On being constantly receptive and the power of raw imagination
Photo Credit: 
Gary Isaacs

". . . choose writing. Over television, over the bar, over everything but family and health."

LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Stephen, you grew up in a small Texas town, Stanton, between Big Spring and Midland. What was that like and how do you suppose that experience influenced your writing?


STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: Stanton, clocking in at three thousand people, was actually the big town closest to us, out in Greenwood, which isn’t on the map as we never had a post office, or a town, any of that. Lots of farmland, though. Lots of houses and trailers out in the pastures. Lots of oil pumps. I grew up playing in and on all of it. Sneaking out to a friend’s house at night, it meant crossing a pasture for thirty minutes. I figure the way growing up out there like that impacted my writing was that I always had to imagine stuff. Like, some afternoons in elementary, I’d go out into the pasture with just a two-foot piece of pipe or something, then find some berm of sand, some overhang of a washout, and I’d spend hours just carving out places for people I’d dreamed to live and have adventures. Writing novels, it’s not so different.


Did you always enjoy writing? Did you think you might be a writer “when you grew up"?


Ever since Where the Red Fern Grows in fourth grade, I knew I could hang a rusted lantern on an ax-head like that, yeah. Never dreamed I’d be doing it like I am now, though. I mean, I never had any plan, but I never had to. When you grow up farming and working, you figure out pretty quick that being grown up, it’s pretty much just going to be more of that. I figured I’d graduate high school, lease a tractor, get a trailer to park out in some pasture, and then I’d work all day, maybe write at night if I could get the energy. Writing was always just play, though. It was never work. And, yeah, it makes me some money now, but, still, I have a hard time calling it work. Really, it’s how I avoid work.


What were some of your favorite authors and books growing up?


Louis L’Amour was very central. All the Conan-stuff I could find. And any kind of science thriller. I couldn't get enough of that. Still can't. I really dug a lot of Michael Crichton, and Greg Bear, his science is thrilling as well. And comic books, of course. I found my first one in fourth grade, on the round-rack at a gas station on the way into Midland. I was hooked for life.


How did your first break as a writer come along?


Probably at my dissertation defense at FSU, when one of my committee said he’d like to publish this. What did I think?


Sherman Alexie has commended your approach as a Native American writer and the broadening perspective you bring. As a Blackfeet Native American author, how do you feel about the Native American perspective in Texas literature?


I know that Texas has always been pretty proud of having run all the Indians out of Texas. So, there really hasn’t been that much Texas/Indian stuff, I don’t guess. Or, there’s a lot, but it’s all stuck back in history, which is where America’s most comfortable with the Indian being.


What first attracted you to horror writing, and are there nuances and sub-genres that the novice reader should know about in this genre?


I clearly remember one of the first horror stories I wrote, in the late nineties, after I'd been trying "literary" fiction for a while already. And it was so, so liberating. I could just decapitate a character if he was giving me grief. Which—I don’t mean to simplify horror down to that—that’s just what it felt like, my first time out. Instead of heaving to deal with what-all this character was dragging into the story and smearing around, I just cut his head off, and let the crew then deal with that. But I’d always been into horror, from as far back as I can remember. And horror still scares me. My own horror, if it doesn’t scare me first, then I don’t send it out. And, I watch and read all the horror I can, sure. But it’s at a price. Of my sleep. I never understand when horror writers say that, because they can see the mechanism, they can no longer feel the scare. Me, I feel the scare every time. I wouldn’t write horror if I didn’t.


You’ve been an academic in writing programs in both Texas and Colorado—as a genre writer. How is that experience different from academic authors who might specialize in literary fiction or creative non-fiction?


Guess it’s only been different because all the genre students, they tend to gravitate to me. Which makes sense. But I never really feel left out or anything. Sure, there’s been a divide between commercial and non-commercial fiction for a long time, and genre very intentionally falls under commercial, as it wants to move units, while academic tends to go non-commercial—I hesitate to use "literary" as people do—and, yeah, saying there’s a divide is kind of pretending there’s no enmity and resentment there, from both sides, but I don’t let it grind me up, anyway. I just keep writing and publishing. In the academy, that’s the right answer to about every question.


How have writing students changed since you’ve been teaching, or have they? How has publishing changed since you started writing?


Students have changed radically in my fifteen years at the front of the classroom. My first two or three years—my first eight or nine, more like—I’d always put a requirement on my workshop syllabus that the student submit at least one genre piece, to be assigned randomly. Back-when, maybe a third or even half of the class would balk at this. I even had a few students get up, walk out. Which was fine. It meant I could let people in off the waitlist. That kind of prejudice is pretty much gone now, though. I don’t have to put that requirement on my syllabus anymore. The students come in already wanting to write about pirates and zombies and space-pirate zombies with elf swords. It’s pretty cool. However, it all starts with craft, with sculpting sentences, with presenting believable characters, with pacing things into a page-turner, with giving the reader some kind of emotional rush at the end. And that’s what I try to teach, no matter what the student’s reading and writing tastes might be.


And, yeah, publishing, it's hardly recognizable from what it was fifteen years ago. Sea-change indeed. About forty-six of them. Not just e-books and piracy, but the whole model. What hasn’t changed, though, is that a good story can still go far. It all starts with you alone in some room, trying to get a feeling down the right way on paper, such that someone else can feel it. Sure, we may be dropping those pages into an industry that’s in flux, but flux, that at least means active, right? Active and growing, and changing, adapting, I like to think. Alive.


I’m excited for what’s happening, too. I strongly suspect video games are already cross-pollinating with the novel. Not only sneaking new DNA into its form, but they're retraining the audience, on a different kind of story. The novel, then, it’s going to have to adapt if it wants to survive. I think it will, don’t get me wrong, I don't think that sky’s falling, but I do wonder whether I’ll be part of the new thing or not, since I don't videogame. The train might stop, let me off at a station, then just keep moving along, into the distance. I’ll be one of many on that platform, and we’ll all be pretty satisfied with ourselves for having elected to get off here. But, standing still, I don’t know. That’s not how you change the world, is it? And novels, they’re made to do that, to change the world. So, yes, the way things are changing, it’s thrilling definitely, but it can be scary, too. The fun stuff always is.


You’re known as one of the most productive writers around, turning out story after story, book after book. What’s your writing process like?


It’s just being constantly receptive, I think. For voice. Not something I hear on the streets necessarily, but something that kind of wells up on accident—often in response to something I hear in line at Burger King, sure. Like, a couple of days ago, I’m flying back from the Texas Book Festival, I’ve got my bag of work to do for this flight, work that, if I do it now, means I won’t have to stay up late later doing it. But then I hear a voice, speaking a story. So I try to just jot it down, save it for later, when I’ve got time. But it keeps talking, so I just give up, pop my laptop open, reduce the zoom way down so everybody around me can’t read what I’m writing, and I lean into the story, have it done by touchdown. To me, writing, or, living being a writer, it’s about . . . well, I think you write the same way you maybe read Harry Potter when you were three or four books in: in line at the bank, stopped in traffic, walking down the hall. It’s rare for me to ever get three straight hours for writing, these days. But I can string together forty or fifty five-minute sessions, sure. Sometimes that becomes a story, or a novel, or a script. And then it calls for the creation of even more fiction, as I have to make up excuses for why I’m late to here or there.


If you had one piece of advice to give to aspiring writers, what would it be?


Read outside your genre. Keep a weather eye on the best-seller lists. Don’t talk bad about any book you haven’t read. And, finally, obviously, choose writing. Over television, over the bar, over everything but family and health. Don't wait to write until the end of the day if you can help it, either. If you really believe in fiction, then why not give it the good part of your brain, right? More and more, the older I get—I’m forty-three, now—I’m finding that the good part of my brain is used up faster and faster, by the busy-ness of life. Or maybe life’s just so much more busy now. But, if I can wake up, slam a few pages down, then the rest of the day, it's that much easier to get through. It’s just what I have to do to get tired enough to sleep, so I can wake again, slam down a few more pages.


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Praise for Stephen Graham Jones's work

“My hat is off to Stephen Graham Jones, because he is the kind of author that makes the frustrated writer inside every book reviewer cringe with self-doubt.” —PopMatters


“Jones has exploded the conventional rhythms of novelistic narrative.” —Austin Chronicle


“Gripping moments of horror are expertly rendered, flashes of spot-on hilarity provide depth as well as levity, and the flickering humanity of the characters will resonate powerfully with readers.”

Publishers Weekly


“Jones’s mastery of reader manipulation is finely edged as he moves readers around the vast dreamscape of his prose and shows them how quickly the so-called banality of existence can become horrific.” —Foreword Reviews


Stephen Graham Jones is the author of twenty-five or so novels and collections, and there’s some novellas and comic books in there as well. Stephen’s been an NEA recipient, has won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Fiction, the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, a Bram Stoker Award, four This is Horror Awards, and he’s been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. He’s also made Bloody Disgusting’s Top Ten Horror Novels, and is the guy who wrote Mongrels and The Only Good Indians. Stephen lives in Boulder, Colorado.