Published author and English Professor Stephen Graham Jones relies on his students to bring in new ideas and new ways of seeing things. Students—immersed in his courses on werewolves, comic books, slasher novels, screenwriting and haunted houses—rely on Jones to paint a picture of the writer’s life.
“Students come to class and they have this intimate knowledge of a world that I don’t really have access to anymore,” said Jones. “But I get glimmers of it through them. The students keep me plugged into the actual happening world.”
Teaching and writing go hand-in-hand for Jones. He keeps his students informed about the hassles and successes he has with editors, while teaching varied techniques in prose. This process, he said, also provides an added layer of accountability in his own work.
“I’ll be teaching a technique and, a few days later, while working on my own writing, I’ll be tempted to take the easy way out, to do what I tell my students not to do,” said Jones. “But I know they’re watching over my shoulder. I have to hold myself to the standards I require of them.”
Jones, who came to CU-Boulder from West Texas in 2008, has over 20 books in print. His most recent novel, Mongrels, reached the top of the Denver Post’s best sellers list in late May and received attention from the Los Angeles Times, Westword and SciFiNow, among others. The coming-of-age story depicts a young protagonist and a struggling family, constantly on the move because of their werewolf nature.
“I’m known for horror, but this isn’t horror,” said Jones. “It’s a family story. It’s really Lilo & Stich with werewolves.”
Jones is most comfortable writing between the ages of 12 and 17, he says. Working in a college environment where most of his students are between 18 and 22, Jones hears a lot of stories about the teenage years. This, he says, helps him identify the hinge points of adolescence, which contribute to his narrative structure.
“What I’m seeing is the person that resulted,” said Jones. “But when they tell stories, they’re telling back to the triggers that catapulted them here.”
As his students are working on their own prose, Jones encourages them 1) to read way outside their comfort zones, and 2) don’t get caught up on the same project for more than a couple months. With his own craft, Jones tries to write a story a week; his preferred space is his study at home where he has a stand-up desk and playlists on easy access.
“At any moment, I can walk away from the keyboard and go watch an “X Files” with my kids, or go play ping pong with them, or run the dogs,” he said. “That’s really important with writing. You have to be able to take breaks as you need them. At home, I can walk away, recharge and come back a half hour later ready to go.”
A commitment to writing is the most important, if not essential, ingredient in Jones’ literary success. Though he prefers to write at home, he spends a lot of time reading and writing in airports, between book tours and speaking engagements. For Jones, writing takes priority over everything but family, friends and health.
“Real writers write,” said Jones. “The most important thing, even more important than talent, is discipline. I’ve learned to work where I can and to not let travel interfere with my output.”
This weekend, Jones will participate in three panels at Denver Comic Con: The Art of the Complex Villain, Fantasy vs. Sci Fi: Drawing the line in Fiction and Monsters, Not Just for Horror Anymore. He will also sign books and visit with fans in Author’s Alley both Friday and Saturday.
“I love dress up cons,” he said. “It allows people to be who they really think they are, whether they dress up or not. It forms a sense of kinship or community. Con gives us a chance to plug into that for a weekend at a time.”
Later this summer, Jones’ agent will submit ideas for two follow-up werewolf novels, with hopes of turning Mongrels into a trilogy. He also has an anthropological thriller in the works, which has as its setting a visiting lecture in CU-Boulder’s own Hale 270. And, come August, Jones will lead another group of aspiring young writers through genre literature and the development of their own prose.
“It’s really neat when you can show a student a path that they had not known was even there at all,” he said. “If I don’t give 100 percent teaching, I don’t give 100 percent writing.”
To see a list of other CU-Boulder affiliates presenting at Denver Comic Con, visit the College of Media, Communication and Information website.