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Blindsided By “Bird Box”: Josh Malerman’s Debut May Surprise You

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Photography: Allison Laakko
Photography: Allison Laakko

The victims saw something before attacking people and taking their own lives.

LONDON—This may prove to be one of the key books of the year. Some will rank it among the strongest recent debuts. If nothing else, Bird Boxs tale of a world maddened by a glimpse of something unspeakable is one great argument for the blind leading the blind

It was released in the UK two weeks ago by Harper Voyager, in time for the London Book Fair (#LBF14), which opens tomorrow, Tuesday, at Earls Court, following today’s kickoff Publishing for Digital Minds conference (#DigiConf14).

Bird Box cover

It won’t be out in the US from Harper’s Ecco Books until May 13. Which is not a Friday. That would have been fitting.

The children have never seen the world outside their home. Not even through the windows. And Malorie hasn’t looked in over four years…Four years, she thinks, and wants to smash her fist through the wall.

Bird Box is set in a suburb not unlike the Detroit-area milieu in which its American author, Josh Malerman, lives and spends his mornings writing. In all honesty, Bird Box is probably not the kind of thing a chamber of commerce is eager to see attach to its municipality.

“What is it?”

“Shhh,” the Boy says.

Malorie stops rowing. She is listening.

The Boy is right. Something moves on land to their left. Sticks break. More than one.

The man in the boat, Malorie’s mind screams, saw something on this river.

Genre Flyover

Many people are going to categorize Bird Box as “horror.”

Like the “ghosts” sub-category in which it has been bouncing between No. 1 and No. 3 in the UK’s Kindle ratings so far, the label “horror” may sell it short. “Scary” doesn’t get it. Something bigger is at work here. In this book, every road in the world is Elm Street. Including yours.

Photography: Allison Laakko
Photography: Allison Laakko

Suspense, certainly. Psychological suspense, definitely. But what might make discerning readers recognize this as a literary thriller is the control of this author’s voice. Malerman is fully in charge of his material. While he’s not scheduled to appear at London Book Fair, he might be at BookExpo America in May, he tells me. Many who read Bird Box will want to meet him.

Hollywood is ahead of us. Universal Pictures is reported to be working with Eric Heisserer on a screenplay of the novel, with production support from Scott Stuber. At Variety, Justin Kroll reports this without mentioning the book’s author. Andy Muschietti was talked about initially for direction, but that idea seems to have changed. That’s okay. Malerman—he’s the author, you’ll remember—tells me that a woman’s touch might be right for this piece full of “insanity fuss.”

It’s through this Hollywood interest that Malerman came to the attention of literary agent Kristin Nelson. Her associate on foreign rights, Jenny Meyer, already has sales for it in Brazil (Intrinseca); Germany (Random House/Penhaligon); France (Calmann-Levy); Italy (Piemme); Spain (Planeta); Holland (Bruna); Russia (AST); Japan (East Press); Taiwan (Sun Color). Like hot cakes.

Not bad for the front man and songwriter of the band The High Strung. Author of close to 20 other books you’ve never heard of. Unpublished. That, alone, is interesting.

In an increasingly networked creative corps of digitally empowered entrepreneurial authors, Malerman is, until now, invisible. Not in the community. Not blogging about how to write a query, not writing how-to-write-a-book books for other authors, no “indie” talk of self-publishing, nor a “hybrid” author looking to churn out Kindle singles.

In point of fact, one reason the arrival of Bird Box is such an event is that it—and its author—really do seem to come “out of nowhere.” Like the harrowing impetus that blindfolds almost everyone in his story, the kind of piece you wish Hitchcock or Anthony Minghella had lived to film.

What Makes “Bird Box” Fly? Inevitability First

The leading edge of ingenuity here is inevitability, a quality almost as hard to fathom in literature as the very danger, that “insanity fuss” propelling Bird Box. But it’s the reason that when you finish reading the book, you may want to re-read Chapter One: you’ll see how much was right there in front of you.

Of course, you were blindfolded.

Josh Malerman - self

In Malerman’s work, the grace of such inevitability lies in his willingness to take his story seriously—darkly, compassionately, unrelievedly seriously. In a world that keeps telling you to sit back and relax, Bird Box “anxiously coos,” to borrow a phrase from Malerman’s text. He’s not afraid to make it uncomfortable. You can get your comic relief on TV. Malerman is here to stick his landing without cracking a smile.

Inevitability often stalks this kind of success, as a matter of fact. It unnerves you more deeply than big surprises. It’s an unseen presence for Malerman in story, ethos, voice.

What’s going on in Bird Box seems as unstoppable as the approach of the radiation cloud in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, or as conclusive as the blistering heat in “The Midnight Sun,” the 1961 Twilight Zone episode in which Earth is orbiting too close to the sun. To read Shute’s work or to watch Rod Serling’s “Sun” is to come away convinced for a few moments that something is actually and palpably wrong in the world. It’s a little hard to shake the strain, a sign of potent material.

To achieve such impact, Malerman never sends up his story. There’s not a moment of camp, not a wink, not a snicker. He means it. The reality of what he has imagined here is relentless, a rapidly widening sinkhole of despair that dares you to look away. This helps him explicate and then sustain his concept of a global crisis with terse economy. He rarely strays beyond one city block of tortured homes.

At the Oars: A Woman

Another essential force at work here is something Malerman has in common with author Hugh Howey— a love of female strength.

The role of Malorie brings to new literature a distinctively male recognition of strong women. Like Howey’s Vic in Sand and Jules in Wool and Montana in Peace in AmberMalerman writes a rational intelligence that women may too easily take for granted in themselves and each other.

Photography: Allison Laakko
Photography: Allison Laakko

Guys do see it. Some write it. And we are grateful, especially when such truth is so artfully blindfolded as it is here.

Voice: And What It Can Do With Structure

What Malerman does with voice is earn your trust. He plays with time shifts so that you’re getting the benefit of hindsight: At many points, you learn something that makes you look back at a scene you read earlier with new insight.

Near the end, a severe polyphony of present and past takes over with the rhythm of rowing: Malerman has spent the first three quarters of the book setting up a near-deja vu to come.

“I wrote the rough draft for Bird Box, he tells me, “in twenty-six days. It was a magnificent example of experimental horror. There were no chapter breaks, no quotations, no indentations, all present tense, italicized. You didn’t even know who was talking. It was like a solid brick of a manuscript. I loved it. It was like a singular nightmare.”

The edition you’ll read is much more traditionally parsed, you’ll be glad to hear. It seems to have lost little of the weird pith of that original phantasm.

And He’s A Hoot

“I have written 17 novels,” Malerman confides like a man telling a joke on himself. “And this is where my story gets creepy: From age 20 to 29 I failed at writing five books,” by which he means “those books weren’t finished. I failed them.”

But while 29, Malerman got to the end of No. 6. His success in that—”I got to page 299 and could see the ending”—prompted what he calls this outburst of 17 more novels” of the finished variety. He’s now 38, with a lot of work in the drawer.

This means that nearly two decades’ work on some 22 projects, at least five never finished, are behind Bird Box. Nothing overnight about this success.

“I never looked for an agent, I never looked for a publishing house,” he says, because his gut told him that if one of the pieces went well, he’d need more material. In fact, it wasn’t until a friend asked permission to show Bird Box to an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles that this one book found its way to Nelson and to publication.

And now, with Bird Box in action, is he getting more of his stockpile ready?

“I’m working on a couple of things but, no, they’re both new ideas.  People say, ‘Why don’t you pick one of the other fifteen books'” already written? “If one or the other” of the new books “shines, that’s wonderful.” If not, he says, he might revisit one of the existing books.

Malerman is not from a writing family. His father is in accounting. “I wouldn’t say I have an obsession with numbers, but I do know the word count of every single book, and I think I got a certain amount of logical whatever-that-is from Dad…The dream is four-thousand words a day. And my mom’s a painter and knows a ton of about art history.

“No matter what I do, whether I’m writing really fast and really well or if I’m struggling through it and distracted by something on the radio, it seems like the same thing: every session is always five hours.”

“The Janitors Are Tapping Their Toes”

You might think that with roughly twenty books unseen, Malerman would question whether he knows when to stop working on a piece.

“The spectrum of what I’m satisfied with,” he says, “is really wide.” He relates his sense of completion and satisfaction with Bird Box here to his work with The High Strung. “When the band sets up one microphone and we record and you can’t really hear my voice that well, but the song has energy and spirit? I’m like, ‘We’re done!’  And when we go into a big studio and the voices are doubled tracked…I’m also like, ‘We’re done!’

“I did a tour of the Motown Museum here in Detroit. And they were saying that [producer/songwriter] Berry Gordy would invite the janitors into the control room when he was doing the playback of a song. And if the janitors started moving around a little or tapping their toes…he’d say, ‘We got it!’

“And I feel the same way with Bird Box. The janitors are tapping their toes. So we’re done!”

He Didn’t Think of Medusa

“I haven’t seen anything,” she calls. “I swear, I’m safe. My eyes are closed…”

“Keep them closed,” a man finally says. “We’re opening the door.”

Malerman says, “There definitely was no allegory in mind” when he wrote Bird Box. But he already has been caught by surprise by a reader’s comment.

“One guy asked me, ‘Is it based on Medusa?’ Because you can’t look Medusa in the eye. I thought that was an awesome angle. But no, nothing like that was on my mind” as he wrote the book. “Medusa happens to be one of my favorite characters, mythological or not, and I didn’t think of her one time while I was writing this.

“I’ve always had a crush on Medusa.”

And Yet, He Did Write it With Birds In The House

“I have a fantastic collection of dark, horror soundtracks,” Malerman says. He makes a point of using music when he writes, and he’s especially happy with the kind of soundscapes that composers create for tense film scores.

“It’s always a classical station” or a soundtrack” when he’s working.

“But while I was writing Bird Box, I also had five finches, and I didn’t feel comfortable leaving them in their cage. So I actually had these birds flying around the apartment.

“And when I think of the soundtrack of Bird Box, I think of the sound of these birds flying around me every day from about 7 in the morning to noon.” TC mark

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