Sunday, May 31, 2009

Stephen Graham Jones (Interview by Charles Tan)

Stephen Graham Jones - "The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti"

How did you come up with the structure for "The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti?"

It was complete and total luck, all documented here. I was planning on writing something completely different, set in a nursing home, but then the first line of Nolan Dugatti just came at me out of nowhere, and it's the kind of line that has a back-and-forth structure just built right into it. And, if you're going to jam a novel onto paper in seventy-two hours like I did with Nolan Dugatti, you need that back-and-forth kind of thing happening, because you don't really have time to stop and wonder what comes next. That next thing needs to be already happening. So, with the 'investigation' monologue and the suicide letters handing the story off to each other constantly, I never had to stop and get all second-guessy, could just roll. And that's the best kind of writing. Doctorow (E.L., not Cory) compares writing like that to taking dictation, and that's it exactly. Some days your fingers can hardly type fast enough.

What was the most difficult aspect when it came to writing the story?

Not letting the father's voice just dominate. Because I knew early on that it wasn't his ('my,' yes) story, really, but Nolan's. But the father, the dad, always trying to kill himself in stupider and stupider ways, he kind of draws the spotlight. Then too, though, he has no camopede in his parts of the story either, and no ninjas either, an no shrimp floating across the page. So maybe I was nervous for no reason.

Another difficult part -- but it wouldn't be writing if it weren't difficult -- would be the ending, I suppose. Even ninety-percent through the thing, probably even ninety-five, I had zero clue how this was all going to come together. Which is to say I was setting myself up for one of those stupid 'literary' guess-the-ending final paragraphs, where the idea's that the reader's supposed to have read close enough to now be able to project what's going to happen, making it unnecessary for me to actually stoop to write it. Except those kinds of endings are really just the writer not having nerve, not having confidence, so he or she takes the easy way out, foists it all off onto the reader then calls them stupid if they don't get it. But we all know where the stupidity lies there, yeah?

"The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti" combines science fiction, horror, and speculative fiction. In your opinion, how do these elements--when used properly--can strengthen a work of fiction, horror or otherwise?

I think an answer here starts with what I think each of those three does, just in general. So. Horror, what it does is remind us that we're human. It engages that animal part of our brain that still remembers that there's stuff around every corner, just waiting to chomp down on us. Except, in today's world, we've got the place so lit that the dark corners aren't so dark. Horror gives that darkness back, lets us be what we are, instead of some cleaned-up version. And it's good to feel human in that most basic way. As for science fiction, it lets us feel wonder, that pure, unadulterated kind. I mean, sure, you can read it all as cautionary tales, dystopias, critiques of whatever's going on now, but I choose not to. I read science fiction like a kid, just going so slow through those sentences where some character looks out the window, sees galaxies spread out that we can't even see now with telescopes. Fiction's a much better lens, finally, allows us to see so much deeper into reality. The only reality that matters, anyway. And, speculative fiction, which kind of takes from horror and science fiction both -- fantasy as well, I'd say -- it's usually more just our everyday world, but with a little bit of that magic reintroduced, to perturb (fix?) everything. And that's a very, very important thing to do. It makes us look at the world outside the story in a different way, I think. A way in which things are possible, in which small things matter -- or, this gets as what I think art in general does, really: say you've just hit a stageplay, and what you've seen up there for the last couple of hours is this narrative efficiency, this economy of characters and events, where every word said aloud matters, where every pistol on the mantle has big meaning. Now, when you leave that theatre, don't your eyes kind of stick like that for a while, such that the next newspaper to blow up against your leg, you look down at it wonder what column's there unaccidentally, specifically for you? What's the world, efficient itself, trying to tell you here, with this? We're all in stories, after all. What good fiction can do is teach us better how to navigate within them, maybe even rise above every once in a while, see through the page to the bigger page, and on and on.

But that maybe wasn't exactly the question. As for how these -- horror, science fiction, speculative fiction - can strengthen a work: how can they not? Given the choice (and we all are given that choice), I'd much rather read a werewolf novel than a non-werewolf novel. Just because, at the end of the book, even if the werewolf story's failed in some grand, obvious fashion, still, I've maybe seen a werewolf, and am now maybe a little more afraid to step out into the alley with my trashbag. Give me the werewolves any day. Please. I can keep stacking the trash up by the back door for as long as necessary.

And, this is maybe the same answer all over, but finally there's just the boredom factor. I have zero interest in reading kitchen sink drama, just for the obvious reason: I've got plenty of that particular kind of drama in my everyday life. No, if I'm going to stay interested in something, sure, I need real people in that story, just because I need to identify, to engage, to be lured into investing myself, but I also need a cyborg bear standing on the sidewalk every now and again, just reading today's newspaper, waiting for a certain blue Chevrolet to crawl by, its limo-tint windows at half-mast, at which point the game's on, the newspaper's floating behind him, he's down on all fours giving chase, and I'm right there behind him, smiling, thrilled again to be part of a world like that, even if just for a little while.

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