Imagine writing a novel that gets made into a film, and that film becomes the most successful Netflix movie of all time, ever. When Josh Malerman wrote the first draft of his post-apocalyptic horror story Bird Box in 2006, he had no idea what would happen 12 years later, after Sandra Bullock took on the lead role of Malorie Hayes. Finding herself in a world where everyone around her suddenly starts seeing "creatures" that make them go crazy and violently kill themselves, Malorie has to navigate her way to safety with two small children, wearing blindfolds to avoid setting eyes on them.
Bird Box the movie came out in late December 2018 and, according to Netflix, had an incredible 45 million views in its first seven days. To date, again using Netflix statistics, it has clocked up 80 million views, and not just because of Bullock's stellar performance. Fans came out in droves to launch their own Bird Box challenge, encouraging each other to wear blindfolds while performing everyday tasks, one woman blindfolding her horse as well as herself to go riding, someone tattooing a client's face, someone else driving a car. Netflix issued a statement on social media urging fans to stop.
Bird Box the book, meanwhile careened its way from relative obscurity to number four on the New York Times bestseller list.
"It was a glorious explosion that I don't think anyone could have predicted, not even Sandra Bullock. It felt like we were standing at the head of a wind tunnel, and it kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger," says Malerman, talking on Zoom from his fancy-sounding home in a Detroit suburb, where he lives with his partner, musician Allison Laakko, and several dogs, cats and ducks, on two acres of land with a pool.
"I think the story resonated because it's like a Rorschach test," he says. "What do you see? What do you think the creatures are? What are you afraid of? This woman and these kids fleeing a concept beyond their comprehension was a very exciting premise to play with."
After years as a mid-list author of horror novels, Malerman, now 44, got a whopping advance for the book's sequel, Malorie, which comes out next week. Netflix has confirmed its plans to make it into a movie, and "development has begun," says Malerman. With Sandra Bullock starring? He won't say.
Success may have given him traction in the publishing world and made him a millionaire, but that doesn't stop him being nervous about the critical response to the new book. "On the one hand, it's the follow-up to a huge hit, so it better be good," he says. "On the other, hey man, it's just a book - but I do hope it thrills people."
The story has moved on 10 years. The "creatures" have thrived and multiplied, while humanity has been decimated except in secluded pockets. Malorie's children, Tom and Olympia - Olympia's biological mother was forced to look at the creatures and took her own life soon after giving birth - are both 16 and curious about the world, with opinions of their own. There are horrors aplenty, a superlatively propulsive narrative involving a perilous train journey and a somewhat existential allusion to what the "creatures", who only ever appear as gusts of winds and voices of loved ones, might actually be.
Malerman says the inspiration for them came from thinking about what infinity might look like. "The idea that there could be anything our minds are ill-equipped to fathom is in itself horrifying. I imagined what if there's a knock at the door and it's infinity personified? You might go mad."
Aside from being terrifying, at the heart of both books is the touching story of a fierce tiger mum who finds it difficult to express affection, but will go to any length to protect her children. Malerman has written more than 30 novels and short stories, though not all published, and concedes that he tends to process emotional issues through his writing, without necessarily realising it at the time. "You begin to see patterns in what you're writing, maybe four books in a row that all deal with parents getting divorced in some way, and then you realise you've just worked through something."
Raised in Michigan, the middle son of three boys, his accountant father and "art-minded" mother divorced when he was 15. "Bird Box was written in what I now see as an 'absentee father' phase of books for me. I have a great relationship with my dad. My parents did, however, go through a real divorce and I do think that has played a factor, I'm not sure exactly in what way, I haven't fully examined this yet, but I do know it resulted, with Bird Box and Malorie, in a vigilant mother (role)," he says. "Couldn't a man write an entire novel about his mother's influence on his stories? Yes!"
Malerman describes himself as "an anxious writer" beset by his own demons, and a workaholic who feels guilty if he doesn't write regularly. "I start questioning my self-worth and I absolutely identify myself through my output and productivity. My biggest nightmare would be for two years to pass without writing anything. I think I'd be a catatonic bore," he says, twisting his baseball cap around on his head.
The first draft of Bird Box took him 26 days to write, at the rate of 17 pages a day, he says. "Typically I'd barf out the rough draft and fix it all later, and it took a lot of rewrites," he acknowledges, which he did working at a huge desk in the empty ballroom in this "awesome old house in Detroit proper" which he was renting at the time for a peppercorn rent. "I had birds, no joke, five finches, that I let fly around freely. I put a blindfold on and tried going up the street and round the block. In hindsight I wish I'd done a little more of that."
He writes from 8am to 11am every day, having worked out what's going to happen next in the story before he goes to bed each night. He describes feeling the "pure joy of endorphins" coursing through him as he writes a scene that scares him rigid. "I'm freaked out, though not necessarily at the scenes you might imagine. If it's usually the thing you see that scares you - here it's what you can't see, it's what's inside Malorie's head. I put a magnifying glass up to fear itself, rather than the monster."
When not writing, Malerman plays in a rock band, The High Strung, which he and school friends formed aged 11. Though since lockdown began, he has not ventured outside his house more than five times, not even to support the Black Lives Matter protests in Detroit.
"I wanted to go to the protests but I'm too freaked out by the pandemic. I'm 100% on board with the peaceful protesting, but I'm not going to risk walking into a crowd."
The difference between Malorie's world and ours, caught up as it is in the Covid crisis, he continues, is this: "Malorie's is the fun scare - even if it scares you to the bone, it's still the fun scare, whereas what's happening right now is truly, legitimately terrible."
Malorie by Josh Malerman, Orion, £16.99
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What Malorie and the kids did next...the sequel to Bird Box