Editor’s note: The following tape is one of many confiscated from the locker of LP Deal in the back of the Fool’s Hip Bowling Alley in the Dakota Territories by Federal Agents during their investigation into the murder of tourists in the region. The publisher acquired the tapes through legal means and now has made transcripts of them available to the public so that more can be understood of the incident in question and the man who claims not to have been involved at all, Stephen Graham Jones.
Taping session number four. Chassis Jones: female, “Indian,” interrogator. Stephen Graham Jones: male, Blackfeet, author, interrogated. No relation.
CHASSIS JONES: We’ve discussed you’re involvement in documenting events in the Dakotas, but I’d like to steer from that and focus more on you. First, I’d hate to ask the ‘what are your influences’-question, but I’d like to know what inspired you to choose writing, especially in the realms of horrific fiction? Are you trying to remove the nightmares from your head like Stephen King, or do you have other reasons?
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: Yeah, that’s pretty much it: I put the disturbing stuff down on the page for that wonderful three-day period that follows finishing a novel, when my head isn’t filled with all the bad stuff. I actually feel clean, then, almost like a good person. But then, on day four, bam, it hits me that, because I’m not writing, I’m a worthless human being, am stealing air from everybody else, all that. But people ask why I write books so fast. It’s not because it’s comfortable to, it’s because it’s extremely uncomfortable not to. Like, when you’re pulling a tooth, you don’t just gradually ease it out, so that each raw nerve can gets it turn. You yank it out all at once, then slam your eyes shut until the pain’s washed through. When I’m writing a novel, it’s not like I do it for six or eight hours every day and then get to be a normal human being for the rest of the time. When I’m writing a novel, it’s a neck-deep affair: I dream it, I write it all over my arms and legs, and lose track really fast of what belongs in one world, what in the other. Things bleed over. And that sucks, I think. Not to mention all the ridiculous loyalties and resentments involved with writing about characters who insist on being real people. And the lengths you have to go to to shut down your critical faculties, just let the words come. I’d burn out if I took more than a handful of months to write a novel. My first, it took me ten, left me wasted, spent. The last two, each of them were a month. June and November. What felt best of all was that three-day, 150-page job I did for a contest a couple of years back. That’s how it should be. People should maintain motel rooms where writers can crash for a week, cost-free, and jam out whatever’s inside them. Sometimes a book would be produced, sometimes a cold body, sure, but nobody said this was a safe ride.
CHASSIS: In the Velvet there was considerable talk about genres and how to define them and a few people mentioned that they don’t see genres only styles, because there are certain techniques used in the various styles that makes them recognizable if indefinable. Do you think there are genres or styles or some sort of mix and match?
SGJ: For me what style is is efficiency. I mean, I remember when I first started reading style guides I thought they were going to be these little handbooks that showed you how to ornament your prose. I think style, I think the horn rims on those old glasses, the fins on the long Cadillacs, a diamond set in your front tooth — all stuff that’s pretty, but serves no real function, or, only serves to put on display that you have the means to be this extravagant, to show off. But it’s just the opposite, really: style in prose, for me at least, is just paring all the extra off, saying a thing in the leanest possible way. Which, yeah, does sometimes mean sucking the sentence or scene down to just about nothing then building it back up with what would seem to be unnecessary flash or polish. Look deeper though, and usually that spit and polish job turns out to be a way of condensing what the writer’s trying to get across — saying it both with content and presentation. With style. As for genre, what genre is to me is simply a product of evolution: after all these millennia of storytelling, the continual back and forth between audience and storyteller has produced sets of conventions which streamline the storytelling process. In some cases, a formula, yes. But that’s hardly limiting. I mean, if ‘forms’ and ‘formulas’ were limiting, the poets wouldn’t be writing sonnets anymore, right? No, the trick with sonnets, I suspect — with the ‘formulas’ some genre-audiences clamor for — is that the form, once you push it hard enough, becomes liberating. George Bowering calls these ‘forms’ baffles, I think, and some guy here in America, can’t recall who, he calls them just obstacles, impediments: those things which distract the critical part of your faculties, so that the good stuff can sneak through. In its purest form, this is how genre works. How I want to make it work. It’s my favorite place to write, too, within genre. The MacGyver take on fiction: What can I build with this, now?
CHASSIS: You’ve said in interviews elsewhere that you’re trying to redefine the Indian Novel because it’s grown stagnant. Plus it’s known that you’re a self-proclaimed thriller/horror buff. What appeals to you about the two?
SGJ: Not to get on a political high-horse or anything — or, just for a moment, here, anyway — my problem with the Indian Novel is that it seems to be falling victim to the very thing it’s claimed to be resisting: essentialism. Saying something’s ‘good’ or ‘right’ just because it is what is. Here, just because it’s Indian. Example: the homing pattern most Indian Novels seem to incorporate. This is where the lost or exiled protagonist finds himself meandering back into the community, which is of course an inversion of the “American” novel, where it’s those who want to individualize themselves who are the heroic ones, the champions, the winners. Think Cuckoo’s Nest, then Ceremony, say. What’s a comic narrative for one culture’s a tragedy for the other. And resisting the tragedy, reappropriating the comic narrative, yeah, that makes pretty good sense, is one of the better forms of resistance. But then, oops, suddenly everything involved in that reappropriation gets a positive charge, just by association. Which is bad. Essentialism. Saying that the Indian community the hero’s progressing towards is automatically ‘good,’ that its ‘goodness’ is beyond reproach here, sacrosanct. That’s just another way of erasing the Indian with motel paintings, calling us all Noble, Conveniently Vanishing Savages. But yeah, in answer to the other part of the question, I’m all over the horror-scene. It’s my first love and worst girlfriend. And not just because I cut my teeth on King and Koontz and Straub and Rice and Strieber and McCammon and all of them — my surrogate parents, more or less — but because horror, for all its excesses, seems to function more as fiction should: as a refraction of what’s already in our heads, just amped up and given a hockey mask to make it entertaining. I mean, we’re drawn to horror not because we innately like all the killing and gore and creepiness, we drawn to it because, by engaging it, we’re learning about ourselves, I think. Horror stories are about the oldest set of stories for a reason, I think: because they best capture this strange experience of being human. Which isn’t a cynical thing to say at all, I don’t think. Most horror stories have happy endings.
CHASSIS: Above I asked what inspired you to choose fiction, but, now, what makes you keep coming back to it day after day? What makes you hunker over your keyboard? And, too, would you write if there wasn’t a publishing industry? Would the words still leak through your skin onto the paper?
SGJ: Yeah, I can’t help writing. My fingers shake, only get still on the keyboard. Take me away from it and I’d start living out elaborate fictions, I suspect, projecting intricate stories around every corner, in every side glance, each passing reflection. I mean, I guess I do that already, am about as suspicious as they come. But as of now, so long as I don’t talk too much, I can keep it all contained on the page. More or less.
CHASSIS: ALL THE BEAUTIFUL SINNERS [ATBS] is described as your first commercial book, but ATBS is anything but commercial. How did you keep ATBS from becoming a cheesy airport mystery? And are cheesy mysteries good for the genre?
SGJ: Yeah, that’s where ATBS was supposed to be: on a cool little circular rack, fanning the airport crowd. For a while too I was even seeing it in airports (on tables!). But yeah, it’s not the same fare, not a beach read. Just because, I suspect, it was my first thriller. Just as my first novel kind of dwelt on issues of identity and the narratives we trick ourselves with, so did ATBS concern itself with identity. Just, there, not mine, but the thriller’s: I wanted to both write one and offer a critique and exploration of the genre, I guess — make the genre the victim, the thing I flay for 500 pages. Not that I hate the genre or anything, far from it, just that you understand best how live things work by dissecting them, right? I mean, that’s what FAST [THE FAST RED ROAD] is: a post-mortem on the Indian novel, pen as the blade, me with bloody hands, all that. Except there I was trying to kill the genre, because, to me, the genre needed it, was asking for it, wasn’t going to make it long without a hard kill. But your question, my answer: how I kept ATBS from smelling too much of the bad kind of cheese. By respecting the reader, I guess. Assuming an intelligent audience. As opposed to an audience willing to be spoonfed piss poor prose, transparent narratives, screenplays in novel format. Which, yes, there’s a place for.
CHASSIS: THE BIRD IS GONE, wow, I believe if I ripped the covers off of BIRD and ATBS the reader would have a hard time realizing they were written by the same author. And how did you keep it all straight, the different fonts, the footnotes, the appendices, the different narrative threads?
SGJ: Man, just barely’s how. I think I said above when I’m writing a novel, I’m in neck deep. With BIRD, I was all the way under, couldn’t even tell which direction was up anymore. But yeah, it and ATBS aren’t even distant cousins. Because, with BIRD, I decided to wholly let the story subsume my voice. Or, well, it got subsumed, anyway, maybe nothing that volitional about it. But that book just about fried some main filament in my head. I mean, because I was writing as one guy, who’s pretending to be a girl — a made-up girl — who’s relaying all these embedded, drug-induced narratives, and the guy’s been “programmed” such that he can only say things indirectly at best, elaborately at worst, yeah. Everything was just swirling together. Loved it.
CHASSIS: BLEED INTO ME [BN2M, due July ’05] is a collection of short stories. Tell us about the process of choosing the shorts that comprise it, because you have shorts everywhere. All your published works have been novels, mysteries, fantasy, so what can a reader expect to find when diving into BN2M?
SGJ: For me, short stories tend to be the most autobiographical. Except for the first novel. Mine, anyway. With FRR, each time I hit a wall, had nowhere to turn, I’d just insert a piece of my life. It’s one way to move forward, to give yourself to the piece. But in a novel you can hide that kind of stuff, too, hide it under the leaves of a giant pot plant, in the cool shadow of oversized coyotes, behind a stick of hallucinogenic beef-fed-beef. In a short story though, it’s just so immediate, and there’s so little room to distract the reader from the — from the you at the core of the thing. It’s scary, feels like some strain of exhibitionism to me — like the way you’ve decided to cure yourself of talking in your sleep is by listening to playback of whatever it is you’re saying at night. I still shake when I read the BN2M stories, anyway. Sometimes you open your mouth to do something on the page and itâ€™s just blood that comes out. To say it another way: itâ€™s the way you maybe shake when youâ€™ve found yourself on a musty, faded couch, looking through some lost auntâ€™s photograph album, who has all these old snapshots of a you you don’t remember ever being, even. That’s how BN2M makes me feel. How I picked the stories.
CHASSIS: DEMON THEORY [DMON, due out spring 06, publisher Macadam/Cage] is said to take the horror genre to a whole another level. Will Christopher Baer has said about DMON: “a masterwork horror story that doesn’t just blow the doors off the genre, it burns the house down.” Can you tell us more about DMON? And in previous interviews you’ve said DMON was your favorite book, and the book you would be rewriting forever. When did you know to say enough is enough?
SGJ: Yeah, well, I haven’t had to say it yet, anyway: still in there living it. Even just now. I was taking the trash out — I live by a big, empty pasture — and what I thought was over, what I thought I’d got rid of by trapping DEMON THEORY on paper finally, there it was again: the unmistakable sound of a kid coughing out there in the dark. A sense that something was coming for me from above, and was going to hit me hard. I wrote DEMON THEORY because I was seriously scared of some stuff. But now it won’t seem to stop. I still get stuck outside a lot, in the open, and it takes every ounce of determination I’ve got to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and not start running. At least not until I’m close to the door.
CHASSIS: Any tricks you recommend for good writing?
SGJ: Aside from reading, right? And writing a lot. I don’t know. I remember used to, driving tractor, when I started to fall asleep behind the wheel, I’d climb down, pull a sparkplug wire, and light myself up for a few seconds. It’d keep me driving for a few passes at a time, all jangly and twitchy. Then a couple of years ago I noticed I was doing the same thing with writing: staying awake well past the point of exhaustion, but keeping my eyes open by balancing knives around me, so that if I started to slump over or anything, I’d get ungently reminded â€˜not yet.â€™ But Iâ€™ve kind of made a lifetime out of cutting myself, too. I donâ€™t do that anymore.
CHASSIS: Why not why not with a goat?
SGJ: Probably because I respect them, remember sitting once all day way back in the trees with a goat that was bleeding out. I was twelve, thought she might live. She didnâ€™t. [read his piece â€œBestiaryâ€? for more on this topic]
Editor’s Note: last of what was salvageable from the tape.
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