A career in keeping you scared of the dark

Author Stephen Graham Jones on the whys and hows of horror

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Gary Isaacs

In the personal history section of writer Stephen Graham Jones’ website where he delves into what he’s learned, there’s this little gem: “Art’s a contest, after all: do it better or go home.”

He’s talking about approaching being a writer like carpentry; some stories flow from a place in need of bloodletting, and some simply need to be hammered together. He prides himself on being able to take those assignments and build some furniture. But there’s a remarkable grace that emerges in that process: He’s built a lot of chairs that do a fine job of taking the weight off your feet.

Or, perhaps we should say, inspiring worried over-the-shoulder glances and nightlights in adult bedrooms, because this University of Colorado Boulder professor and veteran writer focuses on horror and dark speculative fiction.

Why?

“I don’t always plan to write horror at all,” he says. “Sometimes I just plan to write a little sweet Chekov story about a guy looking out a window at a girl for 20 years — which sounds a lot more leery than Chekov is I guess — but I get bored two pages in and then I have to have somebody with a machete or a ghost or a monster or something. … What I like about horror is that, I think of all the genres, all the modes of writing, horror is the one that can evoke or elicit a response from the reader that the reader doesn’t want to give.”

The response materializes in that moment in the night when a reader hesitates before turning off the lights.

“A lot of fiction can either insulate itself intellectually or cerebrally, or the reader in the act of reading can kind of say, ‘Put it over here in a safe place,’” he says. “But horror always bleeds through the walls.”

Genre fiction, like horror, gets knocked as pure entertainment — not literary. Jones says otherwise.

“I think literary is something that should refer to the caliber of writing. I do think literary means it’s something you can return to again and again and get more and more,” he says.

To him, that’s as true for Watchmen as it is for Moby Dick.

“I resent the idea that that which gets called literary is only the stuff that doesn’t have werewolves in it,” he says.

Jones has now authored 15 novels and six collections of short stories, his most recent of which is 2014’s After the People Lights Have Gone Off, which he says may be his strongest so far. The collections naturally congeal over the years, he says, as he finds a group that seems to, as he says, “feel like it’s coming from the same person’s set of fears.”

Of course, most of his writing, to varying degrees, shares that common ground of his experiences and his fears.

“My very first collection, Bleed Into Me, is not horror, but I always feel strangely naked when people read that because I am at the center of every story,” he says. “After the People Lights Have Gone Off feels similar because … those are all my fears.”

His stories also draw from his extracurricular interests, like a deep fascination in anthropology. In his short story “Chapter Six,” the zombie apocalypse is analyzed through the eyes of two anthropologists who seize on the opportunity to explore theories of human evolution. Those musings are met with a long night the writer spent lost while driving on Interstate 95 in New England. In some ways, he uses horror as icing on the cake to entice a conversation about something more dry he’d like to discuss — like theories on why humans became bipedal.

The slasher-style Growing Up Dead In Texas plumbs even deeper into his autobiography, drawing from an unsolved crime in a West Texas town he lived in a child. For the novel, he says, he wanted it to “pretend to be nonfiction,” and so asked his nonfiction-writer friends for advice and book recommendations. But the real insight into the nonfiction model that would work for Growing Up Dead came from binge-watching all the episodes of Monster Quest and dissecting that rhythm: “you start with a dramatic recreation and then you go to eye-witness on the porch saying, ‘It was big. It ran past here. I don’t know what it was. I screamed,’ and then you go to some dude in a lab coat and he’s pouring stuff back and forth in his lab and you say, ‘Well, we got some hair. We’re going to do this with it,’ then you go back to another recreation and then you do an interview…” 

Sometimes, he puts himself in a box just to see if the confinement makes the work more interesting, or forces him to learn something, or both.

“For me, real innovation is when you want to get from point A to point H, say, but you don’t want to go through B, C, D, E and all the other letters, so you find the wormhole that will take you from A to H immediately,” he says.

Writing his novel Demon Theory, for example, as a film treatment provided both an effective device for telling that story, and forced him to learn how to write dialogue, something he’d long resisted.

Every novel he’s written has had a different starting point, required a process of its own. Sometimes it rolls together like a snowball headed downhill, he says, sometimes just one line leads off into the darkness and he follows, sometimes it requires an outline or a treatment that builds a map for where he’s going.

Like so many working writers, he says, sometimes where he finds himself… isn’t so great. He spent a recent afternoon writing a 7,000-word story that has a rapidly approaching deadline, arrived at the end, looked back, and thought, “This is just total crap.”

He spent the next two afternoons rewriting the whole thing. Now, he says, it’s actually scary, which means it’s approaching ready to submit. He won’t submit a story until it has scared him, he says. The writing keeps him so on edge that the computer he works at has a rearview mirror above it so he can see if his wife, kids or dogs walk into the room.

“I’d be terrified if they just touched me on my shoulder,” he says.

Jones, now a full professor CU, stumbled into teaching in 2000.

“I never planned on teaching,” he says. “I was going to do manual labor and just write novels.”

But a back injury set him to searching for a desk job, which led to a position at a university library and then one teaching creative writing. It’s good, he says, “I’m liking teaching a lot more than I’m liking hauling refrigerators around.”

In his work with aspiring writers, he says, the trap he sees that catches them most often is that of imitation.

“Where you kind of mature as a writer is where you figure out that you’re not Thomas Pynchon or you’re not Louise Erdrich or you’re not whoever you’re trying to be. You’re your own writer with your own unique voice. It takes a lot of writing — what do people say, like 10 million words or something? — until you stumble on to your voice,” he says. “You’ve got to try out all the wrong ways before you finally find your right way, but that’s the problem. A lot of young writers try out four or five wrong ways and they give up, they’re like, ‘Oh well, I suck, I’m going to go do something else,’ but if they would have tried two or three more ways, they would have circled back around to themselves possibly.”

Even now, he says, he runs into that, like with that piece he recently rewrote. But he had to write that first version to get through to the good one that followed. Knowing when to admit something isn’t working, alongside the persistence to keep after it, is also necessary.

“You can polish something that’s bad until it has the shine of something that’s good, but still you know in its heart it’s hollow,” he says. “A lot of people will work on one story for three years and they get all their hopes pinned on that story. I can’t imagine that. I do a story and if it takes more than a week, then I usually just kick it away because I know something’s broke that I’m not seeing.”

Among the traces of his autobiography that infiltrate his work is that he’s Native American, though he’s worked to avoid being classified by that title.

“My first novel came out and it was dealing with identity politics and tribal issues and sovereignty and all that stuff, and I was really afraid I was going to get pigeonholed as an Indian writer, and I think any time that the audience starts putting an adjective in front of your name, that’s just the first step to dismissing you,” he says. “You just want to be a writer, you don’t want to be any adjective at all — maybe good,” he laughs, “or best-selling.”

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