Stephen Graham Jones is hungry.
It’s early afternoon on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. Jones, in black boots and a black ponytail, sits in his cramped but cozy office, digging into a bag of fast-food burgers. The office has the rich, dusty smell of a used bookstore, which is understandable: It’s stacked from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, with hundreds of books, most of them science-fiction, horror or graphic novels. As Jones tears into his lunch, a posse of action figures peers over his shoulder from the shelf behind him: Captain Picard from Star Trek, Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, Beta Ray Bill from Thor. The place of honor, though, belongs to a tiny plastic werewolf dressed in a button-down shirt and tie; Jones himself wears a faded black T-shirt that depicts a howling werewolf shredding an electric guitar under a full moon.
“If werewolves were real,” he says in a warm Texas drawl between bites of burger, “they’d have the kinds of issues my werewolves do in Mongrels. They’d have problems keeping jeans. They’d have problems passing a credit check. A werewolf’s nature is to wolf out every once in a while and cause havoc. That doesn’t promote job stability. It’s hard to pay your rent on time.”
Jones pays his rent as a tenured professor at CU, but he moonlights, so to speak, as a werewolf writer. Mongrels, his new novel, is due out this month from the prestigious HarperCollins imprint William Morrow and Company, which has published literary heavyweights from Ray Bradbury to Michael Chabon. Mongrels is Jones’s first novel with William Morrow. However, it’s far from his first novel overall. Since his debut in 2000 with The Fast Red Road, which won the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, by his estimate he’s had “21 or 22” books published. Even he can’t keep up. They span everything from the feverish misadventure of The Fast Red Road to the poignant Ledfeather — the latter set on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation of Montana, where Jones’s father, a member of the tribe, began taking him as a boy.
Mongrels is different. It’s about werewolves. Taking place across the southern United States, from New Mexico to North Carolina, the story revolves around an unnamed boy whose poverty-stricken family lives a nomadic existence, moving from town to town but always dwelling on the fringes. The reason for their constant movement quickly becomes clear: They’re werewolves, and putting down roots means risking discovery and death. In the book, Jones not only lingers on the boy’s troubled, tragicomic home life, but he greatly expands the mythos of the werewolf, giving the creatures a hidden history that stretches back centuries. Along the way, Mongrels puts one of the most realistic spins on werewolves to date, from how their biology works to the way they’ve taken up a unique and entirely unglamorous niche in the underbelly of society.
Although Jones has trucked in horror before — most notably in the postmodern shocker Demon Theory, the madcap Zombie Bake-Off and the exquisitely terrifying story collection After the People Lights Have Gone Off — he’d never written a novel about werewolves before Mongrels. That is, unless you count the three failed tries at a werewolf novel that he wound up consigning to his trunk over the years. The first one, set in Jones’s homeland of West Texas, was written between 1999 and 2000 and titled Anubis, My Father. “I couldn’t find a way to make ancient Egyptian stuff work in Alpine, Texas,” he explains, “so I changed it to Bloodlines.” When Bloodlines didn’t come out as well as he’d hoped, he abandoned it. Then in 2013, emboldened by a class on werewolves he was about to start teaching at CU, he tried for a third time. The Lord’s Highway was the result — a manuscript that eventually morphed into Mongrels.
“I was too invested in the monster,” Jones says of The Lord’s Highway. “It was slowing down the story. It was like I was doing a Dungeons and Dragons character sheet for a werewolf, only for 110 pages. It was fun for me, but I couldn’t see anyone else getting into it.” But after spending ten hours a day during the entire month of December 2013 doing nothing but absorbing werewolf novels, short stories and movies in preparation for his werewolf class, “I had so much werewolf stuff in my head. I had to unpack it. I finally had enough nerve to tackle what I saw as my big werewolf novel, the one I was meant to write.”
Werewolves might seem like a strange topic for a college-level literature class, but that’s only the start of Jones’s specialties. To date, he has taught classes at CU focusing on the horror subgenres of werewolves, zombies, slashers and haunted houses, along with his more orthodox fiction-writing and screenwriting sections. He also regularly teaches classes on comic books and graphic novels. Genre fiction is considered by many, especially in academia, to be the fast food of literature: empty-calorie junk cranked out for mass consumption. But to Jones, it’s a feast.
“In the undergrad fiction-writing workshop that I teach,” he says, “I used to require students to write a genre story. I’d put that on the syllabus, and on the first day of class, a few hands would go up. They’d say, ‘Really? We have to write a pirate story, or we have to put a dinosaur in our story?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes. I want you to know how to make money writing fiction.’
“I would have students walk out that first day,” he goes on. “But these past years, I don’t even have to put it on the syllabus. If I give students their choice, they write a genre piece. Academia doesn’t know how to deal very well with someone who has commercial interests, but it seems irresponsible to me to produce a writer who can’t make a living. There’s nothing wrong with what we call literary fiction, but it’s harder to make money doing it.”
Still, he admits, “At heart, I probably am a literary writer.” Indeed: Not only is he the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, but he’s also the subject of an upcoming book titled The Fiction of Stephen Graham Jones: A Critical Companion, due this fall from the University of New Mexico Press. He’s been invited by the Library of Congress to launch Mongrels later this month as part of a panel titled “Spotlight on Native Writers.” By contrast, he’s also appearing soon at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, owned by Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin. Jones prefers to focus on the overlap between the literary and genre worlds, not the differences: “You can have literary science fiction, literary horror, literary erotica, literary everything.”
That includes literary werewolves. Mongrels is a complex, subtle, multi-layered novel — about people who turn into dogs — poised to appeal to the highbrow literati, the hordes of geekdom and everyone in between. Jones hopes his book will be recognized and embraced by his peers, but he has no illusions. “A few years ago, after Demon Theory came out, I was still teaching in Texas, and I ran into another professor that I liked and respected,” he recalls. “He started talking about The Fast Red Road and saying how good it was. Then he said, ‘When are you going to get back to writing serious stuff like that?’ To me, everything I write is deadly serious. Yeah, there are giant, time-traveling caterpillars and blind ninjas in one of my novels, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. These are things that matter to me.”
Jones’s fascination with the fantastic and unreal grew from the opposite place: a childhood of hard reality. Born in Midland, Texas, the former home of George H. W. and George W. Bush, Jones couldn’t have been further from the upper crust. His parents were high-school kids when he was born. Before he turned one, his father left the fledgling family and enlisted in the Air Force; he’d occasionally return to visit Jones as he was growing up. His mother remarried numerous times. When asked how many stepfathers he had, Jones says “five or six”; as with the number of books he’s written, he can’t remember offhand. They moved around a lot, wandering from small town to small town in West Texas: Big Spring, Stanton, Wimberley. But they always circled back to his grandmother’s farm, in a place called Greenwood.
“It’s not on a map,” he says. “We never had a post office, which I think is important for getting on the map. But I don’t claim to know map rules. Growing up, it was just all cotton fields and pastures and pump jacks.
“We farmed, but we didn’t make our living off of farming,” he explains. “My mom ran daycare, or she would work at a tanning salon. Just all kinds of jobs. My different stepdads would work construction or in the oil fields. We always would come back to the same farming community in Greenwood, but that was just the place we’d bounce off of before going somewhere else. We always had a horse trailer that we’d pack bags and boxes in and go.”
Jones learned to cope with the chaos. “It was normal,” he says. “It was just what you did.” When he got old enough, he’d work “on a horse or on a tractor, either one,” and made pocket money pulling weeds for his uncle on the family farm. “I remember going over to my uncle’s place, and he had two console TVs, one stacked on top of the other. I thought it was weird, then I realized what he was doing. On one of the TVs, the picture didn’t work but the sound was on. On the other TV, the sound didn’t work but the picture was on. The sound was on the bottom, and the picture was on the top.
“It makes sense,” he adds, laughing. “It kind of sums up the South for me. Just making do with what you’ve got, just making it work.”
Once he started bouncing around from school to school as a result of his family’s constant migration, Jones took up a strange hobby: collecting names. “Back then, when you moved, your school records wouldn’t be automatically transmitted,” he remembers. “So my mom let me edit them. I’d try on different names for different schools. I was born Stephen Graham Jones, but I was Stephen Sapp for a while. Stephen Presley, too. Stephen Graham a lot. Stephen Thomas, also. I tried being Stef, but that didn’t work too well. I also tried to be an Alan, but I couldn’t remember to respond to it. My great granddad Pop — Mongrels is dedicated to him — called me Stargazer before I got too old for it. He said I was always looking up, somewhere else.”
Wherever Jones was looking, it wasn’t in his schoolbooks. Although a voracious reader, there was little to indicate a future in academia. In sixth grade, he was sent to the office because a teacher didn’t like his attitude. “She did it because I kept smiling in class,” he says. “She did not like the way I smiled. It was kind of smart-alecky, definitely. And I remember in science class, the teacher would give us a quiz every day. It was always multiple choice so that she could grade them easier. She would ask us, ‘What’s the covalent bond?’ or whatever, ‘A, B, C or D?’ And after she said the correct letter, she would always shape her mouth differently, like she was trying not to tell us the answer. I would watch her lips and do my quiz. I didn’t have to do any science in that class because I aced all the quizzes. Even when I was truant all the time, I’d show up on test days and ace all the tests. The teachers hated that.”
His indifference toward school took a turn toward delinquency. He began getting into more and more trouble the older he got, and he was kicked out of more than one high school. He ended up in an alternative high school — or, as he calls it, “drug-dealer school.” He also moved out of his mom’s house when he was sixteen — “That’s just the way it is in my family,” he says — and took up residence with three friends in, of all places, a junkyard.
“One of my friends, his dad was a trucker who lived way out in the country, and we all moved there for a while,” he recalls. “But eventually we moved to this junkyard that another friend’s grandma owned. There was a double-wide in the back of it, and we lived there for a while. We didn’t have any money at all. We’d save up, and every Sunday we’d eat at Furr’s Cafeteria, the all-you-can-eat buffet. We’d try to eat enough on Sunday night to last the whole week, which is impossible. We’d get to the point where we could not physically fit any more food in our stomachs, but we were still hungry in our minds. So we’d put a plate in the middle of the table and call it the spit-out plate. After we got full, we’d chew more food up and suck all the taste out, then spit it out. We’d just do that, plate after plate.”
But Jones and crew found a more natural source of sustenance. “We were so hungry,” he says, “we’d go out with our shotguns and shoot dove in the fields. We’d eat a lot of dove. If you cook it right, dove is amazing.” He pauses before adding, “We didn’t cook it right.”
Hunger wasn’t the only issue Jones faced. “I remember in high school, the first day of class, the teacher walks in and kind of surveys us all,” he recalls. “Then she looks at me in the back of the room and says, ‘You. Don’t let your greasy head touch my chalkboard.’ The funny thing was, she probably wasn’t being racist about Indians. Since this was West Texas, she probably assumed I was Mexican. I picked up Spanish because if you’re dark-skinned in West Texas, people talk to you in Spanish by default. Most of my friends at the time were Mexican, so I fit right in.”
He recollects going into town on Friday nights to meet girls, a ritual that only served as a reminder of what side of the tracks he hailed from. “We’d park our trucks on the corner near the drag,” he says, “and we’d all stand there, waiting to get approached, which is a wonderful tactic. But when any of the girls from town did talk to us, we’d cover our mouths and hardly talk at all. We knew we talked country. We knew that would give away who we were. And also, growing up out in the country, our teeth were always brown. So we all knew that we were different, that we didn’t fit in.”
Jones squeaked by with his diploma and figured he’d take up one of the many jobs he’d had throughout high school: washing dishes, painting curbs, laying irrigation line, scraping gaskets in a transmission shop, or the old family standby, farming. College couldn’t have been further from his mind. But his mother had other ideas.
“After I got my diploma, my mom took me out for graduation dinner at a Mexican restaurant there in Midland,” he says. “She gave me two things. She gave me a suitcase, ’cause she said I had to get out of town. She knew what I was up to with all my friends, and that it wasn’t going to lead to anywhere good. And she also gave me a little-bitty brass apple. I thought, ‘What am I supposed to do with a brass apple?’ But then I got to looking at it afterwards, and there was a little leaf on the stem of that brass apple. It said, ‘Teacher.’ I just threw it in a box. I found it recently, and I was like, ‘She knew all along. She knew what I had in me.’”
His mom also ponied up a hard-earned semester’s worth of college tuition. “I could do that. I could go up there and party for four months,” Jones remembers thinking. So in 1990, fresh out of high school, he enrolled at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. What he wasn’t prepared for, though, was loving it: “I took a philosophy class, and I was hooked. I was like, ‘People talk about this stuff? You can actually get good marks for thinking?’” He double-majored in philosophy and English, graduating in 1994. By then he had also met and married his wife, a fellow undergrad at Texas Tech. He had no desire to go to grad school, but, prompted by a professor, he applied and was accepted into the master’s program at the University of North Texas in Denton. He was still doing manual work, including a stint in a Sears warehouse, when he began Ph.D. studies at Florida State University in 1996. He completed his Ph.D. in an incredible two years. “I liked FSU, but I did not like Florida at all,” he says. “That’s why I got my Ph.D. so fast. I had to get out of there.” He and his wife moved back to Texas, where he got a job in the library of his alma mater, Texas Tech.
At 24, Jones had already risen higher, at least by society’s standards, than anyone in his family. But he was still just shelving books. What he had yet to do was write one.
"In fourth grade, I read Where the Red Fern Grows,” Jones says, speaking of Wilson Rawls’s classic children’s book. “I remember getting to the last page, and on that last page, there’s an old ax head stuck in a tree with the handle rotted off, and there’s a rusted lantern hanging from it. I distinctly remember thinking, ‘I can do that. I can stick an ax in a tree and hang a lantern from it. I understand how to do that.’ So I closed the book and thought, ‘Well, I can write.’”
Jones’s decision to become a writer came as easily and profoundly as that. “As a kid, I always thought I would farm in the day and write at night,” he says. Still, his writing ambitions through high school didn’t amount to more than love letters to girls who’d broken up with him. “Those letters usually worked, too,” he remembers. “I had to be all flowery and metaphoric, but not too metaphoric. But it did teach me about the rewards of writing fiction. Rhetoric has its purpose.”
The pivotal moment in Jones’s latent writing career didn’t come until he was nineteen. While he was in class at Texas Tech, police officers entered the classroom. Instinctively, Jones knew they were there for him. The night before, he’d been part of a “rowdy midnight sing-along” at a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theater, one that had turned riotous after cops showed up and began dragging people out. His instincts were right — but the cops were there for an entirely different reason.
“My uncle had been terribly, terribly burned over most of his body,” he says. “He used to have seizures, not epilepsy, but some other kind of brain stuff. He was about to take a shower, so he reached down and turned the hot water on. He got hit by a seizure and passed out in the shower. The water just boiled him, for a long, long time. It was rough stuff. I was the only family of his they could find, so the cops drove me to the hospital. I sat there for three days in the burn-unit ICU, waiting for him to live or die.
“All I had with me,” he continues, “was a pen and a spiral notebook from class. The three days I was sitting in the ICU, I got to listening to some of the stories that other families were going through. That’s when I wrote my first story. It was titled ‘The Gift,’ and it’s about a guy trudging through blinding whiteness, a snowscape. He’s going to the hospital where his girlfriend is. They just had a car wreck, and he’s kind of in the afterlife, trying to make it back to her. It was kind of sappy like that.”
Jones’s uncle survived, and Jones returned to school. Since he hadn’t been able to finish a composition assignment due that week, he threw a Hail Mary and handed in his story instead, “all handwritten and ugly, just to prove I’d been writing something.” It worked. “My instructor liked it. She accepted it, and she submitted it for a department award, which it won.”
From there, things snowballed. He began writing and publishing more stories. When he received a check for $150 for a story he’d written, he couldn’t believe it. “After all the manual labor I’d done,” he says, “it felt like I was getting away with something.” Throughout the rest of his college career, he doubled down on writing fiction. And when it came to getting published, he didn’t wait for an engraved invitation. “In all my writing classes, we’d ask, ‘When can we start mailing stories out?,’ and they’d always tell us, ‘Not until you’re good enough. You can’t start sending stuff out too early.’ I never believed that. The first story I wrote in grad school I mailed out, and it got published.” He wrote his first novel, The Fast Red Road, for his Ph.D. dissertation at Florida State — but, again, he wasn’t going to rely on the traditional publishing route. The West Texas rule-breaker in him had other plans.
“Right after I finished The Fast Red Road,” he recalls, “a friend of mine I knew from Texas, who also wanted to be a writer, sold his truck and went to New York. He took writing workshops and got a job as a custodian in Manhattan. What that gave him was a ring of keys, and what he did with that ring of keys was go into all these offices of literary agencies and use their letterhead. Then he’d print up my novel, put the agency’s letterhead on top of it, go into all the editorial offices and leave it on the top editors’ desks.” He laughs. “I got a lot of rejections, but I don’t think anyone ever figured out we were faking it.”
The gambit might not have worked, but The Fast Red Road soon landed at Fiction Collective Two, a prestigious small press, which published it in 2000, the same year Jones began teaching at Texas Tech. Reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon — if the author had grown up in rough-and-tumble West Texas — the book featured, in Jones’s words, “giant pot plants and weird ghost coyotes and a submarine in the desert, all that kind of fun genre stuff that I like. But it was probably too Pynchon-esque.” It was also deeply immersed in Native American culture.
“I realized that The Fast Red Road could easily classify me as an Indian writer, but I never wanted to be that,” says Jones, who at age twelve began taking trips to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, something he still does regularly. “Anytime the market puts an adjective in front of your name, that’s the first step toward dismissing you. I didn’t want that to happen. One of my publishers early on wanted me to go by my family’s Indian name, Calf Looking. I guess they thought it was kind of exotic, and exotic sells books. I considered it, because I want to sell books, but then I decided it’s a much bigger coup if I make it on a name like Jones. If I make it as a Calf Looking, I’m always going to wonder, ‘Is it because of my Indian name?’ I’d rather not make it at all than make it by selling out in a way like that.”
Jones did go on to write more novels with Native American themes, including the acclaimed Ledfeather in 2008. That same year, he, his wife and their two children moved from Lubbock to Boulder at the behest of CU, which offered him a position as a full professor. He’d lived briefly in Colorado Springs as a teen, but he had another reason for readily accepting CU’s offer: “You know that West Texas is going to run out of water soon. It’s dire. It’ll be like Mad Max. I’d rather be up here when that happens, you know?”
With his second novel, Demon Theory, he hoped he could establish his originality by writing something radically different from The Fast Red Road. That didn’t quite work — at least, not at first. “I thought Demon Theory would be a revolutionary horror work that was going to change the world, with all these footnotes and all this metatextual stuff,” he says with a laugh. “Then, right at the end of December 1999, while I was finishing the book, a friend sends me a seventy-page sample of a book that was coming out in 2000.” That book was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which traffics in the same kind of approach as Demon Theory, right down to the footnotes and “metatextual stuff.
“That broke my heart,” Jones says. “I didn’t write that novel fast enough. Danielewski beat me to the punch. I’m sure he did it better, too.” Demon Theory was rejected by publishers for years — “They kept saying, ‘This is derivative. It’s just like House of Leaves’” — before finally seeing print in 2006. Since then, it’s become a cult classic. In the meantime, Jones kept producing novels and short stories at a dizzying rate, and after the kudos that Demon Theory received, he struck deeper into his native territory: genre fiction. Regardless, he was still getting pigeonholed as a Native American writer.
“I think my trajectory as an author is a marker of me getting tired of people who only read the Indian in my work,” he explains. “That is to say, they’re not engaging it as either good or bad. With American Indian lit, so many people don’t come at it thinking, ‘Is this good or is this bad?’ They come at it thinking, ‘Ooh, this is Indian. Let me use it as a lens into the culture.’ I did three novels that are considered overtly Indian: The Fast Red Road, The Bird Is Gone and Ledfeather. But at the time, I was also doing other stuff. I was trying to tell the audience that I’m just a writer who happens to be Indian. Some of the books I do will be overtly Indian, and some of them won’t be.
“But people kept insisting that my books were Indian,” he goes on. “That’s when I started writing about zombies and werewolves.”
Stephen Graham Jones in his office at the University of Colorado.
There are no wolves in West Texas,” Jones says, thinking back on his fascination with werewolves. “If there are, nobody knows about them. But down there, people in town will buy Labradors, Dobermans, Rottweilers, all these big, fancy dogs. They have them for three months, and then they say, ‘This sucks,’ and they take them twenty miles outside of town and kick them out of the car. Twenty miles outside of town was our front lawn.
“What happens is, all these big, mean, overbred dogs pack up and go feral. I got chased by them pretty bad once. It was one of the most scary times of my life. I was sixteen, and I ran out of gas at two in the morning. I had a mile and a half to walk to my house. This is out in nowhereville, no lights or anything. I heard the dogs making their noise, then I saw them breaking toward me, so I took off running. I just ran, hell-for-leather, faster than I could run. Luckily, there was an old broke-down house out there. I scrambled up on the roof and spent the night there. I didn’t go to sleep. They raised a racket all night, but then they eventually wandered off.”
Jones’s fascination with monstrous canines, however, took root long before he was nearly devoured by a pack of them — specifically, the year he turned nine. “Nineteen eighty-one was the golden year for the werewolf,” he says, citing the trifecta of legendary werewolf films that came out that year: The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and Wolfen. “I prefer The Howling. When it came out on VHS, I watched it over and over. The werewolves looked real. I believed in them. When Eddie Quist transforms right in the front of the camera and he’s all bubbly and everything, it convinced me. I wanted to believe, so I did believe. I didn’t believe there was an actual werewolf in The Howling — I knew it was just a movie — but you could squint and pretend it was real. And that’s what I did. I knew werewolves had to be out there. They’re such perfect creatures — how could they not exist?”
Something else had a strong impact on his budding romance with werewolves: In 1983, Ozzy Osbourne released Bark at the Moon. The video for the album’s title track depicts the infamous heavy-metal icon made up as a hideous, werewolf-like creature. “That video legitimately scared me,” Jones remembers. “It was thrilling. It was right around the time I was getting hooked on horror.” In Mongrels, a chapter is titled “Bark at the Moon” in homage. It’s not the novel’s only music reference: At one point the narrator utters the line, “His hair was perfect,” in a nod to a lyric from Warren Zevon’s 1978 hit “Werewolves of London.”
As a kid, Jones took his werewolf worship even further: He desperately wanted to become one. Since he was around twelve at the time, it made a certain kind of sense. “When you’re that age, you know you’re changing,” he says. “You just don’t know into what. If I can pick out a werewolf and say, ‘That’s going to be my eventual shape,’ then I’ve got a path. Werewolves were always the fantasy creature I wanted to climb inside of. I wanted to look out these eyeholes.”
“Werewolves can run down anything,” he continues. “No one messes with a werewolf unless you’ve got silver. They’re the toughest of the tough. I never much cared for vampires. It may be because I grew up in West Texas. It’s so flat out there. Being a vampire in West Texas would suck, because you’d just be standing there in the pasture. But being a werewolf, you could run across forty acres in no time.”
Jones readily admits that, like many of his novels, Mongrels draws from his real life. The route across the South taken by the family in the book parallels his own crisscrossing of the region when he was younger. The narrator is close with his uncle. And like his own family, the clan in Mongrels is made up of outsiders without advantage or privilege, doing whatever they can to survive in a world that’s often hostile to those without status or means.
“Friends who read Mongrels early on would write me back and say, ‘Blue-collar werewolves! Cool!” Jones says. “That was always weird to me. I didn’t think of them like that. I just thought of them as my family, like, ‘What if my family were werewolves?’”
With the high profile he has within the Native American literary community, he’s also aware that some readers might interpret his werewolves as surrogates. “My werewolves do have dark hair,” he says. “They make fun of the idea of a blond werewolf. And the fact that my werewolves never write anything down about their past, it’s like how when Indians were moved and their cultural ties were severed, they were left without their stories. There’s definitely some of that in Mongrels. I wouldn’t say it’s as easy as one-to-one, that the werewolves in Mongrels are supposed to be like Indians. But I will say that Indian stuff is, of course, always in my head. I think anything I write is going to be filtered through that. I do think a lot of the issues my werewolves face are Indian issues.”
With Mongrels, Jones is finally making the leap from small, independent presses to the big leagues of William Morrow. He hopes to bring the werewolf along with him. “I went with a big publisher for selfish reasons — who doesn’t want to be Stephen King? — but also because I want the werewolf to go wide,” he says. “Whether my name is associated with the werewolf going wide doesn’t make or break my heart. What matters to me is that I get to live in a world where the werewolf is big. I really do care for that animal — or monster, or person — a lot.”
His timing might just be perfect. Jones sees the trends in monsters as cyclical things. A few years ago, it was vampires. Zombies are all the rage now. Werewolves, he hopes, will be next. “We’re always going to have a monster in the limelight of pop culture,” he observes. “We need creatures of the night that are going to eat us. We’re hardwired for that. We evolved on the savannah with everything wanting to take a bite out of us. We tell stories about things that want to take bites out of us because it just feels right and natural. A werewolf story just needs to come along that hits the reset button. That’s what Max Brooks gave us with World War Z. That book tore all the fat off the zombie genre and gave it rules so that it could shuffle forward. Mongrels is my effort to birth a real werewolf into the world instead of a fantasy werewolf. Werewolves who make sense, who have to deal with reality, who have to deal with being ravenously hungry because they’re at a calorie deficit after they transform.
“Really,” he continues, “fiction is the only tool I have to make the world make sense. I live in a world that doesn’t make sense. I’ll go to Taco Bell and say, ‘Give me a chicken soft taco, please.’ And they’ll give me a steak soft taco instead. So I’ll bring it back to the counter and say, ‘Excuse me, I ordered a chicken soft taco.’ And since this is Boulder, they’ll say, ‘Hey, man, it’s all good.’ And I’ll walk away thinking, ‘It’s not actually all good.’
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“My world doesn’t make sense, but on the page, in a short story, I can make the world make sense,” he adds with a laugh. “I can give that person behind the counter at Taco Bell a valid reason for giving me a steak soft taco.”
With that, Jones balls up his fast-food wrappers and places them back in the bag, his lunch done and his hunger appeased. “I don’t operate in the nonsensical world that well,” he says, getting to his feet and gathering materials for his next class. “But I can operate in a world where things matter.”
Stephen Graham Jones will appear with New York Times best-selling author Richard Kadrey at the Tattered Cover Colfax at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, for a release party for Mongrels.