Stephen Graham Jones on Trilogies, Deaths, Slashers, and Dog Nipples
Author photo via Wikipedia Commons
Stephen Graham Jones is a literary superstar. He's also a nice guy who's been doing this thing for a long time, so a lot of us celebrate his success. You know, because for anyone who's been a SGJ fan from the beginning, seeing the world finally giving him the props he deserves is an absolute pleasure. In any case, Don’t Fear the Reaper, the second book in the Indian Lake Trilogy, is out now from Gallery/Saga Press, so I thought it'd be cool to have a chat with Stephen about his writing, Jade Daniels, recent reads, a few movies, and some other stuff. Here's what he had to say.
Last year we hung out in Estes Park...and then you got Covid. Then we hung out in Connecticut...and you got Covid again. How are you doing, man? How's the tour going?
Tour’s going great. Different city every day, but all the venues are different enough that they’re not smearing into a single event. Great moderators, wonderful crowds, excellent questions at every place, and I’m leaving empty pens behind me from all the signing. It’s the dream, right? It is exhausting, some nights it’s just two or three hours sleep before the next flight, but when it’s time to go on-stage, I’m never tired, always invigorated to share Don’t Fear the Reaper. Been such an honor, all the people showing up—all the readers, ready to slam through a few hundred pages with Jade Daniels again. Many of them wearing that cool t-shirt. And I’ve found a few burritos along the way, to keep me going. Can’t ask for anything more.
You went from standalones to a trilogy. I'm guessing you haven't spent as much time with a character as you've spent/are spending with Jade Daniels. What makes Jade so special?
You’re right—I’ve never hung with a character for this many installments. But it’s really cool, getting to watch her develop over three books. The hard part, I think? It’s going to be letting her go. She’ll always be out there, though. Fighters and dreamers like her, they’re always there. I’ve been lucky, across all these years, to meet a few good characters in my pages. L.P. Deal from The Bird is Gone. Darren from Mongrels. Denorah from The Only Good Indians. Sawyer from Night of the Mannequins. Emily from Earthdivers. And now Jade. She just sort of stood up from the waters of Indian Lake, one revision, her eyes already open, and then she upped her chin to me, walked into the story with her hands already balled into fists by her legs. It’s been all I can do to keep up.
I think you reinvented slashers with My Heart is a Chainsaw and continue to leave your mark in the genre with Don't Fear the Reaper. What is it about slashers that makes them so much fun to read?
To me the slasher is a coin flipping through the air. On one side, there’s a scream, and on the other side, there’s a laugh, and, with the slasher, you never know which it’s going to land on in any given moment. I think that’s the appeal, moment by moment. Stepping back a bit, though, I think that engaging a justice fantasy, which is what the slasher is, it...it doesn’t quite heal us or anything, but it does give us hope, I think. That the world can be fair. That justice can prevail. That the bad people don’t always get to win. Sometimes one final girl, who’s been running away the whole story, she’ll turn around, and she’ll face the horror down. And that can be all of us.
A lot of us have been reading you since The Fast Red Road and All the Beautiful Sinners. Your career has been amazing, but it exploded in recent years. You've always done what you want, so what do you think finally made everyone pay attention?
Wish I knew? But, it does all coincide with signing on with my agent, B.J. Robbins. The first book we did together was Mongrels. When she and I were talking about working together, she sort of laid down the law, told me that writing like the page is on fire isn’t enough—you also have to strategize, think about career-level stuff. So I handed all that over to her, and it’s been great ever since. But? I wouldn’t trade all the years before for anything. It was where I got to learn. It was when I got to play. I think years like that are so important. You figure out that you’re going to write whether the audience and the critics are there or not—you’re a writer, fiction’s how you make sense of the world, and you don’t need permission, you just do it anyway, whether anyone’s watching or not.
You're ridiculously prolific. At this point, what keeps you going?
I just love it, man. Playing with dragons. Hiding from the world. On the page, I can make things make sense. Things in this real world, they never quite add up for me. But in a story, they can, if I do things just right. So I try and try harder to get those things as right as I can. Because I so want things to make sense. And I also want people to feel things as deeply as I do. I mean, I’m nothing special in that regard, everybody’s feeling are big to them, we’re all perpetual teenagers like that, and that’s wonderful, but...I have written enough words and read enough amazing work that I can sometimes get lucky, and come up with a way to package a feeling or a thought up so that, when the reader unwraps it, they can feel that same exact thing I feel. And that’s magic, pure and simple. It’s as close as we can get to telepathy, I figure. I love to be involved with it. And I can’t imagine doing anything else. I listen to music, and can’t imagine how them cats do that. I study photography, and can’t begin to understand how beautiful stuff like that happens. All other art’s this complete mystery to me. But not storytelling. Not writing. It’s what I can do, when I’m lucky. So it’s what I’ll keep doing.
Talking books with you is always fun, but so is talking movies. What ten films would you say go really well with Don't Fear the Reaper?
Ten, nice. Scream, of course. Halloween, the 1978 one. Maybe...maybe Friday the 13th IV: The Last Chapter. It’s got that screechy kind of operatic delivery to it that I really engage. Definitely A Nightmare on Elm Street—probably one and three, say? Which brings us to five. And to one that’s not a slasher, not on the horror shelf at all: Ordinary People. I think that’s in Don’t Fear the Reaper. It’s probably in everything I try to do, really. And, on the horror shelf but not really a slasher, both You’re Next and Ready or Not—all the violence, a lot of laughs, and just gallons of blood splashing around. And let’s round it out in science fiction: Alien and Terminator 2. Ripley and Sarah Connor, man, they’re Jade’s kind of resilient, aren’t they? And, like Jade, they’re always up against the impossible. And that’s where the good stories come from.
Your books are so much fun to read that I think some folks forget they're incredibly deep and full of themes like memory, identity, and the contemporary Native American experience. How much attention do you pay to those themes and how much of it just comes to you organically?
Just percolates up whether I want it or not. I just go into things wanting to get the adrenaline pumping even more, and pull on every heartstring I can reach. All the other stuff, it just happens all on its own. Writers, I mean, same as anybody, we’ve all got our axes to grind, of course. Petty resentments, justifiable hostilities—the whole package that makes a person a person. And, whatever story I write, all the stuff finds a way in. Just, if it ever becomes a controlling force, then you’re dancing close to some big dangerous void, I think. The story’s got to be the prime thing. The character—the Jade at the center of things, she’s the most important. And, I mean, stories aren’t going to solve anything, I know that. But the right story told in the right way, it can start a conversation. It can ask a question in an enduring way. But you got to never forget to entertain, first and foremost. If it’s not fun, it’s junk, I say.
You get asked to blurb a lot of stuff and get to a surprising amount of it given your writing output. What have you read recently that should be on readers' radars?
CJ Leede’s Maeve Fly. Single most amazing book I’ve read in a while. Catriona Ward’s Looking Glass Sound. It’s got these nested narratives that kind of make the readerly rug you’re standing on pretty unstable, in the best way. I’m currently reading Jim Terry’s Come Home, Indio, and really digging it. And? Whatever you’ve got up next, man.
Thanks for that! No pressure now...hah. Anyway, will you write more trilogies after you're done with this one? Does your approach change at all when the story's arc is so big?
It does change a bit, yeah. Well. I should qualify that: My Heart is a Chainsaw was intended to be a standalone, until my editor at Saga, Joe Monti, got me to maybe not just kill every single person in the book. That’s when it became a trilogy. But the rule I gave myself for Reaper, it was that I couldn’t hold anything back, I couldn’t save anything for the third installment. The reader picks up on that, I mean, they can sense you’re withholding some of the good stuff. So I made myself give away everything I could, so that, at the end of Reaper, I could be absolutely empty, and have to do with the third book what I did with Reaper: Sift through the ashes of Chainsaw’s narrative and try to delicately tease up a narrative thread, and then hang scenes and people off it such that it can become a book. But, backing off a bit from the trilogy, what I’ve learned is that book 1 is of course Act 1—how I never saw this before, I don’t know—book 2’s Act 2, and book 3’s the loudest of them all, with its Act 3 showdown. This trilogy’s taught me a lot. And, yeah, I kind of do hope to use it again. No hard plans now, but, I mean, I’ve got this new tray of tools in my toolbox, right? I don’t always look what I’m grabbing onto, when I reach into that box. I imagine, at some point, I latch onto a book 1 again, and try to see where it goes.
This one is for those who KNOW: What's the role of dog nipples in contemporary literature?
Ha. “Good Times,” right? That flash fiction that opens my collection Zombie Sharks with Metal Teeth. In that story, they indicate—or “encompass?”—loneliness, regret, but also a sort of tactical satisfaction. And, it always feel weird, and weirdly fun, to read that one to a crowd of the unsuspecting.
Any parting words or favorite kills?
My favorite kill in cinema’s got to be that peephole kill in Dario Argento’s Opera. Favorite one on the page...I might go with the end of Nathan Ballingrud’s The Visible Filth chapbook, which is Wounds, now, after the film. That’s brutal and gory—two essential components—but it’s also touching, and tender, and hopeful. You can hear the bone creaking, then cracking, and you can taste the wrongness in your own mouth, thanks to the precise, evocative language. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, though, so I’ll stop there, let Nathan take your hand, lead you into that particular darkness.
To leave a comment