Stephen Graham Jones has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado in Boulder for four years, and while he can find his office, he’s not sure of the address. An apt metaphor for a writer who has created a narrator in his latest novel, Growing Up Dead in Texas (MP Publishing), who is ready to take you to a wrapped-up conclusion, but not quite sure how to get you there.
Jones does two things with purpose: write and talk about writing. He is prolific and known for his range—experimental fiction, horror, crime fiction, and sci-fi—and has written hundreds of short stories and 20 novels, starting with The Fast Red Road (Fiction Collective 2, 2000), featuring a half-Indian in a world of ghosts and aliens in a story that aims to blow apart the myth of the American West. He’s won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for his novel, The Bird Is Gone (Fiction Collective 2, 2003), a murder mystery, and he was nominated alongside Stephen King for both a Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson award for The Ones That Got Away (Prime, 2010), a collection of 13 horror stories.
For Growing Up Dead in Texas, Jones returned to his native Texas, where he imagined what would have happened in his small town if a fire had torched the county’s cotton crop. He set his story in the mid-1980s, when he was in high school, and he sees the event as one of those local remember-where-you-were moments that changes lives. Jones used real names from his past, but assigned them to characters that do not match the actual people to help protect everyone’s identity. Growing Up Dead in Texas, Jones says, is the closest he has ever come to writing nonfiction.
“For me, the facts in anything are always secondary,” says Jones. “You don’t lie convincingly with the truth. You lie convincingly with being a good liar.”
Teaching was not part of the plan and neither was writing. Jones quit high school and thought he’d be a for-hire farmer until a girl he liked needed a ride to the SATs. He wound up sitting for—and acing—the test himself. His mom sent his scores to Texas Tech and offered to pay for his first year. Jones got hooked on school and completed a duel philosophy/English degree. Professors talked him into applying to grad school, so he figured he could “fake it for a few more years.”
After earning a Ph.D. in creative writing at Florida State, Jones returned to Texas, content living at his mother-in-law’s and working in the Sears warehouse. A back injury led him to a desk job in the library at Texas Tech. He applied for an opening in the creative writing department and became an associate professor there three years later, after publishing three novels.
It was a grad student’s question (how do you write a novel?) that sparked the idea for Growing Up Dead. Jones realized that whenever he felt blocked on a short story he’d borrow a random event from his own life, and the plot seemed to right itself. What if he did a whole novel like that? So as his class got busy writing the requisite novel, Jones decided to take his own “medicine” and write a new novel along with them.
Jones admits his characters are mostly himself in disguise, although with better trucks. Unlike some of his work, especially The Fast Red Road, which Jones describes as “self-consciously in-your-face Indian,” it is hard to tell if any of the characters in Growing Up Dead are Native American. Jones is a Blackfeet, but while proud of his heritage, he does not want to be pigeonholed. “I figure anytime you put an adjective before ‘writer’ it’s a way of dismissing the writer,” he says.
At the core of Growing Up Dead is what happens to a family with secrets. The “Dead,” those lost to accidents, shootings, suicide, or war, are as much a part of this small community as the living.
Next year Dzanc Books will publish Jones’s first romance novel, or his version of one. Flushboy is about a young man who works at his father’s drive-through urine analysis booth and endures the humiliating taunts of the friends of his loved-from-afar girl as they drop off their samples. Never mind the plot’s plausibility—“I think America would do anything through a drive-through,” says Jones. In his hands, the reader will get where he wants them to go. No map needed.