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Interview: Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the recipient of an NEA fellowship, the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Fiction, the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, a Bram Stoker Award, four This Is Horror Awards, and he’s been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. By day, he is the Ivena Baldwin Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder.

To begin, I want to ask how it feels, at this stage in your career, to be called the Jordan Peele of horror literature.

An honor, of course, though I think he’s probably funnier than I am. Too, though? Have you noticed that comedy people are turning out to be really good with horror? I think a lot of that has to do with how you structure a joke. There’s tension, tension, then—surprise!—the punchline or gag you didn’t see coming. That’s exactly how horror works. I read somewhere years ago that, physiologically, a laugh and a scream are indistinguishable until the moment of eruption. The best horror capitalizes on that, I think.

Your latest novel, The Only Good Indians, sure does! This one’s a slasher about an elk demon that, in retaliation for a decades-old hunt, violently tracks down four Blackfeet Nation childhood friends—Rick, Lewis, Gabe, and Cass—in all-out “I Know What You Did Last Thanksgiving” mode. How did the premise come together for you?

Man, I love that, “I Know What You Did Last Thanksgiving.” My variation, which my editor tells me probably won’t fly as a title, is “A Nightmare on Elk Street.” But, as for the premise, the build, I just started with a husband and wife in a new rental house, one that’s actually the house I’m living in now, and then I needed to figure out what was in that house with them, and then I had to figure out why, and then the whole thing opened up. That’s how it always happens for me. One thing leads to another, and then another. I mean, if you give a mouse a cookie, then that opens the gate, man, and before too long you’re in crazyland. And, with novels, crazyland’s the only place to be.

The title comes from the taunting chant Gabe’s daughter, Denorah, hears at her basketball games: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” When I got to that part of the novel, I thought: Well, damn! That cuts close to the bone! Is the title from the Elk Head Woman’s point of view? From the point of view of this country’s founding on settler colonialism? A mixture of both?

I’d never thought of that, that the title might be hers. Very cool. Thanks. For me, yeah, it’s Denorah pushing back against that Teddy Roosevelt thing—if horses had bumper stickers, “The Good Indian is a Dead Indian” would have been on the hind-end of a lot of horses in the nineteenth century—but, too, it’s plural because I wanted to dig into what it means to be a “good Indian” today. Does it mean adhering strictly to old ways? Does it mean coming up with new ones? How do you gauge things when success in one world is failure or betrayal in another? It’s all kinds of complicated—thus the plural. Because there isn’t just one way to be a “good Indian” today. There’s seven million ways. And growing.

There’s a part where Lewis’s USPS coworker, Shaney, who’s Crow, says, “We’re from where we’re from. Scars are part of the deal, aren’t they?” Does that figure somehow into what you’re saying about the many ways of being a “good Indian”? Because it got me thinking that the scars these four guys have are their struggle to hold on to their traditions (the scene where Gabe and Cass talk about how to hold a proper sweat lodge comes to mind) while surviving an oppressive society that doesn’t look out for them (and here, the scene where Lewis deals with white cops and remarks on not wanting to become a statistic comes to mind).

There’s some pride there too, when Shaney says it. At least there is for me. Like, yeah, they can cut us, they can mark us, but we’re still here, aren’t we? But yeah, scars are part of the deal. And not all of them are on the skin.

It’s ominous that the guys’ doomed hunt happens around Thanksgiving, a day mired in the harmful and false mythmaking of this country’s founding. Tell us about why you decided to have it happen around this fraught holiday.

Because of just that, yeah. Or, because of how weird it is to see elementary kids walking home wearing construction paper headbands and feathers they made that day in class, and of course not being mad at them—they’re just kids, don’t know any better—but the whole system and world that not only doesn’t question this kind of stuff, but smooths it over, even celebrates it. But, too, a few years back, I was over at somebody’s house for Thanksgiving on the reservation, and news came a bit after lunch that a guy down the road had just died from his car falling on him while he was working on it. Ever since then, I think, Thanksgiving’s been associated with bad things for me. I mean, even worse things than usual. Growing up, what Thanksgiving always meant was going out with my granddad to find a lost cow in the cold—for some reason, a heifer would always go missing that day, and we’d be poking through the frozen brush for hours—so I guess that’s bundled in there somewhere, too. But I suppose the memory’s all tangled now with that cow from James Welch’s Winter in the Blood. My head’s a filing cabinet drawer that somebody’s just been recklessly stuffing random stuff into for years, I don’t know.

Initially, I read Good Indians as a ghost story rather than as a slasher. Your Tor novella Mapping the Interior is also a ghost story about First Nations characters who’ve left the reservation. Would you consider Good Indians to be similar, to be a story you’ve come back to?

The first movement of The Only Good Indians probably owes some stuff to Mapping the Interior, yeah. What it mostly owes is that, once I realized this could go the same direction, I then had to go as opposite a direction I could, so as to not cross territory I’d already been across. So, Mapping made Good Indians veer where it does, yeah.

You mentioned movements in your novel. It’s divided up into a prologue and three parts. Structurally, we spend the briefest amount of time with Rick, who’s the focus of the prologue, that first movement, and more time with Lewis, Gabe, and Cass in the three parts. Was there a specific effect you were going for with this structure?

The book that was in my head, kind of giving me hope this could work, was Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. I don’t know why, but that book had a really big impact on me, once upon a grad school class. I think what it was, was that I saw potential there, structurally. I mean, the deal I made with myself for coming to grad school was that I had to be in ninja mode, sneaking into the academy to spirit away good sentences, stronger narrative, whatever I could to bolster the horror and science fiction and fantasy and westerns and comic books that had been saving my life for years. I guess Good Indians is kind of the result of that? Related, I guess: I see a lot of potential in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides.

I love how you use second-person narrative for the voice of the Elk Head Woman. It really gives you the sense that she’s stalking them and their loved ones, one by one. How did you decide to use second person for her?

Nabbed it from N. Scott Momaday. In House Made of Dawn, he uses second person to deliver some of the protagonist’s backstory. He just sprinkles it in without setting it up, without asking for permission, and just the nerve of that, the, I don’t know, the presumption that we’re just going to go along with it, it was absolutely mesmerizing to me, and still is. So, of course I had to, as Jerry Reed says, “try a little bit of your honor on.”

I also have to say I admire her technique. She’s so good at destabilizing these guys’ sense of reality and driving them toward irrational thinking and madness. How did you devise her plan of attack?

I figured it was too easy if she just broke down their front doors and stomped them to death right off. I mean, yeah, that’s John Landis’s “Deer Woman,” and I can’t just redo Landis, but, really, if that’s what she is, if that’s how she operates, then the story just becomes an arm-wrestling match: whoever’s stronger wins the day. And, to me, that’s not that interesting, finally. The interesting bad guys in stories, to me, are the ones . . . like Lecter in the Hannibal television show. He likes to play with his food before carving in. That’s a lot more fun to write, and to read, I think, than just staging things around who’s stronger.

Much more fun! Let’s talk about slashers and your approach to the genre. For you, the slasher is the truest story. How is it the truest genre for a novel about four men trying to outrun their past?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the slasher is true because it’s the world I so badly want to believe in. In slashers, the pranksters are always punished, and it’s no light wrist slap they’re getting either. It’s so enticing to me, believing in a world where wrong is punished. It’s not the world we live in, I know, but it can be for however long a book lasts, it can be until the movie’s over. And, no, we shouldn’t comport ourselves like slashers, of course, I’d never say put on a mask, grab a machete, and go looking for those people who sprayed ketchup on you in elementary. But in fake-land, in stories, I love that justice is served, and served hard.

These four guys, though, what I wanted to interrogate, I guess, was how much it sucks to be in a world like that when, really, you just screwed up once, right? Do they actually and really deserve all this? I mean, who knows—not for me to say. And I don’t mean to try to be shriving people in this world of their “one mistake” either. Just, it’s all so complicated. Wonderfully complicated, and uncomfortable, and seductive, and we shouldn’t think all the things we think, probably, but sometimes thinking them is the only thing that keeps us sane, too.

You said that with this novel you wanted to write a slasher in a way it hadn’t been done before. It goes against many of the genre’s tropes. For example, teens aren’t the focus. Premarital sex and raunch fests aren’t a prelude to bloodshed. What else were you aiming to do differently?

My big push was against she who I always say should be a model for us all: the final girl. And she is that model. She stands up against bullies, she fights for those who can’t fight for themselves, she stands up against a monster that no way can she bring down. But she does. Only, most of the time, in order to do so, she has to kind of cash in her identity—she has to adopt conventionally “male” characteristics to win this arm-wrestling match of a final battle. Which is to say, she muscles up after some fashion, but it always seems to me, a bit, that the tools and characteristics that she’s already got never really come into play. Which is a roundabout way to say that I wondered what if the final girl used compassion instead of brute force? My model for that, I guess, is Neil Gaiman’s Black Orchid. It’s not horror, not really, but I always appreciated how it all comes down to a meaningful conversation, not a lot of slow-motion punching. We need more of that, I think.

I grew to really like Rick, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe. In many ways, they remind me of friends and people I knew growing up in New Mexico. I feel like these poor guys are caught between a rock and a hard place: paying the price for something they did ten years back while adapting to and navigating white spaces where they have to de-Indianize themselves. And at the same time, I kinda get why Elk Head Woman wants them dead. So rather than playing out like a conventional slasher, the novel plays out more like tragedy. Was that another way you wanted to subvert the genre?

Definitely. So thrilled you got that. Like . . . in Friday the 13th, well, all of them past the first. Okay, not counting Five. But, in most of them, Jason’s this big-time killing machine, has a body count like Commando, but, too, I always kind of feel sorry for him. He’s just a little kid who drowned knowing that it didn’t have to be this way. He drowned calling out for his mom, who had always been there for him. He drowned with everyone watching, and jeering. What he does once he gets his height and his machete is terrible, but, too? Dude’s hurting. He can’t get over what happened to him. It’s left him single-minded, sure, and maybe he’s not that selective about who gets the blade, but . . . okay, I’ll say it: I’m in sixth grade, I’m standing at the bus stop out in the country, me and my friend Michael are goofing around, and then we look up, see a station wagon half-in, half-out of the ditch, taking out a line of mailboxes, just popping them up, sending them over the roof of the car. The woman driving corrects, ends up in the other ditch, and she’s coming for us, and we just stand there. When she gets to us she’s back on the blacktop but going so fast still. Too fast for my dog, who catches that front tire. It doesn’t kill her, though. She’s out there yelping and crying, trying to stand, but her back end is mashed to the pavement. And me? I just stood there, like Lewis does in Good Indians. My friend Michael, he runs right out there, scoops her up, and she’s reaching around trying to bite him, and it’s not because she was a bad dog or anything. It’s because she was hurting so much that biting was all she knew anymore.

That’s how I imagine Jason Voorhees. That’s how I imagine a lot of slashers, really, including mine, here. They’re not necessarily evil—they’re on the side of “good,” really, in that they’re balancing the scales of justice—they’re just so damaged, so hurting, that biting’s all they know. And it takes the right kind of final girl to realize that, and do something.

And in the midst of the tragedy and the hurting, you were able to squeeze in one of your favorite things in this novel: basketball. You’d been trying to do this for years. What made Good Indians ideal for basketball?

I’d tried the basketball ending before, with Ledfeather, but it wouldn’t stick, and . . . is this my first novel since Ledfeather to be set on the reservation? It might be, yeah. So, when my pen kind of set foot up there again, it was like I could hear a basketball dribbling out there somewhere. But, when I started writing Good Indians, I had no real intimation it was all headed to a showdown on the court. I thought I’d got enough slashing and driving in with the first part of the novel. I was wrong. Turned out there was a lot more waiting.

Your slasher novel before this one, The Final Last Girl, is a meta take on the genre. How would you say Good Indians differs from it?

In The Last Final Girl, everybody there’s from Kevin Williamson’s forehead, pretty much—they know the genre. Not so in Good Indians. Not that it would have helped them if they did know.

Last year, you spoke on the “Why Does Horror Matter” panel at StokerCon. You talked about how horror can use the empathetic response against you and teach you about yourself in an uncomfortable way, which is one of the best things the genre can do. Was there anything surprising you learned about yourself while writing Good Indians?

I guess I hadn’t realized how deeply that dog thing I answered about above was lodged in me, yeah. Until about three questions ago, I hadn’t realized it, I mean.

Before we wrap up, I want to ask you about the new renaissance of the horror genre happening now. It’s been coming to the fore during the difficult times we’re going through, to say nothing of our current administration. How do you see the renaissance happening? What’s your take on it?

Yeah, horror naturally reflects our current set of anxieties and fears back to us, so we can . . . either temporarily exorcise them, have a breather, or so we can better dissect them, I’m not sure. Maybe both? But, in times of unrest, be they political, financial, environmental, plague-y, whatever, horror’s there to try to make it all make sense. Really? I wonder if the pleasure of horror in times of unrest is that, on the page, on the screen, the horror draws to some manner of a “close,” as in, it goes over, the evil is pushed down, defeated. Which is fantasy, of course, but, when the real baddies in the actual world just keep on keeping on, then engaging the fantasy for a few hours can be pretty appealing . . .

We’re gonna want to engage the fantasy for as long as possible, so we gotta know what upcoming projects of yours we can look forward to! What’s next?

Just revising another slasher novel, Lake Access Only. It’s the most Demon Theory thing I’ve written in years. Just, right now, with this version, I’m trying to expose its beating heart a little better, and give it longer legs, so it can step over more fences.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about Good Indians?

I wonder if I even write this book if I don’t read CJ Box’s Open Season, however many years ago that was already. That’s the most amazing novel. Finding it was like . . . it was like stumbling onto Charles McCarry’s The Secret Lovers in a used bookstore, and then falling headlong through the whole Paul Christopher series, wishing it never had to end. And Box has yet to end the Joe Pickett series—happily. I’m reading the current one right now, Long Range. Though, with how game wardens are characterized in Good Indians, I don’t know that Pickett—he’s a game warden himself—would be a reader, so much. So, I should maybe say here that I don’t think all game wardens are bad guys. Even the one in Good Indians, he’s not so bad. He’s just, as I was saying earlier, trying to figure out how to maybe be a good Indian, or the best one he can be, anyway. Finally, that’s all you can really do.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.