Music, Writing

THE BLOODTHIRSTY ENTHUSIASM OF JOSH MALERMAN

0 Comments 15 November 2014

When you look at a map of the United States, highways are just lines. Cities are just points where those lines intersect. We use points and lines to talk about narrative as well—storylines. It’s not a huge cognitive leap to see great American cities like New York or Detroit as collisions of millions of different storylines, pooling together, cross-pollinating, interbreeding, becoming so tangled together that they are impossible to separate.

My story collided with the story of Josh Malerman in a bar in Athens, OH. We were drawn there from different directions by a force—a man named Scott Winland. Scott is of central importance, not just in my story or in Josh’s story, but in many stories. One day, Josh or I or both of us will write him the novel or pop-up book or ponderously long fortune cookie fortune he deserves. But for now, what matters is that Scott brought Josh and I to Athens and, in the Union bar and hundreds of other bars, and in a short school bus and a Toyota minivan, and in the wee hours of the night in the living rooms of folks kind enough to giving touring bands a place to crash, our stories got so smushed together that it’s been impossible to totally separate them. Seriously, put a big hunk of chocolate and a heaping handful of Skittles in the front pocket of your jeans, send ‘em through the washer and drier about a thousand times and then try to separate them. Though I don’t see Josh for years at a time, Josh will never be a stranger to me. And also, every time I see him, I think to myself “I could have sworn that was my hat at one point…”

Josh wears many hats (not all of ‘em used to be mine): intrepid leader of The High Strung, long distance adventurer, professional enthusiast, horror aficionado, and author of the novels Wendy and Bird Box and now the Kindle Single Ghastle and Yule. We gchatted yesterday—listen in.

Mishka
I see you
You can’t hide
you ready to rock?

Josh
ready. rolling already. might as well rock

Mishka
So… Jesus, we’ve known each other for a long time.
2003?
Blackoutfest?

Josh
Yes, and that’s the perfect place for us to have met. That bar is a strange combo of dark-mindscrew and love fest. Both of which you and I relate to well.

Mishka
Man, I bet either/ both of us could write a novella just centered around The Union with our Sam the Lion, Scott Winland.

Josh
I think about it all the time! A band bio. Nonfiction. It could start in the Union. Did you know that the Union was the first venue to give us a gig over the phone? We’re talking first out of what became like 2,000 shows.
Some places are personal landmarks, you know.

Mishka
Wow. For that, you should either buy Scott a pony or kick him in the nuts.

Josh
ha

Mishka
I came very close to getting a tattoo of the Union’s address

Josh
Great idea. And we came close to moving to Athens. Like I said, dark minds crew!

Mishka
So… there are a lot of Josh Malermans kicking around these days. My primary experience of Josh Malerman is of the erudite frontman of a scrappy rock’n’roll band. Why writing? Why movies? Why are these other Josh’s necessary?
Most writers I know would give their right arm to play in a rock band

Josh
Oh man, you’re bringing my identity crisis to life. I thought I was the only one who knew about it. Well… it all begins with me writing some really shitty poems… dark stuff… men singing from underground… models with two glass eyes… and a friend, Mark Owen, singing those poems over other friends playing music. So, I’ve been writing, and writing “horror” forever. But it took my musical friends to get me involved. That was at age 19, 20. Something like that. And, of course, from there I got bit. Hard. The music bug. I fell in love. But I never stopped writing the books. And yet, it wasn’t until Mark left the band (I was 29 years old then) that I finally, mercifully, finished my first novel. WENDY. Scary as hell. And from there the novels and albums went hand in hand… one after the other.

So… all these “Josh’s” have always been here. But, as I’m sure you know with the “Mishkas”, some of them lurk, then lunge, lurk then lunge.

Mishka
Absolutely. And they need to eat and sleep so fortunately, there’s usually only two of them awake and causing trouble at once, but that’s still one more than we’re used to dealing with.

Josh
You know what’s really hard? Stepping from the book bubble to the song sphere. It’s almost like you have to clear the slime of the novels off your arms before you can pick up the guitar.

Mishka
Okay, this is interesting because from my perspective, your rock and your writing appear hopelessly entwined. I’m thinking of the ‘Wretched Boy’ video, in which a struggling writer appears. Do they parasite off each other? Do they compete? Is it a symbiotic relationship? Are they like small children, best friends one day and mortal enemies the next?

Josh
They absolutely compete. Sometimes the novelist turns his nose up at the “short song” guy and then the songwriter plays something good and the novelist wishes he could write something with that much “feel.” There is definitely an identity crisis with the pair, but it’s one I kinda egg on. Fan the flames. And I love that the books and songs are different, in tone. To me, horror, rock n roll, science fiction, cartoons, they all come from the same place; this punkish exhilarating celebratory place. R. Crumb and Stephen King and Eddie Cochran all kinda make sense to me together… Shadowy Classic Americana. And all three are as deep, as rich, as Fitzgerald. I wouldn’t say the two sides are symbiotic… unless they are and I don’t know it. They seem more… jealous… than they are rooting for one another. But, like brothers, who cares? They’re stuck together all the same.

Mishka
Well, I’d argue that the story of Ghastle and Yule wouldn’t be worth telling were it not for jealousy and rivalry. Stories spring out of darkness and conflict. Narrative seems to gush out of you with great pressure. Maybe it’s these two competing urges that keep you enthusiastic (no small feat in our current world, to say nothing of MI) and make you so prolific?

Josh
For years I thought it was funny to tell people that I wrote out of guilt. And my great friend Derek Berk once warned me that you should be careful what you joke about because if you joke about it long enough, it becomes true. Well, that freakin’ happened. More likely I was just right all along. There is a really nasty push going on behind me all the time, a nag almost, who keeps telling me I gotta write the next one, the next one, the next one. A week goes by without a new idea and I start to get nervous. Is that it, then? Are we done? Is this how it ends? In line at Target, getting Allison a scented candle? FUCK! I thought the ending would come with trumpets… banners! Well… of course it’s not the end. Hasn’t been yet. But I don’t mind the nag because he/she is responsible for a lifetime of total joy… of feeling rewarded… of good work. I think it’s wildly important to maintain enthusiasm for your own work… at least while working on it. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but the reason I remind myself is because there is GOING TO come that time… around page 200… in a rough draft, where you’re looking at 200 more and you can kinda freak out. GULP. Same thing as being 6 songs into an album. In those moments I open the cellar door in my mind and holler down, “Okay! Bring out the enthusiasm gimp! We need help!” And he’s always there. Cause that’s where I keep him.

Mishka
Is running out of material your greatest fear? Or running out of enthusiasm? For a horror writer, this is an important question.

Josh
Ghastle and Yule, the characters, sometimes feel like “Art” vs “Commerce” for me. They have some of both in both of them, but if I had to pick, I’d say Allan Yule was more of the artist. And yet, Ghastle marries the freak performance artist and Yule has handlers. There might be a current in that story, something that says, “neither side is so pure.”

Running out of enthusiasm is my greatest fear. Yes. I wrote a book, called PEST, about a fella who runs out of zest. He can’t figure out why. So he begins to believe there’s an entity in his rooms, draining him of enthusiasm. He sets out to trap it. The whole book takes place in his apartment and when I was done i was like, “Shit, man, you just wrote a book about a guy trying to trap depression!”

Mishka
Sometimes I can’t believe we’re friends because we’re such different people. And then I think that that is the only reason we’re friends. I got to a point, when I was circling round the drain, where I was high on morphine and getting a blowjob and I felt bored nearly to tears. But then, that was a huge character flaw– sex and oblivion were the only things I could maintain enthusiasm for. And then just oblivion.

Josh
Man. Did that really happen? Well, I realize I can reference art maybe too often… I turn to it for literally everything, Identity foremost… but one note on enthusiasm and the fear of losing it: Imagine you have written 20 novels but don’t care for them. Now imagine you’ve written none, but are crazy thirsty high on life and want to write a book one day. I’ll actually take the latter. And because I’ve fallen in love with writing, I FIND thrills there. In other words… I don’t think I write for the sake of writing… but for the thrill of it. Which so far has been endless. Infinite. How scary to run out! I guess it’d be like falling out of love with someone who all your friends know is the right one for you.

Mishka
Or maybe even darker– to stop loving your Mom.

Josh
And by the way… it can be a delicate thing… writing horror and talking enthusiasm all the time. Horror is supposed to be for the dark of mind, dark of spirit, yeah? Well, I’m not so sure! Again, I see Horror as the Imagination strapped into a catapult and sent BOOMING into the sky. A night sky… but still.

Oh man. “To stop loving your mom.” Wow.
That’s a good book idea.

Mishka
I just depressed myself with that! Kinda proud.

Josh
you just turned the lights OFF.

Mishka
I love the visual of Imagination strapped into a catapult and shot off into the sky. But that calls to mind that Stephen King story where teleportation is invented and becomes as ubiquitous as air travel today. The only catch is that if you’re conscious during it, it makes you insane. And, of course, since it’s Stephen King we’re talking about, a kid dodges the anesthesia and stays awake and appears at the other end stark, raving mad… So my question off that long aside is: can there be too much writing? Too much story? Too many songs? I’m thinking of Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates and Bob Pollard here.

Josh
Ah, the dreaded word “Prolific.” At some point in history, that word has become a negative. Strange. Take Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen… two holy shit artists who released (or are releasing) a movie a year for their entire careers. Hitchcock’s first five movies were silent! Not by choice! And he made movies into the 70s. Woody Allen is on movie… 60? The question is… is that too much? Sometimes I think it has to do with where you start with the artist. If you’ve been there from the beginning, then it’s never too much. You’re in step with him/her and you get their new release and you experience it and there you have it.

But if you’re coming to Bob Pollard NOW? Well, shit, you’re 75 albums late and that feels insurmountable. “I don’t know where to start with this guy, so I’m gonna start with someone else instead.” I worry about it. I worry that when people tell me I’m prolific they’re also saying, “So it’d be unlikely that they’re all good, all great, and chances are none of them really stand out.” Of course, I know this isn’t true. But, like most people, I care about what others think. So when I’m out and somebody says a writer is “prolific,” I feel compelled to PROVE to them that I’m not.

“Oh, well… 20 novels… sure… but if you wrote one measly page a day every day you’d reach 365 by year’s end and after so many years…” I try to explain it through simple math. A similar thing is when folks describe you as a “hard worker.” Nobody describes Brian Wilson as a hard worker. He’s a flowing genius! Swimming in melody! Struck by Thunder Gods of Music! But me? Hello, I’m a “prolific hard worker.” So yes, yeah, I worry about those things. But not enough to slow down. That would be madness. All I can hope for is, some day the whole body of work becomes a tapestry, where no single work of art that I created is the standard, no single work the ONE. I like all the colors together, all in one room, crazy like Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I’ve got a song called “the Quilt of Delirium” and sometimes I think that’s what my canon has become.

Mishka
Oh man. I LOVE that response. I would give my legs for someone to call me “a prolific hard worker.”

Josh
Believe you me! It starts to sting!

Mishka
Each man is the architect of his own Hell, Josh. You’re building yours and I’m building mine.

Josh
That has me thinking of the Farside where the two devils are looking down on that man whistling in Hell pushing a wheelbarrow and one is saying something like, “We’re just not getting through to this guy.”

Mishka
God, I miss the Far Side so much! Genius. I feel fortunate to have grown up with that twisted sensibility.

Josh
Talk about a strange artist! Gary Larson! Where the heck has Gary Larson gone???

Mishka
I know!
Gary Larson, if you’re reading this: PLEASE COME HOME

Josh
I read that he gave it up, hasn’t drawn a picture in fifteen years. He said he had started repeating himself. Whatever he did, I wish he’d repeat himself again then.

Mishka
He’s a perfect example of someone who was prolific enough to criticize for it and now that he’s gone, it’s like… shit, we realized we need you.

Josh
Absolutely. Some 4,000 panels later you’re left thinking, “Well shit… NO more observations??”
Bob Pollard. What an interesting one that is. I love it. I love that I’ve read 13 Stephen King books and there’s 50 more to check out. I love that I’ve seen every Woody Allen movie and yet another is coming out next year. I love the canon! The scope! Even if a fella repeats himself… in a way… I don’t mind cause that’s HIS thing, you know?

Mishka
Oh yeah. CCR is so formulaic… and man, what an awesome formula!

Josh
I once read on this one horror writer’s website that he said he was “annoyed with writers who write too much.” It felt obvious to me that he was talking about “pop” novelists, and that he probably included Stephen King in that lot. But what a shameful way to think. “Don’t write today because you don’t want to write too much!”

Mishka
I have said the exact same thing. And the subtext is “I wish I had a good, novel idea.”
I totally adore Stephen King and really hate it when anyone tries to take the piss out of him.
I’d be hard-pressed to name a writer who has been more influential over our generation.
He is our bogeyman.

Josh
Ah, well therein may lie the key to being prolific! Because I’ve murdered the man in my brain who says “good or bad novel idea.” I murdered him and buried him beside his wife (who brought him to think this way in the first place) and now the place I go to look for ideas has no governor. No bully. I’m not afraid of writing a bad book.

Mishka
That may be the first step to writing a good book: do not fear writing a bad book.

Anyway, let’s bring it back to the new Kindle Single
You said Ghastle and Yule can be seen as representing Art and Commerce
which is a delicate balancing act you and I both try to tread.
with your final lines, I saw them as two eyes
we only see things in 3-D because we have two eyes that see objects from different perspectives

Josh
Wow. I think that’s best possible interpretation of Ghastle and Yule. The two eyes of the narrator, or the two eyes of an obsessive artist.

Mishka
I found it very funny, very ironic, and very Malerman that your wrote a story about movies that could never be a movie, and a novel that’s so visual it’s almost a longhand movie.

Josh
well I’ve always been a tweener. The High Strung are too pop for the hippies and possibly too happy for the punks!

Mishka
The in-between space is where all the interesting shit happens.

Josh
Regarding Ghastle and Yule, I’d been reading this “History of Italian Cinema” book and it struck me that, though I only knew half of the movies being described, each of them played out for me as though a complete story had been told. I was on a novella kick… had written a few of them… and so I decided right away to get to work on a fake history of horror cinema. My first idea was to describe two directors who try to out-gore one another. In the early 60’s, this could be a fun story. The rudimentary special effects. How each of them churn their fake blood. But it grew into an obsession story. Which I was fine with. Somehow, Yule ended up with all my favorite ideas. Not sure why he was blessed that way.

Mishka
I described writing fiction once as like playing GI Joes. The best part is when you take your hands away and they keep moving. It sounds like that happened with this story.

Josh
It did. Yeah. The thing that surprised me most was when Gordon Ghastle was able to maintain some artistry despite the industry circus going on around him. I liked him for that. And Yule, rogue as he was, kinda became industry himself. In a way. So, of course, they meet a bit in the middle. But I’d wager to say that if those two guys were real? We could pick one or the other as our favorite. And I like that best about them. I guess I kinda love ART AS EVENT. I remember when the High Strung were out on the road and we went into a record store and there were two life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the two fellas from Outkast. I was like, “Fuck! Their album release is an EVENT.” I want that. You know? Who doesn’t? And Ghastle and Yule achieved that in their own careers.

Mishka
They struck me as two sides of the same coin, sort of an Andy Kaufman/ Tony Clifton thing going on. Much as they hated each other, one couldn’t exist without the other.

Josh
I do think they made “Obscurity” together.

Mishka
aha! that’s great insight
and fitting that an actor and a female actor was the sacrifice

Josh
Of course, I don’t know any more than you do! But I think there was something like the Prestige going on here. Christian Bale’s character. How he and his twin brother devoted their lives to the magic show. I think Ghastle and Yule planned Obscurity their entire careers.

“Planned Obscurity.” Funny thing to say about two famous guys.

Mishka
and where are they now? Bickering in the balcony like the two old men in the Muppet Show? Or interviewing each other via gchat?

Josh Malerman is typing…

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