Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Stephen Graham Jones

Mongrels may be the first Stephen Graham Jones novel published by a major house (William Morrow) and his first Bram Stoker Award nomination in the Novel category, but to those who have followed the author’s work for years it’s a natural step for one of the horror genre’s most unusual voices. Jones, a native of West Texas who now lives and teaches in Colorado, has authored over 250 short stories; his earlier novels include Demon Theory, Zombie Bake-Off, The Last Final Girl, and Growing Up Dead in Texas. Forthcoming in June from Tor.com is the novella Mapping the Interior. Jones is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature: Fiction, 2001; a Writers League of Texas Fellowship in Literature, 2002; and the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, 2001 (he is a Blackfeet Native American).

Mongrels adds a lot of new spins to werewolf lore (like dewclaws!). Given your love for films like Scream and Cabin in the Woods—both of which are often described as “postmodern”—do you think Mongrels is postmodern? Or do you see it more as extending the mythology of werewolves?

Yeah, my heart’s forever in 1996 with Scream. And in 1986 too, with all the good happening then. And Cabin brings it all back, plus some—with a pretty cool werewolf. If the postmodern stance or, I don’t know, “agenda” or “aesthetic” or whatever is going to be coming from a place of irony, though—at least a distrust in the ability of a story to be in any way honest—then, no, at least the way I read Mongrels, it’s not going for that. That’s not to say that the way story works in Mongrels is straightforward, either. But there is always a kernel of truth inside the fiction. Story isn’t hollow, in Mongrels. Just, it’s the best we can do.

One of the things I love about Mongrels is that it also works as the coming-of-age tale of a young boy in an impoverished family (they can stuff everything they own into trash bags and move in ten minutes). What influenced the choice of making the werewolves poor?

Whenever I’m reading werewolf or vampire fiction, money’s never any concern. So, what I’m being asked to believe with a story like that, it’s both that these werewolves and vampires exist, and that they’ve invested well. Which is a lot to ask me to believe. So, when I sat down to write about werewolves, I figured I wanted to make them as real to the reader as I could. What this meant was asking them to maybe just believe one big thing, instead of two. And, of those two—money, werewolves—there was only one I could lose and still get to be in a werewolf story.

Too, growing up, money was the big concern. We’d always be worried about stuff like if the rental place was going to come take the furniture away again, or how we were  . . . not going to make this or that payment, but what it was going to mean when we didn’t. What I’m getting at is that, if my werewolves had daily money issues—as they do in Mongrels—then that would require zero research on my part. I could focus all that thinking on building the most perfect werewolf I could.

Mongrels was inspired in part by a werewolf course you were teaching. How often does your teaching work inspire your fiction work?

Back when I was teaching my zombie course pretty regular, I put out Zombie Bake-Off. And I did Growing Up Dead in Texas as a result of a grad fiction workshop where we were talking about the shadings between fiction and non-fiction. And my American Thriller course definitely informed All the Beautiful Sinners and Seven Spanish Angels. The Last Final Girl pairs right up, year-wise, with a slasher course I taught. So, it happens a lot, I guess. But, usually? It’s not that either really comes first. What happens is that I get to really thinking about werewolves, and my life is all werewolves here, werewolves there, werewolves everywhere. So of course I teach a course on them. And of course I write a novel about them. They’re both just ways I think about werewolves. I don’t guess I know where Flushboy comes from, though—oh, wait, I kind of do. I was teaching a Young Adult graduate seminar. Well, I taught it right after writing Flushboy. But I taught it because I couldn’t stop thinking about the genre, the mode. And I’m still always thinking about it. There’s a magic there, and I want to touch it.

As a college professor, do you find young people are generally interested in genre? Do they sometimes take your classes because they know your work?

Yeah, I often get students as kind of refugees from spaces where they haven’t been able to talk about Spider-Man or horror. Years back—man, probably for my first twelve years of teaching—the first story you had to turn in for one of my workshops, it was always a randomly-assigned genre story. Fantasy, western, romance, erotica, horror, crime, just however many genres we needed for how many people we had in class. One semester recently we had polar bear erotica. Last few years, though, I’ve been able to scratch that genre requirement. Just because the students are coming in wanting to write genre. Every submission will be genre. Part of that’s that they know my tastes, I imagine, and write to them a bit, but a bigger part of it’s just that genre’s making inroads into the academy. And it’s the students who are bringing it. I feel like I’m plugged into the whole system at just the right time.

You attempted two werewolf novels (Bloodlines and Lord’s Highway) before Mongrels. Why did Mongrels work for you whereas those two didn’t?

Bloodlines was the third novel I ever wrote. 1999 or 2000, I think. I wrote it coming right off Demon Theory, so I was kind of cocky, thought I could do anything—that I was ready to put my real and actual heart on the page. Which is to say, I thought I was ready to write about werewolves. I was wrong. Bloodlines, to me, it’s kind of this West Texas version of Philip K. Dick’s Galactic Pot-Healer. Just, with werewolves. I kind of forced the end, too, instead of just letting it happen. And, I guess I was twenty-seven or so then, but I could still tell this wasn’t what I’d meant to do. So I shelved it. Then in 2013 I kind of partially unshelved it—I took the basic premise, made it what I thought was better, and burned a lot of what I was calling The Lord’s Highway down. But, a hundred, hundred-and-twenty pages in, I kind of cued in that, first, I had too many characters happening—that, to do them justice, this was going to be a seven-hundred-page novel, and, second, I was spending too much time just looking at werewolves. It’s what I like to do. But that’s indulging. And a novelist should never indulge him or herself on the page, where everybody can see. We should always do the most in the least amount of space. And I wasn’t doing that. So I quit that novel. It’s one of only two or three I’ve ever quit. But then I wrote Mongrels, so I guess it all worked out.

You wrote the first draft of Mongrels in fourteen days. Doesn’t that break down to about 6,000-7,000 words a day? How do you do that?

It was more like six or seven thousand every afternoon, I guess. I like to go out and do stuff in the morning—gym, errands, biking around going nowhere—then around six I like to watch some Star Trek: The Next Generation or something, eat some dinner, maybe cue up a horror movie or two. All work and no play, man, that impacts the work in a bad way, I’ve found. I used to do that three-day novel contest, and I found that I wrote a much better novel when I made time for basketball, and Star Trek, a lot of hackysack, and just walking around doing nothing. Doing nothing is so, so important, especially in a world where you’re always supposed to be doing something. Sitting at the desk for hours in a row, that doesn’t do anybody any good.

Just now, in November and December, I wrote a big slasher novel, Lake Access Only. Which, the end of the year, that’s my absolute busiest time of the year. Just thing after thing after thing: hunting, a low-residency program I teach in, finals, theses, holidays, snow. But I figured why not slip a hundred-thousand-words in if you can, yeah? I started November fifth, seventh, somewhere around there, then took a week off, and then jumped back on, jammed it down fast. My goal was Christmas, but I came in on the twenty-third, in time to see some movie I’d been wanting to see, I forget which one. For me, if the novel’s real, then it’s always fast. If it’s slow, then that means I’m having to force it, that it’s not happening on its own, and, man, writing, it shouldn’t be work, should it? It’s playing with dragons. It’s not mowing the lawn. It’s hiding from the world. Let’s keep it fun, I say. Let’s make it an escape. I’ll build my fort, you build yours, and tomorrow we can trade.

After publishing nearly two dozen novels and collections with small presses, Mongrels is your first book published by a major house (William Morrow). Has the experience been different for you? Do you foresee both major and smaller publishers in your future?

Morrow’s distribution and marketing’s been nice, yeah. And, man, who knows where I’ll be next. I’ve already been with, I don’t know, probably seventeen publishers, maybe? Fourteen or fifteen, anyway, I’d guess. The big reason for that, it’s that I always do a different book from the last. Writing just in one genre, one mode, on one shelf, that’s not for me. That’s not how I read, so why should I make myself write like that? So, maybe I’ll be with a commercial house again next, or maybe not. Either way, I’ll write the best books I can. It’s always about just putting my whole heart into it, and believing it real. Lately I’ve been seriously considering writing a western, an anthropological thriller, and a sixth-grade rollerskating novel. I’ve got a possession one I kind of don’t want to do at all, since just thinking about it terrifies me, makes me leave the lights on. But maybe I’ll dive into it, who knows.

And my model for all this, it’s Joe R. Lansdale. He never let anybody put a label on him, he just did what he wanted and did it right and then did it some more. It doesn’t always make things come out smooth, either career-wise or money-wise, but at the end of the day you’re still yourself, I figure. And that’s what I’m going to care about more in twenty years than my checking account.

The first short story you wrote in college won an award. What do awards mean to you?

They’re always an honor. They mean that enough people cared about this book to put a checkmark in a box, and what that means is that the book’s reached those readers. And that’s what it’s all about. What media is—and fiction is a media—is me having a thought, a feeling, and wanting to share it. So I encode it on the page, or in a sculpture, or a melody, or the routine I do on my BMX bike, and then someone out there, they engage with that art, they decode it, and that thought or feeling I had miles and years and lifetimes away, they have some version of it as well. And that’s just pure magic. I’m so glad we don’t all have telepathy. If we did, there’d be no art, there’d be no lying towards the truth.

Your novel The Last Final Girl paid homage to slasher films. What is it about slashers that continues to thrill us?

What I forever love about the slasher is the closed cycle of justice. We get the slasher we deserve. We get the slasher we created. And the final girl, she’s a model for us all. She rises above herself to stand up against the monstrous, and insist that it back the hell off from her and hers. The final girl shows us that we each have a better self curled up inside us. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no purer story than the slasher. It’s where story begins and ends. My novel Growing Up Dead in Texas? That one that’s about a kid with my name growing up in West Texas, or trying to? That everyone always calls a memoir? I built that on the dramatic scaffolding of the slasher. Because I wanted to tell a true story. And the slasher is the most true story I know.

Demon Theory was described as an entry in the new “intelligent horror” field. Has horror been so typically considered in the past as non-intelligent that we need a label like this?

I don’t think we do, no. I also resist “literary horror,” because that kind of classification pushes a lot of other, real horror to the side, as suddenly non-literary, where “literary” is all synonymous with “good” or “quality.” Too, I worry a bit that a term like literary horror can become an excuse of sorts for a story that, I don’t know, moves slower, or is all about the atmosphere instead of the transgression—that prizes different things than what’s conventionally been prized. I prefer just the good old term we’ve always had, “Horror.” Sure, there’s good and bad horror. There’s permanent horror—horror we return to again and again—and there’s disposable horror, which we read once and toss. The important thing, though, it’s that we don’t allow those two to separate into a hierarchy. Except that that’s practically built into those terms, I know. Man. There’s a place for each, though, and neither is easier to create, or in any way better. But, yeah, with Demon Theory, I guess I was kind of, and very much on purpose, taking aim at all the people looking down their nose at the other side. Both the so-called literary readers and the horror fans. Neither characterizes the other very well. I figured that by co-opting the content of one and the method-of-delivery of the other, I could maybe suggest that we can all stand around at the same party, and not have to step out to the parking lot to settle things. But that parking lot, it’s dark and inviting, isn’t it? I always ended up out there in high school. Stands to reason I’m still there.

You’ve talked about writing to make sense of the world. Does horror literature help us make sense of the world . . . or reassure us that parts of the world will never make sense?

Nicely asked, wow. Both. I mean, for me, story makes the world make sense . . . at least for these eighteen pages, or for this one book, or even this one series—I’m looking at you, Harry Potter. But, horror in particular, it does reassure us that parts of the world will never make sense, emphasis there on “reassure.” What horror does when it’s working well is that it forces the door of the possible open just a little bit. And, sure, there’s tentacles oozing through, there’s wet teeth snapping back in the darkness, there’s clawing and scraping and moaning and hunger, and that’s all terrifying. But when that door cracks open, then the wondrous also becomes possible. The world and this life is boring if all that exists is just what we consensually see. It’s all so much more exciting if we don’t know everything that’s out there. That’s the world I want to live in. The one with aliens and Bigfoot, with angels and demons, with vampires and really cool werewolves. So we don’t have skulls or forensic evidence or verifiable photographs. Who cares. It’s not about the facts, it’s about our faith, our insistence in the face of facts. That’s our defining human characteristic, I think. We want to believe. We need to. Otherwise Cthulhu wins, and we’re just meaningless specks in the vastness of the All. How much meaning we have is exactly how much meaning we insist upon. I choose to believe I’m part of the tapestry of some vast, wonderful story. And if I do everything just right, it can all work out.

You have a wife and kids, a teaching job, a lot of old trucks, and yet you still produce a great deal of writing. What do you say to would-be writers who complain about not being able to find time to write?

First, I guess, disabuse yourself of the romantic notion that novels only result from years and years of blood and sweat and toil. That’s just a myth we’ve bought into, as a means of establishing the worth of what we produce: I put this much into it, so you should be able to get a lot of that back out. It’s some old way of thinking, where there’s guilt associated with producing something in an easy manner instead of a difficult manner. Really? It doesn’t matter if it takes you two weeks or two years or whatever—it’s the product that matters. Is it sincere? Is your whole heart in these pages? That should be what writers get asked in the big media junket. But, instead, we all get asked how long it took us to write this, which is a way of telling the audience that this writer gave this X time, maybe you should give it Y time. Second, about carving out time to write—my rule is just that I choose writing over everything but family and health. Which is to say, I don’t go to the bar, I don’t watch reality television, and I try not to do things that are just killing time, that are just keeping me busy and awake. My job is to write. My calling is to write. When I’m not writing, I’m stealing air. That’s the only way I know to be.

You once advised writers to walk away from “broken stuff.” How often do you do that?

I used to do it a lot more. My old directories are stuffed with stories that started to fall apart. Rather than taking a week to try to get them back on course, I’d just consign them to the bin, go write something else. I’ve never been afraid of running out of ideas, or words. But those were all stories I was just writing to write them, and maybe sell if they came together right. Nowadays, nearly every story I write has been solicited. So, what that means is I’ve told an editor, yeah, I’ll have a story with these parameters done by that date. And I do that. I’ve never not made a deadline, or come up empty on a story. That’s not professional. That puts other people in a bind, when they’ve been kind enough to take a chance on you. I have started a story for an editor, had it go south, so started another, and then another, but I still made the deadline.

With novels, it’s of course harder to throw away forty or sixty or eighty thousand words. You usually convince yourself that this can be resuscitated. But? I mean, I consider The Lord’s Highway thrown away, and that’s from pretty recently. Before that, I think I’d only ever scrapped-in-process one other novel, Scotoma Mon Amour. This is from about 2002, I’d guess. Maybe 2001. Right around when I wrote Bloodlines—it was supposed to be the sister book. I was having a lot of fun writing it, but then I realized that it was a kind of fun so particular to me that I’d be the only one to ever have that kind of fun with it. And I don’t just write for myself. So I bailed out, wrote something else. I do have a few novels that I saw through to the end then decided they weren’t good enough, so they just live on my hard-drive, and in my file cabinets. Bad thing is that one of those has the best ending I’ve ever done in anything. But it’s tied to a novel that’s broken—The Hedonist Chronicles—that I can’t figure how to fix. I was a different person when I wrote it, and I can’t get back into the headspace anymore. It’s right around the time I wrote The Bird is Gone—another novel I’ll never be able to approach again.

Is one reason you write quickly and are so prolific that you feel the weight of passing time?

I mean, yeah, I’m forty-five now, which is a whole lot different from the twenty-three I was when I got my first story published in a decent place—thank you, Black Warrior Review—but it’s not so much fear of running out of time that makes me go fast. It’s that, when I’m writing something, for me to believe in it in the way I need to in order to make it real on the page, that requires a commitment out of me that’s . . . I don’t know: it’s not really right, I don’t think. I lose the line between what’s this and what’s that, and I lose it fast. I’m dreaming the novel, I’m breathing the novel, and, when I go to the store for Frosted Flakes, I’m walking through the novel. When I remember things, I can’t remember if I’ve written them or if they really happened. Not just saying that. I really and truly lose my grip on which tether is tied to this world, which is tied to the made-up one. It’s not a good way to try to navigate a day, or a week, or a life. So, each time I duck into a novel, it’s like a tunnel, and I just race through to that speck of light as fast as I can. Otherwise I might not make it out at all. As for volume, I mean, way I look at it’s like darts. You throw enough of them, you’re going to hit the bullseye one time or another, just from stupid luck. So I try to keep as many darts in the air as I can. Too, since I write to pretend that the world makes sense, then I write a lot, yeah. Because this world, man, it makes very little sense to me. But I can trap it on the page in a way I can track, sometimes. Some days.

You’ve spoken in past interviews about your love of genre fiction. Can a badly written genre novel still be better than a well-crafted non-genre book?

Hard call. Say I read a novel about a cybernetic werewolf, but the characters are flat, the pacing’s off, the writing is hamfisted. Still, I got to think about a cybernetic werewolf, right? That’s not all bad. If I read a non-genre novel with poor pacing and characters and prose, then I didn’t get to see anything cool. So, in that situation, I’ll choose the cybernetic werewolf, please. But that’s not what you’re asking. You’re asking is a poorly done horror novel still better than, say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, or Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. No, I don’t think so. Good story always trumps whatever content. And that’s what I’m after, on whatever shelf I’m peeling through. I just want the story to grip me, to make me want to turn the pages, to stir my imagination, to make my heart swell. You know that Sandor Marai novel Embers? It synopsizes down as the single most boring story ever: two old dudes sitting around, remembering the old days. But, man, when you get into the meat and the muscle of it, that story sings, man, and you become functionally incapable of setting the book down. Still? Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is basically that, right? And it sings as well, and it has scary stuff going on. Given a choice like that—great writing, solid story, well told—then I’ll choose the one that also has scary stuff, thank you. Because that makes my world bigger. And I want to live in a big place.

You’ve written ghost stories (“After the People Lights Have Gone Off”), a zombie novel (Zombie Bake-Off, which also includes wrestlers!), a werewolf novel, a slasher tribute, stories about horror movies and mysterious boxes and Halloween and mad professors . . . is there any horror trope you haven’t tackled yet that you’d still like to visit?

I haven’t done vampires, long form. Well, I have, this novel No Rest for the Wicked, in about . . . 1999, 2000? And I really liked it, and still do, but then, before I could mail it out, Thirty Days of Night happened, and the way it ends is exactly what I did in No Rest. Which happens. Happened with Demon Theory—I skipped hunting in 1999 to finish it over Thanksgiving, and then in January 2000, House of Leaves hit and hit big. Not trying to say that either my vampire novel or my footnote-horror novel were in any way better than those others. Certainly they weren’t. Certainly Niles and Templesmith and Danielewski earned their acclaim. Just, saying that lots of the time you’re not the only one with your good idea. It’s a race, always. As it should be. Sometimes you win, sometime you don’t. Trick is, you line up again, and again, and you keep running until your feet are nubs.

But, I haven’t really answered you yet. Possession. I haven’t done possession. Because it terrifies me senseless. I mean absolutely. But a couple months ago I kind of accidentally sketched out this possession novel. It’s one I’ve been dreaming about since I was about twelve. I’ve got all these bad memories tied up with it, all these weird little behaviors that I think come from this story, this name. So maybe I should just write it. Except? I used to think that if I got the scary stuff on the page the right way, that would mean it was out of my head. That’s what I was trying with The Least of My Scars. That’s what I was doing with this one story “The Darkest Part.” That’s what I did with Mapping the Interior, out here in June. Turns out that all that really does is give a lot more detail to the scary stuff, while making you live in it for a little bit more.

What about young adult? You’ve often mentioned an admiration for young adult literature, so will we be seeing that from you in the future?

Paul Tremblay and me did that Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn’t Fly, from Chizine, and that’s young adult. My Flushboy . . . it sorta kinda maybe counts? But the message at the end isn’t very young-adult-ey, I suppose. Well, unless you believe in love. But, yeah, the other day I stumbled into a pretty cool premise. Not that premises mean anything—it’s about voice, it’s about character. But the characters are starting to take shape around that premise, it feels like. So, who knows. Maybe. I do really dig that genre.

Do you really type hard enough to go through a lot of keyboards?

Yep. Currently got the last broken one behind me in the closet. It’s missing a key or two, but, when this one I’m on now goes down, I can fall back on that not-completely-broken one for the afternoon, anyway, until I can get to Best Buy. I Kickstarted my dream keyboard about a year and a half ago. It was supposed to have been delivered a year ago, I think. But I keep getting updates. Maybe someday the thing’ll be real, and I can hammer words into it.

Too, here’s a good trick I chanced upon. Do a lot of hand-grinding one day, like, really using that wheel up, cutting through stuff you should really be using a torch for, then come inside and immediately start writing. Because your fingers are numb from the shaking, you won’t be able to feel the keys. You remember where they are, though. Then, just watch. When the words fizzle onto the screen, it’s like direct transmission from your brain. You just think it and the words are there. It only lasts a few minutes, but it’s more than worth whatever metal and blades you have to destroy to get those minutes. I’ve also had to write when all my fingertips were destroyed from climbing to the top of a warehouse and trying to ride a rope down. I had to throw that keyboard away, because of all the blood. I’m usually pretty good with blood, but this was all down in the cracks and everywhere. Keyboard kept going, though. I probably should have kept it.

Talking blood: used to, when the only time I had to write was about ten at night until four in the morning, when I’d have to be at work again, the way I figured out to stay awake, to keep from coming-to to eighteen pages of the letter n, it was to get all my knives and balance and wedge them point-up around my keyboard, so that if I nodded off, I’d get woken up immediately. It works, too. You don’t sleep, when sleep means getting a blade shoved into your skull.

 

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.