Interview: Stephen Graham Jones, Author
Stephen Graham Jones is the rarest of creatures: a true artist who can discuss his craft without getting bogged down in the artistic bullshit. He knows the nuts-and-bolts of writing, and as a Ph.D. and current college professor, he also knows the highbrow aspects as well. Author of Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto, All the Beautiful Sinners, and the forthcoming Demon Theory and Bleed Into Me, Jones has a list of short story publications as long as your arm.
There’s an old writing saying, that I believe was once attributed to an old sportswriter, who said something along the lines of “writing is easy… you just sit down at the typewriter and open up a vein.” Stephen Graham Jones writes every line in blood from the deepest recesses of his heart.
As you’ll see in this interview, Jones went way above and beyond the call of duty in answering questions for us here at Slushpile. We can only hope his students at Texas Tech realize how lucky they are. Jones spoke to us about writing techniques, the coolest shirt in the world, and country music.
Slushpile: On your website, you say that you grew up on a ranch and that your family told you to not to do what they did for a job, to use your mind instead of your back. My father told me the very same thing. How do you compare or contrast the hard work of writing fiction with the hard work on the farm?
Jones: The Louise Erdrich answer, how writing fiction’s hard, but it’s better than hoeing sugar beets. But then again, at the end of a row of sugar beets, I don’t suppose you’re all shaking and empty, crying from the mouth. Would say that the trade-off’s that being a writer doesn’t wreck your body so much, except that to even answer these questions, I had to crutch over to the desk, take splints off my fingers. Which is from basketball, not fiction, but basketball’s how I unwind from writing, so.
Slushpile: Your first publication was in the Black Warrior Review out of the University of Alabama. That’s a pretty prestigious start. The story was Paleogenesis, circa 1970. Tell us about that story.
Jones: It’s metafiction, this guy sitting in a truck stop trying, in words, on paper, to redo the moment of his conception, trying to know his dad, to see his mom as she was back then. Maybe the truest little story I’ve told. I looked at it again a few years ago, though, and couldn’t tolerate the sentences. Meant to fix it, then finally conceded that the sentences were embedded too deep in the story, that I couldn’t fix them without just scrapping the story altogether. I was real lucky getting in BWR, though. Especially since that was about the first story I’d mailed out, I think. Even got a hundred and seventy-six or so dollars.
Slushpile: Your CV features an extensive, and impressive, list of publications. Do you have a particular routine or strategy for submitting stories? Do you carpet-bomb a story on multiple journals at once? How do you select your target journals?
Jones: All my pubs used to be bunched up in the early part of the alphabet, just because the market guides are alphabetical. But then I started working from the back, to meet myself in the middle. And no, yet to hit each letter. Keep forgetting which ones I’m missing, or, keep stumbling on some new place, with submission guidelines practically tailored for me, so that I can’t help but submit: _5trope, Cyanide, taint, Pindeldyboz. Is The Styles still live? I really, really dug The Styles, their format, their selections, all of it. But yeah, carpet-bomb’s a good enough term; I don’t hit places that don’t take simultaneous submissions. At least not on purpose. As far as targeting, yeah, sure, I keep a few journals in my sights, glossies and 6×9 jobs, across lit, scifi, fantasy and horror. Usually my agent, Kate Garrick, will submit to them for me.
Slushpile: You list Deliverance as one of the three most important novels of the 20th century. I admire the book, and I’m not one to censor, but as a southerner from a blue-collar background, I really wish the movie version had never been made because if I hear one more person talk about squealing like a pig, I’m going to vomit. Is there a book (or movie) about the Native American culture that you admire, but also loathe?
Jones: House Made of Dawn. For different reasons, I suppose. I mean, I teach House on and off, it’s an amazing book. But I don’t like the way it’s been used in Indian fiction, as a template, a pattern, both to follow/imitate, and to compare all subsequent works to. That is, if a book doesn’t “match up” with House somewhat, then maybe it’s not “Indian” enough either. Not sure just what I would have accepted as a template (like I had any kind of choice here) but I don’t think House has been all that healthy for the genre, or area, or whatever people want to call it. But yeah, I know: if I want it to die, quit teaching it, right? Except it’s so good, is a puzzle book I just can’t keep my fingers out of . . .
Along the lines of what you’re saying, though, Indian lit’s squeal-like-a-pig scene, the easy answer’s just any work which highlights the despair, doesn’t mediate it with humor, or take it apart some other way. Which is to say any work which buys into the despair, romanticizes it. As for specifically what works make that purchase, I honestly can’t think of any. And I’m not playing dumb here just to keep friends.
I’d guess most of the stuff the so-called “white shamans” were writing would qualify, be kind of like a weepy dramatization of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or something, but I haven’t read far enough into them to have any titles handy. Though I do kind of chafe at Oliver LaFarge’s dedication in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Laughing Boy: “to the only pretty squaw I ever knew.” I have never been able to get past that page, into the novel.
Slushpile: Something I struggle with as a writer from the South is how to portray the truth about my culture without feeding into the stereotypes. This doesn’t mean that I try to only show things in a good light or that I am not willing to face the negatives. But do you think there is a way to show the warts of a culture, without simply adding fire to the criticisms? As an example, in your case, how would you portray an alcoholic Native American without reinforcing stereotypes about the reservation?
Jones: Another question from Louise Erdrich handbook. She was hit with this a lot after Love Medicine, and probably has a lot more graceful answers ready than I can hope to. But, you’re dead-on: “responsible” presentation is a huge issue. My take is that art isn’t and shouldn’t be responsible. If it is, it isn’t functioning as art. The problem with that of course is that, as Indian writers, we’re supposed to be practicing resistance, demonstrating it, something like that. By reinforcing stereotypes, though I don’t know: like shooting yourself in the foot, yeah? The truth is, though, poverty’s the environment for alcoholism, and the reservations aren’t rich. Maybe cleaning people up in fiction is just as dangerous as presenting them unfiltered. Too, with Indian fiction anyway, part of this question has to become who’s the target audience: if it’s non-Indians, then maybe some “Indian Joe” figure’s most palatable; if it’s Indians . . . not sure. What seems to work best uses comedy, or some sort of exaggeration. Ridiculous, overblown stuff that, once we wash all that fun off, is more real. A lot of the stuff from Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven seems to work like that.
Slushpile: Barry Hannah once said something that stuck in my mind about how he wanted to read stories about the South but a different culture than what usually gets portrayed. He mentioned a story he really enjoyed about Armenians in Atlanta as opposed to the usual screen-door-slamming shut, dirt-roads, pickup truck version of the South. Is there an element of the Native American culture you’d like to see explored more?
Jones: Yeah, the element that doesn’t go for drums and suns and bears. Not saying that’s not a part of the culture, just that, always writing about pipes and chants and stuff doesn’t help disabuse non-Indian readers that we aren’t still wearing loincloths. As for elements missing in fiction specifically, I’d say parody first–we need to make fun of ourselves, if for no other reason than to get a jump on everybody else–and next, some kind of reappropriation-fantasy mode. Violent, hostile stuff, that doesn’t pull any punches just to get on the shelves. John McClane with a headband, yeah.
Slushpile: Are you (were you) really a fan of Dokken, or is that a joke on your website?
Jones: Back when Dokken was big, I was probably more into Poison and Motley Crue. Had more of their albums, anyway. But I did have a George Lynch poster that I would look at for hours and hours, willing my hair to grow just like his. I don’t see how I even got around back then, though, with all the chains and bandannas I was really sure I needed. Horses hated me.
Slushpile: I ask this question from experience: is it possible that you wear Paul Stanley make-up instead of Gene Simmons because the Demon face is a bitch to apply?
Jones: That could be it, yeah. My fine motor skills are bad need of some good repair. Could be too that I spent all my elementary years already being Gene Simmons, saving pennies to buy blood tablets, always showing people my tongue, trying to build stage-boots. I’m over the blood tablets now anyway. But still am always showing off my tongue. And buying bigger and bigger boots.
Slushpile: You claim to own the single coolest shirt in the world? What is it? Why is it so cool?
Jones: It’s a pearl snap, cool-print shirt. I’ll see if I can get you an image of it somehow. Bought it off eBay, got it the delivered the day of this big interview, carried the package into the bathroom to change right before I was meeting the guy, and bam, the arms are short, the chest too tight. Sucked. Not that I could ever sell it, either–let somebody else have it? But pearl snaps, I’ve been hooked on those for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of living at my grandmother’s house with my two uncles, both of them still in high school, wearing their pearl snap t-shirts untucked, their hair ragged, eyes bloodshoot. I never got over wanting to be them, I don’t guess, am still playing dress-up.
Slushpile: You’ve written some very cool, very impressive, and very short pieces. How do you know when enough is enough but not too much? Whenever I tried to write these flash fiction or prose poem things, readers always said they wanted to know more and that it didn’t seem to have the amount of life necessary for a self-contained piece. How do you manage to encapsulate enough to make the piece self-sufficient without taking up more space?
Jones: I never have thought about that. I guess my stab at an answer would be that a story’s complete when it’s fulfilled whatever promise it made early on, probably in the first line. Sufficiently vague and useless, yeah? I don’t know. With short pieces, I’m just chasing words, pretty much, with no idea what’s about to happen, just a voice that I wholly trust, that I’ve given all of myself over to. Ideally, that’d work in a longer short story, a novel even, but it’s a hard thing to maintain.
Probably the tightest one of these short pieces I’ve published was in 32poems. But no, I don’t think a short-short’s just a failed short story. No more than a short story’s a failed novel. Thinking about it now, though, I’m pretty sure that most of my short-short pieces are first person. Maybe even all of them. Which has got to be some sort of indicator–something I could use to phrase an answer, if I were smarter, or more aware or something.
Slushpile: You have a Ph.D. in creative writing and you teach at Texas Tech so you obviously believe the art form can be taught and learned. But do you think that there is a limit to what a student can learn? All the coaching in the world isn’t going to make me Michael Jordan, now matter how hard I work. Can an aspiring writer turn themselves into a Faulkner, Joyce, McCarthy level writer? Or are those genius type writers only born?
Jones: Yeah, “born.” Though you can be born at twenty-eight, I suspect. But, I do teach, and you’re right: that presupposes that I’m doing some thing in the classroom, anyway. Not teaching art, of course, but you’re saying “art-form,” which I take to mean craft–yes? And craft, I’m confident, can be taught. Not just the various devices and tricks and trends and all that, the nuts and bolts, but real craftsmanship. For me, what that entails is reading your own stuff so closely that you can really tune into what comes next. The same way one note sounds better after another in a song, feels like a natural progression. But still, you can do all that right, and still have nothing but what I call a craft-story: technically proficient, but no leap, no art.
Another way to say it is that craft can get you through ninety percent of a piece, but it’s art that carries you at the end. And that’s something you’ve either got or you don’t. What’s scary for me as a teacher of writing–terrifying, really–is when somebody with that inborn talent wanders into my classroom. I’m so scared I’m going to somehow break them, or that, in handling them with care, I’m going to hurt them just as much.
Slushpile: What kind of work are you seeing in your classes? How good is it?
Jones: Every single day, it impresses me. I mean, all one or two days of my workweek, anyway. But I always run my own stuff through workshop along with my students, either grad or undergrad. And, while I expect some of the grad students to outwrite me from time to time–we let them in the program because they’re good, after all–what really makes me smile (uncomfortably) is when my undergrads outwrite me. And it happens. And I tell them it’s happening, and I’ll even sometimes show them what I was writing when I was their age, to give them a sense of how far ahead of me they already are, how far they can still go.
Slushpile: What is the most common mistake you see young writers in your classes make?
Jones: Not lying enough. Being too loyal to the content of their material. Not taking Richard Hugo’s advice and putting the water tower where it needs to be, instead of where it “really” is.
Slushpile: What do you think most young writers need to focus on in order to improve?
Jones: Never even for a moment forgetting that they’Ĵre writing not for an audience of themselves, yet remembering the whole time that they need to somehow push through the words, touch that audience. With a feather or a breast or a bloody hand, it doesn’t matter. Just get through to them, make them smile, cry, cringe, question the world they live in. Give them escape for an hour or two. Just, whatever you want from fiction, try to pack that into your own work. It’s the best way to produce honest material.
Slushpile: When you look at a class, how many students do you think have what it takes, both in terms of skill as well as desire and resilience, to make it on some level in the literary world?
Jones: I’m really lucky, in that I tend just to teach upper-division courses, so I’m not getting a real sample, I’d guess, but a handpicked-by-me one. But, on average, in an undergrad course, I’d say out of every two classes of seventeen people, there’ll be maybe one that I fear can go all the way. And I say “fear” because being a writer’s not like John Ritter in Skin Deep–glow-in-the-dark condom fights each time the lights go down. Instead, it seems to be more about rejection, and rejection, and rejection, self-doubt, false bravado, addictions, broken relationships, abandoned people, regret–all that stuff you endure for those perfect little crystalline moments when the words just merge on the page for you, shine, then leave.
Slushpile: You’ve been published by Fiction Collective 2, Rugged Land, and you have books forthcoming with University of Nebraska Press and MacAdam/Cage. What are the benefits of working with a small, independent publisher as opposed to the big conglomerates in New York?
Jones: Where Rugged Land’s the big New York press? Or, they still maverick enough to be small? To me they were big, anyway–had all kinds of money, different people to do different jobs, all that. As to what the difference is, or was, well, the draw of a small press like FC2 is supposed to be that, whereas a big house’ll print your book alongside twenty others in a season, then only put marketing bucks behind the one or two of that twenty that happen to nab a little attention, a small press of course isn’t doing twenty books a season, can swab a little more attention onto your book. Too, a place like FC2 can keep a book in print for ten years, where a big house, if your books doesn’t hit, they’ll remainder it, then hang on to the rights for years and years. Then of course there’s simply creative control, which of course comes down to the pressure on the editor to make money: the more they need your book to hit, the more compromises you tend to have to make. Granted, there’s exceptions–Danielewski, Foer–but by and large, this seems to be how things fall out. And sure, I make it sound it sound evil, I guess, but really, that kind of market pressure, in a perfect world, it would produce perfect gems. And may be doing so right now. On this computer.
Slushpile: You don’t seem to be someone who is overly concerned with commercial success. We would all like to make more money in our jobs and that’s understood. But aside from that, do you wish you had a wider audience or are you content with where you are?
Jones: No, I’m a disappointment, so far. It’s not enough just to publish books. What I want is what JK Rowling’s got: a whole generation willing to open their veins, just for that next book. A while back (this was a job interview in 2000 or so) somebody asked me that big question, what’s my long-term goal here, with this whole writing thing? It was easy: I wanted to take over the world with my writing. Nothing less. The follow-up question then, of course, was how did I plan to do that, writing dense, impenetrable stuff like Fast Red Road? It was a good question. My answer was simply that I wasn’t taking over any world with Fast Red Road, no. But I was going to write more stuff too. Just wait.
Slushpile: What is something that you know, that you pass along and make sure all your characters know?
Jones: That people are injured, deep down where they don’t even know. And that, because of those injuries, they’re capable of the most intense moments of beauty. That this is what being human’s all about.
Slushpile: Do you have any talismans or good luck charms that you use when you’re writing? Sometimes if I’m writing about a character smoking a pipe, then I’ll have a pipe at my desk, so I can feel it and smell it while I’m writing. Do you have anything like this?
Jones: I used to have this little wooden bear my wife bought for me at an airport in Billings one night when I think we were the only two people in Montana. But it’s gone now. Who knows where? Back north, hopefully. I do have this favorite rock I’ve had since I was sixteen, I guess. It’s for throwing through windows. I keep it close. Knives, I suppose. But I always have knives, wherever I am, thank Crom.
I guess, superstition-wise, for me it’s more about the words. Like, when I’m rereading a sentence, and see that I’ve hit some key twice, it’s very, very important to me that I delete the second letter of the pair, not the first. Because the first has priority, has rights, was there first. This is extremely important to me. Like, my chest is getting all hollow right now, even talking about it, my face hot. It’s a crime to me to kill that first letter, the one that was there. Too, if it dies somehow, that first letter, then it haunts the story for me, ruins it. And the story deserves it, for not having taken better care. I’ve got to stop talking about this now.
Slushpile: You mention Waylon Jennings a couple of times as one of your favorite musicians and the epigraph to Seven Spanish Angels (a currently unpublished novel) is a line from a song recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and I think Waylon did a version as well. So who would you say is the literary equivalent to The Outlaws in country music?
Jones: The original epigraph for Seven Spanish Angels–this is when it was still a sequel to All the Beautiful Sinners–was Waylon: “The devil made me do it the first time / second time I done it on my own.” But I’m just ducking your ridiculously good question here. Guess I’m supposed to say Chris and Craig and me, yeah? Then one other person? Palahniuk? Welsh? I don’t know. I might say Chris and Craig, anyway, maybe those other two. Not that I wouldn’t want to be pictured on that cover art. I look at it nearly every day, have the album on 8-track, in my truck. Just that part of getting your face in that wanted posted is, simply, being “wanted,” having a big enough audience. And I don’t think I’ve earned that yet. I don’t know. Forced to answer, I’d say Jack Ketchum, Joe Lansdale, and, I don’t know, Vonnegut and Leonard, maybe. Bruce Sterling or Neal Stephenson. King. Writers who’ve made it big out at what the literary establishment wants to call the periphery, the outer boundaries of literature (when of course their “periphery” is actually the center–an indicator of how deluded they tend to be).
Slushpile: By the way, was it really out of kindness that the federales let him slip away? Do you suppose?
Jones: No way.
Slushpile: Merle Haggard was in the audience, as an inmate, when Johnny Cash recorded his seminal 1969 album At San Quentin. What event did you witness, in the audience, which has had the most influence on your life?
Jones: Well, I only recall flashes of concerts I’ve been to, so music’s out. Unless you count the image I have in my head of Elvis, across a sea of flashbulbs. Which is a very permanent image. Also have an image of a huge white rabbit, at, I think, a Rush concert. My shirt was disappearing at the time, though, and something was bad wrong with my head, so I don’t know. I do recall six officers dragging me out of a Suicidal Tendencies concert once. That was fun.
Readings are different, of course; I remember them. Single best one I’ve ever been to was one of Barry Hannah’s. He had me crying with laughter, is the best reader of his own work I’ve ever heard. But that reading didn’t change me in any real way, just kind of made me aware how far I’ve got to go.
As far as vicarious audience experiences, that’d probably be Bob Hicock (he was in town to read his stuff), telling me about a Springsteen concert he hit once. One of the really good ones. Does being part of a movie audience count? If so, then it’s easy: the moment in Conan when Conan and Valeria are about to break into that fortress-castle-place, and Conan hesitates, and Valeria turns back to him with a smile, her eyes hot, and says “Do you want to live forever?” That went right to the center of me, is still there.
Wish I had some formative GG Allin story here. Or Bono pulling me up on stage to dance. I do remember right after Skynyrd reformed, how Johnny Van Zant would leave his hat on the microphone while they played Freebird. That really got to me. Bad Company used to do it for Bad Company, too. Didn’t Kiss for Beth? They used to do something special, anyway. But, I don’t know.
The audience experience which polluted me the most, probably, would have been when I was twenty or so, hitting my first poetry reading. For extra credit, of course. In this little room tucked away in some labyrinth of antiseptic, carpet-walled classrooms. But the guy reading, the poet, Bill Wenthe, William J. Wenthe I don’t remember a single one of his poems. What I do remember, though, is the way he talked about poetry, how much it mattered to him. That it just really meant something, wasn’t just a game. That’s another thing that lodged, that never left me. That grew into something else, maybe.
Slushpile: Some of your work is very dense and heavily layered. Tell us how you work. Do you try to get the basic story down and complete and then go back and add in the intricacies? Or do you do the detailed work as you go along?
Jones: No, I usually have to go back and weed the intricacies back to some manageable level. That’s the big problem with my stuff–me, feeling compelled to track down every narrative thread, each dramatic possibility, my brain going twelve ways at once. What I do when I go back through a piece is try to find shortcuts from development to development. Condense, condense, distill. I’ll often cut out twenty-thousand word pieces, just to slim a thing down. The most important question I ask myself at every step of the thing (this is when feeling back through) is, “Is this happening as a result of the characters’ actions, or is it happening because the story as I’ve conceived it needs it to happen?” If it’s ever the second case, then I cut the thing, don’t look back.
Slushpile: Is there a book where you wish you could remove the author’s name and put yours on there and take credit for it? If so, what book is it?
Jones: John Fowles’ The Magus.
Slushpile: Do you live in the country or actually in Lubbock itself? A house or an apartment? Do you find that your location affects your writing in anyway?
Jones: A house, a little bit in the country (have a cotton field behind me, houses all around). But no, location has nothing to do with my writing, near as I can tell. I remember hearing someone ask another writer this once. His answer was perfect, and perfectly delivered: “I write at a desk.” For a while, people kept offering me keys to their cabins in New Mexico and around, saying I should “go there to write.” I never took them up, though, just because I can’t think of anything more foolish than going somewhere to write. It’s not about geography, for me. It’s about time.
Slushpile: You mention playing basketball a lot. What’s your best move on the court?
Jones: Guess that’d depend on whether there’s other people out there or not. And whether they’re trying to stop me. How old they are or aren’t, maybe. The move I try the most, anyway, is this little turn-around jumpshot from an angle deep behind the backboard on the right side. Kobe did it once last year. It’s older than that for me, though. I remember a basketball game in high school where this guy I knew did some Reggie Miller/Tracy McGrady stuff at the end of the game, and made eight or so points in like six seconds. One of those shots was that Kobe shot, from behind, where he just jumped up not even facing the bucket, turned around blind, then hung in the air long enough to will it through the net, his wrist holding the follow-through all the way until the ball fell. My favorite shot ever. Banking everything on what should be impossible. That’s beautiful to me. The end of Tin Cup gets me every time, even though I can’t handle golf.
Slushpile: What is the great basketball novel? Is there is one? Baseball has The Natural and all these other romantic stories about the game. What’s basketball’s opus?
Jones: Hm. Hoosiers, I guess. But, books, novels. I don’t know. Sports stories are getting harder and harder to tell, because of course we’re all familiar with the swan song, Cinderella story shape they tend to take. Why I respected Friday Night Lights so much, I suppose: not because I’ve had my truck towed from Permian-Lee games or because, in the movie, they did such a good job of capturing what the Permian Basin felt like at the end of the eighties, but because of the Tender Mercies end, that football arcing up through the Texas sky. And football’s another sport I absolutely despise. Along with baseball. Really, for me, basketball’s the only real sport, the only one that matters.
Slushpile: What was talking to Kareem Abdul Jabbar like? Will he get a shot to coach in the NBA or major college?
Jones: I doubt he’ll coach. He’s smart enough, good enough, all that, but I think people have this image of him as a quiet, easygoing guy. Worked for Phil Jackson though, yeah? But, interviewing him, I was a fool, kept pressing him to eat fry bread, not taking his religion into account. He was nice, anyway, polite. I asked him to adopt me.
Slushpile: Early in The Bird is Gone, the character LP Deal is transcribing his recordings from the day’s observations. You write “that’s how manifestos are written: with fever. Anything less would be trivial, not worth slogging through concessions and lane duty by day, guarding the place at night.” I get the feeling that you would say all writing is like this, it has to be fevered and consuming to make it worthwhile of putting up with the rest of life’s bad jobs and other intrusions. Am I right in this assumption?
Jones: Yep. My house is glass. Or else you’re Superman.
Slushpile: You have commented that there are novels that “are really just short stories the writer didn’t know how to properly end: these are the product of fear, not a result of ‘facing the void’ of fiction.” Can you elaborate on that idea?
Jones: I think writers can get too attached to these worlds they create, these characters they make real, so that, instead of ending the story where the story’s asking to end, they draw it out, unable to let go. Used to, my grad workshop syllabus had for its course objective something like “to get romantically involved with lines of prose, and then to kill those lines.” What I was talking about in that interview you mention, though, that’s the kind of novel that results when you get some Thomas Woolfe type writer, who just spools out images and scenes and conversations, with no real direction. That’s the easy part of writing, though, just filling the page (note too that he had a standout editor). The hard part is pointing it all for some effect, making it matter. Not just talking with the tips of your fingers–what King calls “shoveling shit from a sitting position.” But, “void,” right? To me, that’s just looking ahead into the space your story’s about to try to fill, pithy as that probably sounds. But it’s important to look ahead, I think, to shape your stuff for–again–effect. Because it’s just so easy to write long, flowy sentences, get lost in them. The hard part’s making them matter, making yourself make them matter.
Slushpile: You’re a fan of the horror and western genres. Andrew Vachss has written books featuring Batman and a graphic novel featuring Predator. If you could write for a comic book hero, or a character from a horror movie or western movie, who would you choose? Why?
Jones: My favorite characters ever: Robert McCammon’s Michael Gallatin, Matt Wagner’s Grendel, Louis L’Amour’s Jubal Sacket, and any of Eric von Lustbader’s ninjas. Would dig translating (or, in Grendel’s case, re-translating) any of them to comic-form. I think they’re all pretty much the same character, too.
Slushpile: How much emphasis do you think aspiring writers should put on “getting their name out there” and how much should be spent just writing? If one of your students said they could get a gig writing a music column which would be a lot of good ink and publicity or they could just focus on their fiction and really hone in on making it better, which path would you suggest the student take?
Jones: I have a student now who’s backed off fiction, is writing a music column. And I’m all for it. Because I always feel so guilty when a student of mine steps over that ledge, weds him or herself to writing fiction. Life’s so much easier when you’re not always maintaining two worlds: the one formed of lies, which feels real, and the one you live in, which often feels like lies. So easy to get them confused. I don’t wish it on people.
Slushpile: You seem really driven in your ideas. There doesn’t seem to be much hesitation in your work. How does an aspiring author become, and stay, so confident in their story?
Jones: An over-inflated sense of self-worth, I suppose: ego. My mom always telling me I could do anything. How else can you get up the nerve to wrestle with something which almost requires the uppercase, like “Beauty?” As for how to maintain it, the way I do it is just by going as fast as possible all the time, so I don’t have time to stop and reflect. The bad way to maintain it is to assume that the world’s stupid, you’re smart. Because that tends to come across in your writing, make you feel like you’re writing from a position of privilege. And little’s more boring to read than that.
Slushpile: You have mentioned that it’s difficult finding the proper rhythm of sentences that really have impact in conjunction with sentences that do the necessary work of showing a character moving in the kitchen. How do you think this balance and rhythm is attained? Is it just from experience?
Jones: For me it’s just experience, yeah. Used to, man, every verb had to be over the top hard, powerful, obtuse, perfect, all the syntax had to be off just enough to show the reader that they were dealing with a real intellect here, everything had to be polished to the point it hurt to really look at it. All that is is an expression of insecurity, though, I think: I didn’t really have a firm grasp on what I was doing, so tried to do what I could do just really, uselessly well.
Like how Richard Pryor says when he first started doing stand-up as a teenager, all he knew about was taking a shit. So that’s all he talked about. In great and nauseating detail. But then he learned more, and more, was able to take brief forays out of the bathroom, even. I hope I’m on that kind of curve, somewhat. The stories I respect most, anyway, aren’t those with the rich, dense prose, but those which achieve a rich, deep effect with simple little nothing-sentences, lines I won’t possibly remember, because they simply functioned, didn’t draw attention to themselves, were properly humble. Each time I sit down to write, it’s to write something like that. And each time, unless I’m just going really fast, I get insecure, get out the chrome polish, start slathering it on until I can see myself reflected back up off the page.
Slushpile: You have said that you took jobs just to get a pair of boots. What’s your favorite pair?
Jones: And I thought the Outlaws-question was tough. I don’t know. I’ve got these elephant skin boots that I’ve had for right about twenty years now. If I hadn’t moved pipe in them every day for a few weeks in high school, they’d still be great. But somebody told me there was nothing you could do to mess up elephant skin. They were wrong. My current oldest boots I still wear are these cheap Harley boots; they’re about fourteen, look more like black leather socks than proper footwear.
My best pair of boots, however–probably my current favorites–are a pair of White’s. They’re handmade, wonderful, perfect. The story of them: my wife and I were snowed into this motel in Bozeman, Montana one May, I think, maybe June, and not at all sad, because the place had a hot-tub, a McDonald’s within walking distance. But then, one day, way in the corner of the McDonald’s, there’s this matted-beard guy, hunched over his burger. And he had these impossibly cool boots on, boots like I’d never seen, boots I thought only angels might wear, if they sang good enough.
So I waited for him to finish his burger, walked over, asked what was up with those boots? He told me: White’s, even pointed me downtown, where I could buy some. Later that afternoon, I was there, and the boots of course cost three hundred and twenty-five dollars, which was like half my yearly income. So I tried them on for about two hours, the salesgirl hanging with me the whole time. Finally, of course, I couldn’t do it, couldn’t lay that kind of money down just for footwear. But then, walking out, the bell above the door half-clanged, the salesgirl called out to me, her hand surely cupped around her mouth, her heels just barely off the ground: “they’re sewn with badger hair, you know?” The clapper on the bell nestled back into its quiet place, and I nodded, bit my lower lip, came up with the money. That was eight years ago, already. And I’ve worn those boots nearly every day, through all kinds of abuse, even stuff that killed my elephant skin boots. And still these White’s are around. On the first sole, even.
I’m right about to upgrade, though, or, a lateral movement, anyway: I want some new boots. Usually what I’ll do when the need hits is go buy some Mexican-heeled, mule-eared things, preferably with conchos, lots of red thread. But now, now what I’m eyeing is a pair of Redwing 970s. They look a lot like Harley’s current boot, which is good too, quality, not like their old stuff. I tried it on just this afternoon, on my foot that doesn’t have a black and blue ankle. But I’ll save for the 970s, I think. I’ve never had a bad experience with a Redwing boot, still have a few pairs in the closet even, waiting for me. When I pull them on, I feel like a whole ‘nother person.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip?
Jones: Lie. All the time. It’s the only way to get anywhere real.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to writers struggling to break into print?
Jones: Just keep writing. Not saying the world will eventually catch up with you, like it did with John Fowles, with Raymond Carver. It may never. But if you ever stop writing, anyway, then you’ve let the world beat you, let it silence you. I’ve seen that happen to people, and from where I am anyway it always seems not just like they’re living a runner-up kind of life, but like they know they’re living a runner-up kind of life. I can’t imagine being burdened with that kind of self-knowledge. Even if I ever do wash out, I hope I still have the narrative abilities and self-preservation instincts to at least weave a last-ditch fantasy around myself, so that, from where I am anyway, things will still look possible. Of course this is all presupposing that I’m not there already.
Slushpile: What do you think is more important in fiction: technical proficiency or emotion? Often, writing that affects the mind, doesn’t affect the heart. So which do you think is better?
Jones: I know what you’re saying, for sure: some stuff–music, fiction, sports, whatever–it’ll be technically proficient, I mean, high-high-caliber stuff, but you can tell the artist is just spinning his wheels, more or less. People used to say this about John Barth, it seems: that he was the most brilliant writer of the twentieth century, he just didn’t really have anything to say. Of course I disagree, but he’s one of my idols, so I can’t really both agree and remain who I am.
How about Karl Iagnemma, then? You read his collection? When I read a collection, I generally put stars or checks or minus-marks on the table of contents. And, it’s really rare for any collection to get more than one star. I mean, even TobiasWolff. Iagnemma got five from me, I think: he really, really knows about the craft of storytelling, has all the little tricks and devices purring. But, with his stuff, I can sense what people used to say about Barth: is this more than just wheel-spinning? Not that the stories don’t have heart–it’s more like, reading his stuff, I feel like these are stories he chose to tell, rather than stories he had no choice but to tell. Like, they were going to seep up through his skin one way or another, be it in torturing small animals, or writing.
This is why I like Philip K. Dick so much, I think. Because I can really sense the intensity underneath his often crappy prose–that, in words, he’s just trying so hard to hold it all together, to make a world that feels real, that makes sense, all that.
More than anything else, this is what I respect in fiction, what I look for; give me the most un-crafted, poorly written story, and, if it’s written in blood, man, I’ll carry it around forever.