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.


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 ( Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.

Austin James writes obscure and uncomfortable fiction.