you can’t help but feel some sympathy after what he went through.
Do you think Manx was always destined to be evil, or is there an unseen path things could have gone that ended up with him being good.
As to your question about whether or not Charlie could have been a hero or good guy…probably? But a person can have their moral compassion destroyed, especially when they’re young. Charlie experienced a great deal of neglect and damage as a child. Some people could psychologically get through that and attempt to use their suffering for good, but not Charlie. He just isn’t wired that way.
By the time he’s on the other side of childhood, he sees it as his job to punish the wicked…and he has a very broad definition of who is wicked.
AIPT: Is immortality something that’s unique to Manx as a strong creative?
Joe Hill: I think there are other strong creatives that have been around for a really, really long time.
AIPT: Does being a strong creative require some degree of self destructiveness or self loathing? It seems like every strong creative we meet has a streak of one or both of those.
Joe Hill: I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve met/written about enough of them to generalize.
That said, strong creatives tend to draw their powers from inner worlds they call inscapes. They can also bridge that gap, bringing their imaginary world into our real one.
People often escape their sorrows and their pain by fleeing into their own imaginations. So I think the people who can bring their imaginations into our world would tend to be the damaged ones who need to escape.
AIPT: What are some other books you’ve written where we might cross paths with strong creatives?
Joe Hill: In the NOS4A2 novel, I actually reference two stories I haven’t written yet.
There’s a map inside the book that shows something called the United Inscapes of America [pictured below].
One of those locations is Orphenhenge. I’ve had an idea for a story about that place for a long time.
I’ve also had an idea for a story about Maggie Leigh that takes place before many of the events in NOS4A2 called The Crooked Alley.
I haven’t written either of those, but they’ve both been in my mind.
There’s also a figure named the Walking Backwards Man who’s mentioned in both NOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Box along with a couple short stories [and Episode 3 from this season]. One of these days I’ll get around to writing a novel about him, but I’m not ready yet.
AIPT: I know it’s a cliche question, but I have to ask: What is your knife/inscape?
Joe Hill: The best Christmas present I got this past year was a $20 charcoal-colored Lamy fountain pen from my in-laws. It’s perfect: Not so expensive that you’ll feel sick if you lose it, but not so cheap that it writes like garbage. It’s beautiful and has a really high level of functionality.
I write with it every day, which is a lot since I do most of my first drafts longhand. So yeah…my Lamy fountain pen would definitely be my knife. I know you said your question was cliche, but my answer is probably even more cliche for a writer, so there you go!
AIPT: I never knew you did your first drafts longhand.
I’m actually writing a Locke & Key/Sandman crossover longhand in this really cool Locke & Key scene notebook. Once it’s done and published, I’d like to see about auctioning these notebooks off to raise money for Neil’s work helping refugees.
AIPT: Well, if you’re able to do that, then I’ll definitely be one of the bidders.
Make sure to follow Joe Hill on Twitter, especially on Sunday nights at 10:00 pm EDT when NOSA2 airs on AMC.
Read our interview with ‘NOS4A2’ showrunner Jami O’Brien here.
Read our coverage of the SDCC 2020 ‘NOS4A2’ panel here.
If one episode a week of ‘NOS4A2’ isn’t enough, then hop over to the NOS4A2 Fans Facebook group for in depth discussion among one of the best communities in the otherwise hellish landscape of social media fandom. Hopefully the show continues to be good so my reviews don’t make things awkward.