Interview: Stephen Graham Jones
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
Conducted January 2014
Issue No. 3 – March 2014
Stephen Graham Jones is the author of many, many novels and short stories. He has been an N.E.A. Fellow, a Texas Writers League Fellow, and has won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Fiction and the Independent Publishers Multicultural Award. His areas of interest, aside from fiction writing, are horror, science fiction, fantasy, film, comics, pop culture, technology, and American Indian Studies. Jones received his B.A. in English and Philosophy from Texas Tech University (1994), his M.A. in English from the University of North Texas (1996), and his PhD from Florida State University (1998). He currently teaches English and creative writing at the University of Colorado. He can be found online at demontheory.net.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: You’ve got at least 18 book-length works under your belt. You’ve written about convicted killers turning into rodeo bulls, and zombie pro wrestlers feuding with soccer moms at a Texas bake-off. You’ve done a 400-footnote faux screen treatment for a slasher flick, and a murder-mystery-memoir that moonlights as a documentary history of your hometown. How often do find yourself scrapping an idea, and what the hell do those look like?
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: Man, just now I dove out of half a werewolf novel, one I’ve been keeping in my hip pocket for years. But then I wrote another werewolf novel in two weeks. So, maybe now I can go back to that first werewolf novel, get it done right. But, usually, once I start a thing, it kind of just gets a life of its own, and all I really have to do is write fast enough to keep up. However, I do have just notebooks and notebooks full of story premises and scenarios and what ifs. Just, only about one percent of all my ideas actually luck into the right voice to get themselves told. I’d guess it’s that way with everybody, not just me.
BA: It’s clear that you’re a true believer in genre fiction, yet your writing rarely complies with archetypes or expectations. Is this tendency to blend forms by design, or is it an extension of your natural approach to storytelling?
SGJ: Probably just a result of me reading from all the shelves? My head gets full of all these different forms and modes, all this content that probably shouldn’t really belong together, and then they’re just like crayons I leave on the dashboard, all melting together into these weird kaleidoscope things, that I then try to draw edges around, or trace paths through.
BA: Are there any genres you wouldn’t consider adopting? We’d love to read your take on wands ‘n’ robes fantasy, for example.
SGJ: I do love me some fantasy, from dragons and elves to, I don’t know, to N.K. Jemisin. And I’ve always been planning on write a fantasy book or two. But I’ve always planned on doing some straight science fiction, as well. Problem is, once I get inside those premises and look around, I start seeing sharp edges everywhere, and pretty soon people are bleeding and running away from stuff, and then I’ve got a horror-in-space, I’ve got a slasher-in-middle earth. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not pure fantasy either, of course. So: someday, someday. I hope.
BA: University writing programs have a reputation as strongholds for capital-L “Literature.” Do you feel out of place in academia as an unabashed genre lover? Have you witnessed any movement in the M.F.A. world toward greater acceptance for the speculative?
SGJ: I don’t really feel out of place. A lot of academics you’ll talk to, they not only cut their teeth on genre stuff, but they still read it. And, in the MFA workshops I teach, we do a lot of the genre stuff, yeah. Just, first, to get people out of what they’re used to doing—in unfamiliar territory, you pay more attention to the contour of the land, and this heightened sensitivity helps with whatever you’re writing—but second, because all these walls between this and that type fiction are pretty much marketing categories that have been bolstered up with resentment and jealousy. From both commercial and literary writers. It’s all pretty ridiculous, though. What the readers want is a good story, and what the writers always want to luck into, it’s a good story. Who cares what it’s dressed up as this week. Next week it’ll look different. But hopefully have the same heart.
BA: You’re among the most prolific authors living. You’ve been known to work in twelve-hour marathons, through spontaneous notebook scribblings, in bed, at the office, over meals, and even inside your parked car. What does an average day as a functioning writerholic look like for you?
SGJ: Not so busy as it would seem. I mean, busy, yeah, but that’s because of teaching in two MFA programs, keeping up with my family, and watching Columbo and Rockford Files. But I’m not always writing, either. I know it’s supposed to be a daily thing, but it never has been for me. I kind of write fast-like for two or three weeks so I can then take a few days off, just let my brain idle back down. Like a reset. When I am writing a novel, though, then it’s usually three or four hours a day. Ideally, right after lunch until three or four, but sometimes picking up again around ten, going until a touch after midnight. I rarely write in the morning, unless I’m on deadline. I do like rewriting in the morning, though. Guess it’s the way my brain’s put together. Or, the way it’s falling apart.
BA: Most would agree quality is of greater importance than quantity, but can quantity beget quality? Do you feel that your prolific nature has made you better writer, or would you slow your authorial drive if you could?
SGJ: Man, I’d never slow down on purpose, and, yes, I think that once you ring that million-word bell, say, then by that time you’ve learned just so, so much. Which isn’t to say you won’t have learned even more by two million words. But, really, near as I know, there’s no really other way to learn writing than by writing. So, yeah, accelerate that as much as you can. The more you write, the better you’ll get. I do feel it’s helped me a lot. What also helps, though, it’s walking away from broken stuff. Not everything’s going to work. Killing two years of your life trying to resuscitate a dying novel, I don’t know. Why not just write a different one? You’ll have more ideas. You can’t help having ideas. At least I can’t.
BA: In addition to your prose work, you’ve completed a number of screenplays. There’s no doubt you’re a movie buff. Any plans to pitch a script to Hollywood, or perhaps produce your own indie picture?
SGJ: I need to get good enough to get serious about that, yeah. I do love the challenge of screenplays. They’re so, so difficult, such an alien form. It makes them endlessly fascinating. Something I can’t keep my fingers out of.
BA: Sherman Alexie has stated that he admires you for introducing a “whole new moral and aesthetic sense” to the Native American literary canon. Though your status as a Blackfeet is prominent in novels such as Ledfeather and the The Bird is Gone, it usually takes on a softer presence in your work. How do you manage to blend the seemingly opposing threads of personal identity and mainline pop culture citizenship with such success?
SGJ: I just don’t think about it. If I did, I’m afraid everything would blow up on the page. So, I just figure I’m Blackfeet, whatever I do’s going to be Blackfeet, and then try hard to write exactly the book I’d most like to read.
BA: Similarly, your home state-within-a-state of West Texas carries some major weight in your writing. To what extent do you feel place informs your voice?
SGJ: It’s a lot more important than I’d ever have figured. I would never consider myself a writer occupied with a sense of place, but at the same time, whatever Martian delta I’m traipsing my characters across, it’s going to have the same emotional contours of the landscape I grew up in, West Texas. I couldn’t help it if I tried. But I don’t go to any lengths to try to play it up, either. If it’s really, it’ll come through all on its own, I think. To force it would be to shape it into something it’s not.
BA: We’re fellow transplants, so we’ve got to ask – How do you like living in Colorado?
SGJ: It’s great. Mountains, snow, wonderful thin air, good community, lots of writers around, good cons and festivals to hit. And, when the waters rise, hey, we’re already a mile high, sitting pretty.
BA: Last question! What can you tell us about your newest release, The Gospel of Z?
SGJ: It’s a novel I wrote the first time in 2008, then completely over again in the first part of 2009, I guess. Zombies, but it’s ten years after the plague, so it’s more about learning to live with them. It’s more about society trying to knit itself together. And the trick is, who’s holding those needles. The military, the church? The zombies? And in the middle of it all, Jory Gray, who doesn’t want to have to care about any of that, who just wants his love story to complete the way it should. It’s a fight, though. It’s always a fight.
Editor’s Note: In the two months separating our interview and its publication, The Gospel of Z ceased to be Stephen Graham Jones’s most recent novel. In fact, it is now his third-most recent publication. States of Grace and Not for Nothing have both since been released.