CU Boulder English professor discusses the humanity of werewolves and new storytelling methods
The story of a nascent werewolf and his flawed family has been percolating inside of Stephen Graham Jones, University of Colorado Boulder creative writing professor and veteran novelist, since he was 12 years old.
“In one sense, I wrote it in two weeks, and in another, it took my whole life,” Jones says of Mongrels, his first book to be published by a mainstream New York publishing house.
Throughout a career that has included 17 novels and numerous short stories, Jones has balanced two distinct novel genres: literary and horror. Now he says, “Mongrels braids the two styles back together.”
Although Mongrels hasn’t been marketed as a Young Adult book, it is a teenage coming-of-age, “like Lilo and Stitch for werewolves,” Jones says.
Jones has clearly spent significant head space thinking through the sundry inconveniences of werewolfism. (Important: Werewolves should never wear pantyhose or Lycra.) His quirky and emotionally understated voice creatively imagines the unique plight of werewolves in present-day America.
Mongrels is partially autobiographical, and the parts that aren’t true—the werewolf parts—Jones wrote as a form of wish-fulfillment. As a kid, Jones tried to turn himself into a werewolf many times.
“I tried rolling in the sand in the light of a full moon, I tried eating raw meat, I tried drinking from the paw print of a wolf…but whatever paw prints I drank from, they're having a pretty delayed effect,” he says.
In Mongrels, two teenagers also hope to turn into werewolves. In fact, one of them unsuccessfully does exactly what Jones did.
Mongrels might grant Jones a different long-cherished wish. He wants the werewolf, his favorite horror figure, to be the next big idea to capture the American imagination.
I tried rolling in the sand in the light of a full moon, I tried eating raw meat, I tried drinking from the paw print of a wolf…but whatever paw prints I drank from, they're having a pretty delayed effect.”
To Jones, the werewolf pack represents family and reminds us that human emotions are just as valid as intellectualism.
“The real monstrousness [of vampires] is not moving among other people in some fashion. It's removing yourself from them,” Jones says. “Werewolves are creatures and ‘monsters’ and scary and all that, sure, but…they're just people…Just, every once again, you have to bare your fangs, claw your way through a crowd, run off into the night once more.”
This doesn’t mean Jones’s werewolves are not scary. In between the human parts, the book is packed with thrills and blood-soaked werewolf feasts.
Like most of his previous work, Jones’s new book has its soul in West Texas, the landscape of his childhood and imagination.
“I think the landscape you grow up in is always the most real place to you,” Jones says. “If I'm writing about [Neptune in 2089], my Neptune, when you peel down a few feet into the planet’s surface…you're still going to find West Texas.”
Jones has a more complex relationship with his Blackfeet Indian heritage, because of his early experiences writing about it.
Despite receiving a lot positive feedback from this early work, Jones wasn’t comfortable with being the “authentic” contact for readers or with his work being critiqued or accepted because he is Blackfeet.
“That leaves you an exotic curio in a display case, more or less. And fiction, it needs to be in the living world. It needs to be engaged as art. It succeeds or fails by how it's put together, not due to its content,” Jones says.
Jones may have backed away from making his work explicitly about Blackfeet Indians, but he’s still writing his experiences.
“I just assume—the way I did starting out writing 20 years ago—that all my characters are native. Sometimes it gets mentioned on the page, sometimes it doesn't.”
Jones has been teaching at CU Boulder since 2008, and he says its creative writing program is especially stimulating due to its foundation in and dedication to innovative storytelling.
“We look for students who are willing to push at the edges of what fiction can be,” Jones says.
One new medium that fascinates Jones is videogame and literary hybridization. Though he doesn’t often play video games (except for The Legend of Zelda), he is excited about the cross-pollination of games and literature.
“You hear slips in [writers’] workshops,” he says. “Instead of saying I read this, you hear people saying I played this story.”
Rather than shun or invalidate those stories, Jones says these new tools create new capabilities for storytelling.
“Storytelling is supposed to change with each new generation and become unrecognizable.”