During the first seven days of its release, 45 million Netflix accounts worldwide watched the film Bird Box, making it the most successful first week for a Netflix film to date. The man behind the idea and The New York Times bestselling book: novelist, songwriter, and MSU College of Arts & Letters English alumnus Josh Malerman, who says MSU is where his creative career began.
There was no way to predict the Bird Box success as it was Malerman’s first published book, yet before it was even released it had already been optioned for film.
“Talk about being an unknown author. It wasn’t like I had self-published. It wasn’t like I had a popular blog,” Malerman said. “Even my band, The High Strung, we pretty much were touring the country on our own dime and playing to 20 people a night. So I was really coming from an unknown place.”
That all changed when Netflix released the movie Bird Box in December 2018. At the time, it was all anyone, even celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and Chrissy Teigan, could talk about. Even bestselling author Stephen King tweeted that he was “absolutely riveted by Bird Box.” Adding to the phenomenon were the many memes inspired by the film shared around the world on social media platforms.
“Bird Box now has a place in history as being the first streaming blockbuster and there’s something very interesting about that because with Jaws, which is a brilliant movie, it changed the way movies were made, marketed, and watched. I think that Bird Box may play a part in doing that as well,” Malerman said. “There’s a seismic shift right now and Bird Box was exactly on that fault line when it changed.”
The idea for Bird Box started with an image that Malerman had in his mind.
“I had an image of a mother and two kids blindfolded, traveling, navigating a river, and fleeing something that they obviously weren’t able to look at,” Malerman said. “That was enough for me, whatever that was, the image itself of this woman and these two kids.”
The mother from Malerman’s image, named Malorie, was brought to life in the Netflix movie by Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning actress Sandra Bullock. And when Malerman watched Bird Box for the first time in a private screening room at Netflix, he saw that same image that inspired the book.
“The movie opens almost exactly like the book with Malorie talking to the two kids, and then walking them down to the river and getting in the boat,” Malerman said. “I started crying. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is Bird Box, this is exactly that image. But it’s moving outside of my mind.’ It was incredible.”
Malerman started writing Bird Box in 2006, eight years after graduating from MSU.
The book came out in 2014 and has done pretty well, but thanks to the movie, it was on The New York Times bestseller list for five weeks and it’s still rolling along in a way that we couldn’t have even fathomed.
“I had a teacher in high school that told us that a man might go mad if he were to attempt to contemplate infinity. That was a very frightening idea to me. Years later, when I’m working on Bird Box, I thought, ‘Hey, what if that freaky concept of infinity came to town?’” Malerman said. “In Bird Box, infinity is standing there and here you are, face to face with something that you can’t comprehend. But you’re forced to comprehend it because it’s standing in front of you. The book wrote itself from there, it was just an absolute explosion.”
Malerman wrote the rough draft in 26 days. He then set it aside for a few years until he began rewriting it in 2010.
“I probably rewrote 85 to 90 percent of it,” he said. “The birth scene is the only thing I kept intact from the original draft.”
In 2012, the book got picked up by Harper Collins and was released in May 2014. It was first optioned for film by Universal Studios in 2013. Universal then sold it to Netflix in 2015.
“The book came out in 2014 and has done pretty well, but thanks to the movie, it was on The New York Times bestseller list for five weeks and it’s still rolling along in a way that we couldn’t have even fathomed,” Malerman said. Bird Box also had topped the Apple book list, knocking Michelle Obama’s Becoming down to number two.
Malerman currently is working on a follow-up novel to Bird Box, titled Malorie, which is expected to be released on December 3 of this year.
Although Bird Box is Malerman’s first published book, it is the fourth book he wrote. He began writing his first novel at the age of 19 while a student at MSU.
“As you can imagine, you barely have enough time to get all your work done when you’re going to college. Now throw in a 300-page rough draft,” Malerman said. “Obviously, the grades suffered for that, but the self-discovery was off the charts.”
After writing about 300 pages, Malerman says he “just didn’t know how to finish a book back then.” He went on to write more books, but didn’t finish any until 10 years later at the age of 29 when he completed Wendy.
“It was pure elation to finish that book,” he said. “When that happened, the floodgates exploded. I now have finished my 29th book, seven of which are out, so 29 in 14 years, that’s about two a year.”
My fondest memories of Michigan State are falling in love with art. This is the town where I found love with writing. This is where I started a band, and this is where I started writing my first book. East Lansing was the exact right setting to plant the seeds for a creative life.
His most recent book, Inspection, was released March 19, 2019. He also writes songs for his band, The High Strung, whose song, “The Luck You Got,” is the theme song for the Showtime television series, Shameless.
Malerman, who graduated from Michigan State University in 1998, credits MSU with laying a solid foundation for his writing career.
“There was a teacher named Professor Martin in the English Department who showed me Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison, it changed my entire life,” he said. “I was introduced to these geniuses, and more than that, I was introduced to the love of reading while I was at MSU. I had already been a big reader but there was something about seeing it presented in this way that galvanized that.”
Malerman recently came back to MSU to speak to Department of English classes and reminisced about his time here.
“My fondest memories of Michigan State are falling in love with art,” he said. “This is the town where I found love with writing. This is where I started a band, and this is where I started writing my first book. East Lansing was the exact right setting to plant the seeds for a creative life.”