All the Beautiful Sinners, Eight Years Later
Of all the novels and stories I’ve written, only two of them really stand out as an experience. Not at all saying the rest were a chore or a race or a slog or forgettable, any of that. Every novel you write, it’s different, and wonderful, and terrible, and worth it. But the title story from Bleed Into Me, say: one morning I woke with a fever, was standing at the medicine cabinet about to dose myself with all the usual experiments, when I remembered a fight my cousin Stacy had got in once. This legendary kind of thing. And then it matched up in my head with the way monkeys hug your neck, and I knew right then I could either take some pills, zone out for the afternoon, or keep the fever, try to get this story on the page.
All the Beautiful Sinners is the other time that happened. A four month fever—though don’t quote me on that. Honestly, I suspect it was more like two, but who knows, it could have been six, I suppose. This was all the way back in 2002, yeah? By ATBS, I’d written, I think, five novels: The Fast Red Road; Demon Theory; Bloodlines; Tar, Baby; and No Rest for the Wicked. And this screenplay with Steve Perry and an El Camino, Stay (Perry’s a character, not co-writer. same for the El Camino). So, by this time the intimidating thing about novels, it wasn’t whether I could cross three or four hundred pages. It was whether I could do it in a non-self-indulgent way, and maybe even with a little grace.
But I guess that’s always the intimidation. So many pitfalls and pratfalls from page one until the end. There are pockets of luck there too, though.
Also, “All the Beautiful Sinners”—this novel wasn’t the first time I’d used that. Nona had said it just out of nowhere in Demon Theory (I wrote it in 1999), and I’d liked it too much, had made it the last section of this “Adultery: A Failing Sestina” story that Alaska Quarterly Review published in their “One Blood” issue (did it get reprinted in Behind the Short Story, too? I’m thinking so). And, man, I also liked it enough that it became Demon Theory’s first title. And I still kind of secretly call DT “ATBS” in my head. Anyway, my agent faithfully mailed DT/ATBS out, in spite of House of Leaves dominating the publishing airwaves at the time (and rightfully so), and one of the places she hit up was this new place in New York, Rugged Land, which was focusing on ‘film into books.’And they had capital, had the right people, distribution, marketing, all of it. Bad thing was, I guess they also had taste; they not only rejected the DT ATBS, but, man, they rejected it. Probably unclassy of me to post that rejection letter, but suffice it to say that the letter pulled no punches. As rejection letters shouldn’t, of course. Where else to get the nerve to mail it out again, if not to prove the last place wrong?
Either as a p.s. to that rejection or just in some communication with my agent, Kate Garrick—it’s not like I take this rejection out and read it regularly—Rugged Land did say that, in spite of all this, they still thought I could put sentences and scenes together, maybe tell some decent enough lies. Would I consider writing a thriller for them?
I thought about it for about six hours, maybe two days. First, I’d never tried to write a mystery, much less a thriller, so what I did was try it out, take the genre for a ride. I dropped one random line, “There was a woman waiting for him outside his office.” I figured that was a good place to start, somebody sitting outside a detective’s office, to report a crime. A few hours later I had “Teeth” (ran first in Brutarian, then’s included in The Ones That Got Away), shot it across to the editor at Rugged Land, and he thought it showed that I could manuever in this genre if I wanted.
That wasn’t the eureka moment, though.
The eureka moment was me, sitting in my living room watching Rockford Files (I was big into Jim Rockford in 2002), flipping through my current notebook. Finally finding in there this one note I’d made: “the most successful serial killer in America, he follows storms.” It was from an Unsolved Mysteries episode I’d caught a few weeks earlier, that had creeped me out. So we signed the contract, for two books as it turned out, and the editor/publisher there, Shawn Coyne, he gave me a list of books to read, as homework. Top on that list was James Patterson. I’d burned through some of his on my own already, but hit them with a different eye now, trying to track the pacing, the development, the surprises. And I read so many other thrillers besides, a serious tower of them, a sea of them, a catalogue of them, until—until it was like the summer after I’d prepped for my comps, in 97, when I’d read a hundred and ten novels over three months, aced the tests but also, sitting down to write my creative dissertation, discovered that I was now, just because of oversaturation, very hostile to the form of the novel. If that can make any sense. I’d seen the same things happen so many times that I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be involved, pretty sure I wanted to single-handedly kill the whole enterprise. With one book. The Fast Red Road. Which I still love, don’t get me wrong—it’ll always be my first, probably my most autobiographical, my least diluted—but those big twenty-thousand word sections where I’m trying to be Pynchon, they’re not just because that’s how it fell out, they’re because I was mad at the novel, wanted to make the reader understand that, wanted the novel to unwind in their head the moment they looked away.
So, in that sense, you know: complete success, Steve.
Also, I should say that every character I’ve ever written, I’m pretty sure they first appeared in The Fast Red Road. All my main characters tend to be some version of Pidgin Boanerges. Especially Jim Doe, of ATBS. And, that wasn’t his name in the early going, either. I think it was ‘John Doe,’ maybe. Either that or something ridiculously fancy and fun (I’m big on fancy and fun names, always have to reel myself in). But my editor said that ‘John Doe’ was too obviously game-playing, and he was right, of course (really, back then I was just off watching Roadside Prophets too much). And then I remembered that Tony Hillerman’s young deputy, he was ‘Jim Chee,’ right? And my attitude toward Hillerman’s mysteries set in Navajo land, I don’t know. I liked the stories themselves, the mystery parts—there’s a lot to learn there—but I also wondered if I was being tricked into some whitewashed approximation of “Indian,” too. Tricked by fiction, I mean, which is about the most pleasant way to get tricked. But still.
So, I had this character, this Jim Doe, and I also had this one short story I’d written in 1995, “Navasota Moon” (never published, I don’t think), with this suspiciously half-Indian guy painting his mom naked on an old drive-in screen, and I had that note from Unsolved Mysteries, and I had the stupidest title in the world, “Subterranean Iron Horse Blues.” And a book contract. That’s always the most important thing, a book contract. Think I bought this tall red Chevy with the advance, which I kept for the smallest handful of months possible, sold at the usual loss. (one thing I’ve found? it’s impossible to do anything responsible with money you get for telling lies. you always have to launder it through all these series of bad ideas. and the world takes it cut. and then you have to tell more and more lies . . .).
However, the immediate problem I ran into, aside from that joke of a title, was Navasota: I dug the name but didn’t really know the town. One atlas trip later, yep: all the way down around Houston? So I considered Nagadoches—I knew by 2002 that Lansdale was there—but, man: Houston again. Might as well be Mars for me. I mean, I’d already left Florida because it was creepily green, right? Because their weird bugs freaked me out, and how’s anybody supposed to sleep knowing there’s alligators out there thinking about you? So I trolled my trusty atlas, trolled my trusty atlas some more, and, there was Nazareth waiting right there for me, just a few miles from where I was living then (Shallowater, Texas).
And it was March, even, which, in West Texas: the storms, the sunsets. Nearly every night there was a wall of weather blowing in, and we were living up against a cotton field then, and, that first day I sat down to start on this book, my wife set a Vanilla Coke down by my keyboard. She’d bought one for each of us; they were just then on the shelves.
I twisted mine open, walked into the backyard, my hair lifting in this wind that was blowing in, the sky already rolling over into that hurt kind of blue, and I took my first drink, and, when my wife didn’t go for hers, I drank it down as well, and then was in for two or three of those a day for ATBS, plus Sixlets, which I eventually learned to cut with tortillas, to make them last longer. Months later, maybe even a year—junkies are what they are—I would even get in a pushfight with one of those Coke guys who wheel it all into the stores. We were in the parking lot, and he was telling me something about ‘no more,’ ‘quit making,’ ‘get a life,’ and, you know. Things happen.
Anyway, the writing of ATBS: first I needed music. Of course. It took about two hours, but I finally got the perfect sequence burned to a CD (I didn’t know playlists from pineapple tracks in 2002), my soundtrack for ATBS:
- “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Bonnie Tyler
- “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” Denise Williams
- “Tiny Dancer,” Sir Elton
- “Grease,” Frankie Valli
- “Flashdance,” Irene Cara
- “Crazy for You,” Madonna
- “Sister Christian,” Night Ranger
- “Ain’t Even Done with the Night,” John Mellencamp
- “Against All Odds,” Phil Collins
- “When Doves Cry,” Prince
- “Dancing in the Sheets,” Shalimar (but I’d usually bounce past this one)
- “Strut,” Sheena Easton (would usually back up to listen to this one again, at even higher volume)
- “Private Dancer,” Tina Turner
- “Objects in the Rearview Mirror,” Meat Loaf
Listening to it right now, too. But Shalimar’s been replaced by Billy Preston on “Will it Go Round in Circles,” of course. Because I do actually have some standards. And, yeah, there was specifically no country in there, though country’s my first love. Why? Because I wanted to write something that made me have that same feeling inside as when I was twelve and thirteen, walking with a girl outside the bowling alley, just ten minutes left before her mom was going to pull up, take her away. And these songs, for me, they’re exactly that. Especially the Madonna.
So, the actual story inside ATBS, as opposed to the story all around it: I think I wrote two or three chapters in like negative six seconds or so, completely stealing a name from a current student (‘Cody Mingus’), completely stealing ‘Creed’ from Wolverine’s backstory, and I zapped it off to my editor. Who liked it, but he told me no way could I kill a twelve-year-old and a fourteen-year-old on page one. That nobody would read the book then, that you could be bloody but not indecent. But I kind of liked that “He told her he wanted to see the birds” opening, that whole scene. So, petty person that I am, I kept it, just on-the-spot and purely for revenge dreamed up this whole rationalization for why they looked that age, but were really older. Which, yeah, serves to make the antagonist more creeptacular, like you definitely need in a thriller—I should mention and thank: Rugged Land also pushed me through all the Robert McKee seminars (NY, LA, Vegas, somewhere else)—but it also started the story twisting in a way I hadn’t planned, like a windchime just out of control, blowing every which way at once, rattling instead of making music.
I mean, what I really wanted, it was some deputy chasing a serial killer through the midwest, with lots of Twister stuff in the background (everybody has their one movie they can never click away from? mine’s Twister). Except then, and mostly because I’d way OD’d on thriller lit, and so, like with Fast Red Road, could see everything coming from two miles away, suddenly I’m on the east coast (more alien to me than Houston), thousands of miles from where I halfway planned, and the dramatic irony possibilities within the story were fun, no doubt, that slowburn particular to this dark kind of stuff, and Jim Doe and Cody Mingus’s separate but converging dramatic lines were excellent for back-and-forth pacing, and I got so, so invested in the Tin Man’s early years, wanted to write a whole different-related novel about him only, and the bodies were just snowballing up behind me. But still. Reading back through ATBS right when it was published, it was a long way from what I’d initially conceived—not the editor’s fault, but mine. All mine. And, I mean, Publisher’s Weekly was nice enough to it, sure:
This second novel by Jones (The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong) follows Texas Deputy Sheriff Jim Doe in his chase after the Tin Man, a sociopath who has been abducting Indian children in the heartland for a decade. Jones, who is a member of the Blackfeet Nation, infuses this cleverly plotted detective story with Indian lore: the Tin Man enters Indian homes during tornadoes, always kidnapping a pair of children-a brother and sister-bringing to life an old Indian belief that storms sometimes take a malicious human form. As he tracks the Tin Man along dusty Texas highways and small towns across the country, Doe, who is also Indian, must face his own troubled family history, which includes a mother who abandoned his family and a sister who has been missing for nearly 20 years. The book masterfully plays with the serial killer genre, walking a line between convention and invention and delving into the psychology of both killer and detective. The plot is chilling in itself, but Jones’s brisk, clean, visceral prose gives the novel its edgy suspense. Even a brief description of a mundane waiting room, for example, becomes unnerving when Jones describes the protagonists having “left the waiting room chairs at odd angles, the television looking down on them at a severe angle. The coins in Jim Doe’s pants jingled as they walked. The hall was seventeen years long.”
And The Houston Chronicle and Austin Chronicle and San Antonio Express and everywhere seemed to be into it as well, and Texas Monthly even flew a reporter to Lubbock to interview me about it for a feature, and then they made it their Book of the Month, I was reading at BookPeople on Sixth Street, all of that, and Rugged Land was running ads in the NYT for it, and all of this was very very cool, I couldn’t be happier, I couldn’t be more surprised. And I still remembered slipping up to Nazareth with my wife, to scout this place out. Finding these old row houses out on a rise in the middle of nowhere, and stumbling over a way antique sewing machine out in the scrub, all busted up. I’ve still got that big spinning wheel from that sewing machine; it’s rusting in my backyard.
Not long after it was published, I wrote my editor, asked what rights I still had all to myself for ATBS. Only comic at the time, as it turned out. So I took a couple weeks, ‘fixed’ ATBS in a comic script—which, really, it’s no comic script at all, but kind of what I did when I realized I didn’t have the skill to make it work in a screenplay. And I posted it for anybody who wanted ‘my’ version. But I think that comic’d one is kind of broke. Or—I haven’t read over it for years, but, when Dzanc asked if I had rights to anything in my back catalogue that could work for their rEprint series, I knew I wanted to suck that comic script back into straight(ish) prose, finally get to run the ATBS I always meant to run. That I should have run in 2003.
Except, instead of actually using that comic script as guide—I never can figure out what version of my files are actually the most recent—I just opened some ATBS file I had and went through with a serious torch, burned everything I thought remotely flammable. Everything I loved, yes, all those sentences with my blood in them, but, after it was done, there was the story I’d meant. It was still there, just buried in the ash. All I had to do then was take a week or two, write all new chapters to go between everything. Flesh out what needed fleshing out. Do a new ending, a new opening, new middle parts.
And, at the end of it all—I finished in a hotel in Austin—I think it works. This version, I’ll fight for it, even though all the people who dig the original will probably still prefer that one. Which I’m completely cool with, of course—what writer’s not going to like somebody championing one of their books, yeah? And who am I to know which is the better story? I could be badtalking the first one for all the wrong reasons, right? And, man, that original ATBS, it was beautiful. Rugged Land so had book design down.
Too, I remember back in 2005, 2006, I was at some posh restaurant just sitting in the waiting area, my table still forty-five minutes away, my collar too tight, and the hostess, man, if she wasn’t ignoring me then she was ignoring somebody right beside me.
Or, really, she was ignoring all of us.
So finally I went to see why, what was up. I cat-footed up to her podium stand thing, kind of peeked over, and what’s drawing her attention away, keeping it there, keeping me from eating, it’s All the Beautiful Sinners, open very discreetly on her lap. She closed it so that the back cover was up, so that that huge author photo of me was looking up at her, and made eyes to me like What?
Nothing, I told her, and sat back down, waited however long I was going to need to wait for my table.
And, as for that loser title, it was my editor who pulled us back from that particular cliff. He called me up somewhere towards the end of things, said in his convincing way (I probably still had a check on the way) that it was maybe a bit too cool for school, too Sherman Alexie, except Sherman Alexie would come up with something better, something actually clever. But what about the title for that terrible horror novel . . . what was it? “‘All the beautiful sinners,’ maybe?”
All my life, yeah.
I hope you like this version, this re-do, this rEprint from and with Dzanc (via Amazon etc, to0). The first one had my blood on every page, and this one does too, and it’s the same blood, it still makes me feel thirteen years old, watching headlights out on the road, trying to wish them away, trying to steal just a few minutes more. I’m not even close to being done with the night, I mean. This is just the beginning.