Acting on the Page
Stephen Graham Jones interviewed by Gregory Frye.
If you know who Stephen Graham Jones is, you’ll know that his fan base is white hot right now – and for good reason. He writes books faster than most people can read one, and he’s good at it. This fall saw the release of two new books: The Ones That Got Away, a collection of short stories and the anxiously awaited It Came from Del Rio. The interview that follows covers a lot of ground and, just like in his books, Jones spills blood into every line. So even if you aren’t familiar with the man and his work, all the better to grab a Vanilla Dr. Pepper, a box of Sixlets and dive in headfirst.
3:AM: It Came From Del Rio surprised me. In a good way. While I was expecting a fun, slapstick bloodbath, it turned out to be something a little more serious. A little more deadly. That’s quite the feat considering the presence of a bunny-headed zombie chupacabra shepherd. What is this book to you? What do you want to say about it?
Stephen Graham Jones: I’m always telling my students that the trick with exceeding expectations, it’s not to have, say, a hundred-foot tall robot zombie instead of a fifty-foot one, it’s to undercut the whole expectation of a robot zombie in the first place, make the reader think they’re not getting any undead cyborg at all, but then somehow do it anyway, through some side door only just now opening, only it’s a mechanized version of the character’s long-dead mom, and she’s got this platter of cookies kind of balanced out in front of her, and you know those cookies are probably maggot cookies, probably arsenic-chip cookies, but still, you kind of reach for them, right? Or, more importantly, the reader, all engaged with the story by then, identifying with this guy in the story, because that guy’s real, he’s their prose avatar, their stand-in, they’re thinking “What would I do?” And, man, right there, you’ve got them, the story’s alive. Content doesn’t matter, content never matters. I’ll as soon read a teen romance as Cormac McCarthy, if the story can pull me by the face into the pages, make me think I’m never getting away – make me pretty sure I might not even try to get away. That I like it here. So, yeah, in It Came from Del Rio, Craig Clevenger of course nailed it: what we’ve got here’s a bunnyheaded zombie who’s a chupacabra shepherd. Definitely. Or, I should say, accidentally – I sat down to write this, and it wasn’t about zombies, and I never expected the zombie to have a bunny head, of all things (though I guess I should admit I’ve had various not-good experiences with rabbits). What was happening was my second child was still pretty brand-new, a daughter, and I was trying to figure out how this changes just every last thing in the world. Before, I’d always been writing father/son stories, just because that’s the knee-jerk story that happens each time I put pen to paper. But that wasn’t enough anymore. I had to kind of explore what it meant to have a daughter. And, I don’t know, I mean, you know your characters – people – best in extreme circumstances, right? And I’m ridiculously impatient, don’t have the slowhandedness to wait four hundred pages for some extreme situation to present itself between Dodd (the dad) and Laurie (his daughter), so I just kind of fast-forwarded through all the boring parts, jumped right to how hard it would be to reconcile with your estranged daughter, not only if she were a border patrol agent and you were a border-crosser, but if she were alive and you were dead. So, yeah, the premise, it comes off slapstick, no doubt, but that there’s a real actual father/daughter story happening here, that’s my hundred-foot robot zombie. But none of this is to say that I planned all that out, either. Each novel’s a running discovery, like you’re falling downhill, just trying to keep up, trying to pick up as much stuff on your way down as you can. Which is to say that the bunnyhead part, even the zombie part, what I think when I’m writing is Wouldn’t this be funny, or cool? Or, This is something I should never-never do, right? Right? I get bored very very fast in fiction, I’m saying, need something interesting going on, as well as something real. I’m always halfway jealous of those people who can make completely boring Chekhov-kind of Carver stories interesting, but I also always kind of feel sorry for them, because there’s so much excellent stuff to be writing about. In fiction, your special effect’s budget’s limitless, right? Why not go to space, or to 7500BC, or space ten thousand years ago? Seems to me that staying in the real world’s kind of a cop-out, is like Bart Simpson trying, and failing, to flex his imagination muscles. At the same time, though, being a person, one writing for people, the stories always have to have an emotional center as well. It can’t all just be literary pyrotechnics and bulletproof prose and surgical insights. Even if the people in the story are six-eyed smoke aliens with invisible tentacles that can taste time, still, we need to feel like that alien’s us. Which I hope I pulled off somewhat with Dodd, trying to get back to his daughter. It still gets to me, anyway, and I guess I’m the first one it has to work for.
3:AM: How do you personally go about putting characters like that on the page? Empathy is a big part of it, but there’s also the matter of truly finding parts of that character within yourself – deep down – all the while translating it into words.
SGJ: You remember that old anecdote about The Marathon Man? Let me butcher it here, if I can. It’s Laurence Olivier kind of edging up to Dustin Hoffman right around the time they’re about to shoot that Nazi dentist scene, and Hoffman’s all messed up, has been for a couple days, just trying to get into that toothpulling frame of mind, which he explains to Olivier when Olivier asks – politely, I’m sure – ‘Just, just what are you doing here, with all this?’ to which Olivier kind of looks around, leans in, and whispers to Hoffman that it’s called ‘acting.’ For a long time I always understood this as a master talking to a, I don’t know, a non-master – like Hoffman’s that, yeah. I always agreed with Olivier, I mean, that method acting’s what you do when you don’t have talent, when you’re not like Charlie Kaufman says Dianne Wiest was on the set of Synechdoche, New York: just able to turn the tears on and off like a faucet, in the midst of eating a cheeseburger. But, writing fiction, for me all it is really is acting, just on the page, not the stage. It’s creating this made-up place and stepping into it, believing it, and that’s how the characters become real – they’re all you. At least the main ones. That’s why everything I write, it always feels just so intensely autobiographical. Demon Theory, I mean, that’s the story of my life. And The Fast Red Road, too. And especially Bleed Into Me. I feel so naked each time somebody tells me they read that one. And, ‘The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti’ – writing it across seventy-two hours, I didn’t even have time to partially disguise myself. With It Came from Del Rio, I guess I did have that kind of time, could have been an Olivier kind of writer, just moving this bad-luck dude through the desert, charting his past and future out, knowing the whole context of the story, but I’m not that kind of writer. When Dodd was out in the desert, dying, that was me as well, and the only way I was getting out alive was if I wrote my way out. I mean, obviously I haven’t died in the desert, not unless this is all a very good dream, but still, if I even halfway hope for a reader to eventually identify with my characters, then I’ve got to do it first. Fiction writing, for me at least, there’s nothing objective and intentional about it, at least not until the editing stages. You just figure it out as you go – even if you’re working from an outline, you figure it out as you go, as that main character, taking one step after the next, into a darkness that’s deeper than you ever suspected, so you have to feel your way, then lose your way, then just trust that there’s an exit in here, some graceful way out, back. Which, that’s kind of why I always burn through writing novels so fast, too: it sucks, losing your sense of self like that. Seeing the world that’s not on the page – the one that borders your monitor – with eyes that don’t really fit, eyes that are supposed to, in Dodd’s case, be bunnyheaded zombie eyes. And something that ridiculous should be easy to kick, easy to resist, except those same eyes are also father eyes, which I’d never trade in. Those eyes are a package deal each time, though. I still have Hale dreams, I guess. And, could be I’m just completely screwed up about all this too, of course. The first novel I wrote, that Fast Red Road, I had no clue how to cross three hundred pages, just knew that I was going to no matter what, so, each time I hit a wall, each time I had to answer that question every novel-in-progress asks over and over – What next? – I’d always just kind of turn around, mine some scene from my own life, make it Pidgin’s. And then, next novel, I was LP Deal, and then Jim Doe, and then Marta and Nolan and Hale and on and on, until Dodd. So, yeah, actors living on pills, doing stupid dances on the red carpet, tilting their heads back to drink every last drop of the limelight, all that, it completely makes sense to me, just because acting, becoming somebody else for just this short, intense little time, you’re not the same afterwards, I don’t think. Afterwards you have to pretend you’ve come back to yourself, then pretend you’re not pretending, and at some point you lose the center, the real, yourself, are just hungry for that next role, that next story. It’s like – you’ve seen Pinero? Where Pinero describes writing as pearl diving, holding your breath for too long, coming up with this prize everybody loves. Except you keep having to go deeper and deeper, until, David Foster Wallace-style, you finally go too deep. All fiction writers are pearl divers like that, I think. At least the honest ones, the sincere ones, the Philip K. Dick ones, willing to write it all down in blood. Their own. And, I mean, I bleed a lot anyway. Who knows if any of it’s getting to the page. Always leaves me kind of lightheaded and doubtful, anyway.
3:AM: So, from the writer’s perspective – and a reader’s – what’s the difference between honest blood sweat fiction and … the other shelf?
SGJ: I think it’s if, in reading the story, the novel, that you feel that thrill of watching somebody try to walk through some bad-idea traffic, taking a trip you don’t much think they’re coming back from. Eddie Murphy on the interstate in Bowfinger, yeah? Or, to say it from the other side: years and years ago I was reading an interview with John Saul, where he says that there are two kinds of writers – those who write because they have no choice, and those who like to collect the money at the door. And I realized he was completely right. Why I’d been waiting for somebody to tell me this instead of figuring it out on my own, I don’t know. Probably because I’m the easiest sell ever, didn’t know the Enquirer and Weekly World News was mostly fake until I was probably sixteen, and it was too late then, of course, as it was already the touchstone for my world. Or – this is a story my dad tells – at Six Flags when I was about twelve, I was in that movie room where everybody sits on benches and watches the recording from some camera on the nose of the rollercoaster. Apparently, at the end when it slams to a sudden stop, I fell forward, off the bench, right onto my face, cheek to the carpet. That’s exactly how I still read: no critical muscle at all. All belief, all wishing, all secretly knowing this is all true, that orcs are really like this, that this is what aliens really think. Can’t help it. Don’t really want to be any other way, either. And, yeah, I kind of fell away from Saul after that interview, but, years later, already supertired of Faulkner (and just a few books into Faulkner), I thought that reading his stepbrother’s autobiography would maybe cue me into what was supposed to be the magic of Yokna-whatever County. Fail. In that book, the brother, who I’m probably misremembering as being ‘Bill’ also, says that Faulkner, in a letter not long after The Sound and the Fury, told him that he’d figured this novel-writing thing out, at last. That he’d veered enough off-course that he could look back, see the proper, real shape of the thing. The form, the mode, the way to do it. And that now he could start stamping them out. And, that stamping them out, I so don’t believe in that. I mean, writing for money, sure, that’s great, go for it, we’re all probably doing that at some level – money closes the feedback loop in a way not much else can – but be honest about that, please. Like John Saul. Give me a Philip K. Dick any day, though. Somebody writing through a haze, trying to get the story down this time in a way that the world’s going to have to fold around it. In grad school, my dissertation director Janet Burroway, she told me that some writers, they write to live, they write like this next book is the one that can save their life. Not grocery-wise, but, like, if they can order things on the page, if they can go fast enough to keep up with the craziness happening past their kitchen table, document it all, trap it in words, make it work in a story such that they can fool themselves into believing in it for a little while, then they can keep living, keep functioning. That’s sincerity, for me. That’s writing in blood. And, yeah, Louis L’Amour, say, he was definitely stamping the books out, but at the same time that story he was telling over and over, you could tell he was invested in it to a degree where he never even thought to doubt it. That’s sincerity as well. Or Dean Koontz, he’s got it, I’d say. Even if you don’t go for what he writes, still, he’s got no choice but to write it. And, I don’t know – Robert E. Howard. He was Dick long before Ubik. And I think this all goes back to the distinction I want to make, between Hoffman-writing and Olivier-writing: those Updike-descended writers, who can be all calm and boring and ‘insightful’ and subtle and indirect and literary in their stories – no. Give me a writer to whom this story doesn’t only matter, but to whom this story’s absolutely vital. A writer who’s using this story to try to stay alive, to try to make the world make sense. It’s the only stuff that matters, finally. And I think that’s why, very early on, I fell into Weekly World News, and into all the novels and stories that line up with that: those people who write about UFOs and bigfoot and ghosts and all of that wonderful, wonderful stuff, they’re so far out at the fringe of things that they’re having to yell, to scream, to just insist that this is real, that this matters, won’t somebody please look, and believe, and make me feel not so alone out here. And I’m not saying that ‘sincerity’ and ‘literary’ are exclusive, either, some either/or situation. A poorly written novel about talking jaguars isn’t necessarily sincere, and, at the same time, a beautifully-crafted story about a family falling apart doesn’t have to be sincere either. There’s stuff like, I don’t know, like Lord of the Barnyard, or American Psycho, or The Virgin Suicides, or The Girl Next Door, or Fever Dream, or McCarry‘s The Secret Lovers or The Godfather or The Passage or Discord’s Apple, or Benjamin Whitmer‘s new Pike, stuff that’s both high-caliber craftwise and written from the heart. That’s the dream, every time. Why I keep reading. But, if I have to choose one or the other? I’ll take a poorly written novel each time, if I can suspect that it was written to save somebody’s life.
3:AM: You were at MileHiCon in October. Experiences? Impressions?
SGJ: Just that that’s where I belong, at the Cons. Places that have remote-control robot cage matches on Sunday afternoon – and everybody’s there. Or, maybe it’s just that I love to dress up, and to be around people who dress up, people who are, for the weekend at least, finally getting to be who they really feel they are. Pirates, steampunk, Boba Fett, Leia, Na’vi, all the thousands of variations between. And the panels are always so great. At MileHi, I think three of the panels I was on had ‘zombie’ in the title. Or almost in the title. And, at StarFest’s HorrorFest last year, I got to do “The Werewolf” with Carrie Vaughn and Mario Acevedo, who know a thing or two about it all, and, at ComicFest got to talk about Secret Wars, and I’m sure whatever I did at ReaderCon was excellent as well. Kind of hoping to hit World Horror down in Austin, too, and am still completely sad I had to bail on World Fantasy a few weeks ago. It’s not just about the panels and the costumes, though. It’s about seeing an NCC-1701-D communicator badge on a table, and knowing that wearing that would complete your life, and being afraid, too, because you don’t really want to have everything yet, still have all kinds of stuff to do. But it’s not just the merch, either. It’s – it’s that, at the Cons, all the writers I hang with, they don’t see commercial fiction as throwaway, they don’t see genre as just a place to make money. They understand how vital it is, the kind of direct pipe it can be. In the most intimate way possible, they know that it can save your life. That, when everything else sucks, you can open a book, go ten thousand years in the future, come back better. And that you can also do that when everything doesn’t suck. This is all hard to explain the right way, though. My fingers want to go too fast. How about: when I was sixteen, seventeen, something like that, things at my house were completely crazy, always sirens and everything in the kitchen broken and blood and guns and bottles and all that – just growing up, pretty much – and what I used to do when it got to be too much was nab whatever Louis L’Amour I could, blast off out into the trees, run deep into all the forest of the Air Force Academy. And I’d usually have a match or lighter on me, and if it wasn’t already dark, it would be soon, so I’d strike a flame, get enough to read the first yellowy page, then I’d tear that page out, light it, use it to light the next page, and would get through all two hundred pages like that, my hands all crumbly with ash. This is how a book can save your life, I think. Or, go earlier, to me at twelve, things pretty crazy then as well, I’m at one of my uncle’s houses, and he opens his hall closet, stacked six deep with Mack Bolan and Mike Hammer and Ian Fleming and Conan the Barbarian paperbacks, and he tells me I can take three, then, when I’m done with those, three more, and get through the whole closet that way if I want. I did want, I do want. I’m still in that closet, I think. Never want to leave. That’s what being at the Cons is like, for me. I feel less alone.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 7th, 2010.