Technically, it’s true. But it’s difficult to call Josh Malerman’s Bird Box a debut novel.
On one hand, crowds have heard Malerman’s yarns before—just in condensed, three-minute bursts from his band, The High Strung. Born out of Detroit in the late ’90s, the band would go on to release a prolific stream of albums through 2014. If you’ve watched the Showtime series Shameless, you’ve already heard Malerman’s voice—as well as his melodically inclined buds, drummer Derek Berk, bassist Chad Stocker and guitarist Stephen Palmer. But the main reason it’s so weird to call Bird Box Malerman’s first book is because, somewhere in his Southeast Michigan home, there’s a pile of 20-something novel drafts.
“He’d finish writing, and he would go to his brother who owns a printer place in Berkley, [Michigan],” Stocker says of Malerman’s early novels, which began in the passenger seat of The High Strung’s tour bus. “He’d have him make it into a paperback-sized book. I would have printed out 10 books and sold them at our shows, but he brought them around and gave them to people who were interested. It’s funny to think about that now, because if he becomes a top-seller, there’s probably 20 to 30 manuscripts out there that were made by him that he just gave away to people. He never thought like that. He just wanted people to check out his stuff.”
And that shows in Malerman’s fiction.
This debut novel, released last year on Harper Collins’ Ecco imprint, is terrifying. That’s not an easy accomplishment with certain modern tastes, especially with Saw or Paranormal Activity films that define horror by jump-scares and gross-out tactics. But Malerman’s Bird Box relies on the opposite, delving deep into the reader’s imagination. In Bird Box, there’s a thing lurking the streets of the U.S. People go into homicidal, self-destructive fits when they see this thing—animal, beast, human, a vision of the infinite. And one mother, Mallory, spends the length of Bird Box’s 200-some pages trying to navigate this changed world—one where leaving the house requires a blindfold. One where sight itself can end your life.
Malerman’s Bird Box doesn’t read like an author finding his voice. The talent within has arrived fully formed—a sentiment echoed in Bird Box’s critical praise, Malerman’s own Bram Stoker award and, recently, a movie option by Universal Studios. But that’s all thanks to the however-many books beneath Bird Box in Malerman’s stack of drafts, which he assures is growing by the day. His output isn’t manic, it’s not compulsive, he says. It’s simply what he does.
“I think at some point, you see people who see writing a book as an opportunity,” Malerman says. “[That person] may even write the best book I’ve ever read, but I say, ‘Let the artists art. Let the businessmen business.’ If all the writers, the musicians—if all of the people who really fucking loved it did it, we’d benefit. We’d feel that love transferred.”
When considering reinvention, music is the unexpected success story of Josh Malerman. In that aforementioned list of art forms, writing was what struck him first. It was cultivated in elementary school and would lead him to pen his own horror fiction, bad poetry, then “bad dark poetry,” as he’d tell you. But once writing became a craft he developed on a daily basis, Malerman hit a rough patch. He spent 10 years writing—and subsequently abandoning—novels.
In his early 20s, he’d write 100 pages. Two-hundred. A draft might have 300 pages of Malerman’s rapid-fire prose, and something as simple as a bad character name, a plot twist, the words themselves, would throw him off. But in that time, “the real question for myself was, how did you end up playing music?” Malerman says. His friends—that’s the short explanation.
It started with a Farfisa organ, bought from the same music shop that sold the band its first four-track. In Malerman’s early 20s, his friends taught him some chords. They asked him to sing some of those “crappy poems.” The rest is road-worn history: The High Strung evolved into its own entity—one that crossed the country countless times. A budding new voice developed within the band’s catalog, and they’d fill that 10-year gap of incomplete novels with amplifiers, crashing cymbals and state-spanning gigs.
“When other people were getting their first job or their management position or getting married, we were drinking 12 cans of beer a night and sleeping in a van,” Stocker says, laughing. “We didn’t care if we were going into debt. We didn’t care if we were leaving girlfriends. We didn’t care if we were healthy. We were making whatever we wanted to happen happen.”
Malerman shares that sentiment. His success in music was an entity of its own, but still, novel writing never took a back seat to the tunes, or the beer. “There’s a mixed identity thing when you’re playing songs and drinking all night,” Malerman says. “Then the next morning you’re like, ‘Oh boy. I’m writing a book.’”
It’d be more fair to say Malerman’s role as a writer was shifted to that aforementioned passenger seat, which acted as Malerman’s de facto desk. It was where he attempted draft after draft in the middle of a decade spent understanding his own process.
“If the only three hours I had were in a van while [Derek] was driving and Chad was practicing the bass in the back, I had to get used to it,” Malerman says. “The thing that was hard was, with something like horror, it’s very moody. If you’re trying to write a legitimately freaky scene, and they’re listening to the radio…there were times I had to be like, ‘Hey, let’s listen to nothing at all for 10 minutes.’”
“I was in the back, and I’d watch him,” Stocker says. “At first, it started off on legal-sized notepads. He was writing by hand, and then I think he moved up to some sort of archaic laptop. It probably weighed as much as a typewriter. It was great. He would be pretty much in his own world for hours. He’d look up and say how excited he was about a scene, or what a character was about to do.”
Still, the road was not exactly fertile ground for Malerman. He’d plow through pages every day, sometimes in that passenger seat, and still come to the same impossible conclusions. Unavoidable corners, bad character names—whatever. The drafts weren’t finishing themselves. And that wouldn’t change until Malerman was on the verge of 30, when The High Strung had one of its longest breaks yet. With two months off the road, Malerman found himself shacked up at his father’s house.
Like the rest of his ceiling-high stack of drafts, Wendy was a horror book. But the first completed novel, completed nearly a decade ago, marked a new creative phase sparked by caffeine, determination and a little recklessness. In The High Strung’s extended break, Malerman worked from a 24-hour coffee shop near his father’s place. Its clientele wasn’t of the art-house variety, but, more conveniently, law students. The nose-to-the-books environment kept Malerman churning out words. By the end of the break, he’d also reached the end of his first draft.
“When I finished that first book, that’s when I realized: this is now something you know how to do, and now that you do, you can’t be getting lazy.”
Now on the other side of 40, Malerman writes a first draft like he talks: Fast. He’ll churn out 4,000 words in a sitting, which is the length of this article—just multiplied by four and way spookier. It’s a skill that he’s honed not through a blind desire to publish, but through sitting at the computer, grinding out prose and honing his craft. And through his success as an author and a musician, that split-personality still exists.
“There were strange incidents of people telling me, ‘I’d rather see you succeed in this [career] over that,’” he says. “That was strange to me. It was really revealing of how your friends saw you. Somebody had an idea of how they saw me, like, ‘Oh, you seem more of an author type than a musician type.’ I was both. It’s okay to be both.”
And that’s how Malerman’s leaving it: to promote Bird Box, Malerman created musical retellings of passages of the book with the help of his High Strung bandmates (and blindfolds, if audiences were willing to participate). And since its release, the band’s still found time for scattered shows across the metro-Detroit area—even in the midst of his rapid-fire drafts. In fact, since Bird Box, he’s thrown two or three more novels on his ever-growing stack of drafts. Book two, through Harper Collins’ Ecco imprint, is in its editing phase.
For Malerman, the medium isn’t what defines him—but merely letting his own art occur. And with Bird Box, just as he’d hoped, that love has clearly transferred.