INTERVIEW: STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
Your writing has always struck me as an ongoing experiment to deliberately test the boundaries of genre fiction, to see how the more popular flavors of it like horror and sci-fi might intersect with the deeply philosophical ideas underneath. What role(s) do you see genre playing in the creation of a given story you want to tell?
I just think it really tests your abilities and limits to constrain yourself within all these boundaries. I think you dance better in a really small circle than you do with a whole auditorium to move around, I mean. And, yeah, I like to push at those boundaries some, try to smuggle this or that in, but, too, I don't see genre as any way incomplete or anything, and needing me to repair it. It's working just fine. I think my real project, it's trying to figure how to change myself to it, rather than it to my evil purposes. To say it simpler, maybe: like everybody, I write what I like to read. And genre's what I like to read. And I guess I bring to it all my ridiculous ideas and what I think are my tricks and clevernesses. But I never plan to use them. They just happen.
You are among the most prolific writers working today, constantly churning out new work, sometimes birthing novel-length manuscripts in big rushes of production over a long weekend or a couple of weeks. How do you keep your many projects organized and separated from each other with enough time and space that you can fully realize them?
Yeah, some weeks I just press the heels of my hands into my eyes, can't dream how I'm going to get all these projects I've committed to done. But better to be busy than not, I guess. Not at all complaining. Though, yeah, last month I wrote so many words that my brain was just dial-toned, my eyes weren't working so well. When possible, I try to just have one main thing going on at once, anyway. It keeps me a lot closer to sane. However, I mean -- we don't want all our writers to be completely sane, do we? And, give me free time, and all I do's watch Rockford Files and play hackysack. It's when I don't have any time to write that I seem to get the most writing done.
At CU-Boulder, you teach in one of the most interesting and historically innovative MFA programs going. Among the many blessings and curses academia holds for creative writers, what would you consider to be the single best and single worst thing about the whole MFA trip?
Worst thing's the debt, I think. Or, at least when coupled with the pretty much complete absence of a job happening. I guess another bad thing's people telling you your story's good and you're really expressing yourself well and if it really happened kind of like this and it makes you cry when you read it, then it's automatically good. I despise that kind of support, and try not to ever give it. Stories work on the page or they don't, and the writers who are maybe going to make it are the ones I can make fun of their work and tell to quit writing but it's too late, they've already got a story for next week, and the next week as well. I completely believe in writing and abandoning, moving on to the next thing, which is definitely going to be even better. As opposed to mulling and rewriting and dwelling and revisiting. Broke stories need to be thrown away. It's not complicated.
As for the best thing? It's not help you get with your writing -- you'll figure all that out anyway, with or without school -- it's help you get with how to be a writer. The most important things I learned at FSU aren't 'how I should fix this story' or 'this trick works for me' or how to talk to editors or any of that, it's my director (Janet Burroway) telling me what it's like to sit in one room writing, while life's happening in the other room. Or, no, not telling me what that's like -- I know exactly what that's like -- but it's that she told me sometimes you have to stand up, walk into that other room, even if it's bright and hurts your eyes and you don't want to talk to any of those people. I think most people who really write, they do it as a form of insulation from the world. Or maybe as a means of understanding it, of making it make sense for a few thousand words. But -- it's like my coach in high school telling me to get good grades, because you can't eat basketballs for dinner when you're twenty-five. You can't live at a keyboard, either. Without my director telling me that, I'm not sure I would ever figured it out. Meaning all the debt I'm still carrying from grad school? Completely worth it.
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES has ten novels on the shelf and a few more in-press. He received his PhD from Florida State University and teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder.