Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen novels, six story collections, and, so far, one comic book. His areas of interest, aside from fiction writing, are horror, science fiction, fantasy, film, comic books, pop culture, technology, and American Indian Studies. Dr. Jones earned his BA in English and Philosophy from Texas Tech University (1994), his MA in English from the University of North Texas (1996), and his PhD from Florida State University (1998). Dr. Jones has been an NEA recipient. He has won 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. He has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award a few times, and he is currently a finalist for a World Fantasy Award. He has also made Bloody Disgusting’s Top Ten Horror Novels. Dr. Jones lives in Boulder, Colorado where he teaches writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/SGJ72 (@SGJ72). http://stephengrahamjones.com
INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES BY AMY PATTERSON
AP: What were your beginnings as a writer and did you write in childhood?
SGJ: I didn’t really write as a child, but the first time I thought about writing was in the 4th grade. I read Where the Red Fern Grows, I had to check it out four times from the library and when I got to the end of it I thought, ‘I can do that. I can stick an ax in a tree and hang a lantern on it for twenty years.’ I wanted to be a farmer, and I thought I could just write at night. I didn’t write my first story until I was 19.
AP: What did your life look like when you were writing your first novel?
SGJ: I was 25 or 26, at Florida State working on my PhD. They have this thing called Writer’s Harvest where editors and agents come to meet new writers. My dissertation director Janet Burroway introduced me to the editor Janet Silver. Suddenly it was like I was having this out of body experience as I’m telling Janet Silver about this book I’ve written. She said that sounded like the kind of thing she was looking for, and she asked to see it. I went home that night and started writing it. There was none of this casting about romantically and tragically on social media wondering what to write next. I just wrote until I came to a stop, and then I pulled something from my life, plugged it in and kept writing. That’s why that first novel, The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong feels so autobiographical to me.
AP: How were things different when you wrote the next novel?
SGJ: So much of the first book dealt with cultural identity. I didn’t want to be pigeon holed. So when I wrote Demon Theory I had two rules. I couldn’t use any indirect dialogue, and I couldn’t reference anything American Indian. The direct dialogue because I preferred indirect, but really the reader expects direct dialogue. I wanted to become a better dialogue writer. In rewrite, I finally did mention an Indian graveyard, but that is the only time in Demon Theory, that I say “Indian,” I think.
AP: How did you first come up with the idea for your book Mongrels, and how much did it change?
SGJ: My friend invited me to participate in an anthology, Letters to Lovecraft. I searched H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for the word werewolf. When I found it, I knew I could do a story for this book. Then, I guess I forgot about it until the deadline when my friend asked for it. I ate this huge thing of chocolate covered sunflower seeds for energy, and for the next three hours I wrote that story. It was called “Doc’s Story”. I had gotten permission from my school to teach a werewolf class in the Fall. I spent the summer researching all about werewolves so I had all of this information in my head and needed some place for it to go. Two weeks before class started I wrote the rest of Mongrels. The first draft is by heart and instinct. On the second draft you turn your brain on.
AP: There’s a lot of trouble a werewolf can run into while shifting between human and werewolf - the tick, the tights, and the danger of french fries. Is humor something that you consciously put into your work or do you find that it shows up organically?
SGJ: I guess organically. I’m letting it bubble up more. At first I was aiming for literary work which focuses on sad and tragic. Really it’s an injustice to try to keep humor out. Real people make nervous jokes, they do legitimately funny things. It’s more like the world you recognize. And really in Horror, humor acts as a pressure release valve so you’re not just screaming all the time from start to finish. Horror needs to spike and then go down, spike and go down. Of course, overall it’s gaining intensity.
AP: The werewolf family in Mongrels seems to share similarities with marginalized groups in society. How much of this book is a personal exploration of living with these types of experiences?
SGJ: A lot. That’s really the origin for the first chapter of Mongrels. I was teaching Maus by Art Spiegelman and everyone in that has animal heads. The Jews have mouse heads, the Germans have cat heads, the Swiss have reindeer heads. But I realized there are no Indians in there and that made me happy because if there were we would have had wolf heads. I mean that’s what every truck stop t-shirt tries to make us. So, I decided I’m going to go ahead and put that animal head on myself before someone puts it on me.
AP: One of my favorite aspects of Mongrels is the intergenerational, tight knit, loyal family. How much of your own sense of family is at play here?
SGJ: In Fast Red Road, there’s a scene in the truck stop with the Uncle, his dead father’s twin, and the boy is so scared he pees his pants and so the Uncle pees in his pants, too — so he won’t be alone. That is the heart of the family connection in Mongrels for me.
AP: How much does research play into the creation of your stories and novels?
SGJ: I turn to the research when my imagination is failing to make the story feel real, but I try to go with my imagination first. If I find a fact, I feel I have to be loyal to it and shape the story around it. In Richard Hugo’s “Triggering Town”, he says if you need to move the water tower to other side of town in service of the story then do it. The story is first.
AP: In writing in general, how do you know when you are done with a piece?
SGJ: After it’s published. As long as it’s around, I’ll tinker with it, but really that’s a glib answer. I know I’m done when the next novel is banging at the gates and waiting to be written. When whatever I’m working on stops me from writing the next piece, I know I’m done.
AP: How much rewriting do you do?
SGJ: Sometime a stupid amount, sometimes just a spell check. I say I wrote Mongrels in two weeks, but really there were three months of rewrites.
AP: It seems like you write really fast. Is that true?
SGJ: I just finished a book on August 30th; I started on August 4th. Part of the reason I write fast is because my headspace is in the novel. I have to invest so completely that I lose my center. I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not so I’m racing to the end of that tunnel so I can find my center again. Recently, I came downstairs to get a LaCroix from the refrigerator, and I’d left the door to my study open. My wife said, ‘I guess you’re writing another novel.’ She could hear Cher. I always listen to Cher when I write. Well, her and Meat Loaf.
AP: What writing tip do you have for emerging writers?
SGJ: Don’t spin out in one story for too long. Some people will say it took four years for me to write this. Like their readers should really spend some time on it, because it took them so long to write it. But it’s the end result, the product that matters, not how much time it took you to produce it. Also, for writers, always read outside of your genre. Read stuff that brings new DNA back to the genre you love or else you’ll end up writing a clone.