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A conversation with writer Joe Hill

By James Argendeli, Special to CNN
"Horns" is the latest novel by author Joe Hill, who's also created short stories and comic books.
"Horns" is the latest novel by author Joe Hill, who's also created short stories and comic books.
  • Joe Hill writes fantasy and horror
  • He also just happens to be the son of another famous author
  • Hill says he's known since an early age that he wanted to be a writer

(CNN) -- For fans, the name Joe Hill ignites a sense of wonder; of writing that cannot be held captive merely by the paper or digital screen the words are written upon. But wait. Could it be you are unfamiliar with Joe Hill, the award-winning writer who is the son of ... more on that later.

The writer who has quite the pedigree recently spoke with CNN about his work, his pen name and his famous father, who is one of the biggest-selling authors in the world.

CNN: Who are you and what do you write?

Joe Hill: I write scary stories, short stories and comic books. I've had a couple of novels. I had a book about the devil, which came out last year, called "Horns," and I wrote a comic book called "Locke & Key," about a spooky New England house, that's getting turned into a TV show. (As of this writing, Fox has passed on the "Locke & Key" pilot).

CNN: What was your first pro sale?

Hill: Oh, boy, that I'll admit to? My first professional sale that I'll admit to was, I sold a short story about baseball called "Better Than Home," and it actually won a contest. The A.E. Coppard Prize, and it's a mainstream story.

No, no, no, no, I'm in no rush for those stories to resurface; they were not good, and shortly afterwards, I wrote my first fantasy story.

Shortly after "Better Than Home," I wrote a story called "Pop Art," and "Pop Art" is about Arthur Roth, the inflatable boy. Arthur is made of plastic, and he is filled with air, and he weighs 6 ounces, and if he sat on a sharpened pencil, it would kill him.

I had this tremendous feeling of excitement writing that story, and after that I knew that I wanted to write a lot more fantasy and horror. (Both stories are included in Hill's short story collection "20th Century Ghosts.")

CNN: Did you feel pressure to write horror and fantasy?

Hill: The elephant in the room is that my dad is Stephen King.

I'm very close to my dad, my best friend. I talk to him every day, and he is a huge source of inspiration for me. I knew by the time I was in college I wanted to be a professional writer as well, but I also started to think that the last name was actually more of a disadvantage than an advantage.

I started to think that if I wrote as Joseph King, there would be a danger that a publisher might take a book that wasn't very good and publish it cause they saw a chance to make a quick buck on the last name. And readers are smart, and you know they might buy your first book because you got a famous daddy. But if the book's no good, they won't buy your second one.

I was selfish, and I wanted to have a long career. So I decided in college that I would drop the last name and write as Joe Hill, with my hope being that I would have a chance to make my mistakes in private, where they belong, and work my craft and hopefully be able to sell a book without anyone knowing who my dad was. It took 10 years, but I was successful in that.

CNN: How did the pen name get found out?

Hill: Part of the way the pen name came out is the Internet. I started to do appearances to sell ("20th Century Ghosts" at conventions). As soon as I started to do public appearances, people started to say, "doesn't he kinda look like, you know?" and the hard-core Stephen King fans remembered that "The Shining" was dedicated to Joe Hill King.

So people started to blog about it and write on message boards about it, and I would contact people directly, and I would say, "You're right. That's who my dad is, but could you take that off your blog?" People were delighted to. They loved being in on the secret. They were trying to help me, but once it started to creep out on the Internet, I knew my time was numbered.

CNN: Dad's reaction?

Hill: Both of my parents are writers, and they're both unfailingly supportive. Both of my parents were cheerleaders for all that stuff that I wrote, but I think for my dad, when he read "20th Century Ghosts," which is the title story of my collection and was my first ghost story; I think he felt a real charge. That he felt that's his kind of thing and I was speaking his language, and I think that he was excited by that.

You know, I always had this tremendous enthusiasm for horror fiction and fantasy, and one of the first rules is that you write what you love, you write what you know, and so that the fact that I drifted into writing ghost stories, I don't think, is all that surprising.

CNN: At what point did you think you could make a living at it?

Hill: Very early.

When I was 11, 12 years old, I would come home from school, and I would find my mom in her office, clattering away at her typewriter, and I would find my dad up at his office, clattering at his word processor.

Back in those days, it just seemed to me the most natural thing in the world to sit by yourself in a room and make stuff up, and eventually somebody will pay you a whole bunch of money for it. Twelve-year-olds are cocky. I just assumed it would happen. So when I was 12, I started writing every day ,and I have written every day of my life since I was about 12, with almost no exception.

CNN: What's next?

Hill: I'm working on the third draft of a new novel. The novel is called "Nosferatu," but it's actually spelled "NOS4A2," and it's a vanity license plate. It's got a lot of stuff about American highways in it, and it's a horror novel. It's a scary road story. And I've got about 10 issues left in "Locke & Key." I've actually got about 200 pages on the book that will be after "NOS4A2" as well.

CNN: Any chance you will write under the name King?

Hill: I've been asked that several times, and I would never say I can imagine reasons why I might decide to do a book as "Joseph King," but for the most part, I've spent years establishing my literary identity as Joe Hill, and I'm very comfortable with that. I love having the chance to capture someone on my own terms and on my own territory and making an impression before anyone knows anything more.