[Interview] John Wisniewski and Author Stephen Graham Jones Talk Terror and Cinematic Influence
Ever the personal investigator in this realm, John Wisniewski has once more persuaded another quality author into some friendly back and forth vocal exploration. On the hot seat this time? The tireless worker Stephen Graham Jones. Soak up the following interview. It’s a worthy read!
John Wisniewski: Do you like horror films-any favorites? Maybe the Night of Living Dead series?
Stephen Graham Jones: I do dig Night of the Living Dead, and the whole series. But, between Night and Return of the Living Dead, I’ll take the ‘more brains’ zombies any day. And, horror film favorites, man. Scream is probably my favorite of the franchises. But I love nearly all the slashers, from the giallo on up to You’re Next, with special stops for Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and Leslie Vernon, and especially All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and The Cabin in the Woods. But I dig haunted house stuff as well, from The Haunting to Event Horizon, from Monster House to The Conjuring. And of course Paranormal Activity. One movie I wish people still watched is Wishmaster, and its sequels. They were so fun. And right now there’s such cool stuff happening low-budget. The Mooring, Madison County, The Pact. And I even dig a lot of the remakes, and the strange kind of remakey sequels, like Texas Chainsaw. But Scream‘s what I rewatch the most, probably, with Jason and Freddy and Michael coming in close second. I first saw Scream in Florida in 1997, when it was at the dollar theater. A friend swung by, said I had had had to see this one, to put down whatever I was studying and come with him right that instant. I did. And then I went back alone for the next six nights. Only other movie I’ve even done that with was Exorcist III. Scream, though, I watch it usually about once a month, still. It’s one of the best things to ever happen on the big screen. David Foster Wallace talks about seeing Blue Velvet, and how it sent a tremor through his whole sense of who he was and what he could do? I completely understand what he was talking about, there. Scream changed me. For the better.
JW: tell us about the writing of your story “Bestiary”, Stephen? What was the critical reaction like to the story?
SGJ: “Bestiary” was my first-ever stab at non-fiction. I’d been talking to somebody about whether non-fiction was even possible—my take at the time was that it’s all selection, there’s always spin—but then I realized I had no ground to stand on, as I’d never actually tried to write any non-fiction. So I sat down, decided I was going to write something with no lies in it whatsoever. Only true lines. And “Bestiary” is what I came up with, though I think the file name back then was ‘birds.doc.’ As for critical reaction, no clue, but it usually gets a response of some sort when I read it aloud. Either in the Q&A part of things or at the reception afterward. Probably the best was one guy telling me that the reason I’ve never seen another little falcon like the one in “Bestiary” is that people like me shoot them all. And he was right. And, while I don’t do that anymore, still, that doesn’t make that pretty little bird any less dead.
JW: Could you name a few inspirations for you? What inspires you to write?
SGJ: Inspirations. King, Dick, Vonnegut, Lansdale, McMurtry, Erdrich. As for why I write, though, that’s more that I just can’t help it. Writing’s what I do. If I don’t write then my fingers get all twitchy and the stories spill out of my head and I don’t really know what exactly happens then. Stories are how I make sense of the world—how I make the world make sense. When I want to figure something out, be it the mechanics of time or why the dude at Burger King gave me a double-meat Whopper when I clearly asked for a triple-, then I sit down and look into a blank page and figure it out. Or try to. And I understand so very, very little about the world or how things work. Which is heartening, I guess. I’ll never run out of stuff to write about. All I need really [need is] for my fingers to keep working.
JW: What is your favorite genre to write in, Graham?
SGJ: Horror, probably. It’s what comes most natural. I don’t always sit down meaning to write horror, but the stories and novels all tend to become horror, like that’s what’s always under the surface.
JW: How does being a Native American affect what you write?
SGJ: I guess in the same way being from Texas or being a guy or a dad or a husband does. Just, stuff that’s who I am, that I don’t even have to think about. It doesn’t give me an agenda or a checklist or a mission, though. My mission’s always just to tell the best story I can, then sell it, get it out into the world.
JW: How do you build suspense for the reader, Stephen?
SGJ: I think you build suspense the same way you tell a joke. The way a joke works is you establish a baseline, a norm, a set of controlled expectations, and then, right at the end you deviate from that in what’s suddenly a pleasurable manner. The punchline. Suspense works like that. Best example I can think of is in Silence of the Lambs, I guess, with Clarice Starling knocking on that door—book or movie—and us absolutely about to fall out of our chairs from the tension of not knowing which door it’s going to be. Which is to say we have all these expectations, but we also want so badly for them to all be undercu in one gensture, one motion, in a way worse than we could have come up with in ten years. A way that involves night-vision goggles and all that. A way that escalates, that ratchets things higher and higher. Patricia Highsmith was very good with this kind of suspense as well. I hope to read her and Harris and the rest closely enough to siphon some of that. Even just a little.
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