The PEN Ten with Stephen Graham Jones
In this week’s PEN Ten interview, guest editor Natalie Diaz talks to Stephen Graham Jones, the author of sixteen novels and six story collections. Jones’s current book is the werewolf novel Mongrels (William Morrow). He’s been the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Fiction, the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse Jones Award for Fiction, and other honors. He teaches in the MFA programs at University of Colorado at Boulder and University of California Riverside-Palm Desert and lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife and two children.
Stephen Graham Jones is many things, among them an incredible writer and storyteller, as well as a Blackfeet Indian. I had the luck of getting to know Stephen and his work when he visited the Institute of American Indian Arts Low Rez MFA program. He read a chapter from his new novel, Mongrels, and a “Letter to a Just Starting-Out Indian Writer (or Maybe to Myself).” I was hooked. Mongrels was the first of several of his books that I went into ninety miles per hour. The momentum of his prose drags you through the aches and loves and nights and violences and hilarity and trash and so many cars and hungers of his characters’ complicated hearts. In the literary world usually only women are objectified and have their craft overlooked as some man chooses instead to discuss their beautiful smiles or their hair. I’m not setting aside his craft—grab a copy of Mongrels and see it for yourself—but I must take a moment to say that Stephen Graham Jones is also one of the most handsome writers in the game, and that smile, that hair, beautiful. It is my luck to introduce him to you here.
Where is your favorite place to write?
Home, close to my family. They’re what I hold onto when I fall into a story. They’re why I can fall into a story. In airports and hotels and everywhere I write, I fall into the page just as much, I suppose, just as deep—you have to, that’s where the good stuff is—but, then, I’m never for sure that I’m going to be able to hand-over-hand my way out. It’s a lot scarier on the road for me. Here at the house, I can take ten steps to the left and I’m back where I was, back where I belong. When I come back to a hotel room from an hour or two of writing, it always looks so much like all the other hotel rooms that I wonder if I’ve made it all the way out of the story or not, and I have to kind of choose whether to believe in this world or not. At home, I just do believe, without having to think about it.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
Yeah, a few times, just for all the usual stuff. But not for nearly twenty years now. The first two or three times I thought it was cool. I was a kid. Then it stopped being cool. I did learn an important lesson, though. Just because you see your mug shot on the desk while being processed out doesn’t mean you can slip it into your jeans. Nobody’ll check your jeans, but when you raise your hands to profess your innocence—Why would I take my own mug shot, officer?—your hands might be all blue from the mimeograph powder, or whatever they used back then to process those prints. I didn’t learn not to go to jail, so much. But I did learn that those moments before you get caught, your heart pounding, your hands dyed blue, your future all laid out so perfect, those are the most pure. That you should try to remember those at all costs. Because then the rest of everything happens.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
When I was young-young, I don’t think I understood death right. I thought death was complete stillness. I’d been to funerals, so I knew that death meant being completely still. So, not wanting to be dead, I always kept a finger or a toe a little bit in motion. And I’d never let myself lie down where I was bilaterally symmetrical, either. I still don’t. Because that’s how you’re posed in the coffin. Also, I’ve always still got my fingertips tapping these very specific patterns. Does that count as obsession? Maybe not. Okay, how about things I choose instead. Country music, comic books, and horror movies. And old trucks. That’s probably my most real obsession. I’m most content walking through a field of old rusted trucks, trucks I know will never run again. But they’re bleeding stories into the grass, there. I cup my hands under, catch what I can.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Why does it stand out for you?
In my first novel, a young kid is at a diner with his uncle, and it’s just after a funeral, and the kid wets his pants. It would have been terrible—a fitting end to a drag of a day—except then the uncle, seeing what’s happened, he wets his pants too, and the kid doesn’t feel so alone anymore. It stands out for me because when that kid kind of smiles inside from this, that’s me, smiling, feeling complete. I doubt anyone who’s read that novel even remembers that moment. It’s the core of everything I do on the page, though. And I knew it when I wrote it, was tempted to scratch it out, hide it, keep it safe. But I didn’t.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
I think there are a couple of services or functions writers provide. Or can provide. But maybe they’re the same thing. The first is to convince the reader that the story isn’t just on the page. It’s all around them. You’re never not in a story. The second is to keep the reader’s narrative muscles in working order. Without narrative, an individual can’t maintain identity, can’t deal with trauma, can’t elect to treasure this one afternoon. Narrative is selection, and identity is selections from your experiences, with which you form the current version of yourself—the best version of yourself. It’s how you make a life, and believe in it. Engaging fiction, it both sensitizes you to the text of the world, and it shows you how to navigate your way through it. Math and science and medicine and law and business and engineering and the rest are vital, definitely. But story comes first. And it comes from writers. It’s our responsibility to both lure the reader into that experience, and then entertain and challenge them enough to keep them there.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
To say the truth, or something in the arena of the true. Something that feels true. To carve down to what’s real, and then fold the reader into that spot for a couple hundred pages. To write for the people of today, not the ones who aren’t born yet, and not the ones from generations ago, who can no longer be impressed with your talent. To—to be one of the ones Plato would have kicked out of his republic, because we won’t shut up, because we won’t stop stirring things up, because we insist on rousing emotions and thoughts in people that are inconvenient for those in power. And to do all this without seeming to be trying to do all this. Mostly, if we have a collective purpose, it’s to dream on the page, such that others might subscribe not so much to that particular dream, but just to dreaming in general. To asking What if? That’s the most dangerous question. The most necessary question.
The body is political, especially for women and people of color. Sound and language begin as energy in the body. How do you inhabit or understand your body when you read and/or write?
My heart beats, my eyes fill, my fingers get so jittery on the keys that they seem part of something else, no longer mine. I have to create loud obstacles on the way to my study, as I get so scared while writing that I might jump out of my skin if someone’s suddenly standing behind me. I’ve got a rearview mirror mounted by my monitor to try to keep that from ever happening. I stand while writing, so, instead of sitting at the desk and tapping my fingers, trying to magic up the next word or scene or development, I walk and jump all across the room between sentences. Not looking out the windows either, as I block off all windows, only needing the window of my story. It’s a very teeth-chattery mode. And then I’m back at the keyboard, holding on with both hands. Otherwise I fall and fall and fall.
We all have a language and system of images that are our own, that were built into our lexicons from the fragments and musics of places and people we come from. What is a word or image that haunts your writing or that you find yourself revisiting, and what does it mean to you, what or where of your life is it made of?
It’s got to be the word “still.” My relationship with that word is forever more and more complicated. I’m never satisfied with where copyeditors insist I put it in the sentence. I sometimes think that the reason I want to put it “late” in the line is that I grew up with a lot of friends who spoke Spanish mostly at home, so I keyed on that rhythm. At least, I think I picked up my misplacing “still” then, from my friends, and they weren’t so much misplacing it as placing it in the proper place, just in another language. Example: “Are you going to do that still?” That’s the way that sounds right to me, that sounds natural. But I hardly ever get to do it like that. So I always feel like a traitor. Like I’ve had to trade part of myself in to get the rest of these words onto the shelf.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Jim Dodge’s Fup.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
I guess you observe someone you trust, maybe, while you surveil someone you suspect? Like, your three-year-old at the playground. You observe her, because you don’t want anything bad to happen to her—don’t want her to try any equipment too far above her age level, or eat anything from the sandbox. But that person in the background of the playground there, you do some covert surveillance on him or her, don’t you? It’s what humans have been doing since we were just hominids. You let your young one wander to the edge of where you can run, if you need to, but you keep watch on that shadowy space behind the tree, too, because there are lions and leopards back there, maybe. But it’s that “maybe” where all the trouble starts. That creeper on the other side of the playground might not be creeping at all, but just trying to keep an eye on you, to keep their young safe. Meanwhile, with all this surveilling, both your kids find the leopard crouched in the tunnel all along. Or, that leopard, it finds them.
Natalie Diaz was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian community. She is the author of the poetry collection When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), which The New York Times reviewer Eric McHenry described as an “ambitious…beautiful book.” Her honors and awards include the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, the Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry from Bread Loaf, the Narrative Poetry Prize, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Diaz lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she works with the last speakers of Mojave and directs a language revitalization program.