It’s Soccer Moms vs. Pro Wrestlers, all turned into Zombies!!! And if you think that sounds bizarre, then how about a zombie outbreak that’s made possible from eating donuts!?
A special kind of donut, mind you, glazed with maggots and a whole new kind of mean.
That’s only a glimpse into the wildly spectacular Zombie Bake-Off, a Bizarro novel and the latest from author and Professor Stephen Graham Jones.
One of the most prolific authors of our time, his acclaimed body of work includes 9 novels with 3 on the way, 2 Story Collections with a 3rd set for release, and over 130 short stories that have appeared in world famous publications such as Weird Tales, Asimov’s, Cemetery Dance, Clarkesworld Magazine, and countless prestigious journals such as Black Warrior Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Gulf Coast to name just a very few, in addition to a forthcoming appearance in Prairie Schooner.
The man can also write a novel within days—and that’s no myth—Dr. Jones confirms as much for us early on in our interview.*
Some popular reader favorites among his novels are Ledfeather, It Came From Del Rio, All The Beautiful Sinners, and Demon Theory.
Zombie Bake-Off, however, is a different kind of demon.
Horror Comedy is the name of the game with this one, and the game is action packed. Gore and laughs both come in spades, and whether you’re a fan of zombies, The WWE or The Food Network, there’s something in here for pop-culture junkies from all walks to munch on.
Gracious enough to spend a moment with Solarcide, Dr. Jones gives us some insight into the fun world he created with Zombie Bake-Off, his teaching, and all things relevant to the writing life.
Congratulations on Zombie-Bake Off. It’s a lot of fun to read, definitely the feel-good book of the year so far, and a nice surprise from you all around, considering the more serious tones of your previous novels.
With Zombie-Bake Off, you’ve stated that you wrote this story in 2007, however you’re known for being able to finish a book within a matter of months. *
‘Months?’ What, am I some kind of wimp? I’ve done novels in three days. Average lately’s probably about six weeks. ‘Months,’ though. Man. I’d be terrified to try to write just one thing for actual real and long months. That’d be like committing to one pair of socks from here on out.
Why is this particular novel, then, just coming to light in 2012—five years after the fact? Even with the publishing process involved, that length of time seems like a stretch.
Demon Theory, I wrote it in 1999, and it came out in, what? 2005? And Not For Nothing’s hitting from Dzanc in 2014 (year after Flushboy, from them), which’ll be a cool eight years since I wrote it. At least. Just the way it goes, sometimes. But, with Zombie Bake-Off in particular, as you’d likely guess, it doesn’t really fit into any neat publishing categories. Not really a recipe book, not pure horror. Lots (and lots) of blood, of course (I would have used that Night of the Living Trekkies book trailer as a model, had it existed then), but gags as well, and a bit of singalong. And—I hope—some heart. I always want to get to the reader in that way if I can, just a little. And, Zombie Bake-Off, for all its excesses, still, I hope that when the end comes that it feels like that inevitable surprise that closes out a solid romantic comedy. Like you can relax now. And you can feel kind of like you’ve earned that sigh of relief.
But, you were asking why the wait: it’s just that my agent would ask me who to send this to, who was doing something like this, and, until Lazy Fascist came about, the answer was just ‘nobody.’ Look at some of their other titles, though. Zombie Bake-Off, it fits right in. Where it doesn’t fit in so well, though, that’d be with the zombie canon: how all zombie stories have to conform to this or that type, these or those developments. I teach zombie lit courses, so am way in tune with all that. But, in 2007, I wasn’t teaching zombie lit, wasn’t studying the zombie. I just kind of thought dead people walking around were cool. I’d just written—or maybe was about to write?—It Came from Del Rio, which of course has a zombie who wears his own head out (from fighting), so has to confront this giant mutated rabbit, tear its head off, use its head for his own. Which makes perfect sense in the story. And you can see a lot of those kind of special effects in Zombie Bake-Off. Or, you can see them as percolated up through John Carpenter’s The Thing. But, if I had to line Zombie Bake-Off up with any particular movie, I’d go off-canon, of course, and land right about Doghouse. Or, Doghouse as mixed with The Poseidon Adventure. Which is chocolate and peanut butter, right there.
Although the landscape has changed over the years, particularly with events like The Hunger Games, where the lead/dominant role belongs to a female, a lot of genre tales from the past have depicted female characters as “the hot babe along for the ride,” or “the girlfriend” or “the girl to win over.”
Even in today’s day and age with hit shows like The Walking Dead, we see women regulated to the background as wives with not much to do, unstable characters, or whatever the supporting roles may be to the male leads saving the day.
Zombie Bake-Off gives us a tough female lead in Terry, just as your other novel to feature zombies, It Came From Del Rio, featured a strong female presence in Laurie.
Was this a conscious effort on your part, to create some in-depth female characters with key roles in these particular genre stories, or were you simply letting the stories speak and staying true to how both tales unfolded?
Wow, had not even considered that. So, I guess my easy answer is that no, it wasn’t remotely conscious. Guess I did it in Seven Spanish Angels, too, with Marta Villarreal—she was my first female lead. And, because I’m forever indebted to her for letting me write her story, or, for her taking over the story, telling it for me, pretty much, I guess she could be why I went with female leads in Del Rio and Zombie Bake-Off. I mean, Seven Spanish Angels, at the time I wrote Terry and Laurie, Marta was way in limbo. Seven Spanish Angels had a listing and a cover on Amazon—I’d written it in 2003 or 2004 or 2005, then got it canceled at the absolute last minute (story here)—but I had too much other stuff in the hopper, wasn’t circulating that manuscript right then.
But I knew I could do a female voice, a female character. So I wrote Laurie and Terry. But, Terry, she’s built much more like an action hero, of course. She’s got issues that only this particular meat grinder of a story can resolve for her. And, if I’d kept her ‘Terry’ but made her a dude, or, I don’t know, let Chapman or Xombie have the big spotlight instead of her, then, yeah, I would just be conforming to the usual: the damsel in the background, needing to be saved, her shirt suspiciously tear-offable. And, when the chips are down—and, in Zombie Bake-Off, the chips are all over the place—I don’t think either guys or girls are necessarily better built to survive, much less lead a rag-tag team to daylight. It’s got to be case-by-case. And, in this case, in that coliseum, it was Terry who had something at stake. So, she didn’t rise to the occasion because she wanted to—you always want to give up, yes?—she fought and fought and fought because, of everybody there, she had the most to lose.
Zombie Bake-Off brings a lot of horror-comedies to mind. Zombieland from a few years ago. Return of The Living Dead from the mid-80’s. In short, Zombie Bake-Off would work great as a movie, especially in light of the recent zombie craze in pop culture.
Far and away, Return of the Living Dead is my favorite zombie movie ever. Max Brooks can hate on it all he wants, but it’s still one of my main reasons for, you know, being a person.
You’ve also experimented with screenplay in your novel, Demon Theory.
Considering how fast you’re able to finish multiple stories at a time with strong character development intact, and seeing how your creativity has flourished within comedy, horror, sci-fi, crime and tragedy, is writing for the big screen or even TV something you might like to explore on a full-time or permanent basis should the opportunity present itself? Or is it a thing for you where fiction will always be the true love and marriage?
Man, I love to write screenplays, would love to do television work. Would love to even make fake trailers. As you can maybe tell from Demon Theory, that format, it’s kind of in my blood, bleeding out my eyes. And, yeah, Zombie Bake-Off, I wrote it side-by-side with its own screenplay. So they could cross-pollinate, yeah, but also so neither would be primary. But they’re not exactly the same, either. Different mediums require different tricks, of course. That way of growing the story, though, yeah, I think it finally left Zombie Bake-Off more visual, less internal. Which, I’m not dead-set against internal kind of fiction, of course. What so many writers don’t get, it’s that there’s a rhythm to writing, a pulse. You take the reader out for the wide establishing shot then you zoom them into the microscopic. And you do this over and over, throughout the story, using it as a pacing device. But, writing it, it’s not like you keep a little graph, can tell yourself you need a spike in six pages. It’s more instinctual. However, yeah, you can get analytic in the rewrite, of course, and shuffle as needed. With Zombie Bake-Off, though, a big part of what I was shooting for was figuring out visual ways to make the internal external. And, in a book with heads cracking open like eggshells every few pages, that internal-to-external trick, it’s kind of already had its path blazed, yeah? Or, hopefully.
Anyway, just had a quality film agent get in touch with me last week, yeah. And had some good conversations with tomorrow’s superstar directors this weekend, at World Horror, and have my fingers in some short-film pies besides. Film is definitely somewhere I want to go, but, I just don’t want to ever make it feel like novels ‘graduate’ to the screen, either. I don’t want the audience to start thinking that the book is just the thing that precedes the movies. Novels are their own, beautiful thing. And movies are their own, beautiful thing. And sometimes each are telling versions of the same story, sure—and comics and the stage can be in there as well—but getting adapted ‘up’ to the cineplex, sure, that makes you more marketable, maybe even gets you some long-waited-for legitimacy (in that people are willing to invest big bucks in stupid ideas you had one afternoon), and hopefully pays a bill or two for you and your family, just never start thinking you’re actually worth all that. That’s got to be key. I mean, have an ego, of course—how else to do ‘art?’—be confident, believe in yourself like your mother always told you to, never back down from whatever the fight is (this more from your dad, or from Terry), but be careful you don’t start thinking all this is owed to you. You’ve made your own luck, sure. But you’ve got to keep making it, too. Speak with authority, but always keep in mind that you’re making it up as you go.
Amazon seems to be a polarizing subject in the writing community these days. On one hand, you have the threat that Amazon poses to indie bookstores, and even the majors with Borders being a case in point. On the other hand, there are authors who will tell you that Amazon has allowed them to sell more books while reaching a wider audience.
So while some feel that Amazon is on the verge of becoming a monopoly, it may also be the only chance that some emerging writers have for making a dent in sales these days.
Where do you stand on the great Amazon debate as far as the good it’s doing for authors and publishers vs. the harm that it can bring to the industry and small business?
The easy and obvious answer here, it’s to side against Amazon. To side with the indie stores. And I completely love and am forever indebted to those indie stores, and don’t want them going way. But, at the same time, I have to suspect my own position, if I side against Amazon. Just because, as a writer, that’s the safe bet right now, isn’t it? I mean, Amazon’s so big that my loudest rant against them’s a squeak to somebody up on Mordor, and it’s not like they’re going to actually take the time, mis-shuffle my book listings so the consumer can’t find them. They’re too smart to shoot themselves in the foot like that (not that my sales are that vital to them or anything)—or, too smart to make what I’m saying actually matter. So, arguing against them, indicting them, it’s easy and safe, yes? Of course I question it. It’s a knee-jerk response, and nobody’s going to object to me making it. But, yeah, they are becoming a kind of monopoly. Or, they have a really strong business model, and apply it ruthlessly. But, were I a dry-cleaner and wanted to go national with a chain of corner stores, I figure I’d be ruthless as well. I hope I would, anyway. At the same time, I was at Wi7 in January, talking to all the booksellers, hanging with them, and I love them each and every one, and don’t want their corner stores going away, whether they’re pushing my books or not. At the same time, I completely believe in e-books, and prefer reading that way. Which isn’t at all to say I didn’t drop a cool hundred on paper books at World Horror last weekend. And I’m completely in love with and slobbering over each of those buys.
So, man: I don’t know. I hate to see a juggernaut reshape the landscape into a couch more comfortable for it to while the afternoon away on, yeah. But I do suspect the manner in which we get our stories—and we need those stories; they train us how to stay human—that it’s changing. That the whole publishing model’s changing. ‘Vanity press’ is no longer the term, and the stigma seems to be leeching away from self-publishing your Amazon single. I mean, we’re not back to Whitman or Blake publishing their own stuff, yet, but no doubt, people are endrunning the usual industry and cashing some serious checks. And I’m happy for them, will hopefully never begrudge anybody making their money, doing their thing. And more and more presses are going e-only, letting the e-retailers be their distributor, pretty much. Which, marketing and name-brand aside, puts them on the same potential footing as the big five, or seven, however many there are. So the underdogs have actual chances now. And, without a corporate giant like Amazon, they wouldn’t.
What keeps me afloat, though, what strands me at my keyboard with hope, it’s that, in spite of all the change, all the rules being rewritten, I feel confident that stories will survive. Sure, they may come out like the strange-o novels in Diamond Age or Rant. But: great. I mean, terrifying to me, yes, as I only know how to write on a keyboard, with pages. But I’m way less important than the big tradition. People will keep needing stories, and are going to get them one way or another, one medium or the next. All I can do, for now, it’s tell the most vital story I can each time, and hope it connects with somebody. Via a magazine on a device or a doorstop of an anthology or some Vollman or Martin series of novels. The magic’s in the connection, not in the technology.
You’re as talented a teacher as you are a writer. Speaking in terms of storytelling, what are some crucial aspects that you aim to instill in students who are just learning to master their creative voices?
I’m hardly the first person to say this, but what I always hope to instill is whatever the opposite of cynicism is. Like, you know when I movie’s getting hype before release, and everybody’s logging on to hate it? Or how people will, I don’t know, despise Planet Hollywood because it’s so commercial, and insist on going instead to the dive-iest bar for their very similar hamburger, just on principle? It’s good to have principles, don’t get me wrong. But it’s bad when those principles leave you suspicious of everything that comes your way. Granted, the skeptical life is supposed to be more authentic, keeps you from being a mark, a rube, all that. But being a mark, man—how else to experience the world? So, with people I teach, I want to show them that there’s as much truth in a werewolf story set on Mars as there is in some Nick Adams piece. In the fiction world, the lit world, the book world, there’s way too much snobbery, way too many blanket generalizations (from all sides). There’s way too many books that get dismissed for reasons having nothing at all to do with the book. Instead, why not just be open? Why not, instead of setting up defenses against disappointment, allow yourself to think that maybe this’ll be the one that changes everything? Which is to say, hopefully my students, they read the bestseller list and they pore over the established canon. And they reach into the slush pile some days just blind, and pull something up which is either going to change their whole world or not. That’s the only way to read, I think. And, if you can read like that, then it’s got to infect your writing. For the better.
At what point, as a teacher, do you feel like a success when seeing a student’s work progress over time, say the course of a semester?
Just when they don’t need me anymore. When they’re giving me stuff and I’m editing it instead of correcting it. Or, no: it’s when they give me something and I’m jealous. When they give me something and I wish I could scrub their name off the corner of the page, scribble my own in. And that happens a lot, at both the grad and undergrad level. Specifically, I think it’s largely responsible for why I write fast: because I’m on the front lines, can see who-all’s coming, and how talented they are. I know I have to keep ahead of them, and I also know I’m not going to be able to, finally. But still, I’m going to run as fast and far as I can.
You’ve taught for a while now. As a Professor of Fiction, are you aware of or do you feel that there are some elements of Creative Writing and Fiction that Universities either ignore too much or don’t place enough emphasis on? Or do you feel perhaps that there are elements which are focused on too much?
Yeah, the ‘making money from writing’-part. I think too many MFA programs are playing into that thing of—I don’t know what it’s called, really, but say you’re watching some afterschool special. Or, say those still exist, first. And you’re watching it. And it’s about some kid in the city not doing his math homework, because who cares? He’s going to the NBA, man. He’s going all the way. I think too many MFA programs, we’re not making our students do their math homework. We’re selling them on the notion that they’re the next Kobe, the next David Foster Wallace. And, yeah, one or two of them, they may very well be, and may even not run enough red lights, meaning they could actually climb those sales rankings. However, gambling everything like that—and writing is always a gamble, I don’t want to argue against that, and you’ve got to bet on yourself and bet big—it leaves a lot people working jobs they’d never really planned on. When they could be making money writing. They could have got some nudges towards some shelfspace that actually, as ugly a word as everybody pretends it is, sells.
So, in my classes, hopefully you learn the basics and the past-basics of storytelling and writing, of techniques and tricks, but, too, notice how you just had to (for me) write a story about a pirate keeping an angel in his hold? One he plans to pit-fight against a mermaid. And note too that you’re doing this because, first, who wouldn’t want to see that, and, second, this story (like all stories) can be a container for everything you think’s real and right in the world, and, third, this is a story people might actually pay to read. As opposed to the story you maybe wanted to tell, about you and some girl sitting in a tree house twenty years ago, talking about your parents’ divorces, and maybe doing it so very artfully and thematically. Instead, shuttle all that generic angst into this pirate, who’s committed to this fight, has wagered his ship on it, but’s seeing his little sister in the way this angel sits on that coil of rope. But he remembers his sister could fight, too. Holy hell she was a scrapper. And now he’s steering into rough, thematic seas, and who knows what’s going to happen? Well, one thing that can: an editor gives you a couple hundred for that story. And nothing makes you feel more like a writer than cashing a check.
As a literary scholar, how do you feel about the censoring and/or altering of literary classics such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which saw some controversy last year when NewSouth Books announced plans to release a censored edition to appease the politically correct climate of today? Should political correctness or censorship of any kind have a place in storytelling?
That cracks me up. I don’t think it all harms the original book, though. I mean, the original’s still there, in everybody’s head. Maybe even more so, thanks to this publicity. Could even be a publicity stunt, to shine the light back where it needs to be. But, yeah, the moment art becomes ‘responsible,’ that’s when it stops being art. Writing safe, that isn’t writing, that’s appeasing. Read Delaney’s Hogg, read Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, read some Lansdale, go back to A Clockwork Orange. Or Twain, yeah. They didn’t write them to be politically correct, they wrote them to say something. They were bowling without the bumpers in the gutters. It makes your strikes worth so much more.
Your novel, It Came From Del Rio, was released to wide acclaim in late 2010—that particular story being tagged as “The Bunnyhead Chronicles Part 1.”
Is The Bunnyhead Chronicles Part 2 still happening, and if so, can you give us a teaser or any minor spoilers as far as what to expect?
I wrote it last May, yeah. Once Upon a Time in Texas, like the “Heroes” episode. Snuck a teaser-link in here. And, where Del Rio’s restrained, a bit quiet (you can tell from the cover), its sequel is completely over-the-top on every page. Austin gets burned down with chupacabras, and worse. People who should have been dead, they still are. But that doesn’t stop them from getting into trouble, having some fun (there’s a rabbit/wolf car-chase in high-end Italian rides, there’s South by Southwest, there’s horses kicking zombies, there’s those coma wards I so love [see Demon Theory]—there’s everything). And, writing it, I even got glimpses of the third, the Bunnyhead Chronicles’ wrap-up. Or, that final scene, it’s there, it’s waiting. Just need to settle down, get it on the page. Except I just outlined (and I don’t outline) this big vampire novel or limited comic series (not sure which yet). And I also have a beautiful premise and title for a YA novel. And I’m currently writing an actual non-horror novel (which is so, so bloody). And I’m a hundred-plus pages into an anthropological thriller. And I’ve told two anthologies I’ll write stories for them in the next ten days, and am supposed to be co-writing a piece for another antho, and have Growing Up Dead in Texas out soon, and have said yes to two summer teaching gigs, and there’s more deadlines besides. Which is all wonderful and great, of course. But I need that watch-thing Dumbledore loans Hermione, so I can pack more time into the days. Either that or I need to just stop sleeping, but then hypnotize myself each morning that I did sleep, because I think that’s what we need, more than five hours in the sack: the memory of it.
And also Gordon Highland had told me that, fun as Del Rio might have been, the craziness the cover suggests never quite happened, at least not like on the cover. So, what I did for the sequel, it was pretty much use Boden’s art as the imaginary cover, and write a story Gordon would think over-the-top enough, maybe. Or, I say ‘imaginary cover,’ but, should this one see print—and I have faith—I only want Boden’s art on it. Because I kind of did write the novel that’s behind it, I think.
Next up for you is Growing Up Dead In Texas, a novel that will see its release in June. The synopsis makes this story sound personal on an intense level, seeing that it’s “part mystery, part memoir,” and while you promise horror, you also promise a change of pace from what readers have come to expect from your stories.
Why is this story one that you feel you couldn’t have written until now? What did you need to work through within yourself to make this story happen, vs. any demons that you haven’t battled before?
A while back—with the exception of one early story, “Lakeside”—I noticed that all of my protagonists, they were younger than me. By usually about four years. Which is to say that, being twenty-eight, I had no real handle on what that was like until I hit about thirty-two. I was too involved with being twenty-eight, I mean, and then recovering from that. So, Growing Up Dead in Texas, I think the narrator of that, he’s mid-thirties (and: me). How could I possibly do that until I’m forty—now? But, really, I wrote Growing Up Dead in Texas in 2008. On complete accident. I was teaching my first grad fiction workshop here at CU, and was making everybody write a novel in addition to the workshop stories. And, to establish that I could take my own medicine, I told them, sure, I’d write one as well. Like I say: I’m no wimp. Also, during that class, a student asked me how do you, you know, write a novel? Which made me think of my first novel, The Fast Red Road, and how every time I’d hit that ‘what comes next’-wall, instead of writhing around in that romantic writer fashion (that is: hoping someone would see), I’d just reach in my head Howling style, plop a piece of my life down, make it work with the story.
So, when I finally got around to actually following through and starting this promised novel (think it took thirteen weeks), I was kind of thinking What if I did that again? I’d played around with the idea before, with this story-thing “Bestiary,” but had never tried it actual long-form. So I did. And, man, it actually worked out. Not to talk bad about all my other books, and the books to come—I love them each and every one (in the future tense, also)—but I suspect Growing Up Dead in Texas will likely be the best book I ever write. I lucked into something, I mean. The same way I lucked into an end for Ledfeather. And, yeah, I’m always saying that Demon Theory is by far my most autobiographical book—I think I’ll still go with that, even come June—and that Bleed Into Me, it’s always strange for people to read that, as I’m so naked on every page, that those stories are all so un-made-up, and that Bird is Gone is my only book where the initial conception pretty much matches the final artifact (it still is, and I love it for that, and because there are no typos in it), but for Growing Up Dead in Texas, I dug into my temple, left my real and actual, not-disguised memories smeared all through it.
Still, it’s not a memoir, in that it’s not concerned with facts. But the facts never matter, I don’t think. Growing up, that’s an emotional landscape, not a series of verifiable bullet points. I mean, in McCammon’s A Boy’s Life (I can’t possibly recommend this book enough), we all kind of suspect that traveling carnivals maybe don’t have triceratops in them. But this kid’s childhood, it’s so much more real because they do. And that’s what finally matters. Isn’t that what fiction writing is, lying your way to some accidental truth? That’s what Growing Up Dead in Texas is for me. It’s an authentic investigation of a fire that never happened. It’s exactly how it felt for me, growing up. Like the cover, it’s a snapshot of my childhood, of my life, of how it feels, how I remember it now. And it’s built like non-fiction, except for the whole ‘facts’ part. But non-fiction has to be about more than just how it lines up with the ‘real’ world. It’s about truths as well. Maybe even mainly. And, when truth’s your prey, your victim, your target, then however you get it, that’s the best way to have gotten it. I can’t even begin to imagine ever trying to write something like this again. Just because you only get lucky like that once. However, this one I’m writing now, I accidentally wrote the final scene already, though I’m only twenty thousand words in, and, man, it takes you by the brainstem, pulls your heart out some, up into the back of your throat. I’ll never have another ending like that either, I don’t think. Or a beginning like “What I remember best about my father are the suicide notes.” But, believe this: I’ll keep trying. The only way to write, it’s not just to step up to the plate and squint out at the fence, hope you get a piece of this one, it’s to point all the way out there for everybody, then set your feet, cock your bat, and swing, swing, swing.
Spoken like a True Pro! Thank you so much for your time and insight, Dr. Jones! It’s been nothing short of a blast!
Growing Up Dead In Texas will see a release on June 12th:
Buy Zombie Bake-Off at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Zombie+Bake+Off
Other Books from Stephen Graham Jones: http://www.amazon.com/Stephen-Graham-Jones/e/B001JP9YPW/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1334116026&sr=8-1
And Be Sure To Visit demontheory.net, the Official Website and Home of Stephen Graham Jones.
Stephen Graham Jones is the author of nine novels so far, and a couple of collections. His recent books are Demon Theory, Ledfeather, It Came from Del Rio, and the Stoker finalist collection The Ones That Got Away. Coming Soon are Growing Up Dead In Texas, Flushboy, and Not for Nothing. Probably more as well. Stephen’s been an NEA fellow and has won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for fiction, and his stories have been included in multiple best of the year annuals (horror, always), all kinds of anthologies, and even textbooks. Stephen is forty, married with children, and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Colorado at Boulder.