The Refuge of Horror Within the Nonsense of Reality: An Interview with Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians hit all the right, hard notes. It’s hard to say exactly why, though I know it has to do with how expertly this tale hovered within the invisible crossfade between the “ordinary” horrors of being a Native American in the United States and the extraordinary horrors of the weird, the eerie, and the preternatural. I often put the book down in moments of dread which had little to do with vengeful revenants and more with navigating contemporary existence as 1) a member of a vanquished people and 2) a person in their third decade struggling to live with a past that can never quite die. But the two always felt of a piece, and it was this union of distinct horrors which spoke a paradoxical consolation to me.

Stephen was kind enough to talk to me about writing The Only Good Indians as well as an array of topics which constellated around that gravitational center. Full disclosure: we spoke a few months ago but I was just too anxious to migrate our conversation to print for a long spell. I’d like to think that this piece seeing the light of day now demonstrates a fresh narratability to the ordeal that is living through 2020 to 2021, but I’m very aware I could be fooling myself and an Elk Headed Woman is trudging my way to keep an appointment I didn’t realize I was making. Stay tuned…?

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Ian: I’m talking to you, a Native American to a Native American, but the Ojibwe experience doesn’t map neatly onto the Blackfeet experience, and they’re not cleanly reducible to each other. But is there anything about being Indian that binds us together and sets us apart even in light of those particularities and those differences?

Stephen Graham Jones: You know, I think for me— and this is actually not from The Only Good Indians, this is from Mongrels— if I had to reduce being Native to a single thing that works for, I don’t know about everyone, but for a lot of people, anyways, it would be we know what it’s like to walk into the 7-11 for a Big Gulp and have the clerk watch our every movement. I think that’s the one common thing, you know?

I: Yes! That was one of the things that stood out to me also in The Only Good Indians: Lewis, the shape of his perception of how a routine stop by the police, “What goes on in your head in that moment,” right? And that makes me kind of wonder. You were on a panel talking about speculative fiction, which was fantastic—

SGJ: Thank you.

I: —and there was the obligatory busting the chops of magic realism going on for a little bit. And I’m being tongue-in-cheek in saying that, of course, but I wonder: What would you think if I were to say that maybe magic realism tends to wear its social ethos on its sleeve as an objective whereas— and I don’t want to be pointy-headed and avoid the word “horror,” let’s just say “horror”—

SGJ: Yeah.

I: Do those things just arise as the text is being conjured?

SGJ: Yeah, I think you’re right about magic realism. It has that impulse, it’s like part of its core DNA. Not that it necessarily has an agenda, but like it’s built to talk about that kind of stuff, if that makes sense. Whereas, yeah, horror’s first job is to spook you, to make you want to leave the lights on. And if horror does engage any of that other stuff— at least with me, I can’t speak for other people— but the way it is for me is, if I’m going to scare the reader then I have to put the most real people I can on the page. And for me to get real people on the page then I do have to take the knees out of the stereotype and that cliché and come at stuff like, how cops treat you, just to make this a real person. So, I do stumble into that stuff on the page, but I don’t go onto the page thinking, “I got to talk about this, I got to talk about that.” I just want to do real people, and real people have those issues, you know?

I: Oh, absolutely. What I found when I was trying to talk to people about how The Only Good Indians was impacting me was that I thought of Tolkien’s preface to Lord of the Rings. He says there, “I cordially dislike allegory,” and that it’s about the tale’s applicability and not an intentional one-to-one correspondence between the world of the text and the primary world, and I think that’s what I see at work in your fiction, as a whole but definitely in this text.

SGJ: You know, and I wonder if that’s like my own way of shutter my mind or wearing blinders because I think if I allow myself to say, “I’m going to deal with this topic or this issue,” then I think that’s going to skew the narrative, it’s going to skew the story in a weird way. So I have to pretend I’m just talking about werewolves [laughs], or whatever. Then the other stuff can happen organically, if it happens, you know? And if it doesn’t happen it’s not a failure, either.

I: Yeah! So would you say that falls under the heading like you’ve said before of saving your life on the page?

SGJ: Kind of, yeah. You know, books and stories and fiction have always been my refuge, you know? Growing up, I hid in books, I had to be reading. The world didn’t make sense to me, and it still doesn’t make sense, what goes on at the level of government— it doesn’t make sense! I still hide on the page, it’s just that now I’m often the one putting the words on the page. What I like about writing fiction is that I can make the world make sense for twenty pages at a time, or for three hundred fifty pages at a time. But I when I go back out into the world it doesn’t make sense again: I order one thing and I get another thing; I’m told this but I get that, what’s up with that?

I: Right, right. And you’ve talked before about the importance of narrative, that what you try to do as a teacher and what you’re doing as an author is you’re weaving narratives. And what I wonder is, what is it that makes a narrative a true narrative to you?

SGJ: Hmm… I don’t know about “narrative,” it’s tricky to talk about narrative. What makes a story true, to me, is if the particulars that drive the story are all of a system and they feel like they’re all either from or are reflective of a single person, then everything coheres in a good way. Those particularities add up to something that the world can identify with— they might not match other people’s particularities, but I think the reader recognizes a system that is individual, if that makes sense—

I: Yes.

SGJ: —and I think that’s part of the trick or part of the secret of the magic. I don’t really know how to engage it, I just know when I do it wrong [laughs], and that I can do it better.

I: Yeah. Does that come into play with what you’ve said before that other books, other stories are more or less one pass through, and that The Only Good Indians represented three. How does that play into what you were just saying about not knowing how to engage it, it happens?

SGJ: Yep. Lots of the things that I write that I feel like don’t reach that magic gelling where the particulars don’t add together the right way, I generally just abandon them, you know? I probably could work on them enough to make them work, but while I’m doing that I don’t write three other things. I’ve never been afraid of running out of stuff to write, of running out of content, and for that reason I can just leave stuff behind, just walk away and do something different. And that’s how I like to rewrite: I like to write a broken piece, and instead of spinning my tires in that piece for six months, I’m like, “Well, I’m gonna do it better this time, and do it good all over again.” [laughs]

I: So murdering your darlings is not that difficult for you.

SGJ: No, not really. Although I do find myself at the editorial stage or with copy editors wanting to die on all the hills, you know? [laughs] What I call literary integrity I think in five years I’ll look back and understand it was just stubbornness.

I: There is such a versatility to everything you write. It is often noticeably horror before that long, and yet the stories in After the People Lights Have Gone Off, for instance, just dig their talons into my heart in such a special way, I wonder: what is, you find, it that makes horror so serviceable to so many different themes and perspectives? What is it that makes horror so porous to all these different kinds of experiences?

SGJ: I think it’s that… I think what so many pieces of fiction neglect is entertainment. They forget that they have to draw the reader to the story so you can do whatever you want to do to them with that fiction. I think horror doesn’t often forget about the entertainment. It needs to have the heart-pounding stuff, you know? I think that horror writers— if you’re writing horror then you’re obviously in love with that stuff and you feel it keenly if you don’t have some scares, or some gore, or some dread, or uncertainty, whatever it is. So horror writers are less likely to forget the icing on the cake. And because horror has so much icing it allows us to hide other stuff in it pretty effectively.

I: Ah, so it’s the dog’s medication in the biscuit.

SGJ: Yeah, exactly.

I: You know, talking about dread… One of the most frightening things that I can imagine is a phrase that you used describing what’s going on in The Only Good Indians, and it’s, “Did we really get away with that?” Yes, elk-headed women are frightening, but that idea of the guilt that does not sleep is honestly one of the most dreadful things about The Only Good Indians, I find.

SGJ: No, for me too. That’s kind of one of the things I wanted to deal with in The Only Good Indians. Like, when you’re in your thirties, you start to look back at what you did in your twenties and you’re like, “Ugh, I should’ve paid for that.” And that’s what’s happening with these guys, they think, “Well, we made it out of our twenties, so we must have done good.” But… maybe it wasn’t that wholesome. Maybe it wasn’t responsible. We’re all different people the different stages of our lives, but I think we’re particularly stupid in our twenties, probably [laughs]. So we kind of spend the rest of our lives wondering what’s going to stand up from our backing trail and make us pay for what we’ve done.

I: Yeah, and that’s one of the things that really stands out for me, is that Indians aren’t “the good guys” in your stories. They are people as flawed, as broken as any other. I’m thirty-six: I’m now freshly Lewis’s age, and I found that that shifting from inhabiting Lewis, to then moving into Gabe, to Cassidy, and then into Denorah, an incredible array of emotions that orbit age-based perspectives on the past. How did that come about? Maybe that wasn’t so much the writing, maybe it was the editorial process, but how did that become knit together?

SGJ: Well, you know, I didn’t know I was writing a novel was probably the way. Because the first part of it, “The House That Ran Red,” which was originally called something different, I thought I was writing a novella. Then I got to the end and it opened up to this other movement back on the reservation and I was like, “Wow, that’s weird.” [laughs] So I did have to jump to these other characters because of course I couldn’t stay with Lewis— it’d be pretty boring to stay with a dead person [laughs].

And what I found was that the mode of the story had to change. It had been third-person, but it was such a tight third-person that it feels like you were in his head that first hundred and thirty pages or whatever pages. And then I had to find a way to from that to move to a mode of narrative that allowed me to jump heads from this person to this person, even within the chapters, to sometimes even go to Elk Head Woman. And what I found was the only way I could bridge that shift with the newspaper clipping. Otherwise these unlike parts touch and spark and throw up problems, but for some reason that little clipping acted as a reset button so you could start over with the story.

I: And it resonated so well with how Lewis is constantly referencing potential headlines with every decision that he has to make.

SGJ: [laughs]

I: So that was one of the subtle ways you introduced this feeling of what I perceived as a sense of futility, of “I can’t get out of this.” What I wonder with this perspective shifting is what is being done when Elk Head Woman is being described in second person, when you are addressing us, the readers, as Elk Head Woman?

SGJ: Yeah, you think it’s second person until you get to the very end and you realize it’s dramatic monologue, it’s the old dude telling the story to Elk Head Woman. I wanted to tell a slasher on the page, basically, but part of every Michael, Freddy, Jason, Ghostface movie is you’re looking through the face holes, you’re looking through the hockey mask, you’re looking through the bedroom window or at the kids at the bonfire, I call that “slasher cam.” And when you translate from the screen to the page you can’t use all the same techniques, you know? Just planning it out, the only way I could think to move to Elk Head Woman’s point of view was to drop a section break or a chapter break, and then establish, This is Elk Head Woman, and say, “Look through her head.” But that, to me, was too soft of a transition. It gave the reader a head’s-up that we were going into a different space, and it didn’t feel like real slasher cam. And the only way I could think to stay in slasher cam was to surprise the reader by shifting to what feels like second person without a section break, such that you kind of jerk back and you’re like, “Is this a mess-up? Did I read wrong? What’s going on?”

I: Right? [laughs]

SGJ: So that’s what I was going for. But what I found was that I couldn’t put all those second person sections at the end of the chapter; sometimes I had to put them in the middle or even at the front because you can’t have the reader expecting them.

I: Yes. And one of the most masterful things to me is how it becomes clear that this is an elder retelling this tale, and how all these fractures are incorporated into a story; a story which is happening the entire time, but you’re only aware of it in those final couples of pages. So the elder is narrating the past to narrate a future for the children that are listening. You have said that narrative can present us with a future. What is a future that Indians can believe in and embrace?

SGJ: Yeah, that we can believe in… Maybe the best indicator of it is that the Redskins are getting renamed. That gives me so much hope. It doesn’t mean the world is fixed. I really don’t think that mascots actually matter very much; I think what really matters are actual sovereignty issues and treaty rights. I think those actually have some impact and can change things. But I hope that we’re taking steps towards that, you know? And with Oklahoma actually having that court case come down in their favor, man— that is big, that is so much bigger than the Redskins.

And also what I think’s so important is we’re about to see Indians on TV. Like, Indian television shows. What’s going to happen is little kids are going to be at their home and see themselves on the screen, and I think that changes everything. That’s what I’ve been doing the two hours before I talked to you, I was talking to TV people on Zoom about this sort of stuff.

I don’t know if it’s going to reenergize us or anything like that— I don’t necessarily think we need energy, but it can instill a kind of feedback loop or something, the fact that we’re a part of the world. Because America wants us not to exist, because it’s easier if we don’t exist— then they don’t have to deal with the guilt and the ramifications. And I’m not saying you only exist if you’re on TV, but I am saying that for kids who will see themselves there, that’s going to matter so much.

I: Right, absolutely, that’s why I’m crossing my fingers for Warpath to be a part of the MCU— here’s hoping.

SGJ: [laughs] Oh yeah!

I: So, to kind of weave all these strands together, can horror make us better people? Or is that the wrong question?

SGJ: Oh, no, I kind of think that’s what horror was built for. I think the earliest horror stories were like “Little Red Riding Hood,” you know? “Little Red Riding Hood” teaches us to listen to our elders and stay on the path. I think most horror is still telling us that. It’s telling us, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this experiment, maybe this corpse will come back as a zombie.” Whatever it is, it cautions us against transgression. And just on a smaller scale: just say you read a lot of horror, watch a lot of horror, and you kind of become kind of a spooky person. That’s going to help you tremendously when you’re going through a sketchy parking garage and it’s going to let you hear somebody creeping up on you, you know? It prepares us. So yeah, horror can definitely change us for the better, I think.

I: [laughs] That’s excellent. I want that to be true, and I’m glad to have some validation from someone besides myself. Stephen Graham Jones, thank you for your time, thank you for making this happen, I really appreciate it.

SGJ: I’m glad we got to talk, it was good!

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