TCR Talks with Stephen Graham Jones
by Matt Ellis
I think we can all agree, 2020 has been an absolute dumpster fire. But it has been one hell of a year for Stephen Graham Jones and his horror novel The Only Good Indians. The success of the novel is no surprise coming from a prolific author whose honors include the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Fiction, the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, a Bram Stoker Award, and four This is Horror Awards. Jones has also been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. I recently chatted with Stephen Graham Jones about the hidden dangers of live book events, challenging social stereotypes in fiction, crafting horror, and his recent contribution to the Marvel Universe. BEWARE: You may never look at a novel or a restaurant menu in the same way again.
The Coachella Review: The Only Good Indians has had a fantastic release. How has the pandemic changed the experience?
Stephen Graham Jones: The big difference, of course, is no in-person events. I’ve had just one with a lot of masks and social distancing. It’s kind of a bummer to miss out on packed bookstores and venues, but at the same time, I get done with a panel or a reading and I don’t have to get on a bus or a plane or a train. I just turn my camera off and I’m home. That’s really nice. My favorite part is I don’t have to go to strange restaurants. I despise strange restaurants.
TCR: I never thought of that as a downside to a book tour.
SGJ: It is for me. I only like to eat off of menus I’ve already eaten off of, which is problematic because I don’t get to go to new places, but I’m happy with that.
TCR: The Only Good Indians’ depiction of contemporary Native American identity in horror is being compared to Jordan Peele’s Get Out. What are your thoughts?
SGJ: I’m thrilled with it, of course. I think two people kicked the door open for that—Jordan Peele [Get Out] and Victor LaValle, with The Ballad of Black Tom. They legitimized being who you are and not having to be somebody else to do horror. People keep telling me that The Only Good Indians is pushing back against this or that. It is, but I don’t have an agenda. When I write fiction, like all of us, I want to write real characters. In order to write real characters who are American Indian, built into that process is both pushing back against and having fun with some of the dominant stereotypes and issues. I do wade into some of that territory, but it’s all in the service of having real people as opposed to having an agenda.
TCR: Mongrels made a powerful statement about being poor in America but in a more general sense. Did you find yourself taking a different approach with The Only Good Indians?
SGJ: To me, it was the same as Mongrels. I was actually a little concerned that I was going to get called out for Gabe [The Only Good Indians] and Darren [Mongrels] being cut from the same cloth. They are similar characters to me. When I went to the people in my life on whom I base characters, Gabe and Darren are based on the same person. But did I have a different approach? I think I did in the sense that I knew that if I’m talking about racial stuff, people are going to react to it differently than they will talking about the working class or poverty level America. I had to account for that. As for how it changed the story, I’m not totally sure.
TCR: You seemed to delve a lot deeper into the backstories of the characters in The Only Good Indians. In Mongrels, you focused on why the characters moved from place to place but provided little info on, are they really wolves, or aren’t they?
SGJ: In Mongrels, the way they throw everything into the car and move to the next town, that was just my own childhood. So, there was that kind of ambiguity between ‘are they wolves, are they not wolves,’ which was what I was trying to explore—were we wolves as I was growing up? Or were we what America would have considered werewolves.
TCR: One powerful section in the novel was when the older Blackfeet set up the first sweat for a teenager and showed the differences in generational identity. The boy tells them that no one says Indian anymore. The characters also consider Hollywood depictions of their culture and lives. African American comedian W. Kamau Bell has a whole routine about loving the Dukes of Hazzard as a kid and later realizing why his mother didn’t like it. Did you have similar revelations in your life that came from the pop culture you grew up with?
SGJ: The Dukes of Hazzard was one of them. I have a model of the General Lee and I was so happy when I found that years and years ago, but then growing up, I realized, dude, that has a Confederate flag on it. That isn’t something you want to display. It’s very conflicting because I feel I used to want to be Bo more than Luke, because I thought Bo had more fun. But I think it’s like that with everybody and all of the media you consume before your defenses are up. It becomes part of your core identity. You can’t really shave that off. You can only try to press it down.
TCR: Was The Only Good Indians a story you carried with you for a while?
SGJ: No. I owed Ellen Datlow a novella after Mapping the Interior. I sat down to try to write one and wrote a novel and I was like dang. Then I sat down after that novel and tried to write a novella and wrote another novel. I thought, do I not know how to write a novella anymore? Then I wrote the first part of [The Only Good Indians], ‘The House that Ran Red,’ and got to the very last line and felt it was a fitting cap to the novella. I heard a whisper in my head of another line that could open it up into a novel, and it made me sad because I wanted to write a novella. I texted my agent and told her that I had just written this thing. I could keep it as a novella, or I could let it open up into a novel. What should I do? She wrote back and said novels sell better, so make it a novel. As for how the idea came, I was in my living room up on a fourteen-foot ladder trying to mess with a lightbulb that wouldn’t behave, and I looked down through the blades of the ceiling fan. I got to thinking about flicker rates and how it takes twenty-four frames per second to make the illusion of motion. I thought, what could I be seeing through the blades of this fan? Then the whole premise of the novel popped into my head about an elk that’s come back. Then I had to ask myself, why does the elk come back? I had to come up with all of that backstory.
TCR: A typical approach to horror seems to be a white guy who encounters something strange and the first hurdle is overcoming disbelief and skepticism. But some cultures deal with the supernatural and death in a vastly different way. If my Panamanian wife saw a ghost, the burning sage would come out immediately to cleanse every corner of the house or she’d find some spiritual help. Some of your characters seem to accept the supernatural at face value. Was there anything within Blackfeet culture that changed your approach?
SGJ: I didn’t even think about that. I guess it’s just the way I think. Whenever someone’s supposed to be at my house at eight thirty at night and they’re not there and it’s nine fifteen, I don’t think that they’re at another thing or they had a flat. I think the aliens got them. That’s definitely what happened. When they show up, I’ll say, ‘I thought the aliens got you.’ They’ll laugh. But I’m not joking. I think that’s why my characters are probably so accepting of unusual explanations because it’s completely rational to me. And Lewis, he’s propelled by guilt, and that pulls his defenses down quite a bit.
TCR: Speaking of Lewis, the tension seems to rely on points of perspective and leaps of logic more than red herrings or jump scares. Do you find those techniques more effective?
SGJ: On the page, yeah. As you know, it’s hard to do a jump scare on the page because the reader controls the pace. If the reader controls the pace, it’s hard to surprise them. I’ve tried it a couple of times, but I don’t know if it worked. In the novel or on the page, dread and misdirection are your best weapon. That’s what the first section of the book is driven by.
TCR: Some authors pride themselves on their gore factor and how you shouldn’t eat before reading their books. You seem to stick with a less-is-more approach with your kill scenes.
SGJ: You’re right. I think less is more when you’re talking about gore. Think about Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We don’t actually see the hook go into that girl’s back, we just see her on the way to the hedge and we hear the sound. When that stuff blooms in the reader’s head, it tends to plant itself deeper into their experience. You have to put some of those gore moments on the page, for sure. I try to dilate the moments and slow down time. Then I try to activate more than one sense. Maybe not go crazy with all five at once but come at it from two or three different angles when time is sliced really thin.
TCR: You’re not a Saw series type of person?
SGJ: I love Saw. I’ve got the first seven in my study. I love them, but I watch it like this [partially covers eyes with hand] because I get grossed out.
TCR: You play a lot with moral ambiguity. I wasn’t sure who to root for at times and what was justified.
SGJ: Definitely. That’s why I wanted to play with the slasher. I love slashers, but often they are too clear about good and evil. But what if the slasher, the spirit of vengeance, was sympathetic? What if we understood why she’s doing this? What if the victims weren’t all bad? What if we liked them? I thought that would complicate things in a productive way. The trick I did with what feels like second person but is dramatic monologue was to create a unique perspective on the page. On the screen, one of the core components is what I call ‘slasher cam,’ when you’re looking through Michael [Meyers’s] eye holes, or you’re looking through the bushes. He establishes the stalking and breathing presence. It’s an effective technique that’s been going on since giallo [early Italian-produced thriller genre], maybe longer than that in horror. But you can’t do that on the page. If you break section to go to the killer’s point of view, then that section break signals to the reader that we’re going to the killer’s point of view. You’re not surprised by it. To do slasher cam on the page, I’d switch from third person to what feels like second person without section breaks and try to pull it off without people calling foul.
TCR: Killing children and animals, especially pets, can really bring the ire of a reader.
SGJ: For sure. The last slasher I did, The Last Final Girl, starts with a decapitation or near decapitation. But within a page or two, there’s a guy trying to cut a living horse’s head off with a broadsword. I thought that would be where people who aren’t into that can go ahead and pull their escape lever. If you’re going to do that kind of stuff, do it early, so people have a way out.
TCR: There is definitely some of you in this book. Is that a natural inclination?
SGJ: I think the reason I do it is that, with my very first novel, The Fast Red Road, I had no idea how to write a novel whatsoever. I just knew I needed a lot of pages and I had no idea how to cross them. As you know, writing a novel is about writing twelve pages and hitting a wall that you don’t know how to get over, under, through, or around. But since I was on a first deadline for that novel, instead of kicking back and thinking about what comes next, I pulled a piece of my own life out and fit it on the page and changed the names. I got through the novel supplanting the empty spaces with my own life and it worked out all right. That also blueprinted and conditioned me toward that for everything I write. That’s how I get through it and make things real.
TCR: So, do you dog-ear pages?
SGJ: I will dog-ear pages. I prefer to stick something in there. I know Lewis is harsh on people who fold the pages. I’m not like that. However, I wouldn’t fold someone else’s pages.
TCR: Oh, that’s where you draw the line? How far did you get into the backstory of the fantasy series Lewis lent out to Shaney?
SGJ: Just as far as what’s on the page. Initially, I didn’t even plan on there being any real story to the novels. But it turned out that I could use the fantasy novels to trace the mechanism of [Lewis’s] thinking, what was possible to him. He was used to the fantasy novel as a template for what he suspects is going on.
TCR: Basketball plays a significant role with the characters and relationships. How did that come to be?
SGJ: I had a novel come out in 2003, The Bird is Gone, and I planned on having one big section being called by announcers at a basketball game. I found out quickly that I’m terrible at giving dialogue to announcers. I don’t know how to make it interesting. Maybe I have a different skill set now, but I still don’t know how to make two people talking about a basketball game interesting. Then four years later, with Ledfeather, I thought, I’m going to do basketball now. I rigged everything to end with a really important regionals game with one guy rising to make a shot that everyone was hanging on. I got there and it was boring. Then I put everybody in a car to drive back home and the ending of the novel presented itself. I was totally surprised and blindsided, just lucky. Those two novels told me I can’t do basketball on the page in an interesting way to the reader. Then I tried it again in The Only Good Indians, and I think the reason it worked was that during those previous novels, I was still playing ball all of the time. Soon after Ledfeather, I blew out my knee and had to do months of rehab. Then I ruptured my Achilles twice in a row from playing basketball. It was putting me into rehab too much and taking away my writing time. I had to quit playing altogether, not even free throws anymore. I think because I wasn’t playing anymore, I could properly mythologize the basketball scenes because my heart still wanted to play so bad. I had to take the shots on the page.
TCR: Certain characters visualized the outcomes of their situations through what would be in the news headlines later. How did you come up with that?
SGJ: Randomly, really. Lewis was actually the first one to think like that. Ricky’s section in the prologue didn’t use to be at the beginning of the novel. It used to start with Lewis up on the ladder. I needed a way for him to be critical of himself and that was a nice and obvious way. I think that headline thing, to some extent, is something I’ve always done. So, it is just a way for me to infect people with my ridiculous way of thinking.
TCR: The Only Good Indians is like a masterclass of melding different approaches and bending the rules. You go from extremely limited point-of-view shifts to opening up wider and going from strict third person and then adding in dramatic monologue.
SGJ: I think what gave me license to go from really tight over Lewis’s shoulder to a build that allowed me to go from chapter-to-chapter with different people and then also embed that second person slasher dramatic monologue was simply the sections. In the first section, I stuck to the over-the-shoulder or in-his-head method the whole way through. Once we got through that and the filter of the newspaper [article excerpt], we’re reborn into a different section going into the sweat lodge massacre. Then things branched out, going into Denorah’s head and then Gabe, Cass, and then Elk Head Woman. That was what I took as my license, anyway. I couldn’t have done it without the section breaks. I think that the newspaper article was somehow a tunnel or a sluice or a waterslide that delivered you there.
TCR: How has being a teacher grown or changed your writing?
SGJ: Being a teacher, I always find myself articulating this technique or prescribing this rule. It’s not just in the boundaries of class that that stuff holds true. I feel that I’m being dishonest with my students if I don’t hold myself to those structures, the laws we lay down in class. “Laws” in quotation marks, because there are no real laws in fiction except for, like Mark Haskell Smith says, ‘Don’t be boring.’ I feel like when I’m writing, all of my workshops are standing around seeing if I’m going to do something that I told them not to do. That makes me a better writer. Hopefully.
TCR: Yeah. I was going through your book looking for your use of ‘as.’ (Check out Stephen Graham Jones’s excellent article ‘As I Lay Mostly Dying‘ on Lit Reactor.)
SGJ: Every once in a while, I want to do an ‘as’ construction. Then I think one of my students is going to draw a triangle over it.
TCR: Speaking of Mark Haskell Smith. He isn’t an outliner. Are you?
SGJ: No. I never have any idea of where I’m going. I just write the first sentence and let it turn into a paragraph and let that turn into a scene, to a section, chapter, and then a novel.
TCR: Marvel comics recently announced an Indigenous Voices project “to explore the legacy and experiences of Marvel’s incredible cast of Indigenous characters.” How did your collaboration in this project come about?
SGJ: They emailed me and Darcie Little Badger and Rebecca Roanhorse and asked, ‘Do you want to do this?’ Of course we all jumped at it because who doesn’t want to crawl into a Marvel character and write their story? I’ve done comic books and I teach comic books and I read comic books all the time, so it was no great strain. I’m already looking at the thumbnail sketches of all the layouts and the characters. Everything has come together nicely. I’m doing Silver Fox. She was Wolverine’s first kind of wife/girlfriend. They lived in a cabin up in Canada and it was a happy time for Wolverine. This [storyline] talks about Silver Fox just before that, a blank space in the Silver Fox mythos. We know nothing about Silver Fox, so I thought I’d tell a little bit of her story. It comes out in November if I’m not mistaken.
You can (try to) keep up with Stephen Graham Jones at his website: demontheory.net.
Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer serving as a security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he’s been a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He’s a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly and was the staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media. His short fiction has been published at Thought Catalogue. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.