I’d love to be able to tell all of you I’ve read a huge amount of Stephen Graham Jones’ work. In the past, I might not have decided to interview an author whose work I haven’t read a lot of. But, see, sometimes all it takes is one story. I read this man’s story “The Darkest Part.” The story, which is ostensibly about a killer clown, is filled with such brilliant nightmare imagery, and out of all the stories in Ellen Datlow’s “Nightmare Carnival,” it is my favorite, and creeped me out the most.
So, I tracked down SGJ, and asked him about soda, and movies. I snuck in some questions about the definition of horror fiction, too.
Look, I made it a random format interview, I have to stick with it.
Stephen’s collection After the People Lights Have Gone Off is currently available via amazon, and really, just google it, it’s all over.
What’s your favorite episode of “The X-Files”?
“Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” easy. That’s the best 44:50 of television I’ve ever seen, really, and, of everything I’ve read and watched, it’s probably had the most influence. It’s a story that’s having fun with character, with form, and it’s still dipping from the well of the fantastic—and, most important, it’s got heart, it’s not afraid to be sentimental. I need to go watch it again now. I carry it on my phone at all times, in case.
How would you define a horror story? Or, alternately, can everything be a horror story, if seen from the right angle?
In bear-terms, which is how I try to understand most things, a horror story is “We fought the bear, and we either won or lost.” An up or down ending doesn’t make any difference, though I far prefer the up-endings, where there’s hope, rebirth, all that. To understand my bear-models, I would say that weird fiction, say, it’s more like “We couldn’t help it, we poked the bear, and then it stood ALL the way up and we had to try to comprehend it with our puny minds, and now we’ve got to back to our normal lives and try to live with the knowledge that this bear exists, and that we’re so small and insignificant.”
Coke, or Pepsi?
Pepsi all the way. Coke leaves my mouth hot, makes it hurt. I’ll only drink a Coke if I really, really need some caffiene. And then I’ll immediately regret it. And, I talked to someone recently who had been a nurse in a psychiatric center where some chemist or something for Coke was for a while, and she told me that he kept yelling about how cinnamon was the only difference between the two. I think. I wasn’t really listening as well as I should have, was writing a story in my head. And she could have been lying, too. No clue what city I was in for this, but it’s only been a couple of months.
Your story from “Nightmare Carnival” fucked me up. You seem like a man who doesn’t like clowns. How do you feel about clowns, and have you ever had any nightmares about them?
Clowns have never bothered me. I mean, unless they’ve got silver eyes, of course. Never had any clown nightmares, though. Most of my nightmares, they’re me moving through a crowd, and I’m not really in my right mind, I can’t feel my body, am just putting one foot in front of another, and the voices and lights are all smeary. Makes my heart beat hard, just thinking about that again. I hate it.
Vinnie Jones or Tom Jones?
I guess Tom? I don’t know who Vinnie Jones is.
I don’t cuss. If I’m reading something with profanity in it, and I have to say whatever word’s there, I always have a hard time not giggling when I say it.
If you could be any monster, which kind would you be?
Werewolf. When I was twelve, I did all the tricks the books said would get me there, too. Didn’t seem to work, though. Yet.
Your style seems to be quite concise. Did it take you a while to learn your voice? Was there, for instance, a time when you longed to be more verbose, and ethereal?
I used to want to be able to write like Kurt Vonnegut. But he’s way concise, and finally I figured I couldn’t be Vonnegut. Only person I’ve read who’s even close to Vonnegut—in delivery, tone, something—is Carlton Mellick III. Dude can write.
Graham crackers, or Teddy Grahams?
Crackers. Them and fishsticks are like eighty percent of my childhood.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Nope. Rituals are just a way to give yourself excuses to not write. “I don’t have this hat,” “I can’t do candles in the airport,” “the neighbors are too loud,” all that. Writing’s not something the world allows you to do. It’s something you can’t help doing. You shouldn’t have to trick yourself into it.
What kind of music do you listen to when you write, or do you not listen to anything at all?
Always listen. Right now, this instant, it’s Elton John and and Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” But this isn’t really fiction writing. Earlier I was working on a novel. Think it was Dire Straits? But, it’s usually Bonnie Tyler or Skid Row or Don Williams—just all over the place, really. With a lot of Footloose and Motley Crue. But I always come back to country. Country’s what I cut my teeth on. It’s where my heart mostly is.
Beer or liquor, or neither?
Definitely not beer. Not much of a drinker, really. I mean, I can nurse a glass of wine if the situation insists. But it’s not pleasant. I have to close off a big part of my mind, then chant in my head that you can do this, you can do this. And, I’ve tried people’s ridiculous-expensive bourbon and all that, and can’t seem to understand the draw. Problem is, really? I like to write when I get home. And I care about fiction too much to allow myself to do it with anything messing my head up. My head’s plenty messed up already. Also, when I was in seventh grade one of my coaches, who was legit-crazy, he said if any of us ever drank and drove and hurt his family, he would come in through our windows at night and hold our arms down with his knees and cut out throats very, very slowly, staring into our eyes the whole time. And then he showed us the knife he’d do it with. So, I’m still pretty nervous about that. Anytime I’ve got car keys on me, I won’t even consider that glass of wine. I’ll sleep on the sidewalk before I’ll get behind the wheel with even a sip of alcohol in me. I want my throat to stay closed, I mean.
If you could eat dinner with anyone either alive or dead, who would it be?
I’d like to grab a burrito with Kevin Williamson in 1994, or whenever he wrote Scary Movie. Dude was firing on all cylinders. Some of the sparks, they’d cross the table, I suspect. Maybe burn me up, but it’d be worth it.
If there’s a definitive difference between weird fiction and horror, is there such a thing as weird horror fiction, that would not be considered part of the bizarro genre?
Definitely a difference between horror and the weird. See the bears explanation, earlier. But, yeah, there’s weird that draws more from horror than from fantasy or science fiction, definitely. Really, a lot of the time? When you accidentally make your horror-monster too unbeatable, the horror story you’re trying to write can slowly shift into weird fiction territory.
Would you consider yourself a fast or slow writer?
Does Joyce Carol Oates sort of scare you? I feel like you don’t wanna fuck with Joyce Carol Oates.
I’d be more nervous around Neal Stephenson, I think.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Read outside your chosen area. Write stories you don’t think you can write. Don’t pin all your hopes on one piece. Always be writing something new.
How many movies do you watch a week?
Two, three? This week I think I’ve watched the second Paul Blart, which I loved, want to buy, and . . . and it’s only Tuesday. About to go see the new Terminator at the theater. So that’ll be two. I’d guess I’ll watch one more before the week’s through. Probably something werewolf. I just watched Dog Soldiers, but I’m kind of wanting to watch it again. And there’s that new Simon Pegg action-movie thing at Redbox.
Thylacine. I get really sad every time it hits me that I’m probably never going to see one.
Do you have anything special you do when creating a character outside of simply writing your story?
It’s just diguise, disguise, camoflouge. Because they’re all me, more or less.
Thank you for taking part in the interview. Do you have anything you’d like to mention coming out soon, or any final words you like to impart?
Got my werewolf novel Mongrels out in May from William Morrow. Very excited about that. I feel like I’ve been kind of a fractured writer for a while, but Mongrels brings it all together for me. Next stories are out in . . . let me think: Ellen Datlow’s The Monstrous and Josh Viola’s Nightmares Unhinged and Ann Vandermeers The Bestiary. All horror. What else is there?