Writing in the Shadow of “V”: Adventures in Speculative Fiction with Stephen Graham Jones

GROWING UP ON the arid West Texas plains of his birth, amid cotton fields, pecan orchards, cattle ranches, and pumpjacks, Stephen Graham Jones offers a distinctive narrative perspective informed by the people and places that he knows. While such experience may seem a more fitting inspiration for Westerns than speculative fiction, Jones draws on the chance occurrences of such a life to infuse his stories with unexpected scenes, uncanny situations, and a cast of freakish characters that are uniquely his own. From the disorienting vision of history, trauma, and native survivance found in his debut novel, The Fast Red Road (2000); the metatextual novelization of a fictional horror movie trilogy in Demon Theory; the account of a detective’s pursuit of the tornado-following killer in All the Beautiful Sinners; the slipstream story of an Indian agent assigned to the Blackfeet in Ledfeather; to even more fantastic or weird-er tales inhabited by estranged rabbit-headed fathers, chupacabras, pile-driving zombies, slashers disguised as pop singers, final girls, teenage werewolves, and malevolent specters, Jones relishes in the narrative freedom and creative possibilities of SF.
While a prominent portion of Jones’s work lands securely in the realm of literary fiction, over the last decade his explorations in genre have become increasingly frequent and sustained. In fact, his position as a significant voice in the realm of genre has become more prominent with his recent receipt of a Bram Stoker Award. His last eight books consist of several slasher/detective novels; two collections of horror shorts; novels on a zombie apocalypse, werewolves, and ghostly hauntings; and an experimental superhero graphic novel. Jones’s future portends more of the same: his next book, Elk Head Woman (Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster), marks a return to the realm of the slasher. Given these interests and continued work in this direction, the timing seems apt to catch up with Stephen. Our discussion took place in-person at a Denver coffee shop [1], and we followed-up via email.
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BILLY J. STRATTON: Considering your career as a writer, did you see or could you anticipate writing the broad range of books you have ― especially in genre and speculative fiction that really challenges readers’ expectations of you, as well as of genre and form more broadly? Did you always want to write such books, or did you end up writing in experimental ways in which you surprised yourself?
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: Oh yeah. I always thought all I wanted to do was write V, you know? I just wanted to be the dude who wrote the next V. But that didn’t quite work out.
Cool … wait, the book or the TV series? I have that on DVD!
Pynchon’s V, not the aliens. [Laughs.]
So, Pynchon’s V. [Laughs.]
Yeah, that’s what I thought I was put on this earth for, to write the next V.
Do you think you accomplished that?
No, I don’t think so.
Though V is basically the lead-in to Gravity’s Rainbow, through The Crying of Lot 49. And yet it does seem that what you were getting at in The Fast Red Road and The Bird is Gone, and worked out, as you’ve previously said, [2] with Ledfeather, are all grounded in that narrative realm, especially Lot 49. Is this accurate?
Maybe. I mean, back then I was reading 49 on a pretty regular basis, and pretty much living in V, and driving six hours to buy a magazine from a pawn shop that might have something Pynchon in it, so I’m guessing that whatever I ended up writing from, I don’t know, from how I was, it’d be all hopeful about trying to be what I loved.
Where might Demon Theory fit in to this discussion? Is that book closer to the source?
Yeah, for me Demon Theory would be closer if anything is, but more. That one was just me proving to myself that I could do something opposite of or not like Fast Red Road. For some reason, I was terrified of getting the writer version of typecast, yeah? Guess I thought, like, everybody was watching, I don’t know. Fast Red Road was the first novel I ever wrote, though. I think Demon Theory, in 1999, was either … second or third. Maybe fourth. But I never sent those other two out — a vampire novel and a werewolf novel. Anyway, talking V and Pynchon, my agent back then — this is probably 2000 — knew Pynchon’s agent, and, I guess, wife, right? My agent was able to get the Demon Theory manuscript on Pynchon’s desk, I mean, which is a big highlight for me, since I kind of held him responsible for everything I was on the page. Owed him, I mean — not blamed him. But I guess sort of blame him.
On the influence of Pynchon, thinking about his fusing of genres — reality and the fantastical, history and speculation — I’m wondering how his work bears on your development as a reader and writer specifically in the realms of genre fiction.
Isn’t Gravity’s Rainbow kind of 71 different genres? Each section break we kind of blip to another genre. That definitely and always kind of is … I was going to say “controls me,” but that seems weird. But it’s definitely there. Joe R. Lansdale’s there too. He just writes what he writes, lets the market figure out what shelf to put it on. I’ve heard him say, when asked what genre he writes in, that he writes in the “Joe R. Lansdale genre.” That’s the goal, man. Just write the stories that are good to you, dress them up however they want to be dressed up.
Yes, Pynchon has an impressive capacity to negotiate forms, voice, genre — and all so seamlessly. And that is a really cool way to look at genre and one’s authorial identity, which sort of pushes back against the issue of getting typecast that you mentioned earlier. I guess overthinking what one is meant to write or worrying about how readers view you as a writer could really get in the way of the act of writing itself? And besides, critics announced the “death of the author” quite a while ago, and writing is something you just have to do and let the pages fall where they may.
Yeah, who knows what I’m meant to write, but the mode I’m in right now, I like to write 70,000-or-so-word novels that you can get in and out of quick. Maybe that word cap keeps me from having what I think is room for complications, which always breed even more complications, and I guess that’s always my impulse, what I always have to try to resist — over-complicating things. It’s like I didn’t learn anything from George Costanza. Or, that character on Superstore who also makes everything more complicated … Amy, yeah. That’s the thing I’ve had to learn and learn over and over again, writing novels. Direct and simple is good. Complications are okay for character interactions — even necessary I guess — but you have to try to keep the plot comprehensible.
Another question related to these ideas is whether or not there are still unexplored regions out there for you. I guess that might be difficult for you to say or think through, but what would you do or like to do that may be different and new going forward?
Yes, there is, there is. I’ve always had a strong impulse to do something that’s fantasy, but I’ve never done it. I think it’s because I’ve always felt like other writers have the fantasy realm so staked out that there’s no shoulder room for me to do anything. But now we’ve got writers like N. K. Jemisin or Brooke Bolander, all these writers who are opening up vast new vistas of fantasy that I hadn’t ever imagined were possible. And in that new space they’re opening up, I’m starting to see room for me to do something.
Also, if I can keep going, I always wanted to do something big in science fiction. I mean, not “big” like important, but big like … high-concept, maybe. I guess I’m not even a hundred percent sure what that means. Maybe I’m talking scope. Anyway, this novel I just wrote, Last Stand at Sabre Ridge, it’s science fiction, but it’s not epic and interstellar like The Foundation trilogy. It’s just some people talking, really — probably because I’m in love with Sándor Márai’s Embers. But science fiction’s always where I’ve been aiming, I just happened to write horror, or be built for it. My heart’s forever with horror, for sure. Science fiction has always been my goal, though, and I want to play in fantasy along the way, and whatever other shelves look fun.
Are your efforts in working toward the writing of a sci-fi novel an effect of how complicated you see the form as being to compose, as a more difficult genre? Or is it something else?
It could be exactly that, my conception of and my respect for science fiction makes me put it on such a high pedestal that I can’t climb up to that. But, as I get more and more experience — as I’m in this game longer — I’m starting to realize that the pedestal isn’t that tall, that it might be something I could step up onto. But the kind of science fiction I want to do is the Stanisław Lem kind. That’s what interests me so, so much. John Scalzi’s doing really cool stuff, too — nothing like I could ever do, but good stuff. And I’m forever in love with the Hainish Cycle, of course. Like everybody.
How might that kind of ambition reflect on the line between soft and hard science fiction as it’s been called — where you have someone like Asimov writing as a trained scientist?
Yeah, hard science fiction and … not hard science fiction? But I always feel it’s less about “circuitry” versus, I don’t know, “non-circuitry” than it is about fantasy-driven science fiction and technology-driven science fiction. Which is probably about the same as saying circuitry or not-circuitry, yeah. But, fantasy-driven science fiction, to me, ends up being louder, more kaleidoscopic or something, more space-opera-y, and probably more fun, to be honest. The science fiction that’s kind of idea-, or possibility-, or what if?-driven, that’s the kind of science fiction I’m more into, whichever side of the fake divide that falls on.
It would seem to take a different kind of knowledge and experience, research, and reading, right?
I do read a lot of science, it’s one of my favorite things, but I suspect it’s all pop-science, like science for non-scientists. I’m all right at faking science-stuff for sure, but, I mean … like, I know “sine curve” is something with math, but I couldn’t tell you what — took me three runs in college to finally pass algebra, I mean, and then I subbed symbolic logic courses in for the rest of my math. Logic, I can do logic forever, it makes sense. But not sine curves, whatever those might be. So I’m going to use that term vaguely, imprecisely, so I don’t get it super-wrong. Just, you know, mostly or sort of wrong. Not completely right. And I’m happy with “not completely right,” which I think probably kicks me out of any hard science fiction club, or consideration.
In terms of reception versus authorial intentions, do you ever feel that your books get mis-categorized? Where you don’t think you’ve written in a genre or form and someone, whether a critic or a reader, says, “Hey, you wrote this novel that is X, Y, or Z…”
Yeah, and that’s wonderful when that happens, too. I’m never sad about it. Like Mongrels, it always gets on the horror shelves and it’s not really a horror novel to me, just it’s using horror monsters. But if horror fans find it and like it, that’s great.
Mapping the Interior is like that too. It’s a horror novel that gets put into the category of fantasy because it deals with ghosts, different planes or dimensions, and the nature of haunting. Maybe I’m just trying to work out my own understanding of it.
Yeah, I wrote that as a horror novella and still think of it as a horror novella. I wrote it because I wanted to challenge myself to make a ghost scary, where the ghost is actually threatening. I mean, ghosts are never scary on the page, to me. I think ghosts are startling, for sure. In real life, if you were to encounter a ghost you’d be startled, I think — you’d drop your Dr. Pepper on the floor — but you wouldn’t really have fear, because what could it do to you? The worst it could do would be to tell you a secret, and that’s not that bad.
So, what’s on your personal reading list these days?
I read a lot of nonfiction, popular science, like I was saying. And, of course, I’m reading for the World Fantasy Awards right now. Every day I’m reading a handful of short stories and every week it’s novels and novellas and collections and anthologies, and I’m just reading so much and I’m finding some amazing stuff that I would have missed otherwise. So, I’m happy to be doing that.
What exciting things do you see happening in speculative fiction, or would like to see happen?
What I see happening, like, big picture, what I hope happens in the field, not just in science fiction and horror and fantasy and Westerns and crime and all the rest, but, I think … I want what’s happening in video games, the video game impulse, the video game mindset. I think it’s starting to infuse itself into storytelling in ways that are probably going to leave me behind since I don’t know video games, but I’m glad it’s happening. I think it’s going to keep fiction vital. I don’t know how it’s going to express itself, I don’t know if it’s going to be bound to technology, hardware, or if it’s going to actually infuse itself into narrative. I’m not sure what’s going to happen. But I think it’s going to change things in some way, it’s slowly going to change things and we won’t even be aware it’s happening. It’s not going to be like some books comes along, drops like a bomb in the middle of the literature scene. It’ll be like a hundred books do a little thing and things slowly shift. People will stop saying, “I read a novel,” and start saying, instead, “I played a novel.”
That would be super cool! That kind of merging of digital technology, virtual reality even, gaming with narrative, RPGs. There’s definitely a wealth of possibility there. I think at this point it’s largely a question of how to do it, the logistics of merging those two distinct forms in a more cohesive way.
I hope it goes the narrative way instead of the hardware way. I think that would be a real change, instead of something on the surface. Like in Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant, I think it’s Rant, there’s a different kind “reading”-thing where the reader ducks into this gadget where they have a set or progression of experiences that have been orchestrated by a sort of writer, sort of conductor. It’s so cool, like plugging directly into someone else’s head, no decoding required. But I don’t know if we’ll get to that anytime soon.
That’s true. It’s a really experimental technique and structure that worked well. Has anyone else done something like that in an equally effective way?
Strange Days has the same kind of basic build.
Yes, that’s right, the film. At the same time, narrative, fiction, literature, what have you, is being more infused into gaming as well. They’re both moving toward each other.
Yeah, I think they are. We have storytelling impulses, which show up in our fiction, I guess, and gives us what we need. We need story. But as people spend more and more time punching buttons, playing video games, it’s natural for that storytelling impulse, that need for fiction, to start to kind of … find a home there, where we’re spending our time. Or, it’s natural for the narrative impulse to express itself through the medium everybody’s all lost in, that’s what I’m saying. And even if we dial back in 50 years to how things are now, there’ll still be some relict DNA left over from when everybody was video-game-crazy. It’ll be like a sedimentary layer in fiction.
There’s been a slow but steady infusion of narrative into video games, which has been connected for a long time. I remember seeing Dragon’s Lair at an arcade, but in such games narrative would mostly be found in openings that served as a backstory, as an introduction, and entry into the game itself. Now it is much more integrated to where the narrative is going on and developing as you’re playing, and thus creating a synergistic relationship between the two, as opposed to serving as a narrative set piece that frames a level before you then go and kill monsters or zombies.
Anything else you’re reading right now or are excited about?
Yeah, there is, but I can’t say it right now being a World Fantasy judge. I shouldn’t reveal what my favorites are. That would be kind of … the judge version of poor sportsmanship, if that’s a thing.
Yes, of course. Besides the activity of writing itself, it seems that a big part of being a writer comes down to negotiating barriers. Have you learned more effective or efficient ways to get through the world of writing and the publishing industry?
Not really. I just write and try not to burn bridges, leave the rest up to the agent. When the agent is capable and invested and connected, it makes things so, so much better. But you know, if I could do anything different, it would probably be contractual stuff, so I could get rights back to books quicker. Long ago books, I mean.
I see, yes, that’s critical, but an issue that maybe gets pushed to the side given the difficulties involved. The real nuts and bolts.
Like Demon Theory is sort of lost or in limbo. Growing Up Dead in Texas too. So, yeah, if I could go back, I’d build better escape clauses into my contracts. Just have it all spelled out super clearly, no wiggle room. I mean, that’s how they all are, but, just starting out, I was just happy to get books on the shelf, would sign my name wherever.
In terms of your own trajectory as a writer, if you ever hit it big would you give up teaching? If so, what would you do?
You know, it’s a … almost a dilemma, right? It’d be a wonderful dilemma to have, but I really like teaching, that’s the thing. I really like being in a room with smart people. People talking about books and writing, it just gives me such a thrill. Also, my students keep me connected to the world. My impulse is just to listen to Bob Seger records and never engage the world that’s actually happening, you know? My students force me to know who Ariana Grande is. And it isn’t always pleasant. I always feel like the oldster in the room. But if I get too divorced from the world, then the stuff that I write probably won’t matter anymore. So in a sense I need my students too.
Yes, students can be such a great resource, right? Quickly fading are the days, I think — and rightly so — with the kind of classroom where the professor is the arbiter of knowledge, the authority. Where they stand at the front of the classroom, behind a podium, and confer their knowledge to students. I always learn from my students. If I don’t know what to think about a book, am trying to work through it, I’ll teach it so we can have conversations and learn about it together. And the students always come up with such amazing ideas and insights.
They really do, man. One of my professors, a linguistics teacher I had back in ’99, Haj Ross, had this theory of teaching … “the jewel network,” I think that’s what it was called. It’s where the teacher and the students are all just different facets of this big jewel … okay, I don’t remember the metaphor exactly. But it made sense! It was so cool, such a cool ideal. It’s not about who has power in the room, it’s about being a single unit moving to answer questions, thinking about possibilities. When I first learned about that, I realized that’s the kind of teacher I wanted to be. I wanted to be one facet of a unit tending toward discovery, always learning, and, sure, I’m maybe not the most knowledgeable person in the room, the most experienced, the one responsible for going this way or that way. But if I ever stopped learning, if I stopped being a student, then I should stop teaching, rather than if I’m able to quit and still swing the bills.
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Billy J. Stratton is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Denver, where he teaches contemporary native American/American literature, critical theory, film studies, and writing.
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[1] Upon reviewing the draft of this interview, Stephen wanted it made clear that, at that Denver coffee shop, he had no coffee. And actually, neither did I.
[2] “Observations on the Shadow Self: Dialogues with Stephen Graham Jones,” The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones: A Critical Companion. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016: 47–48.
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