Wonderbook Interview with Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is an American writer who writes both stories and novels. His recent books include The Ones That Got Away and Growing Up Dead in Texas. Jones has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and Black Quill Award, as well as a winner of the Texas Institute of Letters Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in fiction. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Asimov’s SF Magazine, Weird Tales, and multiple best-of-the-year compilations.

What role does nightmare or dream play in your work?

I have all kinds of nightmares, and sometimes all a story is is writing that down, trying to make the feel of it real on the page. I tend to do serial dreams, too, where my head’s playing these games with me, such that I don’t see the real key or whatever until night three or four. It’s kind of cool, but it also makes me aware there’s a room in there somewhere that I don’t know about. A place to hide stuff. No, a place I do hide stuff, so I don’t hear the punchline too early. I’m good at fooling myself, I guess. I’m a very willful believer. And I’ve always kind of thought that’s my secret weapon when it comes to fiction writing. I can completely turn off the editor, the internal critic, and just believe in the story, whether I’m reading it or writing it. It’s probably why I like to listen to loud fast music when I write: it distracts a large part of my brain, so I can quit thinking, just write. So, yeah, sometimes I have to fake that make-believe superpower. But it’s just as real, I think. For me, writing’s all about turning my head off.

Your work ranges from providing a kind of comfortable entry to the uncanny for the reader to the highly surreal or bizarre. Do you differentiate between the kinds of stories you tell, and how does that affect what you’re thinking about when you write them?

I often don’t know how far a story’s going to go into the strange or the gory or the dark, no. My first responsibility, or task, it’s always just to find the right voice, the right angle of inflection, the right tone to allow me to truck on-stage whatever exposition I’m going to be needing to make the story make sense. Once I’ve got that, then, I have to make the character or characters real, engageable, make him or her or them somebody the reader doesn’t just identify with or empathize with, but somebody the reader can root for, even if they don’t really want to. And, at the same time, the dramatic line has to start just right away. We’re no longer in the mode of fiction where you can introduce your character for a couple of pages then plug them into the story. Nowadays, voice and character and action all start at once. So, what I’m doing, usually, is trying to keep all that in the back of my head, while at the front, I’ve got to try to just make this entertaining. I’ve got to provide hooks for the reader to want to bite on. Which is a lot to juggle, yeah. But, I mean, you write a couple hundred stories, and it gets to be instinct, such that you don’t have to think about it. You just know when it’s not working. And then, my job, it’s just to follow the natural unfolding of the piece. And sometimes it goes dark and strange, and sometimes it’s sentimental and sappy. My inclination, too, it’s towards the sentimental, the precious. So I’ve always kind of wondered if I don’t turn to the dark and scary as some kind of overcorrection.

Leaving aside the question of what readers will accept or not accept, what are your thoughts as a writer on the idea of “the rate of strangeness”? Which is to say, the typical writing advice regarding non-mimetic fiction is that you can only have so many odd elements before the whole narrative becomes unmoored and the reader becomes disinterested.

I’m all for each sentence escalating wildly over the last, strange-wise. It’s probably why I like bizarro stuff. Just the constant escalation. However, what we’ve got to remember, when writing it, is that it all swirls around some emotional core, which is what the reader can engage, if you’re doing things right. And that humor is always the trick for releasing pressure, from stopping the crazy escalations from just spiraling up into space. Humor resets us each time, allows us to start the escalation all over.

To what extent are your stories dark mysteries? Do you ever think of them that way? That they are explorations of the mysterious? And if so, does that affect how you structure them?

I think every story in the Western tradition is basically a mystery, and, for me, going down dark roads with those just makes sense, as those kinds of extreme places are where the characters are most bare, most naked. However, I have a lot of respect for stories that can be light and can be light without feeling guilty for not reaching for more. There’s a lot to be said for a one-read, clever joke of a story. They’re a lot more difficult than most people think.

To what extent is your work autobiographical, even if the reader can’t perceive it except as something at the limits of their vision? How does this affect the stories, from your perspective?

For me, they’ve all been autobiographical. In just about each piece I’ve read, the inciting incident–the reason I wrote the story, I mean, not the thing that kicks off the adventure–it’s something directly from my life. And it’s usually some fear, whether it be of dark closets or of things I could fall into doing if left unchecked.

Can you describe your writing process—what’s usually in the rough draft and what’s not?

My rough drafts and my final drafts tend to be the same thing, save for some sentence recalibrations. I rarely have the patience to go back into something that’s not working; I’d much rather just write a new piece on the chance it can work. I do very little rehab, I mean. And I don’t mind just leaving a story to die in a folder. I mean, I learned something from it: don’t do that again, dude. So it’s not like it’s been a waste of time. And I’ve never been nervous about running out of words. Only thing I’m nervous about, it’s running out of time.

Even if you don’t outline, do you perhaps have some idea of structure that you visualize? Can you see the story in your mind structurally? What does that look like? (Sometimes writers have told me they see structure or narrative design as something kind of floating and revolving in their heads.)

Only once, with this one book Ledfeather. I couldn’t get it to make sense in whatever non-visual way I usually do, so I had to draw a picture of a series of seven bubbles, the last being large, the first one pretty small, but the first one being the point-of-origin, the first bubble, the one that gave birth to the bubble larger than it. Which, assuming similar wall-thickness and amount of soap for each of these bubbles, seems impossible, yes? But still, when I think of that novel, that’s exactly how it’s structured. I guess it’s kind of like a plant, yes? It grew from this one tiny impossibly seed. But the whole plant, it was in there. That’s how Ledfeather was and is for me. But it’s the only one. For others I’ve had to construct timelines and charts and family trees and stuff, but that’s all just mechanics, not conception, not shape.

How does the inexplicable inform your fiction?

I’d like to think it’s the dynamo at the center of it all, the improbability engine of whatever that is that generates all the power. I mean, I don’t see any other reason to write, other than that you’re trying to make the world make sense, that you’re trying to contain reality in words, trying to give it form with story. But built into that is that the world is fundamentally a mystery. Inexplicable. But that’s no reason to stop trying to explain it, to carve into it with fiction.

What does the word “ambiguity” mean to you as a fiction writer?

Ambiguity’s good, as it can double meaning, but a lot of people call their own vagueness of unwillingness to commit ‘ambiguity,’ and that pretty much sucks. Similarly, a lot of writers can get so ‘subtle’ that they think they’re being ambiguous, but really they’re just losers, and we can all see.

Are there specific writers from whom you’ve stolen techniques? If so, who, and what precisely did you steal?

I completely ripped off Philip K. Dick’s voice-change mid-Radio Free Albumuth for Ledfeather. And with the Bunnyhead Chronicles I’m having fun pilfering famous opening lines to use as my own, and I did write the first of those write after re-reading Dracula and Frankenstein, so the epistolary delivery was definitely something I absconded with. For Growing Up Dead in Texas I co-opted non-fiction techniques, which was a heady kind of rush, though I can’t name anything more specific than MonsterQuest. I don’t think anybody’s doing that camera-angle-with-arrows trick I keep doing (Demon Theory, Zombie Bake-Off, The Last Final Girl); though of course there’ve been a lot of books before and after that pull of some funsy cinematic fiction, using techniques I’ve yet to get interested in swiping. What I am very interested in getting my hands on, however, is Scott Smith told A Simple Plan. That’s a rarely-magical book, I think, and there’s more going on than we realize, just because it’s doing it so well. But someday. Someday.

What kind of life do your characters have beyond the page? Nabokov used to say something to the effect that the idea of a character coming to life would be as ridiculous as saying a potted plant in the setting had come to life. 

I never do character cards or bios or any of that, and I’d have to agree with Nabokov about it all. However, the reason I always kick out novels so fast, it’s not deadlines or any of that, it’s that my potted plants do keep coming to life. And that’s terrifying, each and every time out. Seriously, a week or two into a novel, I tend to lose that handy dividing line between fiction and whatever else there is, and I say things to my wife that I realize don’t work in this world, because I’m talking to somebody else about something else. And I expect to see my characters at the gas station. Like, I just assume they’re there, and I catch myself driving away, wondering what they were doing there and only later think to remind myself that they’re fake. It’s completely uncomfortable and also the only way I know to do it.

How much do your stories change in the telling of them, and do you often wind up someplace very different than you expected?

I nearly always wind up somewhere different, yeah. Definitely with stories because they’re so short why bother to map them out, just throw them away when they end up broken, but with novels too. Take Ledfeather again, say. The whole time writing it, I was constructing it all towards one end, I thought. Except then, at the end, a completely different  and, to me, magical  thing happened, that undid all what I’d been doing but in the best way, in the way that saved a story I didn’t even realize was breaking. It feels so lucky when that happens. And, write enough, and it happens more than not. Trick is, you just can’t expect it to always happen. You have to always be willing to throw stuff away, too.

Do you often experiment with where to begin and end scenes for best effect? What have you learned as a result?

I’ll try on different ways to tell a scene, yeah. But it’s rarely if ever about where to stop and start. That’s always, like, pre-formed, I guess. But the angle to deliver this scene, that takes a lot of trying, usually. My first instinct is usually to deliver an interrogation hours later, via some VHS tape, so I can layer in the responses of the people watching it. But then I’ll also want a dramatic line for that later viewing, which will necessitate, I don’t know, a pizza delivery, a wrong call, and a thunderstorm. Except then, after doing this all wonderful and perfect, it’ll be so obvious to me that I’ve buried the interrogation, which is the real focus. At which point I strip away all the wrapping paper. And, usually, the interrogation is right there, pristine. And, the reason for that, it’s that I wasn’t paying attention to it, I was too distracted with the pizza box getting wet in the rain, and who was making eyes at who, and why. It’s the same way poets can use form as baffle, so the ‘real’ poem can slip through the sestina or villanelle unharmed. I often feel that’s how genre works: it provides a shape I have to contort within, and try to do something in. So, while I’m paying attention to contours and conventions, the little pearl of story kind of sneaks through, still shiny.

How do you approach the issue of pacing in revision? Is it something you think about, in terms of both the basics of whether a particular scene is as slow or fast as you want it to be (in terms of possible reader perception)—and perhaps more advanced considerations?

I tend to take care of pacing issues the first time through. Just by being brutal, trying to cut everything but the absolutely necessary. Then the pacing tends to fall in place. Which isn’t to say that, if I’m writing an action story, say, I’m not aware that we need an explosion and a stunt every X amount of pages. But, when I’m writing in action-mode, then it’s like my fingers know that without me. I don’t have to remind myself to blow something up. Stuff’s already blowing up left and right. I just have to try to make it all make some kind of sense.

On the page, what are the worst ways that a talented writer can self-sabotage or self-betray?

By indulging him- or herself. By assuming that, because they like this stuff going on on the page, the reader will too. By ever writing with any sense of authority. By ever pretending that what they’re doing’s for the good of anybody but them. By ever making a story move just because it’s clever or makes them look smart.

What’s the worst type of writing advice, about the art of it, that you’ve seen, and why?

Worst advice I’ve heard is that if you write it well enough, that’s all that matters. It’s just a lie. History’s not going to discover you, put you on a pedestal. The world’s not going to come to you just because you’re this rare talent, just because you’ve cultivated this craft to some high level. Your job as a writer, it’s to write as well as you can, sure, but even moreso, it’s to actually connect with an audience. I’m not talking reading tours or social media, either, but writing an actual story that people will actually want to read, and writing it in a way that they can read, that they want to read. It seems so obvious, yet so often I hear people saying that it’s about the Art, that the Art is all that matters, that if the expression is valid then the work is complete, that even if nobody reads the piece, then the piece still has integrity, that it still matters. It doesn’t. Fiction like that’s worthless, is worse than worthless, because it took time to write in which you might could have written something that actually mattered. I’m typing very hard now. My keyboards tend to fall apart a lot.

Is there an issue related to writing that’s been on your mind lately. If so, what is it, and why has it preoccupied you?

I’m ridiculously sick of people writing topical stuff and getting attention for it. Maybe “jealous,” sure, but it feels like sickness. Like it’s eating me away from the inside. And I’m even more sick of people saying that the rules of grammar are optional, that if the reader understands it, then that’s good enough. Wrong. Good enough is doing it right not being stupid and blaming it on the reader if they don’t get it. I’m also quite sick of boring books getting good sales. It’s something I just can’t wrap my head around. When I read, it’s to be taken somewhere exciting, somewhere fantastic, somewhere better. Not to go walk down the same streets I walk every day. I can do outside and do that. What I can’t do, though? Go to Narnia. Fly to Jupiter. Fight a werewolf. Shoot a pulse rifle. Time-travel. With a book, though, I can do all of that and more. And over and over. Why anybody would ever willingly elect to read boring stuff instead, I don’t know; it leaves me lost. I mean, I could fault their imagination muscles, or their tolerance for otherness, I guess, but I also think that any explanation that blames the reader is really just the writer admitting he can’t cut it on the page and trying to turn the blame around. What I want, I guess, is just to understand what’s so interesting about stuff without cyborgs and werewolves and elves and swords in it. Because, if I do understand it, then I can steal it out, smuggle it back to epic fantasy, to westerns, and maybe bring all those readers over to the good side of life.