A Conversation with Stephen Graham Jones
Toni Jensen: Your recent novel Mongrels is most often discussed as a werewolf novel. And it is that, of course. But what stands out most for me is how your characters are in constant motion and always telling stories. Are there ways in which these two things are connected for you?
Stephen Graham Jones: I’d never thought of it like that. But — well, first, I should say that Mongrels is largely autobiography for me. Which means I can say, second, we were always in motion, all across small-town Texas. So, I’d show up at a different school and need to come up with a different story about who I was, about how I’d got there. It wouldn’t always be straight lies, but it’d be kind of shuffling the true parts around into something that sounded less boring. And, yeah, that’s pretty much how all these werewolf stories are in Mongrels, for sure.
TJ: I’m curious how you came to the form for Mongrels — how you decided, for example, how time would work, how many of the chapters would start with the narrator being put forward as “the reporter” or “the criminal,” which is one of my favorites.
SGJ: For the first hundred pages or so, I wasn’t even writing a novel. I was just looking at werewolves. But I’d already kicked a couple of those flash-fiction kind of chapters up, just spinning my wheels, kind of sketching out what I thought might turn into something else. Then when I noticed things were having a trajectory without me — when I figured out that I could still look at werewolves while some kind of story happened in the background — I figured, sure, I was writing a novel. Okay. Fine. And then I kind of stumbled into seeing that when the long chapters touched, that that made a reader wonder how we got from here to there. So I plugged those short pieces in, and let them kind of develop on their own side-track. Or, an anti-track, kind of.
TJ: As was also the case with your book Growing Up Dead in Texas, no one (or almost no one) is talking about Mongrels as a Native novel. Yet, in both cases, it seems both clear and obvious to me that these are Native novels. Through the characters’ relationships to family, to place, to ideas of “blood” (which can be read in several places as being about blood quantum), to comedic and heartbreaking interactions with law enforcement, these stories can be placed next to ones by James Welch and Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor and the rest. Can you talk a little about your stories in relation to these categories?
SGJ: Yeah, about ten years ago I got tired of people always looking for the “Indian” in my work, so I figured I’d go hang out in the halls of genre instead, where work is judged on its own merit, rather than its authenticity, however that gets defined. If you start playing that game, you never get out, and I don’t think you ever get happy, either. But, at the same time, I can’t quit being Blackfeet. It’s the political space I inhabit. Everything I write is going to be filtered through that. Yeah, I read both Growing Up Dead in Texas and Mongrels as banging into all kinds of Indians-in-America issues and situations. Not solving them — who could? — but definitely easing the steering wheel over a bit, to fix them in the headlights. Some people probably read them as just about tractors and werewolves, though. Which is great with me, of course. It means they’re reading the story, not the story as some dude who’s Blackfeet wrote it.
TJ: Mongrels, like many of your stories, is set in the peripatetic South. How does place, in general, and the South in particular, inform your fiction?
SGJ: I’ll always be writing about West Texas, I figure. It’s the only place I really know well enough to lean over, cut into the dirt, let some ink well up. And, the South just in general ... I don’t know, it just feels right to me. Trucks rusting in the front yard, butane tanks and pump houses and scraggly dogs, and people watching you from the porch, as apt to shoot you as nod hello. It just feels right. It’s West Texas, just, with alligators. Maybe now that I’m up here in Colorado I’ll start writing about the West more. I mean, I’ve been doing it a while, of course, but it always feels like West Texas, at higher elevation, with a dusting of snow.
TJ: You’re a prolific writer of both stories and novels. What are some of the ways working in one form differs, for you, than working in the other?
SGJ: You can muscle a story into working, if you need to. If you’re on deadline, if an editor’s calling. You can come at enough different ways that finally one will work out, and then you push through, get that check. Novels, not so much. Applying muscle to a novel can fix the scene or the chapter you’re in, but way down the road the narrative terrain’s already bunching up against you. That’s a novel you’re going to have to start over or just scrap altogether. Not saying stories don’t require elegance or charm or luck or finesse or art or any of that. They do. Every time, they do. But with a story, the butterfly effect doesn’t get away from you so fast, because you can generally see it all at once. With a novel, you can only see it all at once in accidental flashes. And then you write and write, trying to get that vision down on paper before it fades.
TJ: I’ve most often heard you talk about the revision process as putting work away in a drawer for a while, perhaps even forever. But I also know, from being your student, that you’re very good with working and reworking a sentence. How do you know, at the level of sentence, whether to leave a story alone or go back in and work it over some more?
SGJ: What was it Carver would say? When he’s only tinkering with word order and commas, then that means the story’s done, that he doesn’t need to keep messing with it? Yeah, you can fiddle with the prose forever, and never make it good enough. For me, how I know a piece is done, it’s if it’s providing that emotional release it’s meant to. Then I know the mechanism is working. After that, I just have to fine tune, so it clatters less — so the reader can’t hear the lifters tapping, so the exhaust doesn’t choke them out, all that. But sometimes it’s while messing with the lines that you accidentally read close enough to make the story actually work. So, yeah, when a story’s not working, I’ll generally get under the hood and lose myself in the details. That sometimes lucks me onto that one wrench-turn that lets the whole thing start running like it’s supposed to. Not always, though. Sometimes, you do just have to throw a piece away. You still learned from it, so it wasn’t a waste. You know not to do that again, at least for a while. At least until you’re a better writer.
TJ: If forced to pick one genre in which to work for the next — let’s say five years —one genre and only one, which would you pick?
SGJ: Oh, wow. Can’t I just chew a hand off or something? I don’t know. I guess ... um ... yeah. Crime. I love love love horror, forever and always, and my main goal is to someday be a science fictioneer, but, for five years, starting now, I’d say crime. I can tell a lot of the stories I want to in that genre. And there can be blood, and violence, and funny stuff. Maybe a car chase or three. Definitely a shoot-out, and some hard decisions.
TJ: I’m almost afraid to ask — because the answer is going to shame every writer who reads this, including me — but how many books have you written since Mongrels, and what are you working on now?
SGJ: Since Mongrels ... only two, I guess. My agent told me to stop writing books so fast. So I did. Just one per year, the last two years. A crime novel and a horror novel, and I guess the horror novel is what I’m still writing, as I’m revising it, with help. But I wrote, let’s see ... I wrote one comic book, which is coming out in May, here, and I wrote another four-issue comic, and a screenplay too, that I really like a lot. And about a quadzillion short stories, I guess. What I miss, lately? It’s flash fiction. That’s by far my favorite mode to write in. But, ever since airlines started letting us read our e-readers during liftoff, I no longer have all these ten-minutes boring times. Used to, every trip, I was guaranteed to come back with a few flash fictions. I’d read them right after I wrote them, even. Nowadays, I seem to just read, counting the vertical feet until I can haul my laptop up, get back into the novel or story I’m supposed to be working on. I like getting that work done, don’t get me wrong. But I used to get it done before, too. Just, I’d have stories in all my pockets, written on little napkins.about the author