The stereotype of college English professors who write books is that they only ever write academic tomes or equally intellectual fiction. But University of Colorado English professor Stephen Graham Jones is anything but typical, as his new novella Mapping The Interior (paperback, digital) is firmly in the horror genre. Though as he reveals in the following interview, so is his syllabus.
What is Mapping The Interior about?
It’s about sons and fathers, mothers and brothers. It’s about walking up a dirt road with your brother after the bus has dropped you off and having all of your future opening up before you. It’s about knowing every inch of your house, or thinking you do.
It’s been said that this is a horror novel, but what kind of horror do you think it is? Is it freaky, psychological horror, Lovecraftian…?
I think I’d call it “Growing Up Horror.” Not like, “So, you grew up Romance? Not me, I grew up horror.” Mapping The Interior is about the horrors involved with growing up. It’s not all sunshine and daisies. There’s blood and terror and doubt, too. Kind of an endless cycle of it, really.
Where did you get the idea for it, and how different is the finished version from that original idea?
There’s this one corner of my house where two mirrors meet, and I always forget those are mirrors, just kind of knee-jerk assume it’s a doorway, or another room. So, walking past in the dark some nights, I see a figure, me, kind of reflected twice, and somehow, in the weird reflection-bounding manner of mirrors, walking away. It never fails to freak me out. But when I sat down to write down how that felt, I had no idea there was going to be a kid, a dad, a mom, a brother, or dogs. I just knew that it made my skin crawl in a way I wanted to rub off, onto the page.
In the press materials, it says Mapping The Interior is a “horrifying, inward-looking novella….” Which I’m confused by. How is the book “inward-looking”?
This is a narrator who closely examines his own decisions, his own mental machinations, his motivations. It’s the same kind of thinking that sensitizes him or makes him vulnerable to the shapes he sees walking through his living room, sometimes.
What writers, and which of their work, do you feel were the biggest influences on Mapping The Interior in terms of what you wrote and how you wrote it? And I do mean specifically for Mapping The Interior, not your writing style as a whole
For Mapping the Interior…I’d say Louise Erdrich. I wanted to get a real family on the page like she’s so good at. Not that I could ever hope to write as well as she does. But it’s good to aim high, I figure.
I’d also say a couple of Jeff Lemire’s comic books, Essex County and The Underwater Welder. The color palette he uses for those two is the same tone or feel or something as Mapping The Interior, at least to me, and each of those stories has that kind of uncertainty tinged with real emotion that makes for compelling horror.
What about non-literary influences, are there any movies, TV shows, or video games you think were an influence on Mapping The Interior?
Try as I might, I can’t remember what ghost-stories I might have had in mind when I wrote this. I was watching a lot of Westerns, I recall, but not even High Plains Drifter. I don’t think those Westerns played in, either, except for maybe the dry setting. None of the cowboys or Indians were playing tetherball, I mean.
The big things in publishing these days, as you undoubtedly know, is that publishers like books that are not stand-alone novels but are instead part of a series. So, is Mapping The Interior a stand-alone novel or the first book in a series?
It’s a standalone. But I’d have a hard time with a series of novellas. With conceptualizing them, I mean. I think I’d probably just write a big novel, that encompasses, say, the four novellas of what was going to be the series. Nothing against series of novellas, of course, just, I don’t know how I’d do with a project like that.
Along with Mapping The Interior, you also have some comic books in the works. What can you tell us about them?
Now, when not writing scary stuff, you’re an English professor at the University of Colorado. Do you ever use horror novels as part of your curriculum?
I do courses in horror, yeah. Slasher, zombie, werewolf, haunted house. I’ll pick one representative novel for each: [S. Elliot Brandis’] Young Slasher, World War Z [by Max Brooks], Those Across The River [by Christopher Buehlman], and [Stephen King’s] The Shining. What we learn, hopefully, is the inner mechanisms of horror, and why we engage horror. And we go from novels to stories to short films to features to documentaries to action figures to comic books, and beyond.
Horror movies are having something of a renaissance lately. Has there been any interest in making a movie version of Mapping The Interior?
Nope, no interest at this point.
If Mapping The Interior was to be made into a movie, who would you like to see cast in the main roles and why them?
Lily Gladstone [Certain Women] could play the mom, I’d say. No clue on the kids. For the dogs, just some big means ones. Real kid-eaters, furloughed from Doggie Max for the day.
Finally, if someone enjoys Mapping The Interior, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?