One Month of Reading Stephen Graham Jones: A Primer
Author photo via University of Colorado, Boulder
Usually in ‘One Month of Reading…’ I’ll provide you with a rundown of who the author is and highlight the books I’ve read in the preceding month. This month I’m mixing things up as I turn my attention to Stephen Graham Jones, an author whose story The Elvis Room I was fortunate enough to publish back in March, 2014. As part of this column I spoke with Stephen to glean further insight into his work. Let’s jump in.
Who is Stephen Graham Jones?
Stephen Graham Jones was born in West Texas in 1972. Jones is a Blackfeet Native American, the author of 15.5 novels, 6 short story collections and 220-plus stories. Jones has written in a variety of different genres including horror, crime and science fiction. Stephen Graham Jones is a professor at the University of Colorado.
Before we delve into the details, here’s a rundown of Stephen Graham Jones’s books to date.
- The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong (2000)
- All the Beautiful Sinners (2003)
- The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto (2003)
- Bleed into Me: A Book of Stories (2003)
- Seven Spanish Angels (2005)
- Demon Theory (2006)
- The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti (2008)
- Ledfeather (2008)
- It Came from Del Rio (2010)
- The Ones That Got Away (2010)
- Zombie Bake-Off (2012)
- The Last Final Girl (2012)
- Growing Up Dead in Texas (2012)
- Three Miles Past (2012)
- The Least of My Scars (2013)
- Zombie Sharks with Metal Teeth (2013)
- Flushboy (2013)
- Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn't Fly [co-authored with Paul Tremblay] (2014)
- States of Grace (2014)
- The Gospel of Z (2014)
- Not for Nothing (2014)
- The Elvis Room (2014)
- After the People Lights Have Gone Off (2014)
- Mongrels (2016)
Where To Start
With such a diverse portfolio of stories to his name it’s difficult to know where to start with Stephen. Having now read the vast majority of his work I’m not sure there is a best place to start. Peruse the list of titles, read some synopses, and start with the story that most resonates with you. Chances are you’re going to have a great time.
I asked Jones for his advice to new readers looking for a starting point:
Man, I'd think Mongrels is as good a place as any. Except for it not being out yet. It's a tricky question. Knee-jerk, I'd say Growing Up Dead in Texas or Flushboy, probably, except neither are horror. So I guess I'm assuming the casual stroller-by not to be into horror. Which is hopefully a poor characterization of the readers out there browsing. Ledfeather's gone into the most classrooms, if that helps? For the horror side of things, though, either of the story collections would be a good starting point, I'd say. After the People Lights Have Gone Off and The Ones That Got Away. I'm not going to list all my titles here, either, don't worry. There's some that make poor starting points, I suspect. Oh, wait, I know. If not Mongrels, like, if we're still in pre-May land, then maybe Bleed Into Me. That story collection, being my first—and, I thought then, my only, my one shot so make it count, son—it's kind of everything all at once, with no hiding.
The Stephen Graham Jones Style
The more Stephen Graham Jones you read, the more varied you’ll realize each release is. That said there’s something unmistakably SGJ about each story, it’s just hard to pinpoint what it is that characterizes a Stephen Graham Jones book.
If anything, it's probably just that it's a hard one-eighty from my last book. I always like to be doing new things in what feels to me like new ways. Or, my standard for starting a novel, it's always ‘Do I think I can do this?’ If the answer is yes, then I don't have any reason to write the thing. But when the answer's no, and especially when trying it seems like a patently bad idea, a built-to-fail kind of thing, then it starts to get interesting. It becomes something I can win at, instead of just accomplish. I start listening for the voice, the angle, the conceit, the device, the heart—whatever it is that's going to allow me to fake it again for a few hundred pages. And then sometimes I get lucky.
Autobiography as Fiction
Perhaps the most intriguing and distinct of Jones’s stories is Growing Up Dead in Texas. Sharing similarities with Robert McCammon’s A Boy’s Life and Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, it is dubbed ‘part memoir’ and narrated by protagonist, Stephen Graham Jones. I asked Jones if this was the most personal story he’d written and how the writing process differed for Growing Up Dead in Texas.
There's a lot of real people in Growing Up Dead in Texas, yeah, and all that stuff that happens to that kid with my name, they also happened to me, pretty much, but, really? Demon Theory is at least as autobiographic. And in that Bleed Into Me, I'm just as naked. And The Fast Red Road is stitched through with scenes from my life. It might turn out that Mongrels is just as autobiographic as Demon Theory. And they're both, to me, a click more autobiographic than Growing Up Dead in Texas, finally. Or maybe they're all the same. I mean, facts aside, because who cares about facts, it's the feelings that ring true, that resonate in me already, that I'm trying to carve into the page. Truth doesn't come from correspondence with any verifiable reality. Truth comes from story. And that story can, and maybe should, have dragons or time-travel or whatever mechanisms and monsters it needs to get that feeling across, to provoke that emotion in the reader, that emotion already in you, the writer. That smuggling-across-through-art, that ridiculous unlikelihood of someone else feeling the exact same thing you are, that's what fiction's all about. That's truth, if anything is. It's what I'm always reaching for, every time I close my eyes and dream my way into a story.
The Hardest Story To Write
Here at LitReactor we’re always looking at ways to perfect the craft of writing. New challenges, new ideas, new ways of doing things. With that in mind I asked Jones to provide insight into the hardest story he’s written and some of the challenges he’s faced as a writer.
Hardest I've written? There's a hard one I never got around to writing. I'd told an editor I respect that I'd write a horror story with Warren G. Harding in it. And I put it off and put it off, because, man, how to do that? I was going to have to use King Tut, I figured, but what I really wanted was some alligator-head people. Finally I put it off enough that I forgot, so I wrote him a couple of days after it was due, apologized—this was to be the first deadline I'd ever missed—and he told me no worries, the anthology had got canceled anyway. Which is good to know. Otherwise, I might have ended up with a Harding-horror story all prepped and ready, but no market. As for the hardest story I've actually got down on paper, and in print … that might be ‘Adultery: A Failing Sestina’. At the time, every story I wrote, it was pretty much in a single afternoon. This one, though, I decided to put on my writer hat like I thought everybody else wore, and really crank down. So I wrote the story in an afternoon, and dug it. It's about finding an angel out in the horse trap one morning. And I mixed in a lot of hyena stuff in these interludes, because hyenas are really cool, and I'd just seen a documentary on them. Story done, right? Except I still had that stupid 'writing' hat on. So I made myself live with the story for two whole weeks. And I worked on it every day. By the time I sent it out, I was really just throwing it away. I hated it. All these years later—this was 2000, maybe?—I can read it again, and I like the lines, but, the ending. I feel it's a touch over-written. That there's a more pure heart under there somewhere. Probably about afternoon two. But back then I never saved drafts, just wrote over and over a piece, to make myself commit. I try not to wear that writer hat anymore. Being too serious can kill a piece of fiction. Oh, wait, there's another. The final story in Three Miles Past.
‘The Coming of Night’. It's one of my favorite stories I've ever got down on paper, just because of the voice, and that odd angle of narration and the reveal of that angle, and the choose-your-own-adventure stuff in it. But, man, it was difficult. Because of all that stuff going on, but also because I wrote it in public, for a class I was teaching—here, I think. Yeah, it was here at LitReactor, years ago. I told the workshop I was going to turn this one-line idea into a story, just watch. So I did, and I pasted every bit up as I was writing it, meaning they were all posting about how it was going, how it wasn't going, and, of course, I read those replies. I'd never anticipated that replies-in-process could so immediately damage a story. And, it wasn't that their replies were in any way poor or malicious or anything. They were good, and helpful, and well-intended. It's that the thing was still embryonic. Its skin was so easily torn. And it tore and it tore and it tore. Was so hard to keep focus, push through, let the story develop naturally, instead of being a group-product. Didn't Harlan Ellison write in a display window in a store, once? I think I could do that, no problem. It'd be easier than fifteen people muttering over my shoulder. There's enough people already muttering in my head about each line, I mean.
I hope you enjoyed this month's format for ‘One Month of Reading…’. Let me know your favorite Stephen Graham Jones story in the comments section.
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