I was absolutely blown away by the opening paragraphs of “How to Break into a Hotel Room.” You drew me into the story, weaving sympathy for a dying Tran with the understanding that crimes will be committed, and all I could do was hang on for the ride. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind the story?
Probably just all the time I’ve spent in hotel rooms. Usually I’d conjugate that verb differently, say spend in hotel rooms, but COVID’s made me a homebody since late March. Still: I remember. Specifically, I remember lying on my bed in a hundred hotel rooms, thinking about sleep but also seeing foot shadows walk back and forth past my door—the lights in the hallways are always on. And then, right when I start to get drowsy and the membranes between possibilities become more permeable, I wonder if I’m going to be sleeping alone here tonight, or if I’m going to wake with someone standing over me, which makes me wonder how they would get in in the first place. So, I think through all the ways a person with ill intent could scam their way through my door, and what their backstory might be, and how that backstory might catch up with them. Once all that’s done and I’m safe, then I can drift off, wait for that three in the morning car to pick me up again, which is its own nightmare . . .
Horror is a genre of the unexpected, even when you know the worst is yet to come. This story is a scam, what could go wrong, and then the memory of Lisa K. and her family rears its head, and the line “Even her infant brother, just born, who couldn’t have even understood what was happening” shatters the cozy crime story and drives the splinters in deep. What is it about writing horror that calls your words to the page? How did you first dip your toes into these dark waters?
My first horror story . . . to me it’s “To Run Without Falling,” I think. It’s in my first collection, Bleed into Me. But there’s also a story in there called “Bile” which is maybe horror. And also “Every Night Was Halloween.” And the lead story, which has a title I can’t remember anymore. Anyway, horror, man, it’s the most direct way, on the page at least, to a visceral response, yeah? Best one I know, anyway. Say I see someone reading a piece of mine, and they’re across a hotel lobby. I probably won’t approach them, or put myself in their eyeline, even. I’ll just hang back, keep a loose eye on them instead. Across thirty or forty feet, if I’ve written this horror story right, then they’re going to cringe, maybe close the book, maybe shake their head to try to rid themself of this or that image. These are all responses I can see. They’re a feedback loop. If I don’t see those responses, then . . . I need to write better. But, if I’m not writing horror, then the chances of seeing any response are pretty low. Not meaning to say that the feeling romance or crime or literary or science fiction or fantasy aren’t just as real, but they’re not as visible, I don’t think. And I like those visible responses, if I can get them. Years ago, a friend got hold of me, asked could I please take this book off her hands, as she didn’t want it in her house anymore. Of course, I would take that book. How could I not? How to say no to a book that provokes that kind of response? It was Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. Think I’ve read it thirteen times in the last decade. It’s all over my house. Well, my head, anyway.
It’s said the devil is in the details. This story is all details—Tran on the couch, Lisa K.’s posture, the dead baby Pez-dispenser, the taste of “dead tea.” When writing, do you project yourself into the setting, letting the environment fill your senses, or do you stand just offscreen and coax the narrative along?
I method-act my way into the story. It’s the only way I know to do it. I step in, look around, and write down what seems pertinent. Then come back on revision, burn most of it, try to find something actually useful. Sometimes I’ll get lucky, too, find something workable.
Many of your stories revolve around unexpected horrors, in particular, how a seemingly harmless adolescent moment can curdle into something much, much worse. We see something of this theme in “How to Break into a Hotel Room,” albeit at a younger age, as well as the superb Night of the Mannequins. What is it about this particular age that lends itself so well to the stories you have to tell?
I ask myself that, too. And I’m just not real sure I have a good answer. I think it’s something about that I’m really drawn to hinge points? Moments and events when everything changes, or feels like it’s about to. And we get a lot more of those moments at those ages than we do later on, I think. I remember them so fondly. And, I’m not meaning to make forty-eight (how old I am) super boring or anything. There’s new and better things all the time. But now . . . I wonder if I’m as sensitive to them as I was then, before, back then? I don’t know. Give me twenty or thirty more years, maybe I’ll have some perspective on forty-eight. Until then, maybe I’ll just be skulking around the high school halls, I don’t know. I do still remember every smell, every doorway, ever flickering light. And I went to a lot of high schools.
You write, write, and then write some more. What do you do when you’re not scaring other people? How does Stephen Graham Jones recharge his batteries?
Usually on the trail, on my mountain bike. At the pool table, too. And in the classroom. Have yet to figure a way to combine those three, though. Hacky sack and basketball and archery used to precede them all, too, but there’s been so many surgeries, so many recovery rooms . . .
2021 looms large on the horizon, filled with possibilities. Do you have any particular projects in the works for the coming year?
You bet. In 2021, I have a slasher novel coming out with Saga, My Heart is a Chainsaw, and a graphic novel out with University of New Mexico Press, Memorial Ride. And always stories. I don’t ever see myself not writing stories. My heart beats really well in stories, and I like to keep my heart beating.
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