Stephen Graham Jones
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did The Ones That Got Away end up being published by Prime Books and how did you decide on which stories got included in the collection?
How Ones ended up with Prime is that “Raphael” was supposed to be in Prime’s Horror, the Best of the Year 2007, which I think somehow died. But I guess that got my work on Sean Wallace’s desk. And then — I think this is beforeOnes, anyway — I also placed “Captain’s Lament” with Clarkesworld, which got me in his office again. Oh, wait. Right around then, Paul Tremblay and Sean were editing Phantom, and I was lucky enough to sneak my story “The Ones Who Got Away” in there. So, I mean, Sean probably thought I was waging some campaign or something. Which of course I was, and always am. On January 12th, 2008, then, he finally succumbed to all my mental telegraphy and emailed, asked if had considered getting my horror stories together into a collection? I think I got the email in a hotel in Boulder. I was up here scoping for a place to live, or picking up a bad-idea truck. And I said yes and please and thank you, of course, and then at some point Sean said let’s call it The Ones That Almost Got Away. I think up until then I’d been leaning toward The Meat Tree, maybe. Though I had a lot of titles cooking. Anyway, yeah, that rocked, and, the more I thought about it, the more it rocked. So then we were both kind of surprised when the cover came back The Ones That Got Away. It was kind of halfway between the title story and our intentions, but the words were all locked together so cool, and the cover was so pretty, and Sean said we could call a re-do, of course, but I was already saying please and thank you and yes again. Now I can’t imagine it being called anything else.
As for what stories, that was not an easy task. First I just piled all my horror stories into one file, then I started sneaking in dark stuff, then kind of science-fiction themed stuff, then just bloody and violent and disturbing stuff, and that was ridiculous. Way too much for one collection, and no kind of theme or anything running through it at all. And collections need . . . not so much continuity, but a feeling that they’re all kind of orbiting the same person, anyway. The same small set of ideas. So I gave myself that filter, only let myself choose stories that were in the same neighborhood as each other but weren’t quite cousins, if that makes any sense. I didn’t want any repeats, I mean.
This meant cutting a cool zombie story and some other stuff, and it meant rehabbing “The Meat Tree,” which turned out to just require prose-level fixes, as the story was there. However, selecting these, trying to make them into a real collection instead of some kind of unearned ‘greatest hits’-trick, what I finally had to go with were ones that scared me. I figured I’d have to let that be the center. There were a lot of others that I was jealous of — I can’t write X way anymore, don’t know how I ever dreamed that premise up, on and on — and a lot that I thought exhibited what I consider my meager strengths on the page. But that’s not what a collection’s about. So I just finally went with the ones I didn’t like to read too late at night. And, until Laird Barron’s so-cool, completely surprising introduction came back, I honestly didn’t know that there were so many kid pieces in there. I mean, ‘kid stories,’ I guess. There’s pieces all over the collection, of kids, adults, dogs. Well, no — when trying to sequence these stories, I did realize I couldn’t let the kid-voices merge, just because I didn’t want any character continuity suggested from this story to the next. But I never saw it in the real way Laird did. Not until he did, anyway.
What’s the appeal of the short story format for you and what are the challenges in writing for such a medium?
What I so dig about the short story is that you’re in and out in an afternoon. Just Sunday (it’s Tuesday now), I’d been up half the night with this terrible nightmare. Which is nothing unusual. But I had to be out the door at six or so, for my son’s swim meet. On the way, though, I bought this little dollar notebook, because I could feel my hand getting all twitchy, wanting to write. And I did. Got about three-thousand words down by nine, longhand (laptops and pools don’t mix), then read and watched the events, then got home about three in the afternoon and, by, I don’t know, six, I think, I’d transcribed and finished the story. Seven-thousand words and change. And it terrified me. And, in writing it, I realized it was all stemming from this lamp my wife had bought at a garage sale the day before, which I kept seeing in the rearview of the car that day. Anyway, I’m in the middle of a deadline novel, so didn’t need to be jacking with unsolicited stories, but the story didn’t care, was messing with me. Monday morning, I added two thousand more words, then another thousand after lunch. It’s sitting at ten thousand now, and’s the scariest thing I’ve done, I think, and, what? I invested ten hours or so? It’s so completely worth it. I mean, even if it somehow doesn’t sell, still, I’m so proud of it, feel like I cheated, getting it written.
And that’s how all the stories are for me. I never mess with one for longer than a few days. If it’s broken, throw it away, I say. That’s what I like so much about them. I mean, with a novel, if it’s broken, you nearly always feel this guilty push to rehab it, right? At least I do. I’ve fallen in love with the characters, this made-up place is so real, all that. With stories, I fall in love as well, but it’s a different kind of love. Not a one-night-stand kind of thing, but . . . I say it’s the slight investment that draws me, but it could also be the shape. The end comes so fast after the beginning, and you have to use so much economy, have to find all these elegant little workarounds. They’re fun, I guess. The problems built into the form of short stories — maybe ‘mode’ is the good word? — they’re problems I get a rush out of playing with. And every once in a while one turns out all right.
What was the genesis of “Crawlspace,” the story original to this collection?
Just the usual: my life. When my son was young, still in the crib, I found that if I read horror too late at night, he’d always need us to come get him. And, I say ‘us,’ but if I was reading horror, I’d usually find some way to accidentally wake my wife up, so she could walk down that dark hallway. I’d go with her, of course, to show I wasn’t being lazy, but I’d be watching behind us, too. One of my uncles used to always tell me I had a leaky brain. Maybe he was right, I don’t know. Or maybe I’m just making stuff up, seeing connections where there’s just coincidence. But isn’t that how fiction gets made? Paranoid people and dreamers already have the toolkit for writing. Anyway: horror movies? My son would sleep right through me watching them. And through me writing horror as well. I wrote all of Demon Theory with him sleeping on my chest. But reading horror, that’s always completely different for me. I get scared when I write, sure — okay: terrified, shaking, can’t get out of my chair but can’t stay here either — but reading the scary stuff, that’s keying a different part of my brain up, I think. The part that leaks.
Anyway, so I wrote “Crawlspace,” which at the time was called “Gabriel,” I think, and was a novella, a sister piece to “Raphael,” and I wanted to use a lot of other angel-names too, do a whole collection like that, but I don’t know any more angel names, and if I had to look them up I’d feel like I was cheating. It was pushing twenty-thousand words, I think. And it had this cool interdimensional portal way down in the grime of this apartment complex’s derelict swimming pool, and some way-cool stuff going on with somebody crawling on roofs. But it was too unfocused, was kind of just me, stacking up some jump-scares, trying to foist it off as a story. So, for Ones, after Sean said let’s do it, I found that “Gabriel” really and truly scared me, in spite of the fact that I could see the cracks in it. And, I say I don’t stick with a story for that long, but cutting it down to size — and it’s still long-ish — that might have taken two weeks, even. And I kept giving up, deciding it was unrecoverable, that it was broken at the conception level. But then I’d be walking down our hall at night and the story would be real for me all over, and I’d be running to my bedroom, diving for the covers again. So I finally just wrote it down like it felt, I guess. I haven’t reread it since then, either. It still scares me, is too real.