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Interviews

Interview: ‘Bird Box’ Author Josh Malerman Talks Bird Box Challenge, The High Strung, and Meeting Sandra Bullock

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

"Bird Box" author Josh Malerman

“Bird Box” author Josh Malerman

Premiering as Netflix’s biggest hit to date with more than 45 million streams worldwide, the apocalyptic horror-drama, Bird Box, has had no competition topping the charts this winter. Starring, Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, and Trevante Rhodes, the movie follows resourceful mother, Malorie [Bullock] as she fights to save her two children and reach a distant safe-haven while a violent and mysterious suicidal force follows in close pursuit. But the big catch? Malorie must make the entire trek blindfolded.

This harrowing and nail-biting feat has captivated audiences and sparked a massive pop-culture boom that has taken the internet and social media world by storm. And with Bird Box’s popularity continuing on its exponential rise to fame, it’s only fitting that we spoke with the mastermind behind the story itself.

Meet Josh Malerman, author of the original New York Times Bestselling novel and the brains behind this terrifying tale.

No stranger to fame, Josh’s first taste of success came almost 20 years prior with the formation of indie-rock band, The High Strung. This group of friends has been crafting notable music together since 2000 and is known by TV audiences across the globe for hits like “The Luck You Got”, used in the opening credits of Showtime’s Shameless. A singer/songwriter and guitarist in the group, Josh was excited to share details about the band’s eighth studio album, Quiet Riots (out Jan. 15), writing novels on the road, his favorite Bird Box memories, and more.

Thank you for speaking with me today, I know you must be super busy with the whole Bird Box craze going on!

Yeah! Things are pretty wild right now! I don’t think anybody could have anticipated the response to Bird Box the movie. But, once we knew that Sandra Bullock was on board and Susanne Bier would be directing, it’s at those moments when you think, “hey, this has a chance to be really good!” And then, even when you see the movie for the first time, and it is good, you don’t know what people are going to think.

We had just naturally assumed that the day the movie came out would be the peak viewings. Oh boy! (laughs) We weren’t even close on that one! So, having [The High Strung] album released three weeks after that wasn’t even planned in some ways.

It was more like, while we did want to put the album out in December, because the movie was coming out, we thought, “what’s the next month? Oh, let’s do it in January!” Like knuckleheads! (laughs) And now, to be involved in this Bird Box sort of monsoon, the album’s become a sort of celebratory moment for all of us here at home. It’s been really exciting!

That’s excellent! You almost have a perfect storm going between the two of them.

Yeah! I know we couldn’t have orchestrated that ourselves. And I think that we’ve played together long enough that it was the feeling of, “oh my gosh, guys! We accidentally drove into the perfect storm!”

Bird Box was your first published novel, but you’ve previously written 14 un-shopped books! How did you feel after landing that initial publishing deal?

You know, it’s funny! With the press I’ve been doing for Bird Box and some for Quiet Riots, this is the first time someone’s asked me that!

It was really interesting and a little hard to explain. I never wrote as a hobby. I was always very serious about it, but in a fun, loving way. You could say it was like a relationship. Meaning, I wasn’t writing just for fun, but I also wasn’t too hard on myself. It was more like, “I finished one book. Now I’ve got to write another one”.

It became, in a sense, “I have to stay in writing shape, so let’s keep writing”. I had all these ideas and it kept getting more exciting.

But meanwhile, I had no idea what to do with this growing pile of rough drafts! I’m travelling the country with my best friends in a rock band, and sometimes we play all these nights, and sometimes we don’t. (jokes) It’s a total crap shoot! But, because I was with them, and I was travelling and writing, I don’t think I ever really saw the stack of rough drafts with dollar signs in my head, or with desperation, or even with urgency. I just kept telling myself, “hey man, keep writing these books. It’s going to work out”.

Somebody on the road would recommend, “have you ever considered self-publishing these?” I would think about that for a minute and say, “I’m not sure if that’s it, but maybe”. I didn’t really know the answer.

So, to have a dozen or more drafts done and a career playing music with my friends, I had a lot happening. Then I met my fiancé, Allison, a couple months before getting the book deal for Bird Box! So here I am. I’m in love, I’m broke, well, not broke at the time, but I was for a long time, and then, I got the book deal! It was this weird feeling where I realized that getting the deal wasn’t the finish line. Because, I think before you have it, you do see it as the end goal. You think, “you got a book deal!” But after, I realized that this was actually day one of a career!

In fact, it almost rendered the decade plus of writing novels and all the work before that as preamble. It was the blood, sweat, and tears, that lead up to being ready for the start of a career, and felt like a combination of both relief and a warm wave that said, “hey man, now the work really begins!”

I love that you mentioned how the band helped give you a different perspective on your work. Do you think that if you weren’t writing music at the same time as writing books, that the pile of rough drafts would have looked different to you than it would if you were just in the band?

Yes! I absolutely do! I don’t know what exactly that would look like, but I can only imagine. No one’s ever asked me that either! (laughs) I guess you could say I was expressing myself every night in a different city through songs and conversation with my bandmates, by talking to club owners, people, and musicians, and writing books all day! So, there was a sense of artistic release at these shows and when we put an album out.

If I didn’t have those shows or albums, wouldn’t I then search for that artistic relief by way of trying to get the books published or maybe even putting them out myself? Knowing myself the way I do, I’m going to guess that if I wasn’t in the band and didn’t have the music going on at the same time during that period, I probably would have turned to self-publishing all those books.

Do you think one creative outlet really inspired the other then?

Sure! And another thing I think they really do, is that they remove the spotlight from each other. What I mean by that is, for example, say you wrote one book. You would probably believe that that book represents you, solely. This is my work of art. This is what I have to say and that kind of thing. But, if you’ve written fifteen books, three books, or thirty, whatever it is, that spotlight is split up amongst many works of art. Each one doesn’t have to represent you fully. And I would say the same thing with music and novels.

You don’t have to get your whole world view out in this song, because you’re also writing a book. And you don’t have to get your whole world view out in that book, because you’re also writing this song and this album and doing a show. And, you’re writing your next book!

So, it’s ok if only one thing you care or think about is highlighted in a single book. It’s just one thing that you really want to say. It’s ok if it’s not everything about every single work of art. I think the band and the novels help each other out in that sort of way.

Josh Malerman released his debut novel, Bird Box, in March 2014.

Josh Malerman released his debut novel, Bird Box, in March 2014.

Speaking of putting out a lot of books and music, your band, The High Strung, just released their eighth full-length album a couple days ago. Could you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind the record?

For sure! We’ve all been best friends since we were eleven. Stephen Palmer [guitarist], showed up a little later. We met him in 2010. But the original band included Mark Owen [guitar], Derek Berk [drums], Chad Stocker [bass], and myself.

At some point early on, this must have been about 2004, Mark left the band. And this wasn’t like the keyboardist left. He was a one of two singer-songwriters, me being the other one. We had written songs together for years. So, after Mark left the band in about ’04, we went on touring as a three piece for a while. And this is when I start writing books like a maniac. All this stuff.

12 years later, in 2016, Mark called me and asked what I thought about him coming back to the band. My first instinct was immediately, “yes! Let’s do it!”

I feel like on my end, the songs at that point had been a little swallowed up by the book. We hadn’t put out an album in around three years, and that was our longest stretch ever. So, when Mark came back, he came with a fire to record and put an album out. It was almost like his return acted something like a fountain of youth for the rest of us! And, it’s funny because Mark seems like this self-help guru with a sunny disposition. (laughs) He’s a philosophical deep thinker, a teacher, and an amazing songwriter! His return and his gumption to record and play, definitely sparked the entire thing to happen. If Mark did not return, we would have made another album, but I don’t know when. It wouldn’t have been by now and it definitely wouldn’t have been new songs. So, if I’m going to cite the inspiration for Quiet Riots, I’m going to say, it’s Mark’s return.

I love that! It’s kind of like the phoenix rising from the ashes, with the band rejuvenated.

Yeah! And think about how wonderful this is for him! Here’s a guy, where in his absence, we played a ton of shows. I wrote many books, we released six more albums, whatever it was. So, here he is coming back, he hasn’t made a proper album in a decade, and he’s in the studio singing a great song that he wrote. Do you know the song, “Darling Weirdo” from the album?

Yes. Definitely!

I think that’s my favorite one! Mark brought it to the table pretty much fully written. I saw him singing that in the studio and I’m thinking, “oh my God! I’m so glad for my friend, that he’s doing this again!”

What drew you to music versus focusing solely on your writing career or vice versa?

I had already been writing poems, (jokes) terrible emo poems that I keep buried in the backyard! (laughs) And the boys were already playing music and instruments. Derek, Chad, and other friends back then would play at High School talent shows and camp talent shows. They would play gigs at bars, and I would go just as a friend who wrote short stories and poems.

Somewhere along the way, it was sort of intimated that, “hey, you write. Maybe you should take up an instrument and write songs with us!” (jokes) That’s 17-year-old logic, right?

Of course! (laughs)

But the thing is though, it worked! (laughs) They bought me this organ, and Chad, the bass player, showed me a few chords. Then, all of a sudden, I realized, “oh wow! This is ‘G’ and ‘C’!” Mark and I would be singing these terrible poems over the chords, and I got a little better at the organ.

After, I thought I needed to be able to play the guitar. Then Mark and I learned. And this was all at the age of 19-21. We’re just kids at this point. So, I think what drew me to music was I could see my friend doing this amazing thing and they invited me in.

From there, I was able to realize it’s ok if I’m not the best musician in the room. I’m the guy singing the song. I’m the writer. And you can equate that, years later, to this movie scenario. I didn’t make the movie, but I wrote the book. It’s like I brought them a song, and they played it how they wanted to.

You were already used to this collaborative process then.

Yes! I think that it explains why I was 100 per cent fine going into it [the Bird Box movie]. I knew, “they’re going to do whatever they need to”. I wasn’t horrified that they were going to make changes, I was just excited to see what they would do with it! And I didn’t realize this at the time, but it seems very obvious to me now, this is was exactly like my position in the band.

That’s Interesting! So, how involved were you in the filmmaking process for Bird Box?

None! Like zero!

The book was optioned for film in 2013, and it came out in 2014. The script was written before the book even came out. Before it was published! So, what I mean to say is, because that was my first book, it’s not like I was somebody who had no say. Rather, I literally had no leverage. I was a complete unknown at that time. As unknown as can be. I was very aware of that and I was 100 per cent fine. I guess I was a little nervous, but I was more grateful that it was happening.

And, to say that I had no input sounds cold. But what really happened was, while I had no say in the movie, I was completely welcome throughout. I went on the set. I met Sandra Bullock right after she filmed a scene. I went out to the Los Angeles and New York premiers. I’ve talked on the phone with them a few times since then.

I never felt like I didn’t belong. But I also never felt like a big man on campus. I just felt like one of the gang. I was just one of the people that was directly or indirectly responsible for this movie, and here I am!

Bird Box on Netflix

Do you have a favorite memory from being on set?

I have a few! It was really amazing meeting “Boy” [Julian Edwards], his Mom, and family. They were the nicest people you could possibly imagine. That was amazing!

Meeting Sandra Bullock was also incredible! I met her under the bright lights that they were shining on the set during filming. And, to meet her literally under those stage lights, I mean, how else would you want to meet the world’s biggest movie star? (laughs) It was wonderful! (Jokes) You almost wanted to ask, do have these lights at home?

Then, a moment that really stands out to me…is that it had been rainy and cold one day, which is obviously rare for Los Angeles, and, I was wearing what I always wear, what I’m wearing right now, a button-down shirt and a blazer. I was freezing! I asked one of the producers, Chris Morgan, a really nice guy, if someone had a sweatshirt I could borrow. He said, “no, but my assistant can drive you to the gift shop. They sell sweatshirts”. We were on the Universal lot. I said, “ok”.

So, his assistant drives my fiancé, Allison and I through all these sets, like Jaws, Back to the Future, we saw the Psycho house. He’s driving us on this golf cart and it’s raining and cold as we’re going to the front of the lot. And then I’m in the gift shop, in line with a bunch of people who just took the public tour. I’m thinking to myself, “this is unbelievable. I flew out here as a guy who wrote the novel being made into a major movie, but here I am, standing in line with all these tourists for a Universal sweatshirt!” (laughs) And, I thought this was something both wonderfully familiar and humbling. I almost felt like fate was saying to me, “this is a big deal, but don’t forget, you’re also just a regular dude!” I’ll always remember that moment!

Those people in line are going to look back now and think, “oh my gosh! I stood right behind Josh! (laughs)

Yeah! But I was in the back of the line! (laughs)

I just watched Bird Box and it was my first horror film ever. I absolutely loved it!

Oh wow! That’s amazing!

(Jokes) I know! You actually got me to watch a horror movie! I was terrified, but glued to the screen, the whole time.

Oh my God! You’re the perfect candidate to watch scary movies!

You know, it’s funny when someone says to me, “I don’t watch horror movies because I get scared”. I can’t help but think, that’s like saying “I don’t watch comedies, I laugh too much!” (laughs)

There’s a bizarre joy in like making it through a horror movie. You almost feel like you conquered something! I don’t know if I even want to be able to articulate that any better than what I just said, because I like that feeling. There’s a sense of, “I survived that movie!” And, it’s just a movie, right? But, there’s still sense of having survived it. It’s such a thrill.

Naturally, people are always going to make comparisons and look for similarities and differences between the book and film adaptation. In retrospect, looking back at the whole process, was there anything that you would change about the movie or the book if you were given the option?

Well, there’s one thing that was added to the movie that’s so good! The scene where Malorie intimates that the “Girl” may have to open her eyes.

That is so intense! And that moment is not in the book! I talked to the screenwriter after and asked, “can I somehow magically add that to every book of mine?” (laughs) It’s amazing, and that was the most memorable difference to me.

The peak or centerpiece of the book is the birth scene. And, there’s no question, it’s crazier in the book. In the movie, it’s good too, but in the book, it’s definitely the peak. To me, the peak in the movie is that moment when Malorie says, “one of us is going to have to look”, and Girl says, “I’ll do it.”  And it’s like, “NO!” (laughs)

One of the main plots of both the movie and book involve Malorie and her two kids. You mentioned a little earlier that you have a fiancé, Allison. Do you think that once you’re married and potentially have kids of your own one day, that this will affect the way you picture characters or craft storylines?

For sure! You know, it’s funny, I’ve read other authors talk about this saying you can’t write about fatherhood unless you’re a father. I’ve heard stuff like that. And, maybe somewhere in there, is why I opted for a Mom. Actually, in a lot of my books the father figure seems either warped or absent or not there. My Dad isn’t. My Dad’s been supportive and is around. But, maybe the reason for a lack of a father figure in my books is because I don’t trust that I know how to write fatherhood. And so, I wonder if after having a kid, the next book would be about a child or something like that. I don’t know. I never thought about it until right now! (laughs)

Foreshadowing for future books maybe!

Yeah!

I read that you did a Harper Collins book tour recently where you actually blindfolded the audience during readings. Now that the movie’s come out, people have been going crazy with things like the trendy “Bird Box Challenge”. I’d love to know, what are your thoughts on this whole kind of pop-culture boom?

Well, at first, I thought, “oh my gosh! This is amazing and fun!” I was imagining people would blindfold themselves and try to shoot basketballs, make a sandwich, or even try to walk from one end of the yard to another. That all sounds great.

But, when I saw a blindfolded guy wrestling an alligator and saw a guy riding a horse around blindfolded, and I read about the woman in Utah that got in a car accident, no injuries, thank God, then I posted something on-line. I had to say, “hey, hey, hey, let’s be careful!” Netflix also posted that online. I guess the thing that I would want to tell people is if it’s that crazy, don’t do it. If you want to really blow your mind, just try to do regular daily activities blindfolded. Try to make your bed blindfolded. Try to make a sandwich blindfolded. Try to get dressed blindfolded. It’ll blow your mind more than going skiing down a hill with your eyes closed.

Sandra Bullock in the Netflix film, 'Bird Box'.

Sandra Bullock in the Netflix film, ‘Bird Box’.

Leave the alligator alone right? (laughs)

Yeah! It’s really the little things that make you think, “holy cow! How does a blind person or someone in the Bird Box scenario work through that?” I can’t even put my shoe on my foot! (laughs)

I know of…I guess you could call this a more normal blindfolded activity…people hosting Bird Box themed blindfolded dinners. Would you ever consider trying it out and maybe experiencing one of those activities?

Yup! See, that one sounds fun! You sit down at the table, I love the idea. Like, “sir, I’ll have the salad”. And the waiter goes, “maybe!” (laughs) “We’ll see what you get. Actually, you won’t see!” That sounds fun to me. I read about one in Atlanta. So, if I end up in town or if that happens around here, hey, I’m definitely going to give it a whirl!

One of the last questions I have for you today involves your feelings about recently making the New York Times Bestseller List!

Wow! right?!

That’s pretty incredible. I think you wrote the rough draft in 2006?

Yup! The rough draft was in ’06. But then, the big rewrites were in 2010, the book was shopped in 2012, optioned for film in ‘13, and published in ’14!

I knew a movie might be made, but you can imagine in 2014, I thought the magical journey with Bird Box had, not run its course, but I thought this was its full story. So, that was ’06, and now, here we are in 2019 and it’s on the bestseller list. Oh my God!

I don’t judge a book by whether it fails. I don’t judge an entertainer by the number of followers or anything like that. But, I know that Bird Box came from a very organic and joyful place. I can still see myself 12 years later, excited by the idea of scaring someone who might read it. So, to see it on the bestseller list now is just surreal. I think that’s the right word for that one!

To wrap things up, would you like to do a few quick fill-in-the-blank questions?

Sure!

In my time off, I love to…

I don’t do much of that! (laughs) I like to go up to Northern Michigan to my fiancé’s family’s place. It’s a lodge on a lake and there’s a sauna right on the water. They’re Finnish.

I love to go up there and read on a raft or go in the sauna by the lake. But even when I was up there, that’s where I came up with the book, A House at the Bottom of a Lake. So, I don’t know how much time off I actually take! (laughs) I need to take more of it!

My fiancé and I, we call them “no days”. We say, “hey, I think we need a ‘no day’”. A “no day” means you actually don’t do anything! It doesn’t mean I’ll write half as much, a “no day” really means you do nothing! They’re very rare.

(Jokes) I guess that means I’m going to have to take more “no days” as well!

Definitely! (laughs) You’re literally not allowed to do anything! Eat and watch movies, that’s it!

Next one, a song you’ll find on my winter playlist is…

Oh, that’s a good one! I like Neil Young a lot this time of year. I’m going to say, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”.

One thing you may not know about me is…

(laughs) I wish this answer was I’m a great cook or something, but no! I grew up as a middle child out of three boys. My older brother is two years older and my younger brother is three years younger. I now have a half-brother, but I grew up as a middle child. I think this is almost the best in a way. You’re babied a little and also in charge a little! 

My favorite author is…

I really went through a period with William Faulkner where I read 17 of his books in a row. I did the same thing with Virginia Woolf and with other authors. So, just for now, I’ll say William Faulkner.

Last one! My favorite Netflix show is…

I love Dark, the time travel show! It’s German. You’ve got to watch that one! It’s so well done!

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