Surviving the Wolverines: An interview with Stephen Graham Jones

by Gavin Pate

At thirty-six, Stephen Graham Jones has emerged as one of the country’s most innovative and prolific young writers. Jones, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, has written works that range from horror to thriller to science fiction, all the while confronting stale ideas about the limitations of genre with his unique approach to narrative. His great sympathy for his characters is filtered through the everyday detritus of contemporary American life—video games, horror films,’80s hair-metal—and the result is a picture of life that is frightening, hilarious, and all its own.

This summer saw the publication of two new novels by Jones, Ledfeather (FC2, $17.50) and The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti (Chiasmus Press, $14.95). In Ledfeather, we encounter the plight of the Blackfeet Indians through the life of Doby Saxon, a boy attempting to rewrite history while standing in the middle of a snowy road playing a life-and-death game of chicken. In The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti, we meet Nolan, the last man standing in a video game call-center, trying to make it through one last night before the ghost of his father comes through the telephone lines.

With four other novels, one collection, and over 70 stories published in magazines and on the web, Jones, who holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Florida State University and teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, seems to have no intention of slowing down. His first novel, The Fast Red Road, won the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction (2001), and Bleed Into Me, a collection of stories, won the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse Jones Award for Fiction (2005).

This interview was conducted on a single Friday afternoon over the Internet, during which Jones managed to survive a sweltering bike ride, a rogue and deadly peanut, and what might be an unhealthy amount of Ambesol.


Gavin Pate: I want to start with an idea that keeps showing up in your books, and that is the idea of cycles, or recurrence. I suppose this could be seen as an obvious American Indian concern, and that aspect is surely illustrated in Ledfeather. However, what I find interesting is that it occurs in other ways: it seems central to Demon Theory, and of course the serial killer in All the Beautiful Sinners is perpetuating a repetitive violence. In fact, you end the first chapter of your first novel, The Fast Red Road, with the italicized plea: “Not again, please not again.”

Stephen Graham Jones: Yeah, cyclical stuff, iterations, rhythm (which is just repetition with variance)—I can’t seem to stay away from it. Not at all sure why. There’s nothing particularly Indian about it, though being cued into them helps, say, reading Silko. As for why I keep ringing that bell, though—could it be I’m trying to be all epic? I mean, I cut my teeth on fantasy. I could have just got my brain shaped that way, on accident.

GP: It does begin to take on an epic quality, even in a really short piece like “Conquistadors.” But I see the cycles on a smaller level as well, specifically within the family relations of your characters—sons trying to break away from these familial cycles, while at the same time being drawn back in. I wonder if these concerns are a result of childhood, or your role now as a parent, or neither/both.

SGJ: Never thought about it that way. But yeah, I guess, growing up, it was like I was in some spin-cycle: new dad, new school, new life, then bam—kickstart it all over again in a year or two. If anything, I’d always thought that kind of gave me an advantage for writing characters—each time we moved, after a while, anyway, my mom started letting me ‘edit’ my school records. So I was changing names on the road, showing up as somebody new, with a whole new story. All kinds of fun. And confusing. It felt a lot like writing feels now, I guess, when I’m deep enough into a novel that I start remembering it as experiencee, not as something on the page. At which point I start going faster and faster, just to get done, to get out, to come back. These cycles, though, I guess there's a cynical slant on it: the bad stuff keeps repeating itself, yeah? But it’s so, so important for there to be people within that cycle, people like Birdfinger [from The Fast Red Road], willing to sacrifice themselves in order to change things. And Dalimpere [from Ledfeather], he’s just part of the agent shuffle on the reservation back then. Worst cycle of all. But I keep coming back to Fast Red Road. The first novel you write, it’s every novel you’ll ever write. For better or for worse.

GP: You mention the bad stuff, and I was going to ask about violence, because your aesthetic includes a fair amount of it, both physical and emotional. I was wondering if you see a connection between violence as a subject of art and violence in the world, how one comments on or informs the other.

SGJ: I’m not sure it’s any different, violence in the world and violence in art. My heart slams in my chest the same, I mean. And violence, for me—the most violent line I can ever remember writing was inAll the Beautiful Sinners, a whole scene that got killed, for space. But it was one where Cody Mingus and Jim Doe meet up somewhere in Kansas, and Jim Doe steps all at once up into that Bronco (or was it a Blazer? No, couldn't be—would I ever write a Blazer? Surely not. Unless it was a bad guy...), and he just looks at the dashboard and says to Cody, How fast can this thing go? It destroyed me then, and it destroys me now, just thinking about it. There are moments in novels, where you accidentally do the whole thing all at once, in a mouthful of words, and you just kind of want to die then, because you're done, it’s over. Anyway, that's violence to me. At the keyboard. Shaking, crying, trying to go into a small ball that nobody’ll see, or step on.

But as for what you’re asking, I was on a panel once about this specifically, and when somebody asked me why there was so much violence in my stuff, it seemed obvious to me: that’s what I lie in bed at night thinking about. If I can’t sleep—and that’s a lot, nine times out of ten—it’s because I’m thinking bad, bad thoughts. Then dreaming even worse stuff. Sometimes I think that’s why I hunt; it’s not so much for the meat, but to get to cut flesh with all my knives. Though I love the meat, don’t get me wrong. Anyway, I could probably answer this a third way that wouldn’t really be an answer either, but I’ll cut it short here.

GP: No, I think that’s accurate, and it makes me think of Dalimpere’s problem with the Blackfeet once the army arrives with the food. Those scenes killed me; the violence of them was so total, so without reprieve. I think Dalimpere’s one of the most accomplished characters you’ve ever written, and you sure seem to feel a lot of sympathy for him, which problematizes the whole thing for the reader. I was particularly impressed with how you morphed your prose, especially in his third letter to Claire. It seems to evoke a poetic style very foreign to your other writing. Can I ask how this came about, and what was it like writing him?

SGJ: That antiquey way Dalimpere writes, all sentimental and over-the-top for Claire, it’s the most natural way for me to write. I’m just lucky to have found a character that that voice could fit. Before him, all I’d ever made work in that style was that "Captain's Lament" piece—I think that’s leftover Dalimpere, really—and early on in Fast Red Road, when Pidgin and Birdfinger are arguing, the word ‘pule’ gets mentioned. But Dalimpere, yeah, his diction was nothing but fun for me. And I really did care about him. I’m glad he problematizes the whole where-to-put-sympathy thing in an American Indian novel. That always needs to be problematized. Over and over.

GP: On that note, and while we are talking about Ledfeather, Doby’s parallel story to Dalimpere’s is what makes this novel so rich. I was particularly struck by the scene at the casino, where you narrate from the POV of the elderly white woman—seems like it could be a story all by itself, as if it slipped out of Bleed Into Meand smuggled itself into Ledfeather. This is the first time you’ve tackled casino culture in relation to American Indians, right? And that idea, that Doby is trying to sell her stolen pieces of his own heritage, it’s a pretty succinct commentary on the appropriation of Indian culture on the one hand and survival on the other.

SGJ: Yeah, things have worth only in relationship to how quickly they can be turned into cash, pretty much. For Doby anyway. As for casino-stuff—I’ve never done that? Can't think of anything specific, so maybe not. But yeah, I guess that would be fun to excise, the RV lady and their trip to North Dakota. Maybe I’ll run through it again, see if it’s something I should do aloud, at a reading.

GP: Ledfeather is pretty bleak—both it and The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti deal with suicide. Still, at the end, that touch in the back of the car, that human connection in the midst of all that tragedy, it seems to leave a glimmer, however slight, of hope. Is the touch enough?

SGJ: Man, it’ll have to be, I think. It’s enough for me, anyway. And, two suicides in two August books, both by me… sounds suspicious. Don’t know why I’d do that. Not on purpose, anyway.

GP: One of the real accomplishments of the book was your decision to use foreign perspectives to tell Doby’s story. I consider you an experimental writer, in narrative and language, but do you see yourself that way?

SGJ: No, I don’t see myself that way. I'm not a conscious innovator, anyway—don’t sit down, roll my sleeves up, and think “How can I do this all-different, now?” But I think there are two honest reasons to innovate or experiment, and one ridiculous one. The ridiculous one is because you don’t really have anything to say, but have all this ability bottled up, feel like showing it off. I say take up skateboarding or something instead, please. We don’t need tricks just for tricks’ sake. But the other two reasons to innovate, I think I’ve hit them both, maybe even at the same time. The first has to do with what people say about how a writer never really matures until his parents die, thus freeing him up to tell the stories that are closest to his heart. There’s a workaround to that, though, if you happen to have parents who started way early, so aren’t even near to Croaksville: you tell the stories that are planted deep, but you disguise them under all these literary pyrotechnics, so that nobody important will recognize what you’re doing. I think I’ve done that. Take Birdfinger after Clive’s funeral, when Pidgin, in the restaurant, from grief, wets his pants, and Birdfinger, to make him feel less alone, just pees in his pants too. That’s my uncle, pretty much, the guy I was closest with growing up, the guy who’s more responsible for who I am now than just about anybody. But it’s all buried in this novel with these twenty-thousand word parts, all very intentionally set up so that, if you look away, everything that came before kind of leaks out of your head, and you have to start over. I was trying at the time to kill the novel, to have it be not just something you read before bed. But I was hiding, too. Frantically.

As for the other reason, it’s that the story won’t conform to the norms. It absolutely refuses to stay between the lines, but instead twists itself into all these insane shapes, just to get told. Or, to get told economically, maybe I should say. The “Roses Are Red” chapter in Bird—which is about as good as I’ll ever write, I suspect—you could probably do that in sixty pages straight, maybe. Except, if you unfold each piece of Bird out like that, it’s going to be a 500-pager. So, instead, I found ways to compact it, to deliver it in ten pages. And it totally and absolutely melted my head. Like writing that middle part ofLedfeather, where Doby and Dalimpere are kind of passing each other in the story. I keep telling myself I’m not going to do that stuff anymore, that I’m going to learn to tell a normal straight boring little story. But things happen.

As for why I used everybody else to tell Doby’s story: it was just that he had no voice of his own. He was always in the distance. Terrified me, absolutely. Still does.

GP: I was going to ask about that middle part of Ledfeather, which reminds me of some of the places inFast Red Road. Since you mentioned them, Ledfeather was the third of your FC2 books, and in my mind they form a loose trilogy that differs from your other books (although Bleed Into Me seems to come out of the same concerns). You even suggest in the afterward to Ledfeather that LP Deal [from The Bird Is Gone] could have written it. I was wondering how you view the connection between the books, their relation to one another.

[At this point there was a slight lull in the conversation.]

SGJ: I hate peanuts, don't know why I keep eating them. Just ate, for about the 1000th time, a bad one that tasted like a corn nut, so was all dry heaving in the trash here. Not fun, but I’m back...

When I turned Ledfeather in to FC2, I kept casting around, kind of Tom Sawyerly, to see if I could get them to produce some kind of sleeve all three of these books could fit in together. Because, yeah, that structuring principle/nightmare of Fast Red Road, where things keep repeating themselves, with slight variation but the same effect, it’s what these three books are doing. Or, to say it different: I didn’t tell the story right enough with Fast Red Road, so tried again with Bird Is Gone, but then, even though each of those books kill me, and always will, I tried to do it a third and final time, with Ledfeather. And I say final because, for books like those three, you really do trade pieces of yourself. And you can’t get those pieces back. There’s so much stuff I wish I had access to still, but it’s all been burned away from writing those three books. From trying and trying to get it right. And, with Ledfeather, I think it finally is right. But, as for the sleeve, turns out they’re not all the same height, so it’d have to be a pretty ugly sleeve. You could always stuff all three into an old Frosted Flakes box or something, though. That’d be cool with me.

GP: I think you’re on to something there—recycling and marketing all in one. On the surface The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti is quite different from Ledfeather. It’s fiercely comedic, and for the most part a much lighter read than its cousin, at least until the end, where it, surprisingly, takes on a very sincere tone, once again exploring these dynamics in families. As you documented on your online journal, you wrote it in three days. Did you see the ending the entire time?

SGJ: No, didn’t see it all. Well, the pinewood derby car, I had a sense of that, yeah. But I had no real clue what it was going to mean for Nolan. But yeah, it reads light, for everybody but me. . . See that “innovation-as-disguise” thing, I suppose.

GP: Maybe light is the wrong word, because I think it is a serious book, but it’s just so damn funny—especially, strangely, the suicide notes.

SGJ: That dad, yeah, he’s me. It’s so strange for people to read this book. Like I’m walking around with a hole in my head, so they can just look inside.

GP: When I read his parts, I kept wondering how many infinite ways I might be messing up my kids.

SGJ: Yep. I get worried too.

GP: One of the greatest inventions of the book is the Camopede, the giant worm protagonist of the video game in the novel—seems like there is a whole other Camopede narrative just waiting to happen. You handle the material almost like a Borges story, where instead of writing the entire epic of the Camopede, you give it to us in shorthand, which works great. I think the worm gets a bad rap too; it's just misunderstood. Did the idea just come from endless hours of playing Centipede as a kid?

SGJ: I played my share of Centipede, yeah. And I always loved that Borges stuff, where there's this whole undertext that you never get quite direct enough access to. But the Camopede, he’s the real victim here, of course. And progenitor. I should maybe find a way to footnote Camopede into Demon Theory.

GP: Speaking of which, you're making a name for yourself as a writer of great afterwards. Why all the commentary when you’re finished with a book?

SGJ: Never thought about that. I guess what it really comes down to is that I know the publisher’s going to give me one page to do whatever I want. That they’re not going to edit, that’s not going to ‘count’ against me, anything like that. So I say what feels like it needs to be said, I guess.

GP: You have another collection of stories due out next year. Can you tell me a little about it, how it might be different from your last collection? And what’s it like working with so many different publishers?

SGJ: The Ones That Got Away is horror stories—the best of the horror stories I’ve written. Eighty-thousand words or so, I think, so not small for a collection. I’m very proud of the stuff in there, too. It’ll be published by Prime, and yeah, they’ll be my, what? Fifth publisher? I think that’s right. Eight books, five publishers, but three of the books are FC2. The reason for working with so many, it’s just that I keep writing different things. Rugged Land, which is now out of business, was all into me being a crime novelist—had my career mapped out, one book at this date, another at that date—which was great, except I also wanted to be doing weird little novels, and not necessarily “on the side,” just different than the whole crime thing. But big houses, houses with money, they want all of you, it seems. So things fell apart there pretty fast. And Nebraska, MacAdam/Cage, and Chiasmus: they’ve all been one-shot deals, which I like. Or, to put it another way, I hate that line in a contract about ‘first option.’ I always beg my agent to find some way around it, I just hate hate hate being locked in. Not because I’m scared of deadlines—I love deadlines, the stupider the better—and not because I'm worried about ever running out of stuff to write about. But because there’ll usually be a handful of months where I can’t submit anything around to other publishers. It leaves me where I am now, pretty much: a lot of novels already finished, just sitting around. Zombie Bake-OffFlushboySeven Spanish AngelsThe Dog Mother, one or two I'm probably forgetting. I think I even have enough science fiction/speculative stuff now that I could select a solid collection out of it. I don't know. What I need, I think, is a pseudonym. Or two or three. And also, of course, I want to do novelizations and tie-ins. I was hit up to ghostwrite once, for good money, and I should have done that, I'm sure. Probably would have learned something. Or at least paid a bill or two.

But I’ve gone off-track here. Working with so many publishers, I feel like I've learned the game a bit: from editors to production to marketing, they all do things differently, it seems. And it’s fun each time. I take what I learned from the last one and apply it next time. Also, talking FC2 specifically, my editor there, Brenda Mills, isn’t there anymore, so I’m not at all sure if I’ll have any more FC2 books. Though the only stuff I’d try to push through FC2 would be of the Fast-Bird-Ledfeather variety, and that cycle’s kind of done—except, and this is probably a self-jinx just to say it, a couple of weeks ago I did map out a sequel to Ledfeather. Maybe it’s how Louise Erdrich felt after Love Medicine: I don’t want to let these characters go. Or, maybe it’s not even the characters, but the narrative mode. I lucked onto a story that’s the same but different. So I’m tempted to start it right now. Except I just opened a new blank document to write a story about some hamsters. And I also have this other novel, set back in Texas, that I’ve been meaning to get on paper. Aside from ten other things I need to get on paper too, including two slashers. It’s the most elegant genre.

GP: Most people marvel at how much you have written. But not only do you publish almost constantly, you host an online writers forum, along with writers Will Christopher Baer and Craig Clevenger, called The Velvet, and you keep a pretty steady blog on your webpage. I was wondering how these other activities contribute to or interact with your writing.

SGJ: It’s a kind of circular way to say it, I guess, but the more I keep doing, the more I end up doing. Give me two weeks totally free from everything, and I’ll probably just rent the first couple of seasons ofMagnum P.I. or something. Or play a lot of basketball. Get intimate with every pawn shop within driving distance, that kind of stuff. Stack a lot of obligations on, though, even stuff I don’t have to do but know I’m going to do anyway, and suddenly I’m writing more and more. What it means, I think, is no rest, all play, always. But everything’s play for me. I tend not to take stuff serious enough.

GP: But your books are serious.

SGJ: Yeah. I don’t know. I know when I’m writing, I’m invested so much in the words on the page that it’s not very healthy. But when I’m playing basketball, I’m invested way too much there too. It’s why I always come away limping, I suspect. With everything I do, I have this immediate impulse, always, that I want to do it faster and better and harder and more perfect than anybody else has done it; who cares about the consequences, the consequences are always later, far away. I’m never cool with just cruising, just coasting along, taking it easy. Have always been jealous of people who can do that, really. So, to edit—yeah, it’s all play for me, but the play, it’s always serious. When I’m doing it. But then, after, walking away, win or lose, it didn’t really matter. But did you see that shot I almost made, when I was falling into the wolverine pit? It was worth it, a hundred times over. Every time.

GP: All right, last question, since you’ve been cool enough to give me half your afternoon: You told me earlier you were thinking about doing the three-day novel contest this weekend, but were trying not to. What are the odds at this moment?

SGJ: Kind of low, just for mouth-preservation. I have a reading on Thursday here in Boulder, and my mouth is already so trashed, I’m suckling on Ambesol every five minutes. Probably burning a hole in my stomach or something. A very numb, happy hole. But I guess this needs some explaining: way back in elementary, I got my tongue cut off, had to have it sewed back on. End result: it’s still not right. What, twenty years later? If I take enough of all the right kind of pills, I can keep it in check most weeks. But then there are weeks like this, when I can’t even understand myself when I talk. So, three-day-noveling it, I’ll start out with tea, sure, but I’ll graduate very quickly, I know, to Vanilla Coke, provided I can find it in the right quantities. And Coke, even Dr. Pepper—Pepsi’s the best of them, who knows why—it kills my mouth. As does chocolate. And how am I supposed to write a novel in three days without chocolate? Good grief. However, yeah, I’ve got a couple of boxes of Sixlets tucked away. Anyway, who knows. Not me. I did accidentally have a workable idea for a three-day novel yesterday. Not sure how the structure would fall out, but the voice is there anyway. And you can’t go anywhere without that.

Click here to purchase The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008