Growing Up Dead In Texas: An Interview with Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones

In Growing Up Dead in Texas, a novel billed as part mystery and part memoir, Stephen Graham Jones goes back to his hometown of Greenwood, Texas to investigate a fire that torched the town’s cotton a quarter of a century ago, when Jones was only twelve. He takes his reader with him, back to West Texas of 1985, and relives a story about farming and basketball, about secrets and graveyards, about Hot Wheels and ghosts (albeit not in their usual form).

Anyone who’s been through West Texas knows you can’t go through without taking a little bit of the land with you, but Jones shows us what it’s like to have grown up there and have to take it all with you, even if you get out in time. And his West Texas is one where fistfights and heartbreak are often the order of the day—a necessary via dolorosa for a young man growing up there—and in his novel all scars are eventually accounted for, one way or another.

But did the fire ever even happen? In the novel’s preface, Jones writes: “Fiction’s always been my camouflage, the lie I hide behind, hoping no one will recognize that kid in the diner […]” And sometimes that “lie” is no more than a single changed letter. So how much of it’s real, how much fiction? How much mystery, and how much memoir? It doesn’t matter. Like the narrator says, “Sometimes life, it is a story.” And what really matters in Growing Up Dead in Texas—a novel where the author is not only the narrator but also a character, and the metafiction is handled with extreme sincerity—is how much telling this story means to its author. With his latest novel, Stephen Graham Jones turns a narrative lens on West Texas like a magnifying glass, holds it there until the ground starts to smolder, and shows us how much the story means to him: everything.

Matthew Treon: Alright, just to get this question out of the way upfront: Does it even matter to you where the line between non-fiction and fiction falls in this novel? Or with fiction (as a writer or reader) in general, for that matter?

Stephen Graham Jones: That line never matters to me, nope. And I completely believe you can have an authentic investigation of an event that never happened. The same as you could go back in a novel to 1947, say, and interrogate everybody in Roswell. With fiction—and Growing Up Dead in Texas, to me, it’s a novel, not a memoir—what you’re going for, it’s never accuracy. The facts only hem you in, leave you with no shoulder room. But I don’t want to be so grand as to suggest ‘truth’ is what fiction’s always reaching for either. What fiction is writing towards, when it’s real, it’s a kind of persistent, insistent allegiance to a feeling, and, importantly, one that’s spilling over, one you can’t contain anymore. So you have to write, you have to find a way to trap this in something made-up, give it an appealing dramatic wrapper. But no, fiction’s not about this pasture being here, that fence starting there, it’s about rendering the emotional landscape of a place, of an experience, of a life, and doing it in such a particular way that it becomes real for the reader. Once it becomes real, the feeling kind of gets smuggled across, sneaked through, left behind. And your lies, they’re the delivery system. Without them your loyalties—I’m talking about the writer here—get all cross-wired. And when that happens, the story tends to fail.

MT: You wrote this book in thirteen weeks, but have said you might have also been writing it for thirty years. When you sat down to start, was it like busting open some bedrock and finding the characters and stories in there all calcite-like, crystallized and just waiting to be polished? Or was it more like sifting through loose dirt, matching up bits of fragmented fossils, piecing together as you went what it was you were even discovering?

SGJ: Every novel for me, it’s busting open that bedrock, finding some huge crystal cave, dancing my weak beam of yolky light across and finding this cave goes forever. And, especially this time. The whole way through, I kept being absolutely certain that anybody who’s read just about any of my other stuff, they’d see that this book, it’s been the skeleton the whole time. But there was a lot of sifting, too. Always is. Just because I hardly ever have any idea where a story’s going to go. Even when I try to write a murder mystery, the killer never ends up being who I thought I was writing towards. Ledfeather’s the book that really taught me to embrace this (okay, Demon Theory too)—or, to always gamble. Sure, the end might blow up, erase all your two or four months’ work. But it might make it mean something, too. If you’re lucky, and don’t over think, just lie your way in.

MT: One of the coolest things about this novel is how you show that a particular truck or gun or even a Hot Wheels car can carry with it a defining part of a person’s life. And that a house—or entire town for that matter—full of those little histories can start to define a person. How much of writing this book felt like you were breaking yourself down into the integral parts? 

SGJ: That Hot Wheels car’s one of the real things. Or, I guess it’s all real, just some of the people are kind of fake. But not really. Anyway, I didn’t feel like I was breaking my younger self down, so much, as just going back to that time. I have so, so few photographs from back then, but I wish I had them all. Instead, I thought I’d just write my own photo album, I guess. With no pictures. And, now that I think about it, the first story I ever had published, in 1994, I think, this undergrad in-department magazine, it was about a guy looking through a dusty photo album. I’ve had so many head-hits, though, and I think I file memories very poorly besides—I associate them with tastes, and smells, never with dates or events—that whenever I chance upon some picture I’m in from the late seventies or early eighties, I always look at that kid, and kind of wonder what he’s thinking. I wonder if I’m even in that picture or not. If Growing Up Dead in Texas comes from anywhere, that’s it, I think. About twelve years ago, I found about eight old pictures of me from back then, stole them from this shoe box that wasn’t mine. No, this was 1995. Anyway, I put them in a brown envelope, swore to keep them forever, that they were proof of who I was, that I wasn’t some alien construct sent here with implanted memories, or that the world wasn’t re-ordering itself each time I closed my eyes. But then I lost them almost immediately. Everything I write, I keep thinking it’s just me, looking for that envelope. I want a map back to myself someday, I mean. Already I’m a stranger to my first few books, can’t even imagine the person who did them. And someday Growing Up Dead in Texas will be the same. I can’t imagine writing, working any way else, really. You put your heart and your brain on the page, and it tends to stay there.

MT: Anyone familiar with your work will recognize some references the narrator of Growing Up Dead in Texas makes to some of your other stories/novels, and will maybe even see the real-life-roots they sprouted from. And if they aren’t familiar, if this is maybe the first book of yours they’re hitting, the inevitable desire to parse fact from fiction will be there all the same. How important do you feel this kind of reader participation is to a book like this one?

SGJ: That’s key, yeah. And, for Growing Up Dead in Texas to work, I think, it has to work to the readers new to my stuff. That it’s cross-pollinated with all my other books, that’s just something I couldn’t help, something happening all on its own. To me, all my books are the same book, really. All my stories are just one story. Because I’m trying so hard to just be one person, I think. I mean, the way all of us do that, it’s with narrative, it’s with a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. That’s how identity persists. But, yes, I was aware of this while writing it. And that I could mislead people who knew my stuff—mislead them in what I hope’s a pleasurable way. If the reader expects X but will grudgingly accept Y if you write it well enough, then give them J or something. It makes you have to write so much harder, so much better. You have to reach so much deeper into yourself for something that won’t just work, but will be elegant, and—this is so important—will be an extreme risk. So many writers play it safe with endings. But the reader never wants that. Or, no, they always expect it, but they want to be undercut. And doing that in an uncheap, earned way, that’s where the artists get separated from the artisans. 

MT: The way the mystery element of this book plays out, it’s almost like you’ve said: Here we go, we’re gonna try to figure this thing out, and we might not get to the bottom of everything, but it’s not the end-tie-up that matters, it’s all the loose ends that got frayed along the way that we should really be looking at. Was that almost a purposeful subversion of the mystery element? Or even an approach to exploring how real life never really gets wrapped up the way an author has the power to in a novel? Or was it just something that happened along the way?

SGJ: I did want to bring the reader along on the investigation, definitely. It’s the only way to get them to engage the mystery, care about whether it’s solved after all this time. But I was consciously shaping this like non-fiction, too—or, my rough estimation of how non-fiction’s shaped. And, all the documentaries I watched, trying to figure the form out, I kept seeing over and over that the investigation, it never really ends. Or, at least on MonsterQuest it doesn’t. But it doesn’t on the JFK assassination shows, either. And I think this must be satisfying in some way. I think it kind of re-injects our world with the unknown, with the unknowable. In an age when we so need that indeterminacy, it allows us room for our lives to mean something, it leaves gaps in the walls of reality. And we can look through those, into everywhere. But none of this is to say that just adopting some non-fictiony shapes and structures in any way escapes you from having to pull off a real end, either. No, the trick, it’s always to do an ending that both caps off the drama in a surprising-but-inevitable way while at the same time opening up the narrative, such that it can embrace the reader’s world.

MT: How, if at all, did the writing of this book differ from others? Different writing process?

SGJ: Man, each book’s completely different, of course, but I can’t pinpoint any way Growing Up Dead in Texas was markedly different from Zombie Bake-Off, or The Bird is Gone, or All the Beautiful Sinners. They’re all about knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that this was failed from the get-go, that it was wrong just at the level of conception, but pushing on anyway. Believing not necessarily that you’ve got the juice to make it work anyway, but counting on luck. Counting on it all working, even though it’s built to fail. This is how I dream, I mean. My dreams will span nights, will come in installments, but, at the end of one sequence, one big arc, something will step in at the end, and it’s something that didn’t matter the second night of dreaming, but that I logged anyway, just accidentally. Except then, at the end, that’s the disinhibiting symbol—I’m in PKD land now (and forevermore)—that’s the magic key that, when inserted, when turned lights up a back path through all the other nights, shoots like an arrow through the beginning. And each time, it’s a surprise, even though I’ve made each of these dreams up. I’m good at hiding stuff from myself, I mean. I think that’s the main way I write, too. I just stumble along on instinct, tilting at whatever monsters I’ve conjured up just because I wanted to see them, but, while I’m all occupied trying to get some scales right, something happens. Something good. Like in James Dickey’s “A Birth.” For me, that poem, it’s exactly how fiction works.

MT: You’ve said that with horror fiction the realism within the horror makes the horror all that more scary. Was there any point with writing this novel that the realism was too real for you, became scarier for you than writing horror? 

SGJ: Yeah. Going to that basketball game on the three-wheeler, that made me shake, made me want to walk away. It’s almost step-for-step a scene I’d tried to do in All the Beautiful Sinners already. Don’t know for sure why it’s so, so scary for me. But I’m getting all nervous and trembly just talking about it now. I think it’s because I so associate it with somebody dying. I remember who died, of course, but none of the particulars of that whole week. Just flashes. Growing Up Dead in Texas is largely those flashes.

MT: Now, a question for fun that’ll make sense to those who’ve read the novel: How many knives do you suspect you’ve lost to over-eager DPS officers?

SGJ: Really, most of the troopers and officers and MPs and sheriffs have let me keep my knives. Even when they’re completely illegal, and stashed in places pretty much designed for doing some damage to anybody in the passenger seat, say. I think just because they respect blades. But I’ve had a lot of flea-market butterfly knives get taken, of course. And have left some other knives I loved in rental cars. But, one police officer or DPS—I was in eighth grade, didn’t know the difference—he somehow caught me and my friend Coy out in a field of nothing in Coy’s dad’s truck one night. We were just hoping to scare a deer up, maybe. But then there he was. Maybe we drove up in his nap, I don’t know. Anyway, he talked to us and talked to us, and finally I asked what kind of pistol he had there. In answer, he passed it across. I was terrified. But then he told me go on, shoot it. So I did, just lobbing muzzle flash out into the scrub. Then again, smiling. So, I don’t mean to characterize all law enforcement as bad or anything. But I have run into the bad ones, no doubt. Over and over. And I only deserved the treatment I got about three-quarters of the time.

MT: You often have particular playlists (made for what you’re working on) that you listen to when you write, and you have a good amount of song references in this book (that you’ve put up on your site). Were you listening to those songs while you were writing this one, or are they maybe even just the songs that have been playing in your head for thirty years, every time you think about these stories, or vise versa?

SGJ: I wasn’t listening to those songs, no. But, that playlist I rigged together—or, not playlist, but grouping of songs, I guess—I almost didn’t post it, as, to me, it tells the whole novel. The one I had rigged for this book, though, I can’t seem to find it now. Which is odd. I think I must have either used this old “Free Skate” playlist I have—the book feels like that playlist, to me—or I altered it, renamed it to use on this zombie novel I wrote. Which, that one, it starts with Charlie Daniels on “Trudy” and ends with the Outlaws’ “Green Grass and High Tides,” and gets there by way of Drive-by Truckers and company. But that “Free Skate” one, it’s what I used for All the Beautiful Sinners. Lots of Bonnie Tyler and Meat Loaf and Prince and Footloose. And Melissa Etheridge on “No Souvenirs,” which I’ll submit as one of the best songs ever in the history of anything. Well, along with the Dire Straits’ “Romeo & Juliet.”

MT: West Texas weather has made its way into several of your novels/stories. Often people who don’t live in places with extreme weather, like the Texas Panhandle or maybe the gulf, seem to wonder why people stay there, why they rebuild after tornado season and ready themselves to wait it out again. Any thoughts on what weather like West Texas’ means to the people who live there, and why it usually isn’t enough to drive them away?

SGJ: You get to where you identify with it. Like—what’s that called, the ‘pathetic fallacy,’ maybe? It’s like that, though. You internalize the sudden storms, the sand scraping everything down to the rounded corners of its soul, and you imagine yourself as some Louis L’Amour hero, out here braving the elements. Or you pretend you’re on whatever planet Dune’s on—so embarrassed to not have it right here. But then too you’ll see the most intensely beautiful things happening in the sky, and you kind of internalize that as well. Which I think is why people stay: it’s harsh, no doubt, but it pays off, too. I’ve got Colorado, now, but I do miss March and April in West Texas, all those storms rolling in. And I miss November, going out into the mesquite to find calves. And I miss late summer, playing war with pie melons, and sneaking into the swimming pools of people on vacation, and sleeping on top of oil tanks, and just driving fast at night, turning your lights off. You expand, kind of fill the whole space. There’s nothing like it.

MT: Characters as young men—either in pre-, dead-center-, or post-adolescence—struggling with the realization that they might want more from the world than the world even has to offer is a recurring theme in a lot of your stories/novels. And lots of different writers seem to have those things they love (or fear) and are never able to totally get over. Do you think the young-man-looking-to-consume-the-world-and-then-some theme, seemingly very important to you, is something you could endlessly write about, from varying angles, and always still go back for another run, search out another detail?

SGJ: Will Chris Baer said to me once that, man, I really had a good handle on that whole teen angst thing. I nodded, didn’t wonder until later if that was a compliment or not. But, yeah, for some reason, that’s the most real story to me, I think. Or, those years, I remember them very well for some reason, in high resolution, but hardly ever in a way that’s a story. Just all these scenes. Too, it could just be that I’m not that grown-up. But it’s not about any glory days stuff. Or, I don’t think it is. Those were some rough years. I was living with friends most of the time—apartments, trailers, places we didn’t think anybody else was coming back to—out poaching dove every day because we didn’t have food money, always ducking the law, and there was all kinds of terrible stuff going on besides. But wonderful stuff, too. Walking out for dove and finding a five-thousand dollar tanning bed in the middle of the pasture, and leaving it there. I don’t know, though . .  it’s like that guy in Lost Highway, who prefers to remember stuff in his own way, yeah? I do too. Though, this young turk kind of dude I have a decent handle on, I sometimes think he’s really the character from all those ‘portal’ fantasy stories, where you stumble through the wardrobe, are the only one with the right stuff to save the kingdom. Except, he never went through the portal, but is still all quantum-entangled with his self that did, so that he’s stuck with all these ‘take the world by the horns’ feelings, just has nowhere to really apply them. But he tries anyway. It’s the most honest kind of journey I know, really.

MT: Another really enjoyable recurring trope in your stories is this idea of magical thinking—whether it’s Jim Doe (from All the Beautiful Sinners) or Jonas trying to sink just the right number of baskets clean through the rim, or Jonas trying to hold a sip of coke suspended in his straw for the right number of seconds—where a character tries to change the world, reset time, if only in their head, and for only a short time. How often would you say this type of thing happens with you? 

SGJ: Well, I was just counting letters in the last answer. And I tend to always have this superball bouncing from corner to corner of my monitor. I mean, in my head. But I think it keeps my brain occupied, lets me be normal, get along, all that. Even if it does trap me from time to time. But if I ever quit making those deals—and this is narcissism, plain and simple, but is no less real—if I ever stop, I know the world will fall apart. At least mine. Bands I’ve seen live, in small places, sometimes after the show the bass or guitar player will sidle up, ask what I play. Which: basketball? But what they picked up on, usually, it’s my fingers tapping on my thigh under the table. Not with the music, but just because I’m counting and counting and counting. When I was a kid, I was sure that if I ever stopped moving, then that would mean I was dead. So I was always absolutely certain to have at least one part of me always moving. Same with symmetry: only people in caskets arranged themselves symmetrically. Even now, I can’t lie where my arms are in the same position on each side of me, or crossed on my chest. I always have to keep an irregularity, just to keep on living. It’s worked so far.

MT: You’ve referred to your short story writing process as finding an opening sentence, then chasing it down to see what story it leads to. Have you ever had to stop chasing because you didn’t like what you were finding, were getting scared of what might be on the other side of the next paragraph?

SGJ: Not scared—I never let myself leave a story just because it’s too scary, or immoral, or disturbing, or true—but I have walked away from a piece once, when I realized it was only for me. I only got twenty or thirty-thousand words into it, so, you know, no great loss. But it was so just... I don’t know. Like, exactly what it’s like to live in my head, and all the symbols were too personal. I didn’t see anybody but me ever getting anything from it. And an audience of one is an audience of none. Art’s only art when it communicates successfully, even if in some inarticulable way. Communicating with yourself, that’s therapy. Leave that stuff on the hard-drive, I say. A manuscript in the trunk is worth nothing, except as a learning experience. And I want all my manuscripts to be on the shelf, please.

MT: As far as I understand it, MP Publishing just recently expanded its UK presence over here in the US, and is hitting the ground running (almost in a westward-expansion-redux manner, judging by the list of your upcoming tour dates). This being your first book with MP, and with a couple more slated sometime in the future, how has your working experience with them been? Any idea of what you have in store with them for future publications? 

SGJ: Hopefully not in a Manifest Destiny way. But, they’ve been so, so great to work with. The editor, Guy Intoci, he went through probably twenty versions of Growing Up Dead in Texas. I turned it in thinking it was done, but no, not even close. He didn’t just read it, he lived inside it. And then they’ve been pushing it so hard, have a real marketing plan—they’re doing everything right, the way you always dream a publisher will. And, as for the future with them, yep, two books slated. One of which I just finished writing this week. It’s set out in West Texas as well. 

MT: What else do you have in the works coming up?

SGJ: Zombie Sharks with Metal Teeth, from Lazy Fascist. It’s crazy short stories. Stories I so, so love. Mostly all published. And my agent’s currently negotiating two other book deals for me. Both horror, both not-yet-jinxed, so I won’t say them aloud. And there’s Flushboy from Dzanc in March. Very excited for that one. A kid working at his father’s drive-through urinal. It’s every job I ever had.

MT: And just for fun, and maybe as a chance to influence some summer reading lists, what are some of the best books you’ve read recently? Any new authors who’ve made it onto your list of favorites lately?

SGJ: I’m currently tearing through George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Completely smitten. Just burned through Laird Barron’s super-excellent The Croning, too. Or, excellent, yes, but intimidating as well. As all novels should be—they should all make you want to put your pen down, give up. 

MT: Favorite film of the year so far?

SGJ: John Carter. I liked it even more than Avatar. Oh, wait, no, I’m lying—this is a slow-pitch you’re giving me, right? Cabin in the Woods, man. Forever. My comic-book guy just slipped me a big poster of it, too. I’m putting it in a frame. Haven’t loved a movie that much in . . . well, since Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, I guess? Or I Saw the Devil, maybe. But still, Cabin: more. It’s up there with Scream for me. 

MT: Since you’re probably answering these questions while packing for your book tour, what are your favorite and least favorite parts of doing readings? 

SGJ: My favorite part by far of standing in front of people is the question and answer part. I can do that all night. Love it. Least favorite part is pretending to browse the shelves in the store before the reading, when you haven’t introduced yourself to the events coordinator or anybody. Or, the fake-browsing you do, when really every iota of sensory input you have is zeroed in on whether people are walking into the events room or not. I never remember any of the books I look at in that mode.

MT: And what’s the most memorable moment you have from a reading or yours?

SGJ: Man. I think it was these back-to-back readings I did one week. The first night, there were plus-two-hundred people there, easy. I felt like James Ellroy. Then, the next night, different venue, there were maybe four people, and they were the people throwing the reading, and it was in an auditorium that, unlike the night before, was built for a big crowd. Or, my first reading ever, that was BookPeople in Austin, and nobody showed up, so the manager tried to whisper over the PA for all employees to please make their way to the events room, for me. That sucked. Some nights you’re John Cusack early on in 1408, yeah. But then another time at BookPeople, this one woman in the back kept asking why I had so much vomiting in my novels. I kept trying to answer, but, at the end of it, she’d stab her hand back up, ask again, and I’d try to answer it better, to the point where, now, I’m all highly sensitized to any vomiting in my stuff. Oh, I know, memorable: I was reading on a bus that had been parked in a big empty warehouse in New Orleans, the audience sitting in the seats like school kids, when this woman and her son stepped up behind me (I was by the driver’s seat). I stopped reading, stepped aside to let her in, but she said no, no, her son just wanted to play-drive the bus. I should just go on with whatever I’m doing here. No, no, I got a better one: I was reading in a bar once, was following up this woman who said, after everybody’d clapped for her, that anybody who came around behind the building and presented her with a receipt for her book, she’d give them a blowjob. So, yeah, when I stepped up to the mic, tapped it to make sure it was alive, it didn’t matter much. There were crickets chirping, tumbleweeds blowing past, and, in that silence, I leaned down to the mic, read my piece. But I guess that’s what you’re always doing, pretty much. There’s a darkness out there, and you send your words out into it, hope they find somebody. And, if you’re lucky, they stay there.

Matthew Treon

Interview by Matthew Treon

A recent transplant from Texas, Matthew Treon lives in Boulder, Colorado where he studies fiction in the MFA Creative Writing program at The University of Colorado. He is a music journalist, a staff writer for The Marquee magazine, the new Assistant Managing Editor for Timber Journal and teaches at the Boulder Writing Studio. His most recent story is forthcoming in SpringGun Press, and he is currently working on a twelve-volume non-fiction project titled Drinking Methanol: The Obscured Tommy Johnson and the First Blues Faustian Bargain.

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Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 14, 2012 - 2:20pm

Excellent job, Matthew. Great questions. Always fascinating interviews, Stephen. Congrats on all of your recent and future succeses (and hell, past too, while we're at it). Always inspiring, brother. Keep up the great work.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books June 14, 2012 - 3:03pm

Man, I gotta read that book again, because I definitely didn't get it all the first time around. Great questions, great answers. Can't wait for Flushboy!

Teri's picture
Teri June 15, 2012 - 11:54am

Nice interview. Hope the book does amazingly well. Congratulations, Stephen.