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WINGING IT

By Alex Gillespie, '17


  • Published: 10/01/2019

Novelist and songwriter Josh Malerman is coming to terms with newfound fame following the Netflix adaption of his novel “Bird Box.”

Josh Malerman, ’98, is a self-proclaimed “pant-ser.” In literary jargon, a pantser is someone who writes by the seat of his pants, rather than creating and following an outline.

In many ways, Malerman lives as he writes. Rather than follow a tra-ditional career path after graduating with an English degree, he pursued his passions in music, performance and writing — all at once. His band, The High Strung, which he joined at MSU with several friends, has released sixteen albums, toured regularly since 2000, and had its song “The Luck You Got” chosen as the theme for the Showtime series “Shameless.”

For Malerman, it was never a matter of choosing between song-writer and novelist. His two paths intertwined seamlessly. In his down time on and off tours, he has drafted 29 novels in the horror genre. As he worked on rewriting one of them, his manager, who is also an agent for screenwriters, vowed to get it op-tioned as a film. “If I’m in a Dickens novel, he’s my mysterious benefac-tor,” Malerman said.

That support gave him faith in the project, and the manager’s prom-ise paid off: in 2012 HarperCollins picked up “Bird Box,” a post-apocalyptic novel following a mother’s journey to a prophesied sanctuary with her two children, and shortly af-ter Universal Studios purchased the initial rights before Netflix snagged them in 2015. The book, Malerman’s first to be published, came out in 2014.

After years of “joyful delusions” about being a novelist—in which he imagined arguments with editors, his own books on the shelf, media interviews and movies—Malerman is living the surreal. “I would imagine somebody playing Malorie in a mov-ie, and now there’s that movie poster in my office,” he said.

The film premiered on Dec. 14, 2018, starring Sandra Bullock as the protagonist, Malorie, and immediately broke streaming records and spawned viral memes and social media challenges. According to Netflix, 45 million accounts streamed “Bird Box” in its first week of availability. While Malerman had no say in the film or script, the R-rated horror flick stays true to his genesis of the novel: “an image of a mother and two kids blindfolded, traveling, navigating a river, fleeing something that they weren’t obviously able to look at.” 

The days that followed the film’s release were “totally nuts,” he said. He and his fiancée, Allison, attended the premiere flanked by Bullock and others from the cast in New York City, had a small viewing party with friends in Michigan, then retreated to the Upper Peninsula for some peace and quiet. A day into their trip, Malerman’s phone began exploding: friends were congratu-lating him, and thousands of people were interacting with him over social media, sharing comedic memes from the movie and a viral hashtag, #birdboxchallenge, which involved attempting a variety of tasks while blindfolded. 

“Bird Box” has become a cultural touchstone and signals a seismic shift in the way movies are consumed and marketed in the streaming age. “On one level, it doesn’t matter if ‘Bird Box’ is good or bad. It now has a place in history as being the first streaming blockbuster,” Malerman said.

The zeitgeist surrounding “Bird Box” catapulted Malerman’s novel onto “The New York Times” Best Seller list in January 2019, a feat he never even imagined, and helped generate increased interest in his newest novel, “Inspection,” pub-lished in March 2019. He’s now published seven books. 

Somehow in the midst of all of this, The High Strung also released a new album, “Quiet Riots,” and Malerman has had two future films optioned by traditional film studios. Not bad for someone who has approached life as a pantser.

Originally printed in the Spartan Alumni Magazine — Fall 2019

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