Stephen Graham Jones and “Growing Up Dead in Texas”
Stephen Graham Jones has been making a name for himself over the past few years with a series of provocative, brilliantly written dark, edgy stories and novels. Now he’s poised to break through with his latest, Growing Up Dead in Texas. What’s it about? A fire in Greenwood Texas that “turned families on each other, a fire that it’s still hard to get a straight answer about.” Packed with “small-town paranoia” and “more secrets than your average graveyard,” Growing Up Dead in Texas is a story “about finally standing up from the dead, and walking away,” only to be pulled back into a mystery decades in the making.
Jones told Omnivoracious that Growing Up Dead in Texas is “the first of my novels to actually say it's set exactly where I grew up, I guess. Greenwood, Texas. But they all have been. I only know the emotional contours of a single landscape, finally, and it's West Texas. Nothing feels so right as there, to me. For a while I've been circling it, though…. I could write a novel set on Mars, in 3046, and it'll still be my same West Texas: dry, dirt blowing, can see all the way to the curvature of the planet. People moving slow because the sun's just baking them in place. Your enemies just specks, but definitely moving your way. For days.”
But unlike prior novels Growing Up Dead in Texas isn’t horror “which is where I'm most comfortable. And the delivery's a touch different, too. All my other fiction's been obviously fiction. This one's not shaped like that, though. Texas is shaped like memoir. But not of me, really. It's a memoir of 1985. It's a memoir of a community. Of Greenwood. Of a childhood. A family.”
The novel is not just rooted in its setting but steeped in it. “The characters tend to be expressions of the place, I suppose. I don't mean to do that, but I'm not sure I can help it. I know people from Alaska and people from New York, though, and, they're each cool, but, to me, every single thing is different about them. To say it different, I tend to be most comfortable sitting around with people who grew up out in pastures like I did…It's not that we understand the world better—probably the opposite—it's that we can leave so much unsaid. And not talking, man, that's always best for me. To wrap that back around to fiction, then, I think if you can characterize the place such that the reader really cues into the emotional slant and slurry of it, then when a character slouches up across the fence, stands there in road, you don't have to explain him or her so much. They're just there. It's the only place they could be. Now the story can move on, not have to slow down to give their whole boring backstory. Their whole backstory, I mean, it's the way their pants are worn down behind the heel of their right boot, from driving. And that now they aren't driving. Let's move on. There's things to see.”
Autobiography comes through in the setting for Jones, but also in other ways. “My idea was that writing fiction was trying on different lives. But, at the same time, I shared a past with most of these characters. Of course I'd try to disguise it up, camouflage who I could, but for me, writing it, it was just seeing what it would have been like, to have gone that way instead of this way. And I think I still kind of write like that. I mean, I've got this one story, ‘How Billy Hanson Destroyed the Planet Earth and Everyone On It,’ which I should hope's pretty obviously fiction. But still. That guy, that Billy, only wanting to pick the phone up, call a girl? His name's not Billy. And, my first novel, every time I'd hit a wall in it, instead of wallowing around, indulging in indecision, being romantically 'tortured' by writer's block, I'd just reach in my head, plop a piece of my own life down. It leaves me no choice but to invest myself in the story.”
Growing Up Dead in Texas Jones continues to perfect a less-is-more approach to writing that wastes very few words. “Initially, my fiction was just stuffed, was overfull, was me trying to show everybody I was smart, I could do this, but I could also do that, and then this third thing nobody's even ever tried. But I got over that pretty quick. Or, quick enough. Which, I'm in no way disowning any particular book, I love them all, but, yeah, I am definitely leaning the stories down.”
Even though it might be a departure for him, Jones doesn’t see his new novel as being what he’s “locked into now” in terms of “tone or delivery or mode or voice.” In October, Jones’s The Last Final Girl is coming out with Lazy Fascist, which is “a throwback” to earlier books. “And then Dzanc Books is doing Flushboy for April Fool's, which is a whole different voice. For a novel about a kid working the window at a drive-through urinal, you've got to have a different voice, I mean. So, yeah, Growing Up Dead in Texas is a step for me, in some direction, but it's also one I took in 2008, when I was writing it. If there're job requirements to this novelist gig, then I think one of them has to be to keep a lot of different methods and voices and tones and styles handy, to pull out as needed, to best deliver the story at hand. It's what I do, anyway.”
As for his affinity for dark fiction, Jones said that “Maybe it's what seems the most real, to me? I mean, my grand plan, it's always been to graduate to science fiction. I've always seen that as the pinnacle, because, at its best, it can turn the reader into a ten-year-old, looking up into the sky, his or her eyes melting with awe. That's magic, to do that. To even come close. So, when I came to grad school forever ago, it was specifically so I could steal some craft, smuggle it back out the genres I loved: horror, fantasy, western, detective, and, most importantly, science fiction. I respect it so, so much. But nearly every time I set pen to paper, the blood and the darkness, it just wells up on the page, and writing for me becomes just trying to draw lines around it, trying to keep it from spilling down onto the table, back into my head.”
Jones also candidly admits he writes dark fiction “because, lying in bed at night, what I'm always thinking of, it's violence. All the worst kind. And my heart gets beating so hard that I have to get up, write deep into the morning. But I don't know why, really. I mean, I grew up with it, as you can maybe guess from Growing Up Dead in Texas, but so'd half the world. And they probably fall asleep just fine. Or at least learn to tamp that kind of thinking back down. Not me. I always have this fantasy that, if I write this story right, if I do it proper and honest, then my head'll finally be empty of all that, and I can just, I don't know, think about normal stuff. If there even is normal stuff. But it never happens. As soon as I start into the next story then it always turns out that my head's filled up with the bad thoughts all over again. And if I don't get them down on the page, then they just keep getting bigger and bigger.
“What I'm most scared of, what makes me the most nervous of anything, it's those times when Ib find myself standing in line somewhere without a pen. Because then I have to live in my head. And I never know for sure where that's going to lead. But there's usually a pen I can snake at the counter. Seriously, I'm an expert pen-thief. Sure, they're giveaway pens, but I also don't want anybody to know that I need this pen this badly at right this moment. So you have to be sneaky. One thing that works is taking one pen, pretending to write on your hand, but then making motions that it's not working, so you grab another, which, yes, does write, thank you thank you. And you put that one back, move on. But nobody ever wonders where the first pen went.
“And, as for what I'm leaving out these days, I think it's just the nerves. Used to, I wanted to be sure everybody knew what I could do. Now, I just want to tell a story. Hopefully one they won't be able to shake for a while. And if they remember my name, great. If not, so what. So long as a trace of the story remains.”