A Conversation with Stephen Graham Jones
By Cynthia Romanowski
Much like his novels Stephen Graham Jones is tall, dark and handsome, with a soft Texas drawl that you can just barely detect in the voices of his characters. The guy's got stories for days, stories for years even, and a colorful up-bringing just as fascinating as a lot of the crazy stuff he writes.
Recently, I had the opportunity to finally Skype and sit down with this prolific writer. I was supposed to talk to him on a Thursday, but when I called he politely informed me that he was on his way to the ER and could we reschedule because he was sure to be loaded on vicodin for the next few days. He'd slit his Achilles tendon playing basketball. But it seems like that's just a day in the life of SGJ, the man does everything with a passion and obsession that's easy to see from the sheer amount of pages he consistently churns out. Since our conversation just weeks ago, he's signed on for three more e-books with Dzanc, had short story come out in Stymieand appeared in the third volume of Pablo D'Stair's Predicate.
He is an author who writes because he has to. Writes to stay sane. From fox urine to rabbit slaying, Harry Potter to werewolves, SGJ graciously shared his views on a random slew of topics, including some of his gripes about the workshopping format, things writers say and the perceived divide between genre and literary fiction.
So I just finished reading It Came From Del Rio which is told in two separate firstt person point of views, and was wondering if breaking it up into two halves like that was something that just kind of happened or did you plan on doing that before even sitting down?
I had just come out of reading Dracula and Frankenstein, so I knew it was going to be epistolary. That was my hook to get myself writing it, I wanted to do an epistolary horror novel because nobody was really doing that anymore. But then Dodd would never let Laurie talk, so the way I planned it out isn't the way it turned out being but I think it's good to get surprised. You don't want to stick too loyally to your initial conception of the novel cause then your all hemmed in, you have to take what surprises you can get onto.
I read recently in the Michael Kimball Writes Your Life On A Postcard thing that just came out, that you met your wife at the edge of a parking lot and I noticed how that seemed very similar to how Dodd and Laurie's mom meet in Del Rio, is that something you did on purpose?
You know what, I don't remember. How did they meet in Del Rio? Do you remember?
I remember it was definitely in a parking lot and he ended up underneath her car fixing something.
Yeah? I don't know… I can remember that moment really well from my real life but—
--But you don't know if you put it in on purpose or not? That's funny…
Yeah, I could've, I do that sometimes. In every one of my novels the main character is some thinly disguised version of me, I think everybody does that, the only way I know to make a person real is to make me and then change the name.
But that's how I've meet met so many people, their car isn't working so I get underneath it and make it work.
Another thing that seemed to come up a lot in It Came From Del Rio, was the idea of romance. The character Laurie is always saying "I don't want to be too romantic but…" so your characters are very conscious of their romantic notions and then Flushboywhich is coming out with Dzanc in 2013 is supposed to be your take on a romance, so could you just talk about how that has seemed to come up in your work?
Flushboy is a love story and I wrote it specifically because my wife was reading my novels and said, "You don't ever write any love stories." And I said "Yes I did! That is a love story!"-- this one book-- and she said, "That's not a love story." So I just wanted to write a story about a guy who loves a girl. That's his whole goal is to just get with this girl.
But yeah, Laurie in Del Rio is always trying to resist her own romantic notions, I really think it's not her own romantic notions as much as it's the notions that she as a woman is supposed to be romantic and believe in unicorns and rainbows and stuff and she's trying to resist that the whole way through.
Talking about Flushboyagain--which is about a guy who works in a drive through urinal--I have to know, what is a drive through urinal? Is that a real thing?
No, it's just one of the worst things I could imagine. I had lots of jobs in high school doing menial labor kind of stuff and I tried to wrap that all up into one experience, and that one experience for me would be having to take somebody's warm tube of pee through a window and do something with it. Yeah so hopefully it's not a real thing (hopefully it will never be a real thing) but it's a real feeling.
Also on the topic of urine… you have that great story Lonegan's Luck about a snake oil salesman in The Ones That Got Away and you have him selling fox urine which is for "women specifically" but the guy says "he can't go into the particulars in mixed company" then it's sold out. So I need to know! What does the fox urine do? Or did you make that up…
I'm not sure what it does. I guess I've grown up hunting, so I've always been around people carrying around little vials fox urine or doe urine or just all kinds of urine all over, and it's always like the fix-all. If you want to get the big deer then you bring some doe urine with you. Actually, out in my garage, I have a container of what somebody told me is coyote urine. It smells so terrible. I pay my son money to go spray it so the rabbits won't chew up stuff but I don't want to touch it, it's terrible. If the wind blows and you got coyote pee all over you, you're much less happy than you were.
Talking about rabbits, I noticed in It Came From Del Rio and the first story in The Ones That Got Away, Father, Son, Holy Rabbit as well one of your real life anecdotes in that book's story notes, there are rabbits in all those. Is there any reason why that animal in particular comes up in your writing? Does it symbolize anything to you?
That's a good point I never thought about that it, it could be Monty Python, you know that terrible rabbit?
"With fangs like this!"
Yeah. Around 13 or 14 I was just starting to drive tractor and when you drive tractor in a certain part of the year, you pull a disk across a field that hadn't been used all winter and in that field all the rabbits have taken up residence, so as your disking up the field the rabbits are all scattering, and you get this following of like 15 or 20 hawks just dive bombing the rabbits.
I remember me and my friends, when we were pulling a disk like that, we'd wind up out in the field all the time throwing rocks and bottles trying to save the bunnies (but it never works) and one time I caught a baby rabbit, maybe it wasn't a baby it was like an adolescent rabbit I guess, I don't know, but it was not a happy one anyways. I caught it somehow and brought it home and I thought, me and this rabbit are going to be best friends.
We were living in a trailer then and I hid it in my and my brother's bathroom and I went in there to try to pet it or do some ownerly thing with it and it bit me. It bit me real hard, it had really strong teeth and jaws. That happened at time when all the rabbits were dying of bubonic plague (which is cyclical in that part of Texas) and I thought I had bubonic plague but I didn't want to tell my mom because I didn't like shots. So one of my hands swelled up and I didn't tell my mom for a long time. I don't know if I ever got it, but if I did, I didn't die from it at least. But that could be where all the rabbit stuff comes from I guess.
Another thing it could be is growing up in west Texas kind of your initiation to manhood is to go rabbit hunting with the older guys who are already out of high school, and all you do is go out spotlighting and pop rabbits with 22's and shotguns and you wind up with a whole bed-full, just mounded high with rabbits, probably 400 pounds of rabbits. I guess that's the proper guilt you need be a man, I don't know. It's not something your proud of later.
Talking about growing up in Texas, I was wondering do you think it's easier to write about a place when you get away from it or when you're still there taking it in?
It's so much easier for me once I've gone from it. That's the way it is not only with geography but with ages. Most of my characters are usually at least four years younger than me. Right now I'm 39 and I don't have any idea what it's like to be 39, but I feel I have a pretty good handle on what it feels like to be 35, so I can go back and properly mythologize my 35th year if I want to.
When I was being interviewed to come work up here at CU Boulder, they asked me how moving up here was going to change me, and I said I can probably finally start writing novels about Texas and sure enough the first novel I wrote since moving up here was all about growing up in cotton fields and stuff, because I think you need that distance from a place, not really to see it objectively but to properly mythologize it, to understand the bigger undulations and the bigger narrative movements that are going on all around you.
So I wanted to ask you a couple questions about process, you've said numerous times that you write because you have to, so what happens psychologically when you don't write? Do you get anxious or anything and along with that I was wondering if that meant that you haven't had to deal with a lot of writers block? That it comes pretty easy for you once you sit down.
Yeah, writers block has never really been an issue for me. The cure for writers block is always just to lower your standards. I mean you do get to points in novels and stories where you don't know what comes next but I think that's part of the game. Then all you got to do is go back and be a close reader of your own stuff because you've almost always written the next step.
But when I'm not writing I do get very, very anxious. I don't really get snippy with other people or things like that but I start feeling like a totally useless human being, like why am I here? Just to eat honey combs?
You mentioned how every character you write is just a different shade or different version of you, how do you feel about the idea that every writer has essentially one story that they just tell over and over again in a different way, do you agree with that?
I do believe in that and I see it in all my stories too. It often seems that I'm trying to tell it in a way that's finally true and every time I tell it I get closer and closer maybe, but I'm trying to just tell it like it is and I don't know if I'll ever get there.
If not one story, then we all have two or three stories that we just come back to. Every story plot we put our hands in we come out with the same elements.
One of your heroes is Phillip K. Dick. What specifically do you admire about his work?
One thing that really attracts me to his work is the sophistication of the narrative coupled with the simplicity of the delivery… if it's translated into another language it's not going to lose anything because the language is just a lens which focuses on all the cool things happening in the story, all these nested narratives, big surprises, metaphysical dilemmas, everything.
But what I really respect about PKD is how fast he could write. He was one of those people who had to write. To make the world make sense he had to always have his pen on a page. Those are the kind of people that I really want to read, they're not just showing off or indulging or proving to me that they can write a good sentence or keep my attention, they're telling stories to stay sane, they're telling stories to stay alive. Those are people I want to read.
So what else do you have coming out from Dzanc?
It's Not for Nothing, is my other Dzanc novel it's a second person, small town, west Texas noir--private eye stuff. It's the only novel I've written that takes place in the actual town I grew up in, there's only like 3,000 people. I wanted to see what would happen if I knew all the corners, all the churches, all the little pieces of skyline and everything and second person wound up to be a fun way to try to deliver that. We're in talks to have some more stuff come out right now.
I actually intern for them and it's interesting because I was under the impression at first that they were more focused on literary fiction, but then your work is often classified as genre. Do you consider your work a crossbreed or do you think there shouldn't even be such a strong divide between the two?
Yeah, I think it would be great if there wasn't that divide. I think a lot of hostility would die…but yeah, I think that's how I get classed because I started out literary, but now I tend to be doing more genre stuff.
Even those two I have coming out for Dzanc, It's Not For Nothing could be classed as genre, because it has a pre-built market and a shelf to go on whereas with Flushboy there's not really a shelf for a drive-thru urinal story, it's just a story about growing up so I think that might get classed more as literary. But yeah I'm happy with Dzanc, as far as I can understand, they're just interested in quality writing, which is what every publisher should do, I mean ideally. Interested in quality writing…and in my stuff…
Those are good characteristics… So my old roommate, one of my best friends loves reading horror and every time she gets a paycheck she goes to Borders and just buys tons and tons of books. To me it seems like people who read genre fiction in general have a greater appetite for it, I feel like people devour those books whereas people who are drawn to literary fiction aren't as hungry.
I agree. I think people like your roommate, who do that, find a level of comfort in the stories and the familiarity of the stories that people who are trained in literary criticism or as academic creative writers or whatever tend to have lost.
I hate it when I hear writers say, "I'm just reading this as a guilty pleasure," because I don't think guilty pleasures exist with reading. You should not feel guilty for anything you read, that's ridiculous to me.
Also, I always get sick when writers say in interviews that yeah, when they were a kid they read Stephen King but now they grew up – I mean I'm sure he's probably been a launching pad for a whole generation of writers—but at the same time people are saying they outgrow writers. I don't know if I've ever outgrown a writer myself – maybe that's just a sign of my own lack of maturity—but I don't understand outgrowing writers. I think if you like a story, you like a story. Granted, I used to like Nietzsche a lot, 'cause I thought he was saying some wild stuff, but I think I was just 22 years old, I mean, maybe it is the case that I've outgrown Nietzsche… but then I don't think you can really outgrow Nietzsche either. He's smarter than all of us probably.
So you have a bachelor's in philosophy then?
Yeah, I did a double major, I was actually a philosophy major until my last semester of undergraduate work at which time my advisor said, you know, if you take one more creative writing class you can have a dual major, so I was like sure what the heck.
Then to go into a masters program. I only put out two applications. One was to a philosophy school and one was to a creative writing program and creative writing got back to me first so I went with creative writing.
You really didn't care? You knew that you would've written no matter what?
Yeah, I was totally sold on philosophy and I was totally sold on writing. I guess the trick is that I always knew I was going to be writing regardless of what I was doing, it wasn't that vital to me.
I was under the impression that you were really young, like you went straight through from undergrad to your master's to getting your Ph.D. in English?
English, yes, let's see. I started my bachelor's in 1990 finished in '94, by '96 I was done with my masters and then by '98 I was done with my Ph.D. I think I was done with my Ph.D. in two years but I was only at Florida State for 14 months just because I despised Tallahassee, it was so green and yucky – there were bugs I didn't know – and it was terrifying to me. Totally terrifying. So I had to get out of there quickly. I wanted to get out of there right away which I did. I was lucky.
When I was there it was a very competitive program, like there was the weekly newsletter I think it was called, The Ellipses and if you didn't have a publication listed in The Ellipses then you were a nobody.
I like competitive programs like that. I think all programs should be like that. I think workshops should be competitive rather than supportive, just to weed out the people who can't compete, you know?
Yeah, so do you think that the workshop format is too soft on people? That it maybe doesn't help writers as much as it could?
I do think that. A lot of workshops tell people that it's alright however you're writing and really I think that if there's 12 people in a workshop than you should have 12 grades, given out, you should have just like 12 points and whoever writes the worst gets the one point.
It feels terrible and maybe it would make some people want to quit writing but if something like that can make you quit writing then you probably should quit writing.
That's probably true, but then do you actually run your classes like that?
I've yet to figure out how to put that overt competitive thing into it. I tried once but it got too complicated. But yeah, in the workshop I believe in the shame society over the guilt society. Like guilt society is: I've committed this narrative sin and now I'm gonna huddle around it and be worried about it for three months. But the shame society is: look at that stupid thing that Martin did and we all make fun of him and we read his lines out loud and we laugh about it and the idea is that you feel bad so you don't repeat the same mistake. It seems to work, I mean it sucks when you're getting laughed at but you're likely to not make that mistake again
So recently you posted that you have a short story coming out is it called Girl In The Box?
Yeah it just came out in Bombay Gin.
So that story was published along with a whole bunch of other notable authors like Allen Ginsberg and you said something like now I can tell the grandkids that I was published with him. Are there any other more personal highlights that you've had in your career? Moments where you were like wow this is pretty cool; what comes to mind first?
Yeah, I think it was like last year or the year before I was up for a Shirley Jackson award against Stephen King, we both lost but it was pretty cool to be up against him, and I've been on panels with Joe Lansdale talking about Conan, that was pretty excellent. Lots of little milestones like that, personal milestones I guess. Showing up in some of the best horror of the year annuals with a lot of big names, I'm extremely proud of that, I'm still surprised that I've made it that far without somebody figuring out who I am.
That's funny, so you still kind of feel like an imposter or something?
Yeah, I always feel like an imposter. Every time I go to teach I feel like an imposter. I think if you're not faking your way through it then--
-- Fake it 'til you make it?
Now wildly changing the subject… zombies, vampires or werewolves and why?
I think the werewolf is my favorite of the three as for the why of that is probably of those three I would most like to be a werewolf. I would love to be able to run through the woods at top speed and be able to smell and taste and hear everything, run down little deers. With vampires you get the same abilities, more or less, but you have all this guilt associated with it.
Being a zombie would totally be not fun. In a way it's a fantasy because you only have one desire; you have hunger and you have to fulfill your hunger and life is simple when you have one desire only. I think I would rather not be a pig happy in the mud. I'd rather be a philosopher and less happy.
But yeah, werewolves to me are where it's at. What it all comes down to is that I'd like to move like that, like they do in Wolfen or in that Harry Potter with professor Lupin. I loved that CGI of the way the wolf moved.
How do you feel about Twilight and Harry Potter and all that stuff?
I'm all for it, I read them both. I read Harry Potter as they were coming out and I was just totally hooked, I was at the store at midnight and all that stuff and I loved it and I still love it.
With Twilight, I initially pick up the first book because I thought I better see what this is all about then like 16 hours later I'd read all four, it's just like a hole you fall into, and I'm not ashamed of it or anything I think it was good fun. I mean it is good young adult romance that's paranormal.
And how do I feel about it?…I think it's great. I think it's getting people to read, and it's making people stand in line at midnight to buy a book and that's a society I want to live in. I'm not really worried about what the book is, I'm just worried that people are standing in line for it.
Have you ever considered writing young adult literature, now that you've got kids, like something they could read?
Definitely, a friend of mine, another horror writer, Paul Tremblay, we just co-wrote a young adult novel that's not horror it's kind of paranormal, with a little bit of romance and his agent who sells a lot of young adult is just this week putting it in the waters so it might happen.
We spent a lot of time writing it and then his agent and my agent went over it with a really, really mean comb. They made us change every little thing just so it could have more commercial appeal.
I think people have the stereotype or the suspicion that young adult is easy, but I think young adult is the hardest genre to write because the kids are so sophisticated.
Yeah, I figure they'd be better readers, like not easily impressed, I can't imagine it being easy I mean they think they know everything…
Exactly, it's so hard to do. You can't talk down to them and it's not about simplifying sentences down or anything like that. In other genres like westerns or romance you can identify a series of conventions, which kind of define the genre. But there are none in young adult as near as I can tell. I taught a course on it a year or two ago, a grad course, and we never could figure out any set of conventions or any story pattern or anything. We finally decided that young adult is less about the shape of the story itself and more about the audience your trying to target, but the trick is just by targeting that audience your making that audience suspicious of you, so it's a weird feedback loop and a really hard genre to do well in. So I really respect those people who have done it.