Stephen Graham Jones | MONGRELS

PrintE-mail Written by J.D. Gillam

With the release of his latest novel, Mongrels, we had a chat with author Stephen Graham Jones…

STARBURST: There’s a definite Near Dark vibe in the book. Was that deliberate? 

Stephen Graham Jones: More like unavoidable. That movie left a crater in my life, in my heart.

It showed me that monsters don't have to be at some other level, some big remove like Greek gods. They can be like the rest of us. Down in the dirt, scratching around, trying to find a bite to eat. Yeah, Near Dark is about vampires, not werewolves, sure. But, when I saw it the first time, I was already erasing all the vampire stuff out, and saying how I would believe this even better with werewolves. In Near Dark, I saw myself, and my family. I saw people just trying to get by, and doing whatever they had to keep each other safe. Really, what I saw? It wasn't monsters. It was people. That was key for me and Mongrels.

It's a real family story, albeit a surreal family that seems to lurch from problem to problem. Is that close to your heart as a writer - family?

You know, everybody always talks about some afterlife, how it's going to be, I don't know, all biscuits and gravy at the Econolodge continental breakfast—just, forever. Which sounds pretty great, I know. Sign me up, check me in. But? What if the afterlife turns out to be your favourite memory? When I try to figure what mine might be, none of them finally involve biscuits and gravy. They're all something with family. Just a perfect afternoon. A snowball fight. That time the power went out and we were all telling stories by candlelight. Who cares if whatever lasts of you gets the continental breakfast, I say. I'll be hungry if I can have just one more perfect afternoon. Even half of an imperfect one. Any afternoon you're with your family, I mean, that's pretty perfect already.

The chapters take it in turn from the perspective - first person and third person going to and fro. Was that deliberate and, if so, why?

Deliberate, yep. Well, deliberately left, anyway. Initially? I didn't know what I was doing. I was just playing with werewolves. I like the rhythm that kind of stuff can give a novel, though. Well, maybe structure is the better way to frame it. So, Mongrels, it's not the kind of novel where there's a locked door on page one, and the rest of that story's a race to find the key, right? It's more episodic. And, episodic stuff, since it's not pulling itself ahead on a plot line, so much, it needs some substitute for that. It needs something that can stand in, that can still pull the reader ahead. If you can establish a rhythm—if the readers' conditioned to expect another third-person piece is around the corner, say—then that rhythm can provide that pull, in the moment. Once you're done, though, and looking at it all at once, it's a structural thing. To say it simpler, it's just something I stole from Robert Crais' Elvis Cole stuff. Always impressed me that he could get away with it. I wanted to get away with it too. Not the first time I've done that. Ledfeather, a big reason I wrote it was because Philip K. Dick's Radio Free Albemuth does a formal thing I was way jealous of.

It’s well known that writers put a little bit of themselves into a novel. So, did you want to be a werewolf when you were growing up?

More than anything. I knew it was a curse, kind of. That it would mean no more steak fingers from the cafeteria at school. And I did well and truly love those steak fingers. And about everything else a school cafeteria has as well. But to get to step over the fence of a pasture, look across the top of all that mesquite as a human, then lean over onto forepaws, and race through the scrub to whatever impossibly far place you just eyeballed? Your tongue lolling, your black lips pulled back into a wolf grin? That would be worth a few years of no steak fingers. I tried all the usual ways to wolf out eating raw meat, drinking from a wolf print, rolling naked in the sand under a full moon - but . . . well, if it any of it worked, then it's a delayed reaction. A still delayed reaction. Really, it's taking long enough that I figured I was just going to have to write a novel to see a werewolf since the mirror kept lying to me.

You give your own versions of how werewolves exist, transform and procreate in Mongrels. How much fun was it to try and create new tropes?

What I was going for was to come up with a werewolf biology and culture that would kind of account for the centuries of lore and legend the werewolf was already dragging behind. At least that of it that made sense. Silver? Silver makes sense. It's antimicrobial, anyway, which might be effective against the infection werewolves kind of see themselves as. The moon, though? Unless the moon's regolith has some special properties I don't know about, then, aside from intensity—albedo?—I can't find any substantive difference in moonlight and sunlight. I mean, if the moon triggers a change, wouldn't the direct sun trigger it even harder? Wouldn't a quarter moon be an instant five o'clock shadow on your hands? And, The Wolf Man. In that, a four-footed werewolf infects someone into a

man-wolf. Which you can write off to special effect limitations of 1941. Or, you can incorporate it like Mongrels does. To me, The Wolf Man is important enough that dismissing it seemed kind of a travesty. Better to use it as a model, I say.

Do you think there are flaws with the existing werewolf tropes?

Whole lot of werewolves don't take into account conservation of mass. How does an 180-pound woman become a 300-pound werewolf? Where's all that extra come from? And, when it then went away at sunrise or whenever, wouldn't there be a clap, like the air collapsing in around where there used to be these 120 pounds of something? And, if that happened every transformation, wouldn't the werewolf's hearing get damaged? And, would that be how we identify them? "What, didn't you hear the alarm? Have you been keeping secret that you're a werewolf?" I'm not the only one who thinks like that, either. Carrie Vaughn's werewolves adhere to conservation of mass. And Robert McCammon's, they age in canine years when they're wolfed out. These are ways you create a monster that makes sense - a monster we can believe in. Or, really? One that doesn't* need *us to believe in them, to be real. They just are. That's what I want for the werewolf. For it to run off, then watch us from the darkness. Keep us up on the path.

Why do you think that there are fewer werewolf media than some other fantastical monsters, such as vampires or zombies?

We're at the tail end of the zombie renaissance right now, I'd say. So it makes sense the gas station wouldn't have werewolf action figures on the impulse-buy rack. But, since what zombies were replacing were vampires—they were getting too tragic, were starting to sparkle—I'd say we're primed to reach into our bag of Universal Pictures creatures, and come up with the werewolf. Which, yeah, they're usually the attack dogs of the supernatural set. The guards, the sled pullers, the weapons you direct at this house, then walk away. Werewolves are the brawlers, the beer drinkers. They don't have a lot of foresight, and their lives are never really worth much. That last one's the one I wanted to resist, with Mongrels. Because, yeah, my werewolves are nomadic, impulsive, way below the poverty line, and they're always in legal scrapes, are always fighting in the parking lot, usually don't get their security deposit back. I'm cool with all that. Like I was saying: Near Dark. Except, in Mongrels, werewolf lives, they aren't cheap. Every werewolf matters. The same as every one of us matters. That's one thing I really want to get across in this novel.

Which werewolf fiction would you suggest to our readers? 

True werewolf fans are already going to know Those Across the River and Red Moon and the Kitty Norville series and The Last Werewolf and Sharp Teeth and The Wolf Gift Chronicles, The Wolfen and The Howling and Wolf's Hour and The Skin Trade . I'm sure I forgot a couple in there, but still, there are some werewolf texts that die-hards consider canonical. I wish Ginger Snaps was based on a novel because I'd so dig recommending that. Maybe I should novelise it? Anyway, how about a couple that's likely slipped past? David Holland's Murcheston: the Wolf's Tale, which is flat-out amazing - thanks, Paul Tremblay, for the heads-up on that one - Bill Pronzini's 1979 Werewolf! A Chrestomathy of Lycanthropy - so many vital werewolf stories - and...  how about Justine Larbaliester's kind-of-recent Liar, a YA werewolf novel. Or not. See the title. 

Which is your favourite werewolf transformation scene – The Howling or An American Werewolf in London?

Oh, man, why don't you just ask me to pick Kirk or Picard? The 1977 Trans-Am or the 1979 Z-28? What kind of Sophie's Choice is this? Did John Stuart Mill every face anything this difficult? Did Hamlet? I could sooner pick a favourite eye to get to keep. But . . . the Landis/Baker, by a werewolf hair. Just because the transformation hurts so, so much—and that's something too many werewolf stories forget. That, say, your skull reshaping itself around your brain? That'll scramble you, both physically, since your medulla's migrating to a different place, which'll open up some of that dendritic space into just gulfs of forgetfulness, but also just because that level of pain, it leaves you fried. The worst kind of fried: the kind where you have a mouthful full of teeth, can bite the world. However, my favourite moment in a transformation? It's Eddie Quist, asking Karen if she wants a piece of his mind. I saw The Howling years and years before I ever saw An American Werewolf in London, so it's imprinted on me so much deeper. I mean, Michael Jackson wolfed out on my MTV long before I ever saw it happen to David Naughton on videotape.

There have been recent reports of a werewolf loose in Hull, England. Do you think there is any chance that werewolves are real?

Things are real as we believe in them, I figure. Me? I want to believe.

Mongrels is out now. You can read our review here.

 


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