On Being A Good Indian: An Interview With Stephen Graham Jones

Max Asher Miller, Managing Editor of the Columbia Journal for 2020-2021, spoke with Stephen Graham Jones about his forthcoming novel, The Only Good Indians, a bloody book with eyes on cycles of violence, basketball, and what it means to navigate Native American identity.

Stephen Graham Jones is a prolific writer who has authored over 25 books, hundreds of short stories, and comic books. An NEA fellow, Texas Writers League Fellow, and winner of the Bram Stoker Award, he is currently the Ivena Reilly Baldwin Endowed Chair Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Let’s start with the origins. I think all books start with an obsession. How did this book get started for you?

It started for me in my head, probably, when me and my wife, we started renting this house out in Gunbarrel [Colorado] just outside Boulder. It’s got this really high living room ceiling with this light up there above the fireplace, above the mantle, a little spotlight that was flickering once or twice the first week we were moving in. We figured we’d figure it out later. We changed the bulb. We messed with that light so much. We tried every switch in the house. That light only comes on at the rarest of times. There doesn’t seem to be anything that repeats, that makes it come on. So, that’s probably where it started for me.

Either that, or… I guess back when I was twelve or thirteen I went hunting on the reservation with my great uncle, Jerry, and we saw something brown, an animal, over on the grassy slope about a quarter-mile off. Had a hump. Big old thing. It was a cow moose, and we spent 45 minutes or so stalking over there real quiet. Got about thirty yards out from her and she was in my crosshairs, in my scope. And she stood up, not onto four legs, but onto two legs. She was a bear. She’d been sleeping, a big grizzly. After she stood up, she pulled her cubs over the ridge, over the grass. I’m just a kid. I’m shaking in my boots. And she’s in my crosshairs. And then everything goes black. My uncle had cupped the scope and he was guiding my gun down, and he said, “We’re not going to do this.”

The reason I say that’s where The Only Good Indians starts is because these guys in the novel—Ricky and Cas and Gabe and Lewis—they didn’t have anybody out in the field with them and they made their mistake, you know? I was lucky enough to have someone, but they didn’t.

Let’s talk about those characters. You write a lot of characters who feel out of place in the larger world in some way. But here there’s no metaphor like you’ve done before in books like Mongrels (wherein the characters are werewolves). Here, you’re aiming for the center of the Native American identity. What compelled you to go that direction here, not to make that subtext but to discuss it outright?

You know, I think I wondered what would happen if a slasher butted heads with a Finals Girl from the reservation. To me, I think girls who come up on the reservation come up pretty tough, you know? I thought maybe she’d have the skill set she needed to dispatch a slasher. Usually, it’s sort of unrealistic when somebody puts a regular person against Jason or Michael or Freddy or whatever. But then, as it turned out, trying to play with my action figures and pit those two against each other, it turns out that for a long time I’ve been dissatisfied with the slasher. The final girl in the slasher, in order to win the day, it usually becomes a game of who can take the most damage and give back the most damage, so it becomes a game of muscles and toughness. That, to me, always feels like the final girl’s having to cash in her characteristics, the things that have got her along in life so far. I found myself wondering with The Only Good Indians what would happen if the final girl won the day, not by swinging a machete the hardest or finding a chainsaw or whatever, but what if she won with compassion, which is what she’s had her whole life? That way, she doesn’t have to cash in her identity and be somebody else.

That’s really interesting, and I think I’d like to talk more about the women in the story and how they manifest.

The perpetrators in this novel are all men—Lewis and Cas and Gabe and Ricky—they’re the ones who slaughter not just these elk but, in particular, this one young cow elk. Of course, I don’t see the novel as pitting men against women, but there has been a trauma enacted upon [the cow elk] who becomes the spirit of vengeance in here. And her rage, it subsumes her, and she rolls across the landscape of their lives, eating them up, of course.

Aside from Elk Head Woman, there’s Jolene, Cas’s girlfriend, and Denorah, Gabe’s daughter. There’s Trina, Denny’s wife. And I guess there’s the original Shaney. I guess, of all of them, I guess Jolene and Shaney both are kind of unrecoverable, of course. Slashers kill so many people. That’s the way it goes. Ultimately Denorah finds she has more in her than she thought, though.

Switching tack to the main characters of Ricky, Lewis, Gabe, and Cas. To me, I felt like they each represented something and I’m wondering what they represent to you, each individually.

To me, Lewis is the guy who tries to find success outside of Indian circles, and he has pretty good success, but I guess the trick is…That’s why I called it The Only Good Indians, because I wanted to interrogate what it means to be a good Indian when success in one circle is betrayal in another circle. And Indians who leave the reservation to make money or whatever, they might be following their own happiness, but sometimes they’re considered, not necessarily traitors, but they’re not that helpful anyways. 

Ricky is just…I don’t know if you ever watched Longmire or any of those cop shows set around the reservation. Ricky’s pretty much just a thug. He’s just a big dude who doesn’t always think things through.

Gabe is—I mean, you were talking about Mongrels earlier—Gabe is really just a version of Darren from Mongrels it feels like to me. He’s a character I identify with a lot. That’s because I grew up with a lot of Gabes and Darrens in my own life, my uncles. And Cas is, to me, kind of Gabe’s opposite. Cas is the kind of guy who will sit down and listen to you and try to help you talk through your problems, whereas Gabe will just give you a beer, you know?

So, it’s about seeing how these different versions of Native Americans bounce off each other and interact in a way?

Yeah, yeah it is. And kind of exploring what it means to be a good Indian. Of course, it turns out, and I knew this beforehand, there’s not a single way to be a good Indian. There’s seven million ways or, in this novel, probably six or seven ways.

Speaking of that, I enjoyed the title. It’s obviously borrowed from this really dark phrase, and yet it’s the theme of the book. Obviously, that’s deliberate. Why that title?

Actually, this book went through probably two or three titles before this. At one point it was called Elk Head Woman. My editor suggested we land on The Only Good Indians. And it is. I wanted every character in here to interrogate what it means to be a good Indian, and for there not to just be a single way. I think whatever way gives you happiness or satisfaction is what it means to be a good Indian. You don’t have to adhere to traditional ways. You don’t have to adopt new ways. You don’t have to walk this line or that line. You just be happy and that’s the way you be a good Indian, I think.

Why horror? Obviously, you are a horror writer, but why did it feel like the correct genre for this particular story.

I may have said this to you before. I don’t recall. Or to you in a class, anyways. I see fiction as a bread or a cake that’s good for you. It’s got all these layers, and you process through the layers, digest it, and get nourishment from it. But you give somebody a dry piece of cake, they’re not going to eat it. You have to put icing on that cake to get them to cross the room to pick up that plate. So, to me, horror or whatever it might be, the fun part of a work of fiction is that’s the icing. That’s what gets the reader to that book, and then you can drop them down through all the layers of meaning and critique and commentary and everything you might want to do, or everything you can’t help doing, possibly. But you’ve got to get the reader to that plate in the first place, and for me, horror is that icing. I just know horror the best. There’s all kinds of icing. It doesn’t have to be a genre trapping either. It can just be really fun writing.

When it comes to the writing, it feels like a lot of this novel pays homage to those old, schlocky trade paperbacks. Despite being about a lot of very important things, it still seems to be paying homage to that style. We’ve even got those trade fantasy books in the beginning. How do you feel about the marriage of highbrow and lowbrow, or if you even feel those terms apply.

I think you probably can’t deny those terms are in circulation at least. And they probably do more or less apply as long as you can push back against creating a hierarchy. It’s hard to do that with words that have “high” and “low” built in, I know. But yeah, I think that marriage of pulp or pop with literary leanings: that’s the ticket to success for me. I’m not talking about market success. I’m talking about creating good art. If you don’t allow any of the pulp or pop culture stuff into your book, then the audience that’s going to engage that is dwindling and dwindling. That’s what I think of it, I guess, and what I’m saying still.

There’s an old essay about Philip K. Dick, and I want to say it’s quite possible Stanislaw Lem wrote it [Fact check: he did] talking about how he was doing exactly that. He was mixing the very high with the very low to great effect. And I read that really, really early in my career. I was in my early twenties when I read that, and I do think that it imprinted on me and became an ideal that I hoped to someday achieve. 

Speaking of another interest that seems to wind itself through the book—and in fact becomes the connective tissue for a lot of the book—can you talk a bit about basketball and how it figures into the novel?

Oh, man. Yeah. Two things I always want to write about are basketball and trucks, so I guess I got both of them in here. Ha ha. But basketball is a lot harder to work into a story than a truck, for sure. I came up playing basketball. I remember I got cut from my seventh-grade basketball team and I cried and cried, but I came back after that and played. I think in ninth grade I was the only freshman who made it on varsity. Went to regionals a little bit in high school. The team I got kicked off of actually went undefeated and won State, but I wasn’t part of that final round.

For so many years, basketball was my life. I would spend every hour on the court playing. Then, in my thirties, I started developing a lot more injuries than I had. Playing basketball started to really impact me. I kept having to have surgeries. This knee, that ankle, whatever, until finally I just had to swear off from basketball because the recovery time from surgery was taking up too much of my time from writing. What that means is the only way I can feel engaged with basketball in a way that feels vital is on the page. I really got to have fun with that in The Only Good Indians. I tried to do it once before but I don’t think I did it well enough. I’m happy with how it turned out in Only Good Indians, finally.

One thing that interested me about basketball here is there’s no mention of pro basketball. It’s always just a personal thing, usually between two people.

To me, that’s the purest form of basketball. Just playing 21 on a little pad of concrete out in the pasture. That’s how so much of my basketball time was spent growing up. There’s no mention of pro, but I guess I do mention Reggie Miller and Cheryl Miller. They’re both pro. But yeah, watching basketball for me is…I guess it’s fun if you don’t have anything else to do, but it’s not like playing basketball. I never watched basketball growing up at all. I didn’t start watching basketball until my late twenties, something like that. I’m just a fair-weather ball watcher. I’ll start watching during the finals or the playoffs, but I don’t want to be there every game because I want to have a life and it’s hard to live a life if you have to watch that much basketball.

One last question and then I’ll let you get back to your self-isolation. You’ve written recently about this notion or expectation that a character’s identity, especially if they’re native American, that it has to “activate” at some point and that readers have come to expect that. How did you approach that issue with this novel?

Yeah, that “Being Indian Is Not a Superpower” thing I wrote for Electric Lit. I guess the way I approach it is kind of what I say in that essay. I just assume Indianness instead of making Indianness the big reveal or turn. The people in The Only Good Indians, they are all Indian except for Peta and it’s not a big deal. It’s not exotic. I think in so many fictions, so many stories and novels, the Indian is exotic. The reader has a set of expectations that this is going to burst into something else and save the day. I don’t work under that model. I try to push back against that model, and I just assume Indianness. 

About the author

Max Asher Miller is a fiction author and journalist currently completing his MFA at Columbia University. In his free time, you can find him explaining how warp drives work to people who truly cannot recall why they're friends with him.

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