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Interview: Author Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of 10 novels, 2 short story collections, and so many short stories even he has lost count. He was kind enough to talk to us about his work, both present and future, as well as the state of horror movies and why he doesn’t play video games.

2012 started with Zombie Bake-Off, pushed ahead with Growing Up Dead in Texas and The Last Final Girl, then ended with Three Miles Past. This is not to mention the various short stories and the “craft essays” (my favorite of which, by the way, being “How To Tell a True Horror Story: Cabin in the Woods.”) Was there anything you didn’t do that you wanted to? How much did you put out in 2012? 

SGJ: Yeah, that’s about the sum of it, I guess. I haven’t counted the stories, but I’d guess ten, fifteen? As for what I should have done, what I need to do still: comics, movies. And, am working with an artist now, adapting something to a comic book—she’s so good—and just fielded a call about movie rights to one of my books, so who knows. 2013 could be the year for that kind of fun.

What is the one thing you are most proud of as far as your writing goes?

SGJ: I’ve always been lucky with endings, I think. So I guess I’m proud of them, of that. Of being lucky like that. But of course you write a lot of crash-and-burns to get lucky. And you never expect to get lucky, you always expect this is going to fall apart, that you’re going to muscle through as good as you can and it’s not going to matter at all, you’re still going to have to fake it. But then sometimes when you’re faking it, a magic little accident will happen. You’ll mix some unlikely chemicals in a stupid way and a daisy will grow up from your test tube. And I always insist on having a decent hook line up front. Like this “Easy Money” that just ran. I really go for that kind of stuff, where the hook’s set, the voice established, and a promise is made to the reader just right up front. I always try to do that. Not foreshadow so much as make a deal: if you keep reading, there is going to be a big chrome tyrannosaur, yes. And it might even breathe ice.

What/who are your biggest influences when it comes to your writing?

SGJ: Such a list. I cut my teeth on King, I guess, and still read everything he does. And am floored by it. His way of moving through a story is very natural, and, by now, very confident. But it was always pretty confident, too. Like, he’s one of those writers who writes because he wants to see cool stuff on the page. And you can feel it, you get infected by it. Joe R. Lansdale’s been a hero for a while. Dude does exactly what he wants, and how he wants. And it’s good, it’s solid. It’s scary or it’s touching or it’s funny—it’s whatever he wants it to be, and sometimes all at once. He’s so in control, but at the same time his stories and novels develop so naturally, so right, and are always a surprise. Philip K. Dick, of course. Just because you can feel him holding on in every line, you can sense that he’s trying so hard to make this work.

That everything’s on the line this time. And last time, and next time. It’s sincere, I guess I’m saying. It makes the stories true in a way other writers’ aren’t. I used to be a bigtime Pynchon-file, collecting every tidbit, and still dig his stuff, and find myself sometimes smearing a moment on the page like he can do. But I’m trying to do it less and less. John Barth is an always hero, too. And Percival Everett, he’s got such a light touch, such a smart, instinctive way across the page. And I’m mentioning writers, not books. But books, some of them, man. Love Medicine, A Simple Plan, Knockemstiff, The White Hotel, The Life of Pi, The Things They Carried, The Alienist, Bastard out of Carolina, Angeldust Apocalypse, Jemisin’s Dreamblood books, The Contortionist’s Handbook, Catch-22, A Confederacy of Dunces, A Dirty Job. I guess you could say they all influence me. But they do it by challenging me. By showing me what can be done, if I try hard enough. If I don’t give up. If I get lucky.

 I’m curious, what is your opinion of the age of the re-make when it comes to American horror movies? The reason I ask is that it seems you are able to take existing genres and add something new to them, telling a new and inspired story (Zombie Bake-Off has a whole new swing on zombies; The Last Final Girl, has any horror movie actually acknowledged the “final girl” before?). Is it just a phase that movies are going through, or is it here to stay? And does this bother you at all?

SGJ: Remakes don’t bother me, no, though I do wish some actually-broken horror movies would get the remake treatment, so as to make them better. I mean, granted, we like Intruder or The Prowler for what they are and were, definitely. But they could benefit from an update, too. Not a reimagining, so much, though there’s a place for that, sure. I dig the new Sorority Row more than the old one, I mean, and I’m glad it’s baptizing a whole new audience. Same with My Bloody Valentine. The trick with it all, though, it’s that a big part of the scare factor of those eighties slashers, it’s the low production values. The bad acting, the weak writing, shooting it in your parents’ backyard. All of that combines to make us, the audience, have to just lean way forward into the story to believe. Because we want this to work; we’re participating in the production. And, that leaning, it leaves our necks so vulnerable. A good story can come down fast, then, really get to us, leave our heads on the floor in that good way. When you remake that same movie but slick it up, though, then it’s something happening on-screen, up there, removed from us, a safe distance away, and it isn’t something we have to trick ourselves into believing. It’ll look good, no doubt. But it might not scare us the same way. Still, Chainsaw 3D’s this Friday. I’m there.

SYW: A great deal of your books are horror stories, and another group fall into Native American tales, both stories equally well done. Do you find that you enjoy writing one more than the other? Do you find yourself going back and forth as far as the story that wants to come out?

SGJ: I wish I could plan, but, I mean, aside from those, there’s just straight literary kind of stuff. And then just weird stuff. And Weird stuff. And a truckload of flash. I never really know when I sit down, though. The stories just happen. And they cross over, of course. I mean, the literary with everything, hopefully, as literary’s really an adjective, but this story I just have in Prairie Schooner right now, it’s got horror, and ‘Indian.’ Same with this story that ran in Stymie a while back. To me, they’re all Indian, I guess. Some of them just kind of put it up front, and hinge on it in some way. All the others assume it, though.

 I have to ask because I, too, am a huge horror movie fan; what are your favorites? Is there one type you prefer?

SGJ: Slasher’s my favorite, by far. Growing Up Dead in Texas? Can you tell it’s shaped like a slasher? Writing one right now that’s also a slasher-by-shape. And also by content. But not by style. My favorite horror monster, though, that’s the werewolf. I love love love werewolves, can talk about them forever. Zombies rock as well, and zombie stories are so fun to write. When you do it right, the real focus is on the people. Which you don’t get as automatically with werewolves or slashers. Or ghosts and demons, either. But ghosts and demons and possession stuff, they absolutely terrify me. Paranormal Activity, Exorcist, Emily Rose, all of them. I think I dig slashers because they’re kind of the cartoons of the horror world. It’s all exaggeration and animation, with a whole lot of gore, and no small amount of comedy. They’re not a scare you take home, but a thrill you experience. I so prefer that. Being able to turn off the lights, I mean.

SYW: Any essential tips you’d give aspiring writers? Any newer writers you’ve got your eye on?

SGJ: Adam Cesare’s tearing it up, if you ask me. That Video Night of his Samhain just published is hot. As for tips, the best I can recycle is that old Bradbury one: write a story a week, and keep it in the mail. You’re setting yourself up for loserdom if you massage each story for six months, then pin all your happiness to it getting it accepted in one place. Just keep kicking them out and kicking them out, and never go back to them. You get better with each one, and once you start getting better, the acceptances and invitations will come.

New Years resolutions?

SGJ: I really need to understand games. Just any kind. From pinball to video games, they’ve all always eluded me. Just, why people do them. I’ve tried to play Zelda and a few others, and various board-stuff—I guess Settlers kind of took, for a few months—but I never can figure out what the point of the game is. I always realize very soon into a game that I’m just popping the dice on Trouble, or Sorry, whichever one it is. Or that I’m just sitting there on a couch pushing a button. I guess guilt’s a big part of it, too. Unless I’m reading or writing, I tend to feel like I’m wasting air. More, though, I never feel like I win when I win a game.

I feel like I’ve completely wasted X hours. Unless it’s Trivial Pursuit, where I can at least fool myself that it was educational. But I guess I do really like those games that shock you when you mess up. I’ll mess up just over and over and over, and keep playing until everybody goes home, their hair just smoking. But, even watching basketball, I never care who wins or loses. I just want to see some cool plays. D&D, though, I love love love me some D&D. Nearly failed out of college playing it, even. I think I love it for the same reason I write: I get to be that character. Which is a leap I can never make with other games, quite. Video- or otherwise. And that’s something I need to . . . I don’t know: correct? address? come to terms with? The whole rest of the world loves games, I mean. Why can’t I? The only problem with this, I guess, is that I’m pretty happy not playing games. I get a lot of reading and writing done. So I feel like I’m already winning.

Cover of Sterling City, © Boden Steiner

What does 2013 hold for Stephen Graham Jones? Should we assume the output will match/exceed 2012? I’ve seen a little bit about Flushboy, what is that one about?  Also, I read somewhere you had Zombie Sharks With Metal Teeth coming out this year through Lazy Fascist. I know I’ve read that short story, is this a collection that will be coming out, or something else?

SGJ: Yep, that’s the title story for a collection. Of stuff that synopsizes in a complicated ways. Like, “Private eye is on the case of a man living in the shell of a giant moon lobster” [story’s at Pank]. That’s the kind of stuff that’s always going on in my head. Now it’ll be on the page, all in one place. And, yep, Flushboy, from Dzanc. It’s the tragic, tragic, secretly-happy story of a sixteen-year-old kid working the window of his father’s drive-through urinal, and trying to find love. There’s also a young-adult novel I wrote with Paul Tremblay, Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn’t Fly, from ChiZine’s ChiTeen. It’s about this floaty boy, who meets this girl who can’t seem to fly. And there’s also The Gospel of Z, hopefully. Would say the excellent publisher, but I hate to jinx it before the contract’s inked. And a novella Sterling City, from Nightscape, who just did that Three Miles Past. Got another Boden Steiner cover for that one, and I’m completely in love with that cover.

The novella’s a giant-caterpillar story. I probably wrote it right around the time of The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti (which, related to above, is me trying to understand video games). And, there’s supposed to be this kind of halfway follow-up to Growing Up Dead in Texas, Washed in the Blood. Well ‘follow-up’ in the sense that it’s the same West Texas, and it comes after GDTx, not before. I mean, after in our years, not theirs. And it’s so, so violent. Gloriously violent. Lots of bowhunting. More than a few animals die. Too, it’s got maybe my second favorite opening chapter I’ve ever done—tied with Gospel of Z anyway. Well, tied for second after the one I just did on the last day of 2012, which I think is probably going to change the world, whether the world wants to be changed or not. It’s changed mine already, anyway.

Interview: Author Stephen Graham Jones

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