Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stephen Graham Jones: A Cornucopia of Dark Wonders, Part One

Interview Conducted by Mark McLaughlin

I first learned of the work of Stephen Graham Jones when my friend and frequent collaborator Michael McCarty told me, "You'd love this great book I'm reading – it's a novel called Demon Theory. It has tons of great footnotes."

I was immediately intrigued: a novel with tons of great footnotes? Wouldn't all those footnotes be distracting? I read the book and Michael was right – it was filled with footnotes that were just as entertaining as the body of the novel.

I starting reading more works by Stephen Graham Jones and soon realized: Here was a man of amazing wit and innovation. Each of his stories and novels are unique and inventive, filled with bright insights and midnight terrors. Truly, he is a cornucopia of dark wonders.

Stephen Graham Jones has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Florida State University and is the winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, as well as the Independent Publisher Book Award for Multicultural Fiction. He has served as an associate professor of English at Texas Tech University, and is now a full professor of English at University of Colorado at Boulder.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with him, and here is what he had to say.

MM: Your writing is firmly rooted in both literary circles and the speculative genres. And though you have written horror, you are considered a literary author because of the quality of your work and your strong academic background.

SGJ: I'm considered literary still? Kind of sucks. But I understand, I guess. Only one, maybe two of my books are horror, so the scales tip towards that default 'literary' setting. I hope to remedy this soon, though. Oh, and being a professor, teaching in an MFA program, all that, it doesn't help me slouch out from under that 'literary' trick, yeah? Man. This is the horror story right here. One guy trying to be horror, science fiction, fantasy – even western or romance – but always getting mis-shelved. But. I mean, Samuel Deed laney's done it, right? Brian Evenson? Could be the trick's just to write as best you can, about the stuff that interests you, and tell it however you want to so long as people are reading. Be Joe Lansdale, yeah. That's the goal, always. King's my hero, yeah, but when I aim for stuff, for some way to be down the line, it's Lansdale. Meanwhile, I just keep writing the stuff that interests me, writing it as best I can. And hoping.

MM: How do you feel about the label “horror author”? Our culture does like to label everything for convenience. Would you mind being called a horror author, or seeing your books in the Horror section of a bookstore?

SGJ: I'd be all over it, yeah. But, the labels, yeah, they can be a problem, definitely. Or, from the publisher's perspective, it's marketing, of course, it's targeting an audience, selling them a familiar-enough product. Which I understand – no way am I one of those people who think the market doesn't matter. If people aren't reading you, it's your fault, not theirs. The labels can definitely be a problem, though. Or, they become a problem when they keep somebody only writing within one genre. Because of editorial pressure, yeah, but because you start buying your Wikipedia page too, where it says you write horror. So dies this, I don't know, this One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest story you've got bubbling up the back of your throat. Can I call on Lansdale again, here? If so, then it's him, how he answers when somebody asks what genre he writes in: "The Joe Lansdale genre." That's the way it's got to be for everybody.

MM: You have a new collection of short fiction coming out later this year from Prime Books. In his introduction, Laird Barron says: “The Ones That Got Away is a slippery collection; it resists and gnaws at the bonds of genre, yet may be the most pure horror book I've come across.” Later he adds, “Childhood lost. Youth corrupted is the touchstone, the recurring theme in The Ones That Got Away.”

SGJ: Yeah, when I was putting this one together, trying to figure out the sequence of it all – you can't back-to-back first-person jobs, you can't lump all the present tense stories together, all that – I finally saw what Laird picked up on immediately: that childhood was an important component of the scare here. Completely not on purpose, too. Well, at least accidental in the sense that, yeah, everything I write, I'm probably trying to do King's IT at some level, but when the story voice pops into my head, starts talking, I'm not thinking King. I'm thinking Oh no, I don't want to have to write about this. But I do.

MM: Is the loss of childhood and innocence horrific, or is it simply part of the process of growing up? Is it possible to become an adult without losing one’s innocence…?

SGJ: I'd never considered that, I don't guess. Like you get baptized into another place. I don't know. For me the most magical characters are always the one able to hold on to that innocence, even though they're living in hardly-innocent worlds. But I'm thinking there's not a lot of those trending-to-an-up-ending characters in The Ones That Got Away. Nona, though, in Demon Theory, yeah, she's that. For me, anyway. A Benjy the funhouse can't touch. And Nolan in The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti. Strange. Kind of seems the only way I can cycle a character through a story such that he earns some kind of happy-for-him end, it's to go novel length. Either that or happy endings in short horror fiction often feels too pat, such that it erases the scare it's supposed to impart. Or – wrong word there. 'Inflicted' is what I should say. It's from Evenson: "Truth cannot be imparted, it must be inflicted." Hope I got that right.

But yeah, to get back to the question some: there's a few kids in these stories. Probably because some of the most pure horror I remember, it's being a kid, not really knowing how the world works, sometimes seeing too far into it, and knowing you shouldn't reach your hand across, but closing your eyes and doing it all the same.

Tune in next time for Part Two...

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