“The Guy With the Name,” a story
Stephen Graham Jones is the author of twenty-five or so novels and collections, and some novellas and comic books as well. Most recent are The Only Good Indians and Night of the Mannequins, and his latest, My Heart Is a Chainsaw. Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.
In our earlier 10 Questions interview, you mentioned that “horror is very sentimental.” What do you mean by that? How did that idea influence “The Guy with the Name,” if at all?
SGJ: I think that impulse toward gore and transgression in horror is very much like romance——kind of instinctually tending to that run through the airport at the end of the story or the big sweeping kiss. But every genre leans toward the things it is characterized by——all the Mission Impossible installments end up at gadgets and stunts, westerns are always looking for their high noon showdown, erotica’s always making eyes at the bedroom.
Horror, though, it’s really pretty conservative, yes? It’s always trying to dial the world back to before this monster, that ghost, all the vampires. The horror genre might want to change the status quo, shake things up, but individual horror stories are always reaching back for the status quo, for the way it was before it all got messed up. To me, that means horror’s kind of sentimental about the “before”——it treasures those salad days, before the werewolves showed up.
MR: There are multiple references to ground meat——hamburgers, specifically. From the beginning of the piece and toward the end, what led you to decide to return to that image?
SGJ: Wow, I didn’t even clock that. Thanks. Had no idea.
MR: The story’s narrator tells us, “The town I grew up in’s not so big anymore.” Did the idea of a failing town, or diminishment, have a significant impact on writing this piece? What role does geography play in your writing?
SGJ: I never considered myself a place-writer until a novel I was trying to write in “City X”——my idea of a gray, Kafka backdrop——kept slogging down. And my novels never slog down in the writing. And then I went back to my hometown for a book festival, looked around, and realized that this is my City X. After I made that change, the novel told itself, pretty much. And, as for that hometown not being so big anymore: actually, this city, Midland, Texas, is huge compared to what it used to be. Just, now that I’ve seen more of the world, Midland doesn’t loom so large anymore.
MR: Could you speak about the significance of names in this piece? For instance, the choice to refer to the character as “Tim K,” and to withhold the false name that Tim K gave to the narrator. What is the relationship between names and violence?
SGJ: It just seemed that any name I faked could actually be a name I’m remembering. I did that with Growing Up Dead in Texas, which is also set around West Texas, and didn’t want to make that mistake again.
MR: Was “The Guy with the Name” a piece you were already working on before it was solicited? Is it a piece that you see yourself returning to, or expanding upon? You used the word “guilt” in your 10 Questions as your motivation to write this story——does that have any influence on the length or development of the piece?
SGJ:I wrote this in a room I was staying in in a sorority house for a weeklong workshop I was teaching——Clarion West. About one in the morning, the first line just occurred to me. So I hauled my laptop over, jammed that line down, then the rest of the story opened up. Fifteen minutes later, I was done. I read it to class the next morning. Don’t think I changed anything. And, no, I don’t see this story expanding.
MR: The story opens with the line, “This is the story of how I stopped trusting people.” What does trust mean to you, your work, the genre you work in personally? Culturally?
SGJ: I think distrust is very important to what I write, anyway. My characters are always suspicious of all interactions, of reality, of the vertical and the horizontal hold. They want something to hold onto, something to be sure of, but . . . what fun would that be to read about?
MR: You’re currently polishing an upcoming 2021 novel, My Heart is a Chainsaw. Is there anything about this work you’d like to talk about?
SGJ: Chainsaw’s a slasher through and through, which is to say, it’s pretty much my heart, smeared around on the page, and probably still beating. I wrote it for the first time in 2013, and have been writing on it, and in that world, ever since. I can’t let it go. Kind of doubt I ever will, really.
1. Stephen Graham Jones provided information on elk, and the differences in their antlers, for background reading for The Only Good Indian, and his work in general. “For more comprehensive information, click here. Wondering how they are different from other deer? Click here. Within elk species, there are elk cows and elk bulls. A cow is a female; a bull is a male. Bull tracks are longer and wider than cow tracks, and bull tracks will sink deeper into moist soil from a heavier body weight. Cow elk are considered the best elk meat, over bull meat. That said, killing and retrieving a cow elk is much harder than a bull elk. A successful hunting of a cow elk is often cause for celebration.”
2. Recommended reads: Wade Davies’ essay on Native identity and basketball, “How Native Americans Made Basketball Their Own“, Katherine Quaid’s essay, “Why We Play Basketball: The Importance of Sport in the Native American Community“, published by Lewis & Clark College’s Journal for Social Justice, and Natalie Diaz’s poetry collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, available from Graywolf Press here with excerpts on the Academy of American Poets’ website.
5. Graham Jones also recommends avoiding cultural or anthropological material on Blackfeet history: “[I]t draws readers who think Indians are ‘neat,’ which is code for ‘exotic,’ which is a stepping stone to ‘viable Halloween costume.’”
6.“Letter to a Just-Starting Indian Writer—and Maybe to Myself,” an essay by Stephen Graham Jones, and a video of him reading the essay aloud.
7.Stephen Graham Jones on Horror Writing and Coding Native Characters, from the Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival, available from LitHub