Stephen Graham Jones
Live To Write, Write To LiveInterview by Joshua Chaplinsky
Stephen Graham Jones is a man who is constantly writing. He has no choice. He glides through the murky depths of the literary ocean like a shark, because if he stops moving, he'll die. In fact, by the time you finish reading this he will probably have completed another novel, guzzling his favorite vanilla-infused cola, scarfing whatever the hell Sixlets are.
It stands to reason that a man who writes a lot of books has the opportunity to do a lot of interviews. Jones is certainly no stranger around these parts, having previously been interrogated by The Cult in 2007 (HERE). The resulting interview goes into great detail about his Native American background, his fledgling literary career, and his compulsive writing process.
With all the juicy bits covered, it is difficult to conduct a compelling interview without treading redundant ground. Luckily, Stephen's got two new books occupying store shelves, and at least two more currently slated for release. On top of that, he is a connoisseur of all things pop culture, and could carry a one man conversation on the subject.
I don't know where he found the time, but the prolific author/college professor was kind enough to take a break from eating junk food and prepping curriculum to engage in another go-around with The Cult.
JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY: You're in Colorado now, right?
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: Yeah. Boulder.
JC: That's where you're teaching? I know you used to be at Texas Tech.
SGJ: I was. I taught there from 2008, then I came up here to teach at CU Boulder.
JC: Is school back in session?
SGJ: It starts up on Monday or Tuesday. I think Tuesday for me. So this whole week I've been writing, trying to get it all in before the semester starts.
JC: Teaching anything exciting?
SGJ: I'm doing a grad fiction workshop, which should be pretty cool. I think I've got like nine people in there. I'm also teaching an undergrad intermediate workshop, which- I always love those.
JC: Any choice works?
SGJ: I think the first book we're reading in the grad workshop is Brian Evenson's Fugue State.
JC: In your last interview with The Cult you talk about how you first got published, but how did you come to be part of The Holy Trinity of The Velvet?
SGJ: I think what happened is, The Velvet started with just Will Christopher Baer. It was his site, his forum, his discussion board. Then some of his fans got to reading Craig Clevenger and they invited Craig in. And then, as it turned out, some of the people who were reading both of them got to reading me, so they invited me in. They offered to put my name up top with the other two, so I was very fortunate. I think it's been a good experience.
JC: Did it have anything to do with the three of you having books at MacAdam Cage at the time?
SGJ: We tried to keep away from that. Me and Chris and Craig talked about whether we wanted to let The Cage help with The Velvet and we decided not to. We didn't know if we'd be with them forever, and it'd be awkward to break away, so... We all three were with The Cage on and off, but they weren't involved with The Velvet.
JC: Demon Theory was the only book you had published by them, correct?
JC: What are the reasons for that? Does it have to do with where you can sell what you write?
SGJ: That's pretty much it, yeah. Also, right after Demon Theory came out, The Cage kind of had a financial crunch and they went off the radar for a while, so I was just submitting stuff elsewhere.
JC: How has being a member of that triumvirate of writers affected your career?
SGJ: I just feel like I have to hold myself to a higher standard if I'm gonna have my name up there with Chris and Craig. I've got to get serious, because they're such good writers.
JC: That Cult interview also delves into your process as a writer. Has that evolved over the years?
SGJ: Yeah, it has. Before I had kids, I would write- man I would just go on ten, twelve hour jags all the time. I'd write until four or five in the morning, then I'd sleep for a couple of hours, wake up, drink some energy drinks, eat some Sixlets and take off again. I'd just go and go and go and go until I couldn't go any more, and then I'd go a bit further. But once you have kids, the kids have to be the primary thing. So I find myself more and more often writing in those little stolen ten minute moments throughout the day, when I'm not picking somebody up from school or taking somebody to a practice. I still get a lot done, though, so it's just a different way of doing it, for now.
JC: What exactly are Sixlets?
SGJ: They're a candy you can't really find anymore. I think they're called Sixlets because there used to be six of them in each little plastic tube. I say tube, but it's really more of a wrapper. They're literally like half the size of an M&M. Candy coated chocolate of some sort. If you find them on the shelves now in some gas station, they're usually stale, because I don't know if they make them so much any more. But every time I'm in Montana, they're everywhere. I don't know why Montana is the hot zone for Sixlets. In some of the little out of the way places in Texas I'll find them occasionally as well. But yeah, I live on Sixlets. They're the best thing in the world.
JC: You seem like a very snack oriented writer. What role do snacks play in your writing process?
SGJ: Haha. I've gotta have calories if I'm gonna write. Fast, burny calories. I love to eat lunch, watch an episode of 30 Rock or News Radio, then come down to my office, eat some almond Snickers or a big handful of some chocolate stuff and take off. I'm usually good for about two hours on that.
JC: It seems almost ritualistic.
SGJ: It is. If I don't have almond Snickers or Mars Bars lately, I'm completely lost, I don't know how to write.
JC: You're known for being highly prolific, sometimes writing multiple novels in a year, not all of which see publication. In the FAQ on your website you ask yourself, why write?, and the answer is- because I can't help it. Does that compulsion have anything to do with the statistical benefit of having such a high output?
SGJ: I mean, you throw enough darts you're bound to hit the bulls-eye eventually. I'm definitely operating on that model, or on that hope. I remember in graduate school, my dissertation director, she told me that every once in a while you come across a writer who writes to live, who can't not write. I think Philip K. Dick was that kind of writer. He's always been my hero. And I don't know whether I am or not- I could just be faking it- but if I go three or four days without writing I start wondering why I'm even on this earth. I'm not doing anything good, so I may as well tell some lies. It feels right to me to write, that's the way I order the world. It only makes sense if I can tell a story.
JC: It almost seems more like the way a screenwriter works, as opposed to a literary author.
SGJ: It could be. I don't think I want to be classified as a literary author, and I love writing screenplays. I just wrote a short screenplay for somebody that I'm excited to see produced. And I love deadlines. I love it when an editor says, can you do this in three weeks?, and I give it to them in two. I've never missed a deadline; I always come in way ahead of it. Some publishers, they'll chisel up your advance. When you give us this many pages we will give you this much money. My contracts used to be like that, but I'd always turn my manuscripts in early, and the publishers would be bummed about having to lay out all the money. I don't know how else to do it. I get inside a novel and I live there and I have to write my way out.
JC: Could you tell me a little more about this short film that's being produced?
SGJ: A friend of mine up in Portland, he's doing it. It's for the Native film festivals, but it's also horror, of course. I get real bored writing when there's no blood and stuff, you know? But yeah, It's like twelve or fifteen minutes long. It's based on a Simpsons episode called Little Big Girl, where Lisa pretends to be Indian. Bart shows her that trick you can do with the Land O' Lakes butter label, where you fold it up and make breasts. So in my screenplay, the Indian Princess on the label gets some revenge with a box cutter.
JC: Going back to what we were talking about earlier, about Demon Theory being published at The Cage, it seems most of your books have been published by different publishing houses. Ever thought of settling down and finding a permanent home?
SGJ: You know, I might. The publisher that put out It Came From Del Rio (Trapdoor,) I really like them. They've got a good publishing model and they're not afraid of the whole digital thing. They're embracing it, trying to push it forward, and I'm totally in agreement on that. I could see myself sticking with them, but at the same time- I say Philip K. Dick is my hero, but Joe R. Lansdale, he's also my hero. And that guy, he's published all over the place. The reason I'm published all over the place is that I never write the same thing. The editors and the publishers want you to target the same audience you targeted last time, but I always end up going way off base, you know?
JC: It's kind of romantic, the idea of you being a literary drifter.
SGJ: Yeah, a gunslinger going from town to town.
JC: You have two new books that were published in the last few months. A collection of horror shorts called The Ones That Got Away, and the novel It Came From Del Rio, which is a tough one to classify. I think Craig Clevenger put it best in his blurb when he said, " ...with Jones, the diary of a rabbit-headed zombie chupacabra shepherd is absolutely convincing and utterly moving." Basically, the premise sounds ridiculous, but comes off as entirely real. Was that a tough one to sell?
SGJ: You know, until I gave it to Trapdoor, my agent had never even tried to sell it, precisely because of that. She said, this is a good novel, it's a solid story, but there's nothing else like it out there. I don't know how to convince an editor to buy it when I can't say what it's gonna be next to on the shelf. It's got a horror premise- a dad comes back from the dead, and his head wears out, so he has to steal a giant rabbit head, which does sound pretty ridiculous, like a cartoon- but then it's got lots of very real stuff going on as well. So I'm thankful that Trapdoor took a shot at it, and I'm contracted with them to do a sequel, which I'm excited about.
JC: That was going to be my next question.
SGJ: I haven't written it yet. It's kind of taking fuzzy, foggy shape in my head right now. I think it's going to be called The Misanthrope Morning Show. I need to do a lot of research on pirate broadcast radio, though. Well, I say I want to do a lot of research- what I really want to do is know all about pirate radio, but I hate doing research. Research is always so... not writing fiction.
JC: That's funny, because Chuck says he loves doing research. It is one of his favorite things about writing.
SGJ: It comes through in his writing, too. You read his stuff and it feels like you're learning something. When I read his books, I always have all these notes that I put in the back that direct me to this page where I can find out this thing about this cleaning solution or whatever.
JC: One of the reasons I liked It Came From Del Rio so much was because of the realistic way the story was handled. How important is realism in horror for you?
SGJ: I guess realism in horror makes the horror more scary, because the more cartoonish your horror gets, the easier the reader can dismiss it as something that's made up. The closer you can bring it to home, the more the reader has the potential to be scared. But the real trick, aside from all the fantastic stuff, you've got to get the reader to engage with the story at a level where they identify with the protagonist, where they are in the novel. It's like, every novel is basically a Choose Your Own Adventure where somebody else made the choices for you. You're in there as a reader, looking around, and as a writer, if you can maintain that spell, then you're doing the right thing.
JC: The names Tanya and Gabriel appear in both It Came From Del Rio and the short story Crawlspace (formerly Gabriel,) which itself is related to the story Raphael (both from TOTGA.) In Crawlspace, Gabriel is cheating on his wife with a woman named Tanya. In Del Rio, a character named Gabriel has a relationship with a girl whose mother's name was Tanya. Is this a coincidence or is there something going on beneath the surface?
SGJ: I grew up with a lot of Tanyas, but I don't think that's it. Between the ages of 18 and 21 I worked at a seed research plant in Dekalb.This one guy, his name was Scott Brown, every time Tanya Tucker would come on the radio, he would say her name in a way that just killed me. It's like, some people can say god damn in a way that just kills me, and he could say Tanya Tucker in a way that stalled my brain out and made me want to listen to it over and over. It's like that bullet in the brain story by Tobias Wolff, when that kid is saying, they is no better position than shortstop, or whatever he's saying, and that becomes that moment that the guy who's getting shot in the brain lives in. The way that this guy, Scott Brown, would say Tanya Tucker just destroyed me, and I think I'm still trying to get over it. But I need to stop using that name. Somebody just alerted me that the novel I have coming out in 2014, Not For Nothing, the name of one of the people in it is Dodd Raines, which is the name of the guy in Del Rio. I'm gonna have to do a global replace and see if it works.
JC: So it's coincidence?
SGJ: It's just a name I like. I grew up with a guy named Dodd. As for Gabriel, I think that that name gets used by me- it's not on purpose so much. As a kid, one of my friends, his brothers were all low-riders, and we were about 12, and his big brother Gabriel got shot with a shotgun and killed, and that just always stuck with me. So Gabriel has always been real to me in a way that other people aren't.
JC: Do you think in some subconscious way these are all different incarnations of the same characters?
SGJ: I think so. Really, every writer just has one story to tell, and they can really only tell it from their own perspective. All of my heroes, be it Jim Doe or Pidgin from Fast Red Road or LP Deal, they're all me. I just give them different names. They may act different because they're in different circumstances, but they're all me, so they're gonna be surrounded by the people I know, just different versions of them.
JC: You are a warts and all genre lover- from the schlocky depths to the highbrow smart stuff. Where did your love of genre come from?
SGJ: When I was a kid, I feel like books pretty much saved my life. I remember my uncle, when I was, I wanna say eleven, maybe twelve- my life was all crazy. We were living everywhere, moving every month it seemed like. I went over to his house one day, and he opened his closet and it was just stacked six deep with paperbacks- Mack Bolan, Louis L'amour- and he said, use it like a library. You can take any three of these books at a time, bring 'em back and you can take three more. And I burned through that whole closet. And I really feel like those books, just identifying with those characters, they saved me in a way that only good stories can. So for me to turn my back on that now, it would be so hypocritical for me to say, because sometimes the prose isn't hammered as good as it could be, I'm not gonna believe in the story.
Often times, the guys writing the genre stuff, the schlocky stuff, they're writing by the seat of their pants. They're writing just to buy groceries. And to me, that's the most real kind of writing. I appreciate it the most, identify with it the most.
JC: You said early you didn't really want to be identified as a literary writer, but to me a lot of your horror work tends towards the literate. Would you consider yourself a genre apologist? Do you differentiate between genre and high literature?
SGJ: I do. I think genre is more honest. I think literary is- it pretends to be better than it is. Literary is like a catch-all designation. It's what you use when something is A, not selling well, and B, doesn't have identifiable conventions. Fiction to me is like a big cake. It can be a many layered cake, but what the genre people know so much better than the literary people is that you've got to put a lot of icing on that cake to get people to take a bite. Lots of the literary people, they will just give you a big ol' slab of cornbread and say, eat it, it's good for you. So many literary writers assume that the people are gonna be drawn in by the strength of the prose or the integrity of the story, but you've gotta have a werewolf or somebody with chrome teeth or something in there.
JC: You have two new novels scheduled for release from Dzanc books. Flushboy in 2013 and Not For Nothing in 2014. Why so far away? Anything to look forward to before then?
SGJ: I mean, I've got what, two years between now and then? I would expect I'll probably kick out another Del Rio installment. I also just today finished what I think is the very last version of this big novel I've been writing over and over for about two years now. Hopefully that will hit somewhere. I've got two of three more novels that are all ready to go, I just need to get them out there. As for why Dzanc is delaying it until then, how they explained it to me is that they like the books a lot but their catalog is stuffed until then.
JC: Can you tell us more about the recently completed novel?
SGJ: It's called The Gospel of Z, and it's a zombie novel. It's takes place ten years after the plague, where society kind of pulls itself up and falls down and pulls itself up again. I wrote it, I think it was two years ago, and I jammed through it, I don't know, about four or five hundred pages. I thought it was the best novel ever, but then I gave it to a friend of mine, an editor who reads all my stuff, and she said, it's crap. It's too indulgent. It's trying to take a bite of everything it passes. And she was right. So I tore it down and to identify the dramatic line I sucked it into a screenplay- just chiseling, chiseling, getting it down to the bare bones of what mattered. When I finally got it working as a screenplay, I sucked it back into a completely different novel with the same characters, but the story was all different. Gave that to my agent, because I thought it was the best thing ever, and she got back to me and said, it's not the best thing ever. But she had some good notes about how to fix it, and she was right. So I just went through and fixed it and it's very, very strong now. I really believe in it. It's a good, solid story.
JC: I know you're a huge film buff, and I already compared your process to a screenwriter once, but is screenwriting just a tool to better your fiction, or do you have actual Hollywood aspirations?
SGJ: I would love to try and sell some scripts some day, I just need to get a film agent. I've never tried to get a film agent. I've got one screenplay right now which I think is totally complete and really solid called Zombie Bake Off. It's about all these wrestlers who eat some zombie donuts and attack a bake sale and there's a big fight, as you would expect.
JC: I would go see that movie.
JC: Back to the Dzanc releases, Flushboy is a coming of age tale about a kid who works in his father's drive-thru urinal?
SGJ: Yeah. My wife had read some of my early books and she finally said, you never write any love stories. I told her, they're all love stories. But I guess they're love stories to me because it's me being in love with the book. There wasn't actually love happening in the story. So with Flushboy I decided, I'll just write a story about a boy being in love with a girl and trying to get her. The big impediment, of course, is he works at the drive-thru of his dad's urinal place, so he has to deal with his classmates passing him bank-tubes of warm, sloshy urine. It's kind of awkward for him.
JC: Sounds like it.
SGJ: It's not easy being 16.
JC: Is that going to be as bizarre as it sounds? Or, like It Came From Del Rio, will you be crafting a human drama out of the absurdity?
SGJ: I think it probably does share a lot with It Came From Del Rio. To me it's very human. I mean, to me- it's me when I was that age, you know? I didn't actually work at a drive-thru urinal because they didn't exist, but I had all kinds of- like, I was the night custodian for the biggest daycare in Texas for a while, and walking into the potty training room every day was just 45 minutes of pure nightmare. It was in a bad part of town, so I always had to carry a 9mm pistol on me. I'd go out to the playground and clean it at night. I still have- I found a knife with blood all over it that had been tossed over the fence, and I kept it and cleaned it up. It's a tool now.
JC: That weapon probably has a violent history.
SGJ: Yeah, it could.
JC: Not For Nothing is a noir written in the 2nd person, is that correct?
SGJ: It is. I thought I was gonna be the first person to do that, but then Robert Coover came out with Noir a few months ago. He beat me to the punch, but he beats everyone to the punch. Not For Nothing is one of those novels I rewrote many times. The first time I wrote it it was set in Los Angeles, because that's where I thought a noir had to be set. I didn't think it was working, so what I finally ended up doing was completely rewriting it and moving it back to Stanton, Texas- little bitty place, 3000 people- and I guess it had been long enough since I'd lived in Stanton that I could mythologize in the way you need to to tell a story, and it just became real. My favorite parts of the old PI novels are always when the narrator, the PI drops into the second person for a few moments and I thought, why have just a few moments be good, why not have the whole novel be good? Second person's a trick, because it's a mix of imperative and description, but it's a wonderful balance. I think I pull it off in this one, but the reader will tell me.
JC: You don't see many novels written in second person.
SGJ: No, just like- Bright Lights, Big City is the big one. The standard's so high, who can reach it?
JC: I especially liked the anecdotal story notes included at the end of The Ones That Got Away. From what I can tell, you've led an eventful life. Your Native American background and your pop culture upbringing make for an interesting mix. Are there any memoirs in your/our future?
SGJ: Actually, my agent's holding a book of mine right now, it's a fake memoir. It has a character named Stephen Jones, or, what's his name? His name is Jonas, not actually Jones. It's a story which draws 60% from real events, real people I knew, and it uses real names a lot of the time, but the stuff that happens isn't quite the way it really happened, it's just the way it felt.
JC: Is that as close to a real memoir as you're gonna get?
SGJ: For now, anyway. The people who have read it, ten or twelve of my friends, everybody says it's the book I was meant to write, which is scary, because I don't want to do that when I'm thirty-five, you know? What am I going to do with the rest of my time? But it does feel like a novel where I just lucked into getting it right.
JC: Speaking of Native American heritage, ever consider putting your own unique spin on one of those "built on an Indian burial ground" horror stories, like in Pet Sematary?
SGJ: A magazine just solicited a baseball story from me, and I don't know jack shit about baseball, but I do know a lot about zombies, so I decided to have an Indian narrator who tries to get a zombie to play right field for him. So maybe that's my own spin. I probably won't take any of the clan stories or tribal stories or any of that and try to morph it. Not because there's not a lot of material there, not because it feels like mining so much, but for me it feels a little bit cheap to try and do that, being Indian myself. Like I'm trying to say, this is good because I'm Indian. I don't like that dynamic at all.
JC: In the case of something like Pet Semetary, do you find that trope offensive, the idea that native people are perpetually having to fend off outsiders, even after death?
SGJ: No, I don't. Like in Poltergeist either, I kind of liked it. I even liked it when Andre 3000 dressed up in green feathers and danced on stage at the Grammy's. I'm not easily offended in that way. I'm offended by stuff like the Disney Pocahontas. That kind of stuff really gets to me. All the sports teams that have cartoon caricature Indians on their hats and shirts and everything. Like, when I went to FSU, I went there on full fellowship, I didn't have to teach, but I always felt like it was blood money because they were the Seminoles. I was an Indian and I applied, so how could they say no?
JC: Going back to Poltergeist, I actually watched it a few days ago and that's what kind of made me think of that question. But when I went back and did some reading it turns out the graveyard in the movie wasn't actually Native American, and they even make a joke about it. It's just a regular old white people graveyard.
SGJ: They bring in that Indian actor, who plays one of the mediums or something.
JC: In the first one?
SGJ: I'm not sure. I could be mixing that up with Firestarter.
SGJ: It's been a while since I've seen Poltergeist. I did see Pet Semetary again recently, and to me, it's not remotely offensive. That the ground turned sour, doesn't seem to me to reflect on, what was it, the Micmac Indians?
JC: Do you think stories like that are an expression of white guilt?
SGJ: A lot of the stories we get in America are. They are both expressions of and indulgences in that guilt, you know? It feels so good to know how bad I am.
JC: Not that I've seen any, but how do you personally handle negative reviews?
SGJ: There was one guy, I forget who it was, he hated my novel The Bird Is Gone so much that he wrote many, many words against it. And I always carry that around on my hard drive, because it's so cool to me that somebody can get so mad about my stuff. I'd much rather somebody get really mad than just say they read it and moved on. But as for how I handle negative reviews- I just keep writing. You can't let the bad reviews stop you, you can't let the good reviews stop you. You gotta keep writing. So many people, they get their first book accepted, then they don't write a thing until it comes out a year and a half later and then they're already behind the game. As soon as you finish one book you've gotta start the next. You can't wait to recharge. You've gotta believe you've got enough in you to do it over and over and over.
JC: Conversely, how about writing negative reviews? I know a couple negative reviews I've written for this site have provoked indignation. You recently wrote a very fair and balanced review of Jonathan Frazen's Freedom (HERE). As an author yourself, do you ever worry about having to tread lightly or treat material you don't like with kid gloves to avoid being labeled as vindictive or spiteful?
SGJ: I do feel that. I bring my own agenda to each book, of course, and if I'm gonna write a review I try not to bring it to the review. But as you know, it's really, really hard to do that. When I was talking about Freedom, I was talking about how amazing and wonderful it is, but also about how stupid it is. The good stuff is like that- it's not just all good or all bad. It's in the middle. It really provokes you. I got hit up to do a ten best books of 2010 list, and I was about to write back and say yes, I'll do it, but then I realized, wait, I have more than ten friends who are writers. If I don't put them all on the list I'm screwed.
JC: Do you think the review arena is in danger of becoming a forum where "everybody wins," like in Pee Wee sports?
SGJ: Yeah, I think the review dynamic can become a more long-winded version of the blurb thing. It's definitely a danger. That's why I think showing up on people's blogs and talking about your book is better than being in a magazine. Because people do dismiss reviews. They say, he knows that guy, of course he's gonna write a nice review.
I've even had somebody I've asked to review my novel tell me, why don't you write the review and we'll put one of our writer's names on it, and I'm like, wow. I can't believe that happens.
JC: That's crazy.
SGJ: I think I've done it before, joking around, but I'm always hard on myself. I always say the book sucks.
JC: Since this is the season of year end lists and you are such a pop culture junkie, I have to ask: Was Machete really your favorite movie of the year? (HERE)
SGJ: Oh, no doubt, man. I was just cheering when that was over. It was such a fun movie. I mean, I loved Black Swan, too, all those other films I listed, but Machete is right at the top. For me it was top of the decade. It was so much fun.
SGJ: I liked Sorority Row a lot, too. That Sorority Row remake. That was pretty slick.
JC: I think you also had Hot Tub Time Machine in your top 3, which I haven't seen on very many critic's lists.
SGJ: (Laughing) Yeah. It's like five of us critics up on that page, and all those other guys had like refined, quality films on their lists and I had Hot Tub Time Machine.
JC: That goes back to my question about literature vs. genre. It's the same thing. Is there a distinction between movies and film as art?
SGJ: I think for me part of that distinction is that literary writers will often blame the audience for not being smart enough to get their work, and I think that's never the right attitude to take. If people aren't coming to your work, it's your own fault. It's never their fault. It's your fault for not reaching them properly. The genre writers understand that intimately. If they don't make sales, they don't get to write their next book. Literary writers usually have jobs like I do at Universities, so they have a cushion to fall back on. If this book doesn't sell, so what, you know? And I so prefer hand to mouth, like Dostoevsky did it.