Stephen Graham Jones likes to write about monsters. He’s done zombies, reinvented the werewolf (“not your granddad’s werewolf,” as he says below). In his Scribd Original The Clown Brigade, he admits he wanted to try something new for him: crawl into a monster’s head. Not go from scary or hairy to something human or human-ish — recognizable in its complexity, hunger, regret — but the reverse: Go from a guy, a sort of every-guy who’s just looking for love, the young guy maybe sitting next to you on a plane, to something far more terrible and, it turns out, far too common in the United States.
He unpacks this in a Q&A with his editor and also reveals how growing up Native American in Texas prepared him to write (and rewrite) horror, explains why fiction makes both its writer and reader more thoughtful, and confesses that, if his work makes certain people angry for challenging long-held assumptions about American life and history, it means he must be doing something right.
Where does the title of this story come from? It’s linked to the story’s genesis in your imagination, but when Scribd asked if you were wedded to the title, what was your answer?
Stephen Graham Jones: To me, “Clown Brigade” is the only possible title for this one. And I’m usually not like that. Sometimes what I think is a solid title will be obviously wrong to everyone else, and I have to see that many minds are better than mine for this or that piece. For this story, though, I couldn’t. Just because of where it ends up. I mean — surprise! — I am the kind of writer I am, so there’s going to be bleeding by the end of this one. That’s usually all in good fun. I just want to rob a little of your sleep and maybe leave you more vigilant on your walk home, more paranoid alone in a hallway, but this time around, I wanted to see if I could figure out on the page, just the littlest bit, what motivates certain people in circumstances like the protagonist’s. How do they end up thinking what they think? At the same time, though, I didn’t want to in any way put a seal of approval on their way of thinking or actions. So “Clown Brigade” is sort of like a shield for the story: If anyone wants to identify with it, if anybody thinks it’s valorizing this type of behavior, then they have to admit they’re part of the clown brigade. And, hopefully, hopefully, no one wants to be in that particular brigade.
The Clown Brigade of course works as both a story — it’s wonderfully plot- and voice-driven — and social commentary. In your often quoted New York Times op-ed piece about horror, you write that the genre is, “and always has been, in dialogue with the anxieties and fears of its time.” Would you say that extends to other genres? What is it about fiction that makes it a good delivery system for ideas, helping the reader see something they might not have seen before?
Stephen Graham Jones: Yeah, all writing is finally, and maybe foremost, a product of the era it’s born in. The minute of its birth, even. Each story and comic book and novel is a snapshot of a very specific moment in history, and that’s unavoidable. I can set my piece whenever up and down the timeline, I can completely divorce it from anything we call “reality,” and it’ll still be about the collapsing ecosphere, the current state of politics — everything that concerns us now. So, from romance to fantasy, from literary to horror, and all points between, yes, fiction — stories — are always in conversation with their moment. As for what makes fiction a good vehicle, it’s that fiction asks questions rather than provides answers. As such, it usually doesn’t come off didactic or preachy — the intent would seem to be simply to entertain. But packed into that entertainment is a question that the reader might feel like they’re coming up with themselves. Which is just how it should be. And the writer might not even know they’re asking that, exactly. But we all have our axes to grind — more axes than we can carry at once, really — and it’s impossible for us to write without getting some of that on the page. By asking questions, you’re prompting the reader to either ask someone else that question or possibly come up with an answer themselves. And, like that, the world’s suddenly a better place.
Would you say we need it more than ever?
Stephen Graham Jones: Literature’s how we encode culture, and it’s how we train ourselves to manipulate our own narrative — stories teach us that you can highlight this and this instead of that other thing, and so produce a different effect. For us as people, when we highlight this dance instead of that party, this proud moment instead of that embarrassing one, then, with that modified past, we’re now a different person. And we can change that again tomorrow, too. That’s the wonderful thing about narrative: It’s plastic, it’s elastic, it adapts to be what you need it to be for where and whenever you are.
You’re Native American and you grew up in Texas — that had to present some tensions and contradictions in terms of politics, history, what cultural diversity can mean, no? Did it contribute to what made you the writer you are today, give you an eye for nuance and a range of points of view?
Stephen Graham Jones: For sure. Growing up in West Texas, I was always keenly aware of how proud Texans were of having driven all the Natives out. My first professor job, there was this 13-foot-tall bronze Indigenous dude on campus. I’d see him going to work every day. Finally, with five minutes before class, I stepped over to see him closer. Surprise: His hands were tied behind his back. And behind him was a Texas Ranger, driving him north — the direction he was facing. We got that colonial mythmaking statue removed — I guess to Texas it was maybe a trophy? — but that’s kind of the sentiment going on down there. So grow up under that and, yeah, you end up with some resentment, some hostilities.
Did it make horror, and horrors done to others, more real or familiar?
Stephen Graham Jones: It made them more immediate, for sure. And it also made me keenly aware that what I felt and believed and wanted to be true wasn’t exactly the majority sentiment.
With regard to this story, you don’t just show us the monster in action; you actually go into his head. It’s bold and an example of the kind of literary shapeshifting you excel at. What excited you about this approach?
Stephen Graham Jones: To do Kyle from the outside felt like either validating him or else treating him as a lab rat — maybe a focus of sociology or anthropology? A chess piece to move around the board so I could highlight this, talk about that. And that’s no way to write, I don’t think. To write honestly, you have to crawl inside this headspace, try to use your empathy muscles to figure a thing or two out, or at least propose a possible reason why, or how. And, yeah, being inside his head was uncomfortable, definitely. But I dial back to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The way he makes Perry in that so intimately real — that’s a high-water mark, for me. I mean, I completely trusted Perry, in spite of what he’d done.
You go into the online dating and cycling world here. What made that especially fitting for this narrative? And are you a cyclist yourself?
Stephen Graham Jones: Yeah, I’m in Boulder, Colorado, and am always on my bike, out on the trail. Even in winter. And when I’m not, I’m on my spin bike. I’m either clattering the keys on a keyboard or spinning the pedals on some bike. And online dating and social media and just online presences and personas — for me they have the potential to speak to the at once intimate yet extremely distant and mysterious interactions we have on a daily basis, that we don’t even question anymore, really. It’s kind of wonderful, but it’s also kind of terrifying.
Which of your influences in the way of writers or books, filmmakers or films, do you see at play here?
Stephen Graham Jones: I was thinking of Stephen King’s Apt Pupil the most. And also a story from The New Yorker, “The Dungeon Master,” by Sam Lipsyte.
The Clown Brigade doesn’t engage Indigenous subject matter, at least not obviously, but it does address what’s ailing this country. Your new comic book series, Earthdivers, about four Indigenous time travelers on a mission to assassinate Christopher Columbus and change the course of American history (as we understand it) is being developed for TV. It also takes on the tragedy and trauma built into our national story. Do you expect it to generate some controversy? Are you ready for that?
Stephen Graham Jones: I guess I have to be ready, yeah? Especially with Indigenous People’s Day hitting around the same time. But yes, when I write about werewolves, people can say this isn’t their granddad’s werewolf. It’s not up on the parapet of a castle in the moonlight fighting monsters and Nazis and having big romances, and, both biologically and culturally, my wolves aren’t standard there either. And when I write about slashers, people can push back that they only prefer slashers from a very specific time period. But this coming head-on at one of the foundational myths of America like Earthdivers does — I might as well be taking a shot at John Wayne. Except I already did that, in Memorial Ride, another comic book. Oh, and? I hear that Laura Ingraham kind of spoke disparagingly about Earthdivers on some show she has — in the context of what she wants to be “Columbus Day,” I guess — so… to me, that’s a win. If you’re making the right people mad, then you’re maybe aligned properly.
If you want readers to get a good stretch of, or challenge to, their contemporary perspectives — ask them to see differently or at least see what may be right in front of their eyes but isn’t obvious to them — what might you urge them to read or watch, including other projects of yours?
Stephen Graham Jones: For books, I suggest Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God. It’ll warp you a bit. For a novel, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun — it proposes a world where “pre-contact” doesn’t matter, as in, I don’t even know if Columbus exists in this world. Or, if he does, then the forces already over here can deal with him pretty easily — they have a lot more going on, don’t have time to worry about this dude in a boat that doesn’t even have magic. For a film, Coherence, from 2014. You come out of it kind of suspicious of where you are, and aren’t. And, for television… Gravity Falls. Just because we all need happiness.
When Kyle plans to surprise Jenna with a romantic weekend to help him get over Steph — who's still his go-to spin cycle instructor — he doesn’t anticipate the turbulent flight, uncooperative security, or so many clowns creeping around. Jones (“The Only Good Indians”) takes on the maddening and sometimes deadly consequences of living and loving online, and the power of our delusions, in this chilling Scribd Original.
About the Author: Amy Grace Loyd
Amy is an editor, teacher, and the author of the novel The Affairs of Others. She has been a MacDowell and Yaddo fellow and was an associate editor on the NYRB Classics, the fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine and later at Esquire, and an executive editor at e-singles publisher Byliner. She is currently an acquiring editor and content creator for Scribd Originals.