Photo Image from Slug Magazine
If you consider yourself to be well read, particularly within the dark fiction genre but have yet to sample the literary delights of Stephen Graham Jones then you need to fix that, and fix it real soon. Stephen Graham Jones is a writing machine. With over 250 short stories to his name…yes, that’s right, 250+, and 20+ novels, Jones is a prolific wordsmith. I know there are other writers with a similar number stories to their name, but Stephen Graham Jones finds himself inside an elite group where the quality matches quantity. I’ve spoken to some truly exceptional writers over the past 18 months or so and this is another interview that I am very excited about. I’m stoked that Stephen agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to chat with the Grim Reader. I hope you enjoy!
TGR: Thanks heaps for agreeing to chat, Stephen. I always like to ask where the love of reading comes from with people I talk to. Who gave you the reading bug and was there one particular book or story that started it all?
Where the Red Fern Grows. Read it in the fourth grade. It was the second novel I’d never read. I distinctly remember getting to the end, seeing that old lantern hanging from that rusty axe head in that tree and thinking, I can do that, I can stick an axe in a tree and hang a lantern from it. Been trying ever since.
TGR: How did your writing journey begin? What was your first published story and where was it published?
First one I got paid for is “Paleogenesis, 1970,” in Black Warrior Review. 1996, I think. Before that I’d been in a couple of local, campus things. One was North Texas Review, with a story called . . . “Three Months and Eleven Days,” maybe? Anyway, it was some amount of days and months. That would be about 1995. Before that, in undergrad, I’d had a story in this little pamphlet—maybe forty copies, all told—called MindPurge. Thinking the story was either “Breakfast for Two” or “The Parrot Man.” I also had a section of this story of mine “West Texas Dirt” come out in . . . something right around then, but I can’t remember what, now. It won an award, so got published.
TGR: What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self if you could?
You don’t have to always be trying to make sure everybody can see you have a brain. You don’t have to show off. Simple stories are where it’s at. You don’t get points for degree of difficulty, dude. But keep going fast. Go even faster, maybe.
TGR: Do you find writing becomes easier through gaining more experience, or do you still have reservations about your words?
Always nervous, always feel like an imposter, always have to fake it. Only way I know to get the stuff done.
TGR: You have written stories in numerous genres. Is there any genre out there you really fancy having a crack at but have yet to do so?
I’ve never done a story with an actual elf. I’ve done centaurs and all kinds of other non-human fantastical beings, but never an elf. I need to, I think.
TGR: What are you reading right now and what have you enjoyed recently?
Right now I’m reading a book about Neandertal and early homo sapiens entanglements and evolution—lot of theoretical stuff, lots of maybes, lot of if-this-then-thats. Which I love.
TGR: Two of your most recent releases: Mongrels and The Night Cyclist featured familiar horror tropes, but both of these stories still managed to captivate me and had a real freshness to them. What is it about these tropes do you think that makes horror writers continue to go back to them?
The werewolf and the vampire are each creatures with really long legs, that can take them just about anywhere. They’re designed well. They basically can’t be stopped with bullets, meaning we have to use our human wit to find their weaknesses—silver, daylight—and then use that against them. Any monster that conditions the reader to use their brain, that’s a story we’re going to keep on reading. Stories where you pummel a monster with your big muscles or big guns or whatever, those are never as satisfying. A smart win is always better. We see that kind of win as actually being within our reach, trapped in an easy chair like we are.
TGR: Do you think writers will still be writing Vampire and Werewolf stories in twenty, thirty years from now?
I do, yep. The werewolf story’s more vital now than ever, since we always feel like we’re moments away from being able to upload ourselves to the server in some way. However, I think what we find in that process is that we have human urges, bestial instincts, and, without letting those run free once a month—say, when the moon is full—then bad things happen. And the vampire in twenty or thirty years can function very similarly, as a cautionary tale about immortality: you end up doing anything, just to feel.
TGR: I get the impression with Mongrels in particular is quite a personal book. Would that be correct?
Man, they all are, from The Fast Red Road on. When I started out writing, I found that the way I best inject or pack emotion into a scene or a character, it’s to smuggle it up out of my own life. So, yes, those werewolves on the road just trying to get by in Mongrels, that’s my family, growing up. But Hale in Demon Theory, that’s me too. And that kid working the window of his father’s drive-thru urinal in Flushboy, that’s me as well. Same for my West Texas novels, one of which has a character with my name, and most of my life.
TGR: Mapping the Interior comes out June 20th through Tor. It is a novella, which is a format I think works terrifically well with horror. What can readers expect from this story? (without giving too much away, of course)
Hopefully to get a little creeped out at some two in the morning, when they’re trying to pass through a darkened room they thought they knew.
TGR: What does horror mean to Stephen Graham Jones?
Good horror’s sticky—you can’t shake it—and it’s disturbing, it makes you feel icky inside, sometimes from transgression, sometimes from complicity.
TGR: If somebody asked you for one horror novel and one horror movie that truly captures the essence of the genre, what would they be and why?
I think Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings is about as tight a horror novel as there is. The story’s mechanically precise but still packs surprises, and it’s doing the haunted house thing about as well as it can be done. For a movie . . . I’ll say The Ring, or Ringu—more or less the same. I think that story has the right mix of commercial hooks and indie delivery to be effective, and there’s some real resonance there, that makes you second-guess turning the lights off, even days later.
TGR: Outside of the horror genre, what does Stephen Graham Jones like to read and watch?
Lots of science fiction, for reading, and . . . probably feel-good movies. I’m a fool for those. I love me a happy ending.
TGR: Are you excited for the new movie version of IT? Having seen the trailers, I think it looks great, but expectation and reality are sometimes miles apart. It’s almost impossible to truly capture the feel of King’s book, but what do you think is the key ingredient for this movie to resonate with fans of the book?
I think the key thing going on It is nostalgia. I’ve always felt like King did that novel as kind of a love letter to an era: when he grew up. So, if this new version can keep that, and then pervert it—if it can lure us into loving that era, then turn that era against us—then I think it’s got a real chance. The success doesn’t all hinge on this rendering of Pennywise, I don’t think. Though you can see that same dynamic in Pennywise: he lures us in with his clown exterior, but then his interior is much, much darker. Could be that that dynamic, that symmetry between how nostalgia works and how Pennywise functions, is the essential trick, there.
TGR: Stephen Graham Jones, you’re a gentleman and I thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. What else do you have planned for the rest of 2017 and beyond?
Got My Hero and Mapping the Interior out here shortly, then, you know, the usual: infinity and beyond.
Visit Stephen Graham Jones at his blog Demon Theory
Get some SGJ books into you at Amazon