IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Publications of CU-Boulder Faculty
“In Print” is Inside CU’s feature highlighting the published works of our faculty. “In Print” features current fictional and nonfictional published works, including books, journal and magazine articles, authored by current faculty and researchers.
If you would like to have your work highlighted, please email Inside CU with the title, publication date, name of the written work and a description of the topic, as well as your title, contact information and a short biography. Jpeg photographs of book jackets and/or authors, as well as website links to more information about the publication are encouraged.
Selected works will be chosen to feature in an article, and all submissions will be acknowledged.
Stephen Graham Jones grew up in Texas, learning farming and ranching from both sides of his family who told him not to do what they did, to use his head instead of his back. In college he majored in philosophy and took writing classes before entering graduate school at Florida State. As a grad student and a new graduate he began to have works published, including a book he wrote under the working title For There Needed No Horses (a Kafka-line), which became The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong when published. He taught at Texas Tech before coming to CU-Boulder. His latest works to be published are the novels Ledfeather and The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti.
Both Ledfeather and The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti focus on individuals, in this case young men, yet both are very different stories. Do the young men represent a particular essence or person or experience and do they interrelate?
It was so strange for me, these two novels coming out in the same month—wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Because, yeah, they’ve both got young protagonists—the same age, about—and they each involve suicide. And are both somewhat epistolary. If somebody’s just finding my fiction, I don’t know. They’ll think I just have one kind of story, maybe. Except these two novels, I probably wrote a couple between them. Them coming out together like they did, it’s like . . . it’s like climbers up on Everest, how when they fall they almost always tend to end up in this one chute, this rock funnel, no matter where they fell from. Which is how Ledfeather and Dugatti both dropped together: luck. As for who or what these two protagonists might represent, of course what I want to say here’s that they represent themselves—they’re characters, real people, at least in the world of these novels. Which is this world, as far as I’m concerned. What I probably have to say, though, is that, as different as each story is, they’re still pretty scarily autobiographical. You can finally only write stuff you know, I suppose. Trick is, disguising it, pretending it all happened to somebody else, then not hunching over in obvious pain each time somebody in an audience asks why the character did this, why he did that.
You seem to easily move between genres of science fiction/horror, freeform and straight prose. Is there a process for deciding which is right for the tale you’re telling?
No, no process. Really, all I ever have is a first line. No, that’s kind of a lie. How about this, then: no matter how perfect a concept or premise, character or story you have, none of it matters unless you’ve got that first line, that piece that sets the rules for the rest of the piece, that voice that the reader picks up on from the very first line on, and trusts, identifies with.
Which genre do you most favor?
This has got to be some kind of unfair question. Man. I guess I’d come down to either horror or science fiction. One repopulates the shadows of our so-sophisticated world, the other makes us feel that sense of wonder we need so desperately. Well, either those genres are my favorite or young adult stuff, I guess. More and more these days, I’m thinking that’s the real thing to be writing. Nevermind that I can’t do it. Or, haven’t done it yet. Plans, plans.
For the most part, your books focus on Native American characters and experiences; your approach seems very unique compared to other Native American authors, such as Sherman Alexie, who favor more traditional storytelling and settings. It’s wonderful to branch out and tell these stories in a new way – is that something you specifically strive to do or is it based more on your personal tastes?
Probably just based on personal tastes. Though, too, Alexie, say, he does some out-there stuff, both with form and content. And he’s got both the ability and the knack to push it further when and where he wants. But yeah, I mean, I write Indians for the obvious reason I was talking about above: you write what you know. Used to, I’d always dodge anything ‘Indian’ in my fiction, but then realized that, still, all my characters were some-Indian anyway, just because any other character didn’t feel real to me. Or, I didn’t know so much how to inhabit them anyway. Too, though, if your character’s Indian, then whatever he or she’s dealing with in the story’s Indian too. It doesn’t have to be feathers and suns, drums and bears—all the ways an Indian text can signify to the audience that it’s authentic, that it’s legitimate, that it’s safe to read, that the possibility of betrayal’s that much lower now. Fictions aren’t supposed to be safe like that, I don’t think. And, anyway, all that type of Indian content that the audience expects, cross-index it with an author photo and bam, that’s how legitimacy is usually gauged. And I hate that. The work should stand on its own, every time. I used to have so many fights with my publishers, because I didn’t want my pic on the back cover, didn’t want the story to become somehow ‘real’ just because there’s some longhaired fool smiling on the back cover. Really, that’s maybe why I’m always trying to subvert, subvert.
You’re a very prolific writer – how do you balance time between your art and your teaching?
They’re related. I didn’t know that at first, but, I mean, if you coast through a semester, you find you’re coasting through your own writing as well. Probably playing some pretty sorry basketball too. For me, anyway, if I don’t burn just as hot as I can in everything I do, then it ends up nothing gets the fire it needs. The problem there, of course, it’s sleep. Getting by on less and less.
You seem very open when it comes to style, prose and creativity. It’s said that artists must know the rules before they go about breaking them. How do you teach your students to balance their unique voices with proper syntax?
I guess, first, I try to tell them not to worry so much about being unique. That if you’re having to try to work the quirkiness into your prose, then it’s not real, its source isn’t in the story, and so it’s worth nothing, is taking away from fiction really, by encumbering it with all this fancy trash. As for syntax in particular, my big push there’s that it’s what you use to render diction. Rather than insulting phonetic spellings. But, really, I suppose it all comes down to that CSN&Y (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) song “Southern Cross,” where the lyric’s “But on a midnight watch I realized why twice you ran away.” Instead of realizing why “you ran away twice,” yeah. It just sounds more permanent the first way. More real. That’s what I’m always trying for in my stories, my prose. You stack all these lies up, spin them out for hundreds of pages, but at some point they quit being made-up. It’s what I’m after each time.
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