Jewish Heritage in Horror: An Interview with Josh Malerman
JOSH MALERMAN is the New York Times best selling author of Bird Box and Daphne. He’s also one of two singer/songwriters for the band The High Strung. He lives in Michigan with his fiancée, the artist and musician, Allison Laakko.
What inspired you to start writing?
It’s been there forever. The draw to writing. I tried a novel in fifth grade. Still bothers me I didn’t finish it. Yet, it still took me till age 29 to finish my first. Before then: quasi comic books, stabs at short stories, and wholly earnest attempts at novels, none of which I finished. So, again, it’s been there forever. I remember walking around summer camp, counting on my fingers how many books I was going to write. “There’s the one about the woods. And there’s the one about the lake.” As if one book couldn’t have both the woods and the lake. But I suppose I’ve always been thinking in terms of multiple stories. Always wanted a body of work, more than any singular book.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
The first scary movie I saw was Twilight Zone: The Movie and what an introduction in that I was exposed to four or five very different varieties of the genre at once. You have the social commentary segment, the heart-strings segment, the creature feature on the plane. But it was the third segment, Joe Dante’s, that grabbed me and took me in. The boy Anthony like an angry child-God, able to do literally anything he wants to, indulging any whim. And it was the imagination unchained there, the rubber nature of what constitutes horror, that not only sold me, but asked me to go out on the road and sell it myself. Also, for the purposes of this interview, it’s interesting to note that in the first segment, the bigot played by Vic Morrow had to experience being a Jew in Nazi Germany among other things he had to experience.
Do you make a conscious effort to include Jewish characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
The book I wrote immediately after Bird Box is called Bring Me the Map, and with that one I was thinking in terms of “Jewish horror story.” I was thinking lofty then, that I might write the essential Jewish horror novel, as The Exorcist seems to be that for Catholics. But the book changed organically as it went, and became less about Judaism and more about this family affair, but still, Jewish characters, all. And one of my more recent books, Forever Since Breakfast, is absolutely Jewish-centric. I’m hoping both these books come out soon. And, yes, it was a conscious effort to highlight Jewish characters in both. No doubt. And it felt good to do so. I should probably examine what that means and do it more often.
What has writing taught you about how to express your Jewishness or the experiences you’ve had as someone who is Jewish?
Well, I think part of the discovery is that us Jews are naturally on an island. I think of the Tiki Torch mob who chanted “the Jews will not replace us!” in recent days. I think of all the instances over history where Jewish people were either oppressed, killed, made fun of. Did you know Jews make up only 1.9% of America? I mean, we’re really on an island. Yet, I don’t find myself impassioned to express that. Instead, I find myself wanting to always lead by example. Nose down, work my ass off, write with joy, write with fire, and in the end, if someone else wants to say, “Hey, Josh Malerman is Jewish,” then great. It’s something I tend not to lead with. And not only because I’m not religious. I am proud of being Jewish and I love the hundreds of friends I’ve made in the community, growing up, going to summer camp, college, beyond. But I think I don’t lead with it because I don’t lead with anything other than the work itself. The book, I think, should speak for itself, and the moment people start liking books for any other reason than the books themselves, I move on. So, while I have found myself wanting to express the Jewish experience in certain novels, I do wonder if it has more to do with the fact that I’ve written 35 books now. And, if you’re the type of writer who tries to do something new with each book, if you’re looking for new angles, new moods, and you’re Jewish, you’re bound to say, “Hey, how about focusing on Judaism and the Jewish experience in this one.” Not because I’m necessarily trying to make a statement (though Forever Since Breakfast definitely does make one), but because it’s something I know well, something I am, my own skin, and so why not write some books from those angles as well?
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years and do you think there’s more that can be done to educate readers and authors on Jewish culture?
Well, I’m still new, in a sense. Bird Box didn’t come out till 2014 and it felt like the genre was just starting to stretch then, in new ways. I often use the word elastic when describing modern horror because it fits, right? Anything goes now. And, yes, I definitely think there can be more done to educate on the Jewish experience but for me, the best way to do that is to shine less of a light on literal Judaism, and rather shine the light on a Jewish person, and allow their quirks and idiosyncrasies to represent the religion for the course of the book. What I mean by that is: let’s say the star of our novel is a Jewish woman named Maxine. Maxine doesn’t have to be talking about temple for us to experience Judaism through her. The fact she’s Jewish at all means anything she does will give us that lens. She could go to a church and we’re experiencing Jesus through the eyes of a Jewish woman. Right? I think it’s important to allow these things to do some of the work for us. The character. There’s nowhere to hide in a novel, not for the writer, you can’t hide your worldview even if you think you can. And so, being born Jewish, that Jewishness will be in all my books, no matter how many, or how few, touchstones of Judaism I use. The new movie The Vigil is a Jewish story, through and through. And I love it for that. But you can highlight a Jewish character just as effectively with no ritual of Judaism in sight. A Jewish football player would work. A Jewish anything.
Following up, how do you think that process will continue to evolve through the years?
Well, I do think things will continue to stretch. But movements in art have a tendency to revolt against each other. So I wouldn’t be surprised if a more classical variety of monster returned to the genre soon. More werewolves and vampires, etc. Rather than vague representations of infinity that force you to wear a blindfold for protection. That said, it feels like, these days, there’s room for everyone and everything. So, I could see defined branches extending… classical horror authors… elastic horror authors, repudiating the classical… both reaching for the same fruit, but from different ends of the orchard.
How do you feel the Jewish community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
I do think it’s a blind spot. Underrepresented. I mean, when you think of horror iconography, the upside down cross is pretty near the top. Yet, for those of us who grew up thinking Jesus and the cross and all that wasn’t anything more than a sick way to sentence someone to death, for those of us who don’t believe in that cross carrying a son of God, it can all feel a little silly, right? I do get scared of demon movies and possession films, but I’d like to see more of that from a fresh angle. What does that mean and what does that look like? Well, I don’t know yet. But I’ll work on it. And I imagine others will, too.
Do you think there is a difference between Jewish horror and horror that is Jewish or are they one in the same? For example, the realism of the Holocaust is horrifying and the otherness that comes with it compared to the folkloric horror of dybbuks, possession and other creatures?
Yeah, those are definitely different things. And for every one dybbuk, there’s ninety-nine holocaust stories. I would love to see us get more creative in that way. I mean, believe me, I understand why the holocaust is such a strong subject, why we return to it, the unfathomable backdrops, what is one of the worst moments in the history of mankind… yet… I’d like to see us as Jewish writers, and any writers really, grow, move ahead, find new ways to express Judaism in horror, even if it’s just very small stories, a mother and a monster in an apartment, a Jewish boy lost in the woods. I must say, this interview has got my wheels turning. It’s all an interesting topic for me, right? Because I was raised Jewish, I’m not religious really, yet I feel part of the Jewish world, yet I feel distance in a sense too, and here I am, with the ability (just like we all have the ability) to write about absolutely anything we want, and so I find myself considering what might make a legendary Jewish horror story? And it’s not that I feel like it’s my duty to do so, or any of ours, of course not. But because there’s a challenge there that is really appealing. It’s all an identity mindscrew, in a sense. Jewish, not Jewish, books for the pure sport of it, books for the purpose of real meaning, who are we as writers, as thinkers? All I know is this: you got me thinking of what might make a great Jewish horror novel. I like to think I did something close with Forever Since Breakfast, and maybe I did. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try it again.
Who are some of your favorite Jewish characters in horror?
I’m not even sure how to answer this. I feel so many Jewish characters have either been the nervous kid, the numbers guy, the accountant, etc, I’m struggling to think of a legitimate Jewish character in horror that I would laud right now. Like I said, this interview has me thinking. I think Jamie Lee Curtis’s dad was Jewish? Tony Curtis? Is that right? And Lin Shaye is for sure, right? I mean… that’s some serious mettle right there between those two. And if that’s true about Jamie, then we have that in common, as my dad is Jewish and my mom is not. Which, by the way, could also go far in explaining why I feel this double-edged identity thing with it all: represent it, don’t represent it, Dad, Mom… you get the point.
Who are some Jewish horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
I wasn’t asked to be in the Jewish Book of Horror! That stings a little. But whatever, I don’t mean to sound greedy. Maybe it’s the half-Jew thing again. Anyway, Robert Bloch comes to mind. Obviously Kafka. Is Cronenberg Jewish? I’m thinking horror personalities, beyond only authors. I did love Keith Thomas’s The Vigil. Kubrick was born Jewish. Is Daniel Kraus Jewish? I think so. He’s an amazing guy. Writer. Thinker. Brenda Sue Tolian is in that Jewish Book of Horror. If she’s Jewish, she’s amazing. Well, she’s amazing either way.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
That anything goes. Follow no trends. People want fresh, more than they ever have before. Readers are up for anything, so long as the author is giving it their all. Never ever think of things in terms of likes, views, sales. And the word “deserve” is a dangerous word… the only thing any of us “deserve” is to write a great book. Because that’s what we put our time into. The actual writing. And if things go well beyond that? Well, holy shit. That’s fantastic. But the only thing we all truly deserve is to get better. So long as we’re always writing and giving our all. If you focus entirely on social media, you’ll do well there. But I think what we all really want is to write a great book. So focus on that. That’s the thing with writing: Writing knows your relationship to it. Writing knows how you feel about it. And if you love it? It knows. And it returns that love to you.
And to the Jewish writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Well, after this interview, I might suggest we all try our hands at something intentionally Jewish. But I don’t know. I really don’t. I do think we could use some Jewish characters who aren’t only neurotic or numbers driven, etc. We could use some badass Jewish characters. I’m thinking about some now, for this next book I’m writing. It’s about a vaudeville troupe. And I think, thanks to you, I just decided to make them all Jewish.