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‘Bird Box’ Author Josh Malerman on How He Plans to Follow up the Book (and Film’s) Success

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks for Josh Malerman, the first-time author whose debut novel “Bird Box” has now become a hit Netflix film. Published in 2014, “Bird Box” (available on Kindle, audiobook and paperback here) was quietly released by Ecco, a small imprint of HarperCollins, and debuted to modest reviews and sales. Still, industry insiders were intrigued by Malerman’s post-apocalyptic thriller, and film rights were optioned even before the book’s release.

Now, thanks to its record-breaking bow on Netflix (the streaming service says more than 45 million people viewed the film in its first week of availability), Malerman’s original book has returned to the New York Times’ best-sellers list, while sites like Target and Amazon have struggled to keep it in stock.

Malerman says he’s been excited to see the positive reactions to his book and the Sandra Bullock-led film. The Michigan native, who’s also the frontman for Detroit-based rock band The High Strung  (best known for performing the theme song to Showtime’s “Shameless”) says he’s now hoping to find the same success with his new book — and new music.

What has it been like to see the incredible success of “Bird Box”? 
I could give you many examples of how unprepared I was for this because who could prepare for this? When you get a book optioned for film, you of course fantasize or at least imagine a scenario in which it’s a hit, right? But this is different somehow. Susanne Bier and Netflix created something that’s having us all ask how movies are made, promoted, viewed, and talked about. And me? I’m loving it all. From the reviews to the memes, the articles that dig deep into the meaning of the creatures and the ones that don’t. I feel like I’m standing at the head of a wind tunnel, but that wind is warm. Is it overwhelming? Maybe. But I kinda like being overwhelmed.

When was the first time you saw the finished film in its entirety?
The plan was to see it for the first time at the Los Angeles premiere, but I was way too nervous to see it for the first time, sitting two seats down from Sandra Bullock at Mann’s Chinese Theater, y’know? So I asked Netflix if I could get a screening two days before and they said yes, and we watched it in a screening room in their building. I’d never been to a screening room before and it was awesome: no previews, no nothing really — the lights went out and the movie started. About 10 minutes, in I leaned over to Allison, my fiancee, and said, “Hey, this is really good.” About 30 minutes later I leaned over again: “Hey, this is really good.”

You released the book in 2014. What was the process like of getting it developed and turned into a film?
So I wrote the first draft in 2006. A messy thing that was twice as long as what it ended up being, but still the same scenario, same alternating plot-lines (the river and the house), same blindfolds and Malorie and the kids. Around 2010, I started rewriting the book, this with the help of my manager Ryan Lewis. Around then, Ryan started telling me he believed we could get a film option for the book once the book got picked up by a publishing house. And he was right. “Bird Box” was picked up by HarperCollins in 2012, Universal Studios optioned the book in 2013, Eric Heisserer wrote the script in the same year, and the book came out in 2014.

So by the time the book was published, almost five years ago now, there was already movie momentum behind it. And when Netflix bought the rights from Universal and Sandra Bullock got on board, things galvanized, became real, went into motion. To call this arc “thrilling” doesn’t do it justice. I’m still trying to find the perfect word. But maybe there isn’t one. Maybe it’s many.

bird box cast photo sandra bullock
CREDIT: Andrew H. Walker/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Even though you didn’t direct the film, it’s still your story. How hard was it to see the characters through someone else’s vision? 
The way I’ve always seen it, so long as the core idea of the book remains in tact, I’m game for any changes on top of that. In the case of “Bird Box,” we’ve got a blindfolded mother and two blindfolded kids navigating a river, fleeing an entity or creature they absolutely cannot look at. From there? If Susanne [Bier] thought there should be 20 housemates instead of seven? If she wanted to change their names, remove the dogs from the story? All that is the artistry of the people making the movie. I love it. So nothing was “precious” to me except for the core conceit, which remained intact.

I was excited to see the story through Susanne’s eyes. I mean, if I made the movie myself it still wouldn’t be the book. So I was glad it was in her hands and not mine. As for the reviews, I’ve been living with this story, Malorie and Boy and Girl, for long enough that I know how I feel about them, and how I feel about the book, and now the movie. So I don’t find myself getting too sensitive to too much.

How involved were you in the casting and production process of the film? Did you ever get to meet Sandra Bullock and talk to her about the character? 
I had little to no say in the entire film process and that’s all great. It’s important to remember that the movie was optioned before the book came out, and the book was my first to be published. So, talk about an unknown with no leverage. But I didn’t really even think about that, I was just thrilled. Maybe this has something to do with being in a band for so long? I write songs and bring them to the boys but I don’t tell anyone what to play, you know? So I’m very used to that team process. Here, I brought the book to the table and Susanne and Sandra Bullock and Netflix took it from there.

But while I had no say, I was completely welcomed throughout. I flew out to Los Angeles to meet the producers, then again to be on set, then again to the New York and Los Angeles premieres. I never felt like “big man on campus” and I also never felt like I didn’t belong. I felt and feel like part of the team, one of the gang. And I did meet Sandra Bullock and she was warm, funny and sharp as can be. The kind of person who shines from within.

Four years after its release, “Bird Box” is now in the Top 10 of the New York Times Bestsellers List. How do you find out about it making it onto the list? 
Unbelievably, I was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, eight hours from home, when the movie erupted. So I saw all the reviews, memes, the start of it all, from afar. With about 30 miles to go on the long, icy, snowy drive home, we reached a dead-stop traffic jam. At that moment, my agent Kristin Nelson called and we started talking about things. And as we’re talking she received an email saying “Bird Box” was on the New York Times bestseller list. She screamed with excitement and I probably did the same and all I can say is, I’m so glad I was in a traffic stop when I got the news. It was absolutely electrifying.

bird box book read online
CREDIT: Amazon

Why do you think the story has resonated so much with audiences?
I’ve always thought of “Bird Box” as a Rorschach test. What do you see here? What do you make of this inkblot? Because the creatures can’t be seen. It’s almost like taking a magnifying glass to the unknown; the concept that what we’re afraid of most is the unknown. “Bird Box” is the unknown turned up to 10. I suspect the answer to your question lies somewhere in there. But then again, isn’t it really a story about a somewhat reluctant mother who ends up devoting her life to the safety of her children? That’s powerful.

What has the reaction been from your family and circle of friends and colleagues?
Well, my mom and dad came to the New York premiere. It was incredible, crossing a New York street with my mom, heading to the theater, then sharing a drink with my dad at the afterparty. My bandmates are as floored as I am. I guess, you know, they’ve seen me writing books all these years (I wrote eight of them while riding shotgun in the band van as we toured through the years), and they’ve known me to have “Bird Box” on me since 2006, so we’re all happily astonished.

What has been the most surprising or memorable moment of this whole experience?
A dreamish moment that will stick with me forever came after the Los Angeles premiere, as I’m standing in the lobby, as the crowd is filing out, as Susanne Bier sorta emerged from the crowd, like she’d stepped out of a fog, a mist, and suddenly she’s standing before me and she asks, “What did you think?” And I, smiling, was able to tell her with all the joy of a child, “I loved it.”

Has the success of “Bird Box” opened up any new doors for you? What are you working on next?
My next book, “Inspection,” comes out April 23 (pre-order here). I’m also working on the book that’ll come out after that. My manager Ryan and I have formed a production company called “Spin a Black Yarn” (named after a story collection of mine) and we’re developing several projects of mine as well as other authors for film, TV and other outlets. I’m writing a pilot and a feature, both based on previously published books of mine. I’d love to direct a movie. The scariest, most powerful one I can. Two books that were published after “Bird Box” have been optioned and we’re shopping more.

Music-wise, the boys and I are releasing an album January 15, called “Quiet Riots,” and we are over the moon about it (stream or download here).

I think the thing to do here is, do exactly what we we’ve always done: write and rewrite, retain an arrested development, an unbridled joy for books, songs, and movies, get scared, get emotional, go go go.

“Bird Box” is available on Kindle and paperback right now on Amazon.com. You can also download and listen to it for free on audiobook with a 30-day free trial to Amazon Audible.

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