Author Stephen Graham Jones discusses werewolves, oral traditions, cultural identity and his forthcoming novel 'Mongrels' as prelude to his upcoming reading at Bookworks.
BY LISA BARROW
Bloodthirsty werewolves prowl through a tale about family, connection and coming of age in award-winning horror writer Stephen Graham Jones’ “Mongrels” (hardcover; $24.99; William Morrow), available May 10.
Occasionally grisly and often perversely funny, “Mongrels” is a slow burn of a novel that demands to be read with urgency. It’s artful and literary but is marinated in the lore — and entertainment value — of genre fiction.
In “Mongrels,” Libby, Darren and their nephew are a family teetering on the edge of poverty and total annihilation as they rove the Deep South. As they wait to see if the boy will inherit lycanthrope traits, even their devotion to one another can’t keep animal savagery at bay.
“Mongrels” imagines the day-to-day reality of American shapeshifters who hunger — but must somehow exist in tense equilibrium with humanity. Jones, who visits Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande Blvd. NW) for a reading and book signing at 6 p.m. on Monday, May 9, kindly answered questions about his forthcoming novel via email.
ABQ Free Press: Why werewolves?
Stephen Graham Jones: Because werewolves are cool. And because they’re real. The werewolf is a monster we can connect with. You see a vampire at your cousin’s graduation party, say, and that vampire’s going to be kind of looking down her nose at all us commoners, isn’t she? All us mortals, all us breathers, we hardly even rate to her, are too temporary to mess with.
And a zombie — if a zombie’s lurching around at the party, trying to plant his teeth in everyone’s shoulder, then, first, that zombie’s probably your cousin, celebrating a bit too much, and second, that zombie’s messing up the party.
Werewolves, though, they just want to go outside and howl at the moon, right? They work all day, they cut loose after dark. Just like the rest of us. As for why we as a culture keep telling ourselves werewolf stories, I think a big part of it is that the werewolf is the animal rising up from within the person.
“Mongrels” embraces so many opposites. There’s a fierce sense of place despite the rootlessness of constantly moving and the destabilization of extreme poverty. What’s meaningful to you about these extremes?
Growing up, we moved around all the time, always throwing our trash bags and boxes into a car or horse trailer and plugging on to the next place. I figured out pretty soon that home wasn’t one place; home was the corner of whatever next bedroom I was unpacking my eight things into.
Wherever my special action figure and silver knife with real turquoise in the handle and that one photograph were, no matter if it was a windowsill this time or a shelf, that was home. I figure a lot of people know that kind of rootless sense of place. Werewolves, especially.
In one interview, you described “Mongrels” as “80 percent autobiography.” Why did your book about werewolves require so much of your own history?
That’s the only way I know how to write. Maybe I’m not very imaginative, finally. Or, the part of stories and novels — of “Mongrels” — that I’m making up, it’s usually just the names. Everything else, I just kind of mine from stuff I’ve lived. I’ve known werewolves, sure.
I’ve known people who’ll disappear for two or three nights and come back haggard and sick and red-eyed, half-ashamed of what they’ve been doing. But they do it again next month. I’ve known people who look at others with a dangerous hunger.
Everything the kid at the center of “Mongrels” knows about werewolves comes from stories told by his aunt, uncle, and grandpa, plus his own observations. It’s contrasted with the inaccuracy of werewolves in pop culture.
How did you play with the concept of cultural identity?
We always consider oral tradition stories to be kind of gospel, don’t we? Beyond question. But the transmission of any story, it changes it, doesn’t it? And usually not to be more factual.
What changes is that the story becomes better — more thrilling, funnier, scarier, whatever the teller thinks it needs for that telling. Which the listener, the kid in “Mongrels,” then tries to repeat himself, as if it were gospel, as if it were true.
And it is; that’s the thing. It’s true because it feels true. Truth doesn’t come from accuracy or verifiability or correspondence to some set of facts. Truth comes from the story inside the story.
That’s what matters. Never the facts. Facts mess everything up. Werewolves, they don’t care about the facts. They want the story.
So, there’s plenty of werewolf facts in “Mongrels,” definitely. But there’s more family. I believe in family. It’s the other thing that makes a place home. Maybe the main thing.