Red Lights on a Lonely Road: An Interview with Stephen Graham Jones

I’ve recently heard Stephen Graham Jones’s writing voice described as an acquired taste. I hadn’t heard that term, “an acquired taste” since I was a kid—this is how black coffee was explained to me after my first ever bitter sip. Beer was the same (what parent doesn’t give their kid a swallow from the beer can just to get them to stop asking for some?). Acquired tastes. Later in life, I recalled the saying when I started a long stint of smoking cigarettes. I suppose wine is also an acquired taste, as is seltzer water. So when I heard SGJ described as an acquired taste it really hit home…all these memories of various tastes I became addicted to for long chunks of my life (still way into coffee and seltzer water, to be honest), and the fact that Stephen’s one of my very favorite authors—it all adds up. Hell yes SGJ’s an acquired taste, and one you should probably start sampling if you haven’t already.

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Austin James: Ice breaker—congratulations, you’re a superhero! Your superpower is the ability to shapeshift into three different animals (as well as human). Which animals would you choose, and why?

Stephen Graham Jones: Some deep-sea thing, first. Something that can do way deep but also surface. So probably a whale of some sort. I want to see what’s down there, but I also want the rush of rising. Next . . . maybe an Irish Elk, because they were around a long time ago, and, looking through those eyes, I could see a Neanderthal or a Denisovan, maybe. That would be so exciting. Third, um, let’s see . . . well, an eagle or hawk or falcon, right? Who doesn’t want to fly, and eat the occasional rodent? Or, I want to be whatever bird can fly the highest. And I don’t want any birdwatchers looking at me either.

You’re widely recognized as the foremost zombie expert in academia and beyond. In fact, you even teach creative writing classes just about zombies. Based on your extensive knowledge, if you could take just two weapons into the zombie apocalypse, which two would you choose? Why those specific two?

I know Max Brooks warns against swords and katanas, so I’ll nix those. I guess, first, would just be a good camp knife. I mean, it’s a weapon when you’re in close and that’s all you can grab, but there’s going to be a lot of doors to pry open a lot of canned food to be cracking into. A good camp knife can really help you live. If you have some big Rambo job with serration and a compass in the butt, all that, you feel cool, yeah, but you’re also going to slice your finger half open trying to get the syrup those peaches are swimming in. So, a good camp knife is one. The other weapon . . . Daryl’s already got the crossbow called, and those seem to blow up in your face enough anyway, and a recurve, while elegant, will still probably require more maintenance than I could really keep up with in the post-apocalypse. So, I’ll go with Rick, just keep a revolver strapped to my hip. They only hold so many rounds, sure, but they also don’t jam. When you’re hip-deep in gore and sinking fast, you need something reliable like that. You’ve still got to scrounge cartridges all the time, but scrounging is the name of the game once the zombies rise.

Zombie stories are generally categorized as “scary zombies” and “humorous zombies”. Having read both The Gospel of Z and Zombie Bake Off, you’ve clearly written about zombies from both angles. Do you think there are any freedoms for a writer unique to each type of zombie story? What core elements do you think remain the same regardless, and why?

I think one of the most important aspects of the zombie, whatever kind it is, is that we can’t negotiate with them. We can’t lie to them, we can’t make deals with them. They’re just shuffling locusts, come to cut us down to size. And, the freedom you have, writing about zombies, is that surprise deaths of main characters is the name of the game. So if, at any point, a character gets troublesome, you just whack them. It’s kind of fun.

You’ve said (in much more eloquent terms) that zombie culture is popular because the undead, zombie apocalypse, etc., creates this massive void that can be filled with pretty much any metaphor and meaning—from political, to social, to personal, to dealing with our ultimate mortal fate, and everything in between. What did the zombies represent to you in The Gospel of Z? What about Zombie Bake Off?

Hm, never really thought about that. Or, with my own stuff, I just write it, feel it, don’t really subject it to analysis or any of that. I don’t know. I guess, with ZBO, the zombies were supposed to be the obvious opposite of these soccer moms. But it turns out the soccer moms are the real killers, of course. With The Gospel of Z . . . can I just say ‘locusts’ again? Or, I mean, yeah, I guess they could kind of be a warning against heedless progress or something, but, I don’t know. Wasn’t really thinking that. Was just thinking the usual thing, that zombies are cool, let’s write about cool stuff. Really? I wrote that novel during Bush’s second term, when I was getting quite nervous about church and state stuff. So I cooked up a novel expressing my fear of that. And it had zombies in it.

You grew up a Generation-X kid in small desert towns. Back then, kids adventured outside more often than they seem to now…maybe up to more mischief, ending up in places they didn’t belong. Not saying you were one of these troublemaking kids, but it wouldn’t surprise me—I can relate having grown up outdoors in small towns myself (seems like there was always some kid or another starting fields on fire, for some reason). What was the single weirdest thing that happened to you, or that you witnessed, while growing up in West Texas?

Friend and me in my truck, coming home on a lonely road round about two in the morning. The cab kind of glows blue and red, and we both clock the mirrors, sure it’s a cop pulling us over. But we’re still alone. But there are lights in all the mirrors. Our best and last guess is that there’s a plane coming in behind us to land, that’s it some emergency situation. We can clearly see the line of lights approaching. But then that memory just ends, with us turning around in our seats to see what’s happening.

You’re a professor in the MFA programs at University of Colorado at Boulder, University of California Riverside – Palm Desert, and occasionally at the Institute of American Indian Arts. What do you find to be the most rewarding part of teaching others?

That they teach me as well.

What’s the craziest thing one of your students has done in class?

Not in class exactly, but after class. Like, months after. I’m up for a big award, and, surprise, there’s one of my students on the ballot with me. And? She wins. As she very much should have—amazing writer, Helen Marshall. So cool when someone in your class is suddenly beside you on the shelf, and then past you. Kind of the dream.

You’ve got a long publishing history. Which writer(s) would you love to be published alongside, whether in an anthology or a co-written piece, that you have not yet had the pleasure of doing so?

Be neat to have a piece in an anthology that’s also running a reprint of some Philip K. Dick story. I’d copy that TOC out, put it on my wall.

I know you like to think of monsters in ways that feel more realistic and relatable, rather than living in castles with bottomless bankrolls. In this light, “The Night Cyclist” is a great piece of innovative vampire fiction with an interesting take on how being a vampire could be problematic in certain aspects of modern life. What inspired you take this specific angle?

I guess two things. The first is biking home at night, and always looking behind me, sure a Night Cyclist is pacing me, is waiting for a quieter, more lonely place on the trail for us to maybe share a moment. Second is . . . it’s midnight, I’ve been writing for hours, need a break, so I take my dog out for a walk. Everything’s going fine, fine-ish, anyway—I’m always terrified, alone in the dark—but then, walking super on the dark sidewalk by an elementary school, no life or lights anywhere, like I’m the onliest person there is, I get a kind of prickly sensation and turn around to see did someone just step onto the street a block or two back. Wrong. What’s happening is this guy is doing that . . . I don’t know, that thing where you walk so close behind someone that you’re practically touching them, like you’re their shadow, your feet in their footsteps, all that. I flinch ahead, no clue how he got there, did that, and—

I don’t know. That memory ends there.

Let’s close this out with another random question…what are the two most ridiculous things someone tricked you into doing or believing? How long did it take you to realize how ridiculous they were?

Got into a nightlong argument with my wife once about whether Pennsylvania was in Pittsburg or Pittsburg was in Pennsylvania. I was arguing for the first way. And I think she eventually gave up, let me believe that. For two or so years, until, looking at map, I had a certain kind of dawning awareness. But I still can’t keep all those states in the northeast straight. The West makes sense to me. The East, eastern American, not so much. I mean, when I’m up there in the northeast, the highway exits don’t even work the same. Like, stores and gas stations aren’t clustered like I’m used to them being. There’s just, I don’t know, Dunkin Donuts every third step, and too many trees for me to figure anything useful out.

Also, though this probably doesn’t really count, I always default-think that Scarlett O’Hara played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. And this somehow involves me having no clear grasp on who exactly Audrey Hepburn is, or what she maybe looks like. It’s like a tiny lemur got into my head and started unplugging wires, stabbing them in at complete random into stupid places, so that now I can no longer think my way out of this bad, kind of hopeless situation I’m forever in.

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen and a half novels, six story collections, a couple of novellas, and a couple of one-shot comic books. Most recent are Mapping the Interior and My Hero. Next are The Only Good Indians (Saga) and Night of the Mannequins (Tor.com). Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.

Austin James writes obscure and uncomfortable fiction.

The Weird on Television: 6 Weird Books That Should Be TV Shows

Weird fiction isn’t something that occurs exclusively on the fringes of the literary world. Consider Neil Gaiman’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel American Gods, which, as we all know, was adapted into a television series on the Stars network. There’s no denying the literary weirdness of American Gods, even if Gaiman isn’t quite as strange as the work many of his lesser-known, oddball colleagues such as Thomas Ligotti. China Mieville’s The City and The City also appeared as a television serial for BBC in April, 2018. Although I haven’t read the novel or watched the series, my sources tell me it’s a well-know weird classic (and that it isn’t very good, although I’d prefer to confirm this myself). As everyday life in the 21st century feels increasingly like weird fiction, its no wonder that mainstream audiences find themselves adaptable to entertainment firmly beyond the pale.

Although I prefer books to television, I’m entirely in favor of the weirdification of popular entertainment. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of 6 works of weird fiction that ought to be adapted to television. While television is well outside of my expertise, I’ve watched more than my share of it like any good American. I’ve included short attempts to rationalize my choices below. What would you add to or omit from this list? Let me know in the comments below!

Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney

Of course, why not begin with a sci-fi masterpiece? This novel is dark, strange, and meandering enough to make it a perfect fit for television. Delaney’s writing is also beautiful, and while a transfer to the screen inevitably entails a certain loss when it comes to language, no prose is better suited to a representation by strong imagery than the prose you’ll find in Dhalgren. Rich, melodious, and eerie, Delaney’s writing strives heroically to be visual. Why not add an explicitly visual dimension, then, to this unsettling dystopian nightmare? Delaney’s haunting novel is packed with a wide cast of colorful characters, a jumble of intertwined subplots, and a compelling aura of mystery surrounding the protagonist, making it an ideal candidate for adaptation to television.

2666 by Roberto Bolano

While we’re on the subject of huge, meandering novels, why not include Roberto Bolano’s critically-acclaimed 2666? While you’re likely to find this title in any mainstream bookstore, it’s certainly as weird as they come. What screams “television” more than the hunt for an elusive serial killer centered on a “heart of darkness” narrative located in a small Mexican town? The answer might be “a lot of things,” but as a devoted fan of the first season of HBO’s True Detectives, I see a ton of similar potential here. Again, we are faced with a daunting cast of characters, perspectives, and loosely connected plots; while this may seem discouraging from a production standpoint, I see an opportunity for the enterprise to spill over into multiple seasons. A looming, dark, Latin American counterpart of True Detectives? Count me in!

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

“Come on, man. You must be kidding.” I know, I know; I can practically feel your protest, but just hear me out. While Ligotti’s short fiction seems hardly suitable for TV, imagine a resurrection of Twilight Zone based on these macabre little mind benders. True, Ligotti employs some literary mechanisms, like epistolary narratives, which would be hardly translatable to the screen, but imagine the kind of imagery the right director could glean from these stories! Think a black and white noir series mixed with slick CGI for scenes like the one in which the cosmic void opens in a dream within a dream before the psychoanalyst’s patient in “Dream of a Manikin.” I’d sure as hell watch it.

Gateways to Abomination by Matthew Bartlett

Speaking of choices that make no sense at first flush, let’s consider Gateways to Abomination. As a series of disconnected short stories and vignettes based around the town of Leeds and the occult WXXM radio station (apparently only available to listeners who stumble across it by accident), Matthew Bartlett’s stunning book may seem like a producer’s worst nightmare. To glean a unified story rather than a series of independent episodes a la Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, some rewriting might be necessary. Even so, the story of someone unsuspectedly stumbling across Leeds and into the kaleidoscopic nightmare world of Bartlett’s disturbing and vivid fiction is destined to be better TV than American Horror Story.

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

As the teen werewolf and vampire craze, as represented by shows like The Originals and The Vampire Diaries, eventually dies, choking in the steaming viscera of insipid writing and overplayed tropes stolen from Anne Rice, someone needs to come sweeping in with a strong series that washes the sour aftertaste away. Stephen Graham Jones set out to do exactly that with Mongrels, and he should be duly honored by carrying his purgation boldly into the realm of television. Mongrels is a coming-of-age novel based on a family of werewolves sans the overwhelming cliché of trendy teens driving unrealistically nice cars. In short, Mongrels isn’t pretty, but it’s compelling enough to serve as an antidote to the whitewashed world of TV “horror” aimed at audiences more concerned with high school romance than the darker aspects of life.

Celebrity Terrorist Sex Bomb by Bob Freville

What is more TV-friendly than celebrity, sex, and terrorism? What about an unholy mashup of the three? I’ve told Bob before he needs to write a script for this, and I hope one day he does. If someone made it into a television series, that would be awesome as well. Celebrity Terrorist Sex Bomb is a weird and wonderful ménage a trois of violence, extremism, and biting cultural satire just waiting for a witty personality to bring it to life for the screen. Hilarious, irreverent, and exorbitantly colorful, there’s no doubt that this little book holds plenty of potential for an engaging series based on a female protagonist abducted and indoctrinated by Islamic terrorists only to be deployed as a WMD against the shallow culture of America’s rich and famous.

What do you think? What would you add? Am I way off base here? Do any directors or actors come to mind for the above adaptations? Let us know in the comments below!

-Justin A. Burnett