Interview: Stephen Graham Jones, Author
The movies get it all wrong. You don’t just spew out some Latin, crank up Judas Priest, draw a pentagram on your notebook during study hall, and summon the devil. As serious necromancers know, conjuring a demon is a grim business, full of risk and threat. And it’s far from being an exact science. The denziens of the netherworld are a cantankerous lot, liable to leave even the most powerful mage hanging in the middle of his Black Mass.
Such is the case with the invocation of Stephen Graham Jones’ new novel Demon Theory. The challenging nature of this novel delayed the release date, but copies are finally beginning to infect brave readers nationwide. Jones (who was one of the earliest Slushpile.net interviews) is also the author of All the Beautiful Sinners, Bleed Into Me, The Bird is Gone, and The Fast Red Road. You can learn more about Jones’ work at his website.
This time, he was kind enough to talk to me about his newest novel, horror movies, and snake venom.
Slushpile: A novelization of a fictional film trilogy that was adapted from a best-seller that was inspired by a doctor’s case notes from his tenure at a mental institution, which may or may not exist, that were originally published in some fictional scholarly journal. How in the world did you dream up this concept for Demon Theory?
Jones: Man, it was a total surprise for me that that scholarly journal wasn’t real. And I still kind of think it is. As for the ‘novelization,’ though, that’s just because I cut my teeth on the Friday the 13th novelizations. Always felt like I was getting the “real” story. That nobody knew Jason like I did.
Slushpile: From first conception to handing in the final manuscript, how long did this monstrosity take you to finish?
Jones: The first time I finished Demon Theory, it was November 1999. I took off Thanksgiving week to get it done. A wonderful week. I started, I think, about ten months before that, though I may have taken a break to write a werewolf novel, and maybe a “vampire” novel (in quotes because, strictly speaking, they weren’t vampires). Yeah, that sounds maybe-right. Almost definitely right, I think. Which, I don’t know how that’s supposed to be different from “maybe,” sorry.
Anyway, I wrote “Demon Theory 16”—that was the title of the whole thing, then—and put it to the side, because it was just too freaky of a thing. But then it wouldn’t let me go, and I was staying up so so many nights, living in it, understanding it, getting lost in it and dreaming it and waking at the keyboard because it was time to go to work again. Which is why I had to take that week off: because I wanted, eventually, to sleep.
Since 1999, though, I only turned in the final-final draft in March of this year, I’d guess. Something like that. I mean—and Jason Wood, my editor at MacAdam/Cage can attest to this (with his teeth set, I suspect)—that each time he gave it back to me to do one or two little nothings, I’d rework the whole thing, top to bottom, and just recast everything. So yeah, a bit more than six years, all-told. With breaks to write a lot of other stuff. But, this whole time, Demon Theory’s been my touchstone. But that’s prettying it up. Really, it’s been the wooden paddle, and I’m the stupid rubber ball, bouncing back to it again and again, and asking for more, please, because we can get it right this time, I promise. Go all afternoon, even.
Slushpile: Give us an idea of how you wrote Demon Theory. Did you write each of the three screen ideas separately? Or did you write them all the way through in one draft? When did the footnotes and screenplay conventions get added?
Jones: Yeah, the formatting and the footnotes have been there from the get-go. I mean, when I sat down to write Demon Theory, my main goal was to shake off The Fast Red Road, which I’d just finished messing with. So I tried to write the most opposite thing I could. Where Fast was Indian, I tried to go un-Indian. Since Fast was super-academic (it was my dissertation), I tried to go the direct opposite way—to the slashers I grew up with. As for why the formatting and footnotes, it may have been because I sat down to knock out a screenplay, not a novel. Except I had no idea then how to write a screenplay—turns out it’s a lot more complicated than just getting everything in the right font, tabbed over this far, all that. So, not knowing how to write a screenplay, I guess, I wrote Demon Theory.
I mean, with it, too, there were no false starts, where I tried to go at the story straight, or do the prose normal. Really, all I was doing was transcribing the movie playing non-stop in my head that year. Which—that’s probably why it’s always felt kind of like a bootleg to me, like something I’ve smuggled out of the theater in that kind of short-hand you write in the dark. As for the footnotes, they came in with that first draft as well. Because, at that point, once I was doing this hybridized whatever-it-was and knew I was doing it and was committed to it for better or worse, I was pretty sure it was just going to be exercise for me, that nobody else was ever going to be involved. So the footnotes were originally very smart-alecky, and all aimed back at me. Stuff like “Yeah, like you didn’t steal this whole cloth from Sir John Carpenter.” It was just a way of keeping myself honest, pretty much, or feigning humbleness, acknowledging thievery, I don’t know. Allowing myself to crutch forward, one page at a time.
As for the stacked footnotes—the footnotes to footnotes to footnotes, all that—I resisted that for as long as I could, tried to do it instead with clauses embedded in clauses embedded in clauses, with these parenthetical seeds at the middle of it all, making you have to reinterpret the whole footnote once you got that deep. But those kind of constructions are ridiculously delicate. Better to do the Jenga-trick instead, I say, and just stack them to the heavens, pray that they’ll stand long enough to turn the page.
Slushpile: You have said that aspiring authors are often too enslaved by the truth. You’ve said that the most common mistake that your students make is “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.” With the footnotes in Demon Theory, how did you know when to leave fact behind and fictionalize the material?
Jones: As this one guy who helped me in the last few days I had Demon Theory in my possession (Rob Bass) knows, that line was ridiculously blurry. Because, at one point—this was December 2005, I think—I’d blazed through the entire manuscript, and nudged all the footnotes just a bit off the truth. Because I had the great and stupid idea then to have an antagonistic narrator (her name was Lindsay Ballard, which geeks like me out they’ll know without Google), who had all these different styles, a different, “better” set of facts, etc. About melted my brain keeping it all straight, too. But then I remembered that I didn’t want to play games, that that wasn’t what Demon Theorywas about. So I tried to erase her. Except, yeah, her fingers kind of remained (the visual I get here is some kid hiding in that booth Burt Reynolds’ fingers get cut off in in Sharky’s Machine)—there were all these wrong dates, all these little prose tics, etc. Which, I think we caught them all. Maybe. I mean, I loved Lenzi so much ( I even spelled her with a ‘z,’ and probably would have dotted her ‘i’ with a heart if I could have), and miss her still, but she was clutter.
Oh, but are you asking did I lie in any of those footnotes on purpose, right? The lie I remember best is for the definition of “glom,” I think. I was really dissatisfied with the real etymology of the word, so just made my own up. Which, I mean, really, I think, that’s the most human thing. It’s Dr. Seuss, even—that “and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street” story, where, faced with a world not quite up to his expectations, or worth recounting anyway, this kid lies about it, and, in doing so, makes it better, the kind of place that, yeah, he’d maybe like to be. So, each time I hit something like that, where the world would be better if the facts lined up this way instead of that way, I did what humans have always done: lie.
Slushpile: I know you’ve provided this best-of list elsewhere, but for the Slushpile.net readers, what are the five best horror films? Or, give us ten titles if you can’t narrow it down any further.
Jones: I’ll try to hit just five here. Oh—but you’re talking just horror, right? Not just the slasher? Man. This is going to be ridiculous, then. I don’t know. This:
That hurt. Deeply. Now Jason and Freddy and Krug and Ghostface and Samara and Leatherface and the rest are going to have it out for me. To say nothing of Jaws and the T-1 and this one guy named Travis. Anyway, man, I love lists, of any kind really, but, please, if you ever ask me to give you a list of the “10 Best Horror Movies of All Time” or something, and, instead of giving you ones I truly think scary, I give you ones that are “seminal” to the development of the horror genre, from, y’know, 1832 until 1996 (the year Scream changed everything), please, yes, throw something wet and ugly at me (I’m not thinking Clarice here, though), because I don’t deserve to be in the conversation anymore, deserve instead to be sticking my head up through that attic hole in The Grudge, something dark and toothed scuttling at impossible speed for my face.
Slushpile: What are the best horror novels, in your opinion?
Jones: Man, I’ve always been a fool for King. Of his, I don’t know. Probably It. It just makes so many smart moves. From Barker, The Damnation Game, definitely. From Straub, Shadowlands. Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings is a beautiful thing, too. And—I’m keeping this to five as well, just because if I don’t you’ll run out of server space—of course, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Not because it’s central to the twentieth century horror project, any of that, but because it truly and really scares me, just thinking about it (though, yeah, if “scare” is the delimiter, not stuff officially “horror,” then Communion’s way at the top of my list). And I’m just asking to be mauled if I don’t at least whisper The Wolfen here, as an alternate. It’s the one I think about most still when I’m carrying trash out after midnight.
Slushpile: Demon Theory is an amazingly challenging book. I know your editor was extremely supportive of this project, but what was his first response when you told him about it? What did your agent first think?
Jones: Cool you’d ask this, because Demon Theory, it was the first thing my agent ever saw from me, the thing that got her to take me on. This would have been 2000, maybe? Anyway—Kate Garrick’s her name—from the get-go, she’s been one-hundred and twenty percent behind Demon Theory. I mean, we’ve done a lot of other stuff together, but with each one, the question was always, “Is it time for Demon Theory again?” I mean, she believed in it, and somehow saw exactly what I was doing with it, and never asked me to change any of it and never took the rejections seriously.
And then, yeah, finally, after All the Beautiful Sinners, when I decided it was going to be Demon Theory or nothing, we mailed it out again, and one day Jason Wood and Pat Walsh of MacAdam/Cage were calling. Or, no, I’m lying: one day another publisher called Kate with an offer, and then, through a truly twisted set of coincidences, we were talking to MacAdam/Cage about it that same day, and Jason, man, he knew zombies, yeah? I mean intimately, better than I know them, probably. And zombie lore, that goes a long way with me. So, yeah, I’m with them now, and happy. I mean, not only is Demon Theory their first horror, I’m pretty sure, but it’s some pretty unconventional horror at that. But Jason and the Cage never wavered. Like Kate, they believed in Demon Theory. It’s really good to work with people like that. So many writers have to sacrifice the books closest to their hearts, I mean, or, if not sacrifice them, cut them into ugly, unrecognizable pieces. Neither Kate nor Jason ever even suggested anything like that. Nevermind that I have their dogs tied up in my truck.
Slushpile: Was there anyone who was less than enthusiastic about the book?
Jones: I gave it to a friend in 2000 or so, a good, established writer, and she read it and gave it back and told me to hide this one far back in the drawer, never let it see the light of day. Maybe even burn it and scatter the ashes. But that’s because she wanted me to be respectable, I think. Because she cared. And then, yeah, later that year Kate and me shot it out to some places, and they all got back, saying various bad things, about half of which, I’d guess, came down to them thinking I was trying to ride House of Leaves or something.
Which, don’t get me wrong—I clearly, clearly remember reading the first seventy pages of House. It was February or March of 2000, and Danielewski had just done an interview for iUniverse with a friend of mine, and then posted seventy pages of House there in Flash. I remember reading it and just sinking deeper and deeper in my picked-from-a-dumpster chair, because, at that point in Demon Theory, it still had some of the same indeterminacy House kind of revolves around and has endless amounts of fun with, and I thought it was so ridiculous, that two people would write two things in isolation which could, on the surface at least, look similar. There’s a term for this, right? Convergent evolution or something? Different species developing the same “eye,” just by different paths?
Anyway, it would happen again with Sinners, a few weeks after it came out, bam, here came Breathtaker, a novel which also paired tornadoes and serial killing. Anyway, largely because of House, I started peeling back the layers of Demon Theory, all the extra editors and commentators and reviewers and original directors and all that, peeling them back and throwing them away, and—this was the surprise for me—I liked the thing better without them. I was starting to see the real story of Demon Theory, I mean. Or something like that. To recognize myself in it, I guess. Or admit that that was me, maybe. I don’t know. Anyway, yeah, we mailed it out at the end of 2000, maybe, and, yeah, it’s horror, it has footnotes, it must be a House-clone, there’s not enough room on the shelves for both of them, all that. But then, too, some editors were uncomfortable with poking fun of a genre from within that genre, all with the hopes of making that genre better, cleaning off the impurities like Scream did, all that. Which, I can understand that kind of discomfort, I suppose. I mean, if revolutions were approved, they wouldn’t be revolutions, right?
But now I’m trying to make Demon Theoryout to be Scream, yeah. Why not go ahead and make it Casablanca and China Town too somehow, while I’m at it. Or even something really good, like Die Hard. Sorry. How about Demon Theory’s just Demon Theory. No coat tails involved. Anyway, after those rejections and all the suicide attempts which followed, it was other books, then some other books, and then in 2002, when I suspected I was starting to stray from doing what I’d originally intended to do, which was take over the world with fiction, we shot it out one more time, and this editor read it and said, literally, this is trash, less than that, even, it’s the amoeba on the fleas on the dog, but, too, this guy can really write, yeah? So I went to work for them for a couple of novels. Oh too, before I forget: when I submitted Demon Theory that time, I’d changed the title to a line from early on in Demon Theory, “all the beautiful sinners.” Maybe because I didn’t want editors to recognize it, I’m not sure. But also just because it’s a pretty cool title. Anyway, yeah, wound up sucking that title off Demon Theory, using it somewhere else, which I’m grateful for, because now Demon Theory can be what it was in the first place.
Slushpile: I’ve found it almost impossible to quickly describe this book to people. So I’ll let you do it. What is your elevator pitch for Demon Theory?
Jones: Say once you were a boy, out in the snow in the nighttime, the lights from your house just behind you, and say that, for reasons more animal than not, you stop walking, to better hear something you’re pretty sure you’ve never heard before, and then, right at the moment you realize what it is you’re hearing—a small cough, out in the dark—the air thickens around you and you smile just a little, unafraid, and look up and behind, into the face of what you’ve always known was there. And then it takes you with it, and you’re never a little boy again. That’s Demon Theory. For me, anyway.
Slushpile: So if you live in Guitar Town, Texas, what’s your axe of choice?
Jones: Yeah, my MySpace “location,” right? Wish I had a cool, non-generic answer here, other than that I was on a Steve Earle kick that week. Because, honestly, I don’t play. Not for lack of trying, either. I mean, at one time I learned all the cords, could read the music, do all the right stuff, but it just never made into “music” for me. I just don’t have whatever it is that can make music. So I fell back on the harmonica, learned all the cords etc, and couldn’t make “music” there either. Then the piano. I mean, I still have all my Cinderella sheet music, I think, but I could never make it sound like they did. Music’s just something I don’t have, but wish I did. Same with drawing. So, instead, I just write, and hurt myself playing basketball. Hang around junkyards a lot. That kind of stuff. It’s not an unhappy way to get across the years, I suppose. To make a life, if not a living.
Slushpile: What does it feel like to have snake venom coursing through your veins?
Jones: It’s not at all like spider venom. For me, getting hit by a spider, that’s like a jolt of electricity, and you can kind of feel it at the muscular level, if that makes any kind of sense. Snake venom, though, it was more like I looked down and, bam, my wrist’s all swelling up and turning colors. And it was more at the bone, too. Like, when I moved I could feel things creaking. Too, though, I mean, neither of these venom-tricks were direct—with the spider, the venom I had in me was the kind a spider will inject all around it’s egg (I fell asleep in the stall with one of my steers, and a spider decided to incubate its eggs in my forearm, which, of my two choices that night, the other being a steer stepping on my head, I guess the spider’s the better one), and with the snake, it was just second-hand venom, from coming down on the snake’s head with a knifing rig blade after it tried to bite through my boot (tossing the knife in the back of the truck, I of course sliced my wrist open)—so who knows if these experiences are any kind of accurate. I am very happy to have never got any platypus venom in me, though. From what I hear, that stuff will just really mess a human up. Always had a fascination with scorpions, though. Used to, my trick to impress the eight-grade ladies was to let scorpions crawl all up and down my arm. I think it comes from being six years old, sitting outside a dressing room in Dunlap’s, waiting for my mother to try on clothes, and her suddenly screaming like she’s dying, the whole store going quiet, and me not being able to run in there because it was the women’s dressing room. Not sure I would have anyway. Turned out it was a scorpion biting her. An old saleslady told me that. I still remember her standing over me, holding me by the shoulders, leaning down to say it. Back then, I thought if a scorpion bit you, that was it, you were dead. I was very alone in that Dunlap’s, I mean.
Slushpile: As I’m typing these questions, the Miami Heat just defeated the Detroit Pistons to take a 3 games to 1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. Who are you picking to win the NBA Championship this year?
Jones: The Heat. I love to watch Dwayne Wade play. I hope they go up against the Mavericks, too. [Editor’s Note: After this interview was completed, the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Phoenix Suns to advance to the NBA Finals. The Mavericks are currently leading the best-of-seven series 2-0. As I’m typing this, the score is 60-57 in favor of the Heat with about six minutes left in the third quarter of game three.]
Slushpile: What is your favorite footnote in Demon Theory?
Jones: Man, wish I had a copy to look at here, to remember. How about the cucumber soup one, maybe. That was a dream, how that worked out. Wholly a surprise. It’s got a little of Lenzi’s voice left, too. Maybe the only one. Though, too—and this is one Jason cut (wisely, I think)—there was one I really liked, which moved from Oliver Twist to Animal House to Full Metal Jacket in a pretty elegant way, I think. But, like so many others, it had to go. I mean, there’s as many footnotes on the cutting room floor as there are in the text, easy. About went insane trying to get everything balanced what I thought was right, so that things slowed down and sped up at the right places—or, so there was the proper tension between the two anyway. The book I wrote right after Demon Theory was The Bird is Gone. This is where I say “obviously,” I guess, except I doubt a lot of people have read Bird. Trust me, though—after Demon Theory, Bird makes perfect sense.
Slushpile: How long do you take to recharge after a book is released (or turned in) before you start the next one?
Jones: I wrote Demon Theory before The Fast Red Road even went to press. And that’s the way I usually do it, though, yeah, I admit, these past few months I’ve both skipped the three-day novel contest and wrote a lot more stories and novellas than I really meant to. Not sure why, either. Oh, wait: Demon Theory. That’s it. Since the beginning of last summer I’ve been living in that book, pretty much, only allowing myself short forays out of it. Which is not at all how I usually do it, but, with Demon Theory, it wasn’t always my choice, either.
I mean, yeah, all of my books—start over: Cristina Garcia was just here reading and talking (my school, not my house), and said how, while all first novels aren’t autobiographical factually, still, they’re all autobiographical emotionally. For me, somehow, every novel’s my first novel: I mean, with The Fast Red Road, that’s me, Pidgin. And then I’m LP Deal in Bird, and Jim Doe (and Amos Pease) in Sinners, and all the people in Bleed. I don’t know. It’s stupid, kind of, how I can’t “separate” or whatever it is you’re supposed to do. Extricate yourself from the text.
But, Demon Theory—okay, for people who haven’t read it, this’ll mean nothing. Apologies. But in the acknowledgements I say something about “Darla,” I think, who was there. And she was. I was thirteen, I think, when Demon Theory happened for me, in a cotton field across from where I lived. I was Hale’s sister, sitting behind Darla on her 110 three-wheeler. We were riding for the house as fast as we could for some reason—I think I was already hurt, my three-wheeler wrecked and not working back in some other field—and the cotton was tall, pushing my right foot back farther and farther, and three times I got pulled down into that space between the peg and the tire, and dragged under, run over hard enough that I was pretty sure I’d died, and three times I stood up again from the broke stalks and dirt, my clothes shredded to nothing, blood all over, and climbed back on again to try to make it home, and finally did. Still get all shaky thinking about it, even.
Slushpile: Have you made any plans about your next project? What are you working on now?
Jones: Accidentally started a novel last July, which I cut off as soon as I could, to focus on Demon Theory. But now, kind of all on its own, it’s turning into a big thing, with a supercool title I’m far too superstitious to say this early. It’s set in Texas, though. And has werewolves.
Meanwhile, anyway, I’ve got Hair of the Dog and Seven Spanish Angels and this hardboiled second-person West Texas detective novel Tar, Baby, and a collection of stories, The Meat Tree, and just last week I wrote what I think’s maybe the best story I’ve ever written, a story I don’t think I could ever write again as long as I live.
Then the week before that I wrote a story which just sucked everything, in new and kind of fantastic ways. And this week I haven’t even written a story yet, have been writing a screenplay instead, one that tries to satisfy how disappointed I always am when I see somebody on screen being tortured, and think to myself that that’s not how you do it, man, c’mon. It’s hard for me, though, the screenplay. Not natural—like writing with just half as many letters as usual. Which, yeah, is probably why Demon Theory’s written like it is: there was this movie in my head that, the only way I could turn it off was to write it down, in the purest, most honest way I could. Not like a specimen, that has a needle through it and’s dead, but like a thing that’s still alive, still breathing. Because—it’s me in there, yeah? High up in the ivory tower, in my corner with a television, watching Freddy’s tongue worm up from the mouthpiece of a telephone. That’s the only way I know to say it, really. Other than with a whole novel, I mean, with all these crazy little footnotes…