'Bird Box' Author Josh Malerman Still Loves The World He Created 13 Years Ago. Now Millions More Are Also On Board.
The prolific author of the book that eventually lead to one of the season's most viral memes, spoke with editor Abby West about having his debut work take off and land in the zeitgeist so many years after he wrote it.
January 21, 2019
When Audible editor Laura Michaels reviewed Josh Malerman's thrilling Bird Box in 2014, she raved that "this chilling debut is so well-written, and so suspenseful I had a very difficult time putting it down." It was that skillful teasing out of the story behind why his main character Malorie was fleeing with two children, down a river, all blindfolded that not only garnered Malerman literary prize nominations for the work, but also had it optioned for a movie before it was even published. And when that movie came out on Netflix in December 2018, it was seemingly everywhere. People couldn't stop talking about the dystopian nightmare that started with Malerman's brainchild.
Thankfully, he is just as happy to talk about it and did just that with editor Abby West before the movie launched and became a cultural touchpoint. Listen in as Malerman talks about the evolution of his intense story and what it's like to have your work adapted -- first for audio and then for the screen.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Abby West: Hi, I'm Audible editor Abby West and I'm excited to talk with Josh Malerman, author of Bird Box, Unbury Carol, Black Mad Wheel, and Inspection, among other works. And while Josh is also the lead singer and guitarist for The High Strung, whose song "The Luck You Got" is the theme song of Showtime's Shameless, it's his terrifying debut novel Bird Box -- which was nominated for the Stoker Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the James Herbert Award, and has been adapted into a Netflix movie starring Sandra Bullock, that we're going to dig into today because I am dying to talk about it. Welcome, Josh.
Josh Malerman: Hi. Hello! I'm dying to talk about it, too. It never gets old talking about this book to me and I hope it never does. I imagine it never will.
AW: I love that. Because sometimes you wonder if people are just tired of talking about this thing they wrote decades ago.
JM: Yeah. I know, you would assume or you would imagine that that might be the case but I'm actually re-reading Bird Box right now for the first time in a few years, just because the movie's coming out and I'm talking about it more again with people. Since Bird Box [the book] came out, I've probably written something like eight or nine novels. So it's only natural that you're not really thinking of that book that often when you've written eight or nine others, right?
JM: But here I am, re-reading it again with the movie coming out and everything and I'm having a great time again and I'm actually very excited that we're doing this right now, it's perfect timing.
AW: Well, yes, it is great timing to me. So when did you write Bird Box? I know it was your first published work [in 2014], but how far back did you write it?
JM: So the rough draft was written in 2006, which right now it seems so long ago but it's funny, for a long time it seemed very recent. The rough draft was in '06 and then I had written something, my gosh, something like a total of 14 novels before I ever shopped one. Bird Box was the one we shopped. It got picked up in about 2012. At about the same time that it got picked up, and prior to publication, it was optioned for film from Universal Studios. So Netflix ended up getting it from Universal. So there was a moment in time where I didn't have a book out yet but I had this book optioned by Universal. You can imagine how thrilling and surreal that moment was. After Harper Collins picked up Bird Box, I must have rewritten, gosh, 85 percent of it, from scratch.
I hear people say a writer is made in rewriting, right? And I never used to think anything of that saying... but then my God, do I understand that sentiment now.
JM: So when people ask me, "When did you write it," it becomes kind of a philosophical question. The rough draft now looks to me like just the greatest outline, like the most detailed outline ever written. I gave myself a bunch of scene ideas. Obviously, the rules are all the same -- the blindfolds, Malorie and the kids on the river, everything's the same, but the book that people have read, I didn't write that thing until 2012.
AW: I could totally geek out on the dissection of all that forever, but it makes we realize we need to stop for a second and talk about what people who may not be familiar Bird Box don't know. It is a full-on horror. It terrified me. I have to tell you, Josh, it terrified me. It's about a world where people start seeing something that makes them become horrifyingly violent and suicidal. And survival means living blindfolded. And we see things in shifting time frames from the viewpoint of Malorie, who is pregnant at the start of this horrific time. Man, the rapid disintegration of the world is what sets it off for me right off the bat. Where did you go to tap into that?
JM: Wow, you know, it may sound a bit lofty and I think that there is an almost hidden loftiness to Bird Box, which is that if you really think about it, what's going on is that a concept has arrived on earth that the people can't fathom, right? It would almost be like if infinity were personified. If you open the front door and infinity is on your front porch. And we're all led to believe and told that our minds are not equipped to fathom infinity. And we would go mad if we tried to or if we were blessed for a second to understand infinity, we would go mad. So now imagine that that concept is walking up the street in your town personified in the form of, or at least personified enough to be called a creature, right?
That was more or less like the gestation of the book. And then I just happened to love this image of a woman and two kids traveling on this river blindfolded. And so there was an image and there was an idea. I started writing about Malorie on a river, and then I'm like two pages in, I'm like what is she fleeing? Why can't they take off their blindfolds? And then that other idea, the idea of infinity coming to town in the form of something maybe a little more menacing just by being there at all. Then I realized, I think this woman is fleeing infinity. She's fleeing something that she can't comprehend, that nobody can comprehend. And from there the book just exploded. The rough draft was, I wrote about 4,300 words a day for about 20 days, no, 26 days, that's what it was, it was 26 days. And I never had a speed bump in it. I never had a, "what am I going to write tomorrow?" It was one of the most fluid artistic experiences of my life.
Now, flash forward six years after that, 2012, I rewritten all that from scratch again. But that initial rough draft was absolutely electrifying. And then there was the gestation.
AW: So it just poured out of you, whereas maybe the revision took a little more... angst?
JM: It sure did. [Laughter] Yup. I hear people say a writer is made in rewriting, right? And I never used to think anything of that saying. I used to go, "Okay, whatever." I wrote Bird Boxbut then my God, do I understand that sentiment now. Yes, the rewrites were, I mean, I must have rewritten that book eleven times. And I cherish that rough draft. It's in my office. It's in a crate in this office at the foot of my desk just for good luck. All the rough drafts are in there. But because of how good it felt, how good it felt to write it. But the truth is, if I gave you that rough draft you would be like, "Dude, this isn't even close to what this became." This isn't even close to put together as what you actually read.
AW: I've seen the Netflix movie and I've listened to the book, and I know some of the more startling differences between the two. Do you feel similarly about your written work and the adapted screenplay as you do between your final product and your rough draft?
JM: That's interesting. What an interesting question. Yeah, I guess in a sense, yes. Because again, the finished draft follows the rules of the rough draft and the movie follows the rules of the book, right? But there are startling differences. In the rough draft of the book, there were 14 housemates and in a lot of cases, Malorie didn't have really time to get to know many of them. And one of the things that Lee Boudreaux, the editor at Harper Collins, told me was "Hey, if you narrow this house to about seven housemates, I think that you can get a lot more out of each housemate." So just take that alone.
Malorie has remained pretty much the same through everything and I would even say Sandra Bullock in the movie, she's very similar. She seems spot-on to me as the book. So to me it was more like the things surrounding her have changed. Not changed in a way that defies the rules of the story or the rules of the book. So I do think that's an interesting take on it and if you ever hear me say that and pretend that is was my idea, that I realized that on my own, you can roll your eyes. You can say, "That was my idea. That wasn't yours."
AW: [Laughter] You're welcome to it. You're totally welcome to it.
JM: Thank you.
AW: Did you have any input or touch points on the screenplay?
JM: So, okay, as I already just said, the book was optioned before the book even came out. So talk about an unknown writer, right? It was my first book and it wasn't even out yet. So I understood from the start, like willingly understood, Josh, you're going to have no leverage here. You're not going to have any say, that kind of thing. Well, to be honest with you, the producers have been very welcoming throughout. I went out to Los Angeles and I told them, they asked me, "How would you [do this in the] film," and talked about that. I talked to each prospective screenwriter before Eric [Heisserer] was hired to do it. I went on the set and I saw scenes. My manager is one of the producers on the film also.
I guess I wouldn't say that I had a gigantic voice, but I was also welcome and we did give notes for the first few drafts of the script. It's been a very surprisingly warm and welcoming experience because you hear all these stories, like, "Oh, when they option your book, they never want to hear from you again." Well, I know what you mean but at the same time, they've been really, really warm to us. And so I may not have had a huge voice in it but we did have a voice. And we may not have had a huge one but we have been involved.
AW: That's pretty fantastic, especially as a first-time author to be able to see that.
AW: So that means you were very on board with the differences and the changes, and you saw what was driving them.
JM: Well, yeah. I mean, yeah. There's another side of me, too, that looks at it like this. And I've looked at it from the start like this. Even if I directed the movie, if I starred in the movie, if I wrote the screenplay, which I didn't do any of those three things, it still wouldn't be the book, right? So when I kind of came to that realization, it was like, "Well, aren't you glad it's in Sandra Bullock's hands? Aren't you glad it's in Susanne Bier's hands? Aren't you glad it's in Eric Heisserer's hands?" If I had full 100% control over everything, it still wouldn't be the book. Well good. Well then, I'm glad that it's in their hands and not mine because they're all brilliant people. And so I expected differences. I'm afraid to say one thing for a spoiler reason, but there's one thing that I was concerned about, like, oh my gosh, please about this one thing. And the movie was true to the book in that one aspect. So once I knew that was happening I was like, any other change, this or that, that's just natural from book to film. And again, I'm glad it was in their hands.
AW: That is very Zen of you and very enlightened. And I love it.
JM: Thank you.
AW: In a side note you'll have to tell me what that one thing is. What was the one thing you were concerned for?
JM: I'll tell you right now, it was whether or not they showed the creature, because in the first draft of the screenplay there was like a, what do you call it, in the supermarket behind a freezer door, like a claw kind of comes around. And I'm like, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no. We're not even supposed to see a fingernail from this thing. Whether or not it has one." So I was worried going into it and then when I saw it live, the whole time I'm like, "Oh my God, don't show it, don't show the creature, don't." And then they didn't and I was like, "Yes."
AW: They kept that ethereal quality that was extra terrifying.
AW: We're going to switch it up and talk a little bit about the audio version, where Bird Box was narrated by Cassandra Campbell. When and how did you first hear that?
JM: I think with each book so far, I've been sent prospective narrators. I'll get like a list of four or five from the publisher, "Which one of these do you think does the story justice?" And I remember with Bird Box, I just wrote them back, "These all sound really good to me." And they wrote me back, they're like, "Oh, well, we're going with Cassandra Campbell." And me and my fiancé, Allison, were like, "Oh, outstanding." And I follow [Cassandra] on Twitter and when I get good news or whatever about the audiobook I'll tag her in it. She did a great job and I think one of the things that she did so well is that book, the book has always felt to me -- how do I explain this? I want to say an elongated Twilight Zone, but there's a certain, rather than jump scares, there's a certain tightly tuned guitar string feel to the whole book to me. And I feel like she pulled that off, where it was a similar just steady, steady building mood the whole way. You never get to the "rawr!" moment. It's not that kind of horror. It's just very steady and it keeps getting a little bit tighter and a little bit tighter and a little bit tighter. And I feel like that's exactly what she did. I think she was absolutely perfect for it.
I was able to be involved on the creative side with the audiobook [of Unbury Carol], just in terms of talking with [narrator Dan John Miller] and that was pretty cool.
AW: I love that that's your takeaway because that's what I felt. And that's why I've really enjoyed the movie along with the book because I feel like it mirrored that rising tension. I left the screener theater the same way I ended the book, just completely on edge. Completely and utterly on edge.
JM: Yeah. Yeah. The fear, talk about spoilers, the ending of the movie, I walked away feeling exactly how I felt at the ending of the book. I walked away feeling exactly the same way. And that is not an easy thing to pull off. We've all read a million books and seen a million movies, and sometimes we love how different they are, other times we're like, "Oh, no!" But this time, I don't know, they pulled it off. That's all I can say is they pulled it off.
AW: Yeah. They definitely did. Talk a little bit about Unbury Carol and that narration with Dan John Miller. When I first heard the title, I don't know why but I was thinking very differently about what it would be. But this was also scary.
JM: Well, that story is a great story because Dan John Miller, I mean, he's legendary around Detroit and the area and really all over. He's just a brilliant songwriter, an actor, he does voiceover work. He's kind of a throwback gentleman, like, in real life. You know he was in Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash movie.
JM: Yeah. He plays his guitar player in that movie. Just a super interesting guy and when I knew Unbury Carol was going to be made into an audiobook, I just threw his name into the hat. I wrote my editor saying, "Hey, there's a guy who happens to be from the same neck of the woods as myself. Would you guys consider him?" And I made a point to say to them, "Choose who you think is right, but let me throw his name in the hat." And they went with him. And he's the one guy so far with all the books, he called me the day before he went into the studio and asked me these amazing questions, like, "What do you think of this voice for Smoke?" "What do you think of this voice for Carol?" And doing voices on the phone and asking me how to pronounce this last name and this city and this. And I was like, "Dan, this is one of the coolest conversations I've ever had in my life."
Because number one, it sort of solidified for me... Like, her name's Carol Evers [pronounced "Eeevers"], right? Well, if somebody called her Carol Evers [pronounced "Ehvers"], okay, whatever. Big deal. But when Dan was asking me, I had to sort of make it official, right? I was like, "Yeah, it's Carol Evers, yup. John Bowie, yup." And stuff like that. Or maybe Opal should have an Old West dialect but let's not have all of the characters have an Old West dialect." Because the book is a Western but it's also not. So maybe some of the characters are Western-ish but some aren't, right? I was able to be involved on the creative side with the audiobook, just in terms of talking with him and that was pretty cool.
AW: That's your most recent audiobook experience. Do you feel like you're going to want to continue a collaborative sort of working relationship with your future narrators?
JM: Hmm. You know what, the next book, Inspection, I feel like calls for a colder, almost more like Bird Box in a way. And so there's a side of me that would rather just kind of see how that one comes out. Whereas Unbury Carol is so idiosyncratic, I understand that some questions probably needed to be asked. I don't necessarily have to or want to. I mean I would love to, but I don't necessarily feel like I have to be involved. But what I would love to do, and I know this is starting to become more present with audiobooks, I would love to be involved with adding the music to the audiobook. Maybe I narrate one while real voice actors act out the characters. Not full-on radio play, but just a little more dynamic to a book would be a fun thing to do. I've even considered trying to do just like a book that was only audiobook. It was only released in that form. Maybe a serialized audiobook, that kind of thing. So I would love to get more involved, especially I would love to do like music for one down the road. And who knows, maybe that can even happen with Inspection.
AW: Are you hinting at something, Josh?
JM: But in terms of if I ever talk to the narrator ... say it again?
AW: Are you hinting at something down the pike?
JM: Yeah. I sure am. I'm applying for a job right now. [Laughter.]
AW: Our doors are open, man, our doors are open. And that is actually a really nice extension of your band work and just your space with music. And it's a fun extension for audio right now, where it's not just always straight narration. There are lots of books that do incorporate music, especially if there's a musical theme to the story, that just complements it. So you're right on the cutting edge there.
JM: Yeah. Yeah. And I'm completely interested in that. I mean it also just seems natural, right? Sound systems are becoming more evolved with surround sound. I watch a football game at my dad's house, I hear the crowd behind me and the announcers in front of me. Audio technology has advanced in a way. You know how some people are like, "Oh, there's a new phone or a new TV," whatever. And they're kind of like, "Do we need more? Do we need this?" Well, guess what, I have this awesome, old 1970s giant white headphones that don't sound anywhere near as good as the earbuds that my fiancé has, the brand-new ones. So audio has been advancing in a really good way. You can almost make an album on your phone. You could almost record, maybe not a drum set yet on your phone, but you could record everything else. You can make a movie on your phone, right? So to me, it's totally a natural extension that the audiobook is starting to become more dynamic like this because the medium itself is getting better all the time.
AW: Yes. And there's the ability to sort of take it and iterate it. What's the next step to it and being involved in that, it's pretty exciting.
AW: So Inspection is the next one out, right?
JM: Mm-hmm (affirmative)- Yup. It comes out April 23rd.
AW: And can you tell us a little bit about that one coming up?
JM: Sure. Inspection is more or less about a megalomaniac, even though you could almost consider him a mad scientist but it's not quite like that. A megalomaniac, a wealthy one, who decides, or believes, that genius is distracted by the opposite sex. So he raises 26 boys without the knowledge of the existence of women. That's sounds like a wild idea. The idea for him is that these kids aren't focusing all their energy on impressing the opposite sex and courtship and all this. They're going to put all their energy into math and engineering and science, etc., etc. Breed geniuses. Obviously, this is a horribly ill-fated experiment. And also the book would be no fun if there weren't females, right, also. And so the same thing is happening, without the boys' knowledge, there is a group of 26 girls being raised without the knowledge of the existence of men. And so the book is more or less what happens when those two schools discover each other. Those two schools discover each other. And you can imagine the fireworks from there.
AW: I think you're going to have a lot of fun going around talking about this one as well.
JM: You know, this is funny, because this one, the rough draft was written in '07 and again I re-wrote from scratch, probably about 85 percent of it last year. Like in the last year and a half. And I could never have predicted how timely this idea is for today's world. I don't think any of us could have quite predicted that, how timely it is. Really, Inspection really to me is like a gender equality anthem. It really it. But I wrote that rough draft in '07. I'm not saying, "I'm so brilliant. I wrote it in '07." But I did write it in '07 and it's so timely right now. And me and the editor, Tricia [Narwani], at Del Ray, we were like, "Yeah, this is the one." And here she is.
AW: You know, everything rolls out when it's supposed to and it's always eerie when it lands in just the right cultural zeitgeist.
JM: Yeah, it really is interesting. It also makes you think too that a lot of the things that you're saying, like in the zeitgeist, are always there but not necessarily featured at the moment. Like gender equality is obviously always an issue, always a topic, always on our minds. But guess what, right now it's at the forefront of our minds. And so that timeline is, you know, like Inspection lines up, happens to line up with that. In 2007, it probably sounded like even a stranger idea than it does now because now it can be seen as sort of a meditation on everything that's going on in the world right now with this.
AW: Right. You were almost prescient about it and now it seems like you're giving a dissertation on it.
JM: Yeah. I know, I know. Yeah. It's funny how that works, right? But like you said, things roll out in their time and as they should. And I'm kind of of the mind that if an idea similar to your idea comes out before yours came out, hey man, there's room for everybody. In today's day and age with how many different platforms and how many different movies and television shows and songs, there's just going to be some overlap. And if you know that you wrote your story pure of heart, you know, you just had an idea, you wrote it. Or if somebody else puts one out or, as you say, the zeitgeist lines up with it and it kind of looks like you noticed that and jumped on that. All right, big deal. You know that you were coming from like a clean place with it. And that's totally enough for me.
AW: That's perfect. Josh, I can't thank you enough for calling in and talking to us about Bird Box and the entire experience of both writing it and seeing it come to life on the screen after having heard it come to life on audio.
JM: Yeah. Bird Box was picked up when I was about 36 years old and all I can think is, thank God it wasn't picked up when I was 21, you know what I mean? Because I really, really value and am grateful for this phone call, for the movie, for all these things that are happening. It's a very warm, grateful place that I'm in right now. So thank you also for having me.
AW: I'm happy to. Wishing you all the best and hope you thoroughly, thoroughly enjoy it all.
JM: Right. Amazing. Amazing. Thank you.