Exclusive: Tananarive Due Interviews MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW Author Stephen Graham Jones

Slashers, final girl lore and the future of horror.

By Tananarive Due · @TananariveDue · August 31, 2021, 9:00 AM EDT
FINAL Cover - MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW (1).jpg

Stephen Graham Jones' My Heart Is A Chainsaw hits bookstore shelves today! To celebrate, the incomparable Tananarive Due sat down with the author of The Only Good Indians and Night Of The Mannequins to talk about his latest release.

Congratulations to you on all of your accolades; it's so much fun to see the love pouring in. You've been writing for a long time. It's not like you just showed up, but boom- you're getting all this attention all of a sudden. What is that like?

I was listening to an interview that Boris Karloff's daughter was giving and she said that after Frankenstein, everybody was saying "Boris Karloff, overnight success." And she says, "Yeah, after forty-one films, he was an overnight success." (laughs). And it's great and wonderful, of course, but, yeah, you're right. I've been doing this forever and you can't ever expect anything, I'm just happy. I'm just lucky to get to publish books. That's the way ... And hang out with people that share my fascinations (laughs). That's really what it's about.

100% agree with you. What was your first book and what year did that come out?

My first book, The Fast Red Road, it came out in 2000. It was my dissertation at Florida State University.

See, twenty-one years later, here we are. What was the first film that scared the crap out of you? The first film, first book, if you can remember?

Whitley Strieber's Wolfen.

Oh.

I guess that came out in the late-'70s. I didn't read it until the early-'80s, and I read it because of the cover. That iconic cover with those like- it's like the shape of a wolf, not quite a wolf, but it's got the eyes, really, really terrifying. Those parts in it where the grandfather wolf, the leader of that wolfen pack, we're in his head, hearing how he constructs sentences. That's probably been the single greatest influence of everything I've done, those passages that Whitley Strieber wrote from the grandfather wolf's point of view.

How old were you when you read that, would you say?

Man, let me see. Born in '72. This must've been '84, probably '84, I was probably twelve, I bet. Maybe thirteen.

I was going to guess about twelve or thirteen. And you were about to say the movie?

The first movie to just really terrify me would've been The Eyes of Laura Mars, from what, '78, I guess.

Wow.

Weirdly enough, I ordered it so I could watch it again. I've got it right here. I haven't watched it in so long, but I just got the Blu-ray of it. (laughs). But what happened was we had moved to town, I grew up in the country, and we had moved to town for a year, year and a half, I don't know. I was in first grade, maybe second grade, I guess. And whoever had lived in the house before us had HBO and it was still connected, so we plugged in (laughs). And I had never had cable before. In the country, we had like one and a half channels, and that involved somebody on the roof hanging, holding the antenna and everything. Somehow, I got left unattended in the living room with the television on and The Eyes of Laura Mars played and I remember sitting on my knees like two feet from the TV, and just watching the whole movie all the way through. And at the end of it, my heart was pounding so hard, and I was just absolutely terrified. I don't know if that's when horror got into me or when I got to know horror, but that's definitely an early encounter (laughs).

Yeah, how old were you for that one?

It would've been first or second grade, so what's that? Nine years old? Well, actually, first or second, that would be more like six or seven. Pretty young. So, yeah, I think a lot of us who love horror have a history of inappropriate viewing at a young age. (laughs). You hear so many stories about "my babysitter let me watch The Exorcist," (laughs).

Absolutely. One of the things that we talk about in the documentary Horror Noir is the relationship between horror and trauma. In the case of this documentary, it was specifically racial trauma. And I also follow the queer horror community on social media, where it strikes me that the love goes deep. Like encyclopedic among queer horror fans. Deep-encyclopedic love for horror, even though there's less queer representation in horror than Black representation, and that dearth obviously also applies to Native American representation. And if there is representation, it's often the sacrifice or the spiritual guide or you're like, "Ugh, just leave them out of this."

So, I'm wondering why you think we, and I mean we in terms of marginalized groups, often excluded and mistreated in horror, love this genre that has been, in many ways, so unkind to us? That gives us a two-part question: What does horror give you personally as a fan? And do you think any of that love was more deeply cemented because of racial or ethnic marginalization or trauma in society? Like what Leetha says in
My Heart Is a Chainsaw, you reached out for the first thing you saw, held it as close as you could, like armor, like it could protect you.

Horror makes the world I live in alive. I read an essay, I think it was an essay, it could've been a book, many years ago. I want to say it's Gregory Bateson, something about the re-enchantment of nature, the re-enchantment of the world. But this idea that the modern world has become disenchanted, we can explain everything with biology, with physics, with math, and there's no room for magic anymore. What I liked about horror is that it makes my world larger, it puts tentacles there, it puts teeth in the shadows, it puts scary things, but where there's a tentacle reaching through a door you just cracked open, there can also be like a rainbow or an angel or a unicorn or something. Something good, you know? So that's what horror gives me. It makes my world bigger; it makes it more possible. As for why marginalized peoples might latch onto horror, that definitely is a thing. What I see it as, most horror stories, especially slashers, it's about the rise of the underdog. It's me versus Cthulhu or me versus Jason Voorhees, and both of those can take me out without even breaking a sweat, so I should not be able to survive this, yet against all odds, against a whole world trying to smush me down, if I push through hard enough, I can make it to daylight. And I think that's a wonderful model for us to all follow.

I like that. I agree. I also think there's the piece of it that gives the monster a form. There's so much of what marginalized people face; it's in the ether. This invisible thing that infects everyone, and in a horror movie, there's the monster, and even if you don't kill it, you get to try, you get to see it, you get to identify it.

Yeah.

You get to confront it one-on-one.

Yeah, it's like, what did Neil Gaiman say? At the front of one of his books, he quotes G.K. Chesterton, and I think he says later that he misquoted him, but he says, "These stories don't teach us that dragons are real. They teach us that dragons can be defeated." I think that's so important, for sure.

Let's talk about your work. I've noticed, like me, you write a lot of child characters, protagonists.

Mm-hmm.

You write teenagers especially well. I really would've been able to fight you over the fate of Denora in The Only Good Indians

(laughs)

Oh my gosh, I was so scared for her. And Jade, oh my gosh, is such a great character in My Heart Is A Chainsaw. So what appeals to you about writing young people?

You know what I think it is, is that when you're seventeen years old, you have complete confidence that this is the final version of yourself, that you've bloomed into your final version. You don't understand that when you're twenty-eight, you're going to be somebody different; when you're thirty-nine you're going to be somebody different. But I think when you're eight years old, you understand that pretty soon, you're going to be as old as your older cousin, or you can be as old as your uncles and old as your parents. You understand there are more stages.

But I think when you're seventeen, you hold so tightly to your principles, like, you believe in The Clash or whatever it is, whatever else it is you believe in, and you think, "This'll never change, I'll always be this way." And to me, there's purity all through your life, but that type of purity, that you're inviolable, that you've reached this state where nothing can change you, is, to me, magic. And so I just like to transact with that as much as I can, I guess.

And there's a kind of fearlessness to those protagonists, too. I think as adults, we're so busy telling ourselves what we can't do, right?

Yeah.

Whether it's politically, which is why young people lead in terms of social change or whatever it is. Because there is this invincibility mindset that is really fun.

Yeah, no, I totally agree.

Jade is so vivid and well-drawn, of course, everyone's going to ask you this: Are there shades of you as a teenager in Jade? Were you walking around with this encyclopedic knowledge of slasher films?

(laughs).

Or is she fiction?

When I was a teenager, I was into horror, but I didn't have encyclopedic knowledge. I mean, I knew Jason from Freddy from Leatherface or from Michael. But I didn't know what happened in what film and who played this and who directed that, none of that stuff at all. Everybody just knew I liked horror, or I'd say everybody knew; I don't think anybody cared to know. But I knew horror, anyway. Not as well as Jade does, no. Jade insulates herself with these slashers like she tries to put them between her and the world such that they become her filter for everything, and to tell you the truth when I was a teenager, what I used was trucks and working on trucks. I was really into trucks. I was into horror, but I was probably into trucks more (laughs).

Interesting. Interesting.

(laughs)

Well, let's talk about the slasher of it all. Because, alright, I have to confess slashers were kind of my least-favorite horror subgenre. I mean, don't get me wrong, I've seen most of them.

Yeah.

I love Nightmare on Elm Street, and then I think of the sequels and New Nightmare.

Yeah.

It's my favorite of the sequels. And my husband and I did a Friday the 13th rewatch of every film in 2020, just so you don't think I'm some kind of weirdo when I say that. Thanks to you now, I've kind of seen the light more—you and Jade. The retribution piece really speaks to me. I was missing some of that. I just saw a string of creative kills.

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

How did your love affair with slashers in particular begin? Did you study and read up on them? Or did you just amass that knowledge to get your slasher cue as Jade?

My love of slashers begins, well, I didn't say this in my acknowledgments in the book, but, actually - I'm six years old, I guess, in 1978. I lived on and off with my grandmother, who lived way out in the country. Like, you could stand on the porch and not see another light as far as you looked. She had ten acres, and way in the corner, there was a little camper trailer that my uncle, who was eighteen, and his new wife lived in. So I'm living with my grandmother for that time and I'm sleeping on the floor one night and about two o'clock in the morning, there comes a knock at the door. I get up in my blanket because it's cold, it's like November or something, and I huddle to the door, and I open it, and standing there in a blanket of their own are my uncle and my aunt from their trailer, across the property.

To me, they were the most amazing people in the world. You know how it is when you're six years old, and your uncle is eighteen. They're titans on the landscape; they can do no wrong. I wanted my hair like him; I wanted my boots like him, I wanted everything to be like him. And I said, "Hey, what's up?" And they said, "Um, hey, Stevie," 'cause everybody called me Stevie back then, "Hey, Stevie, can we come sleep on the floor with you?" And I said, "Well, yeah, sure, but why?" And they said, "We just went into town and saw that movie Halloween and we can't sleep in our place anymore." (laughs). And I distinctly remember holding the door- screen door to the side so they could like huddle in past me and I remember looking out at that big, vast blackness beyond them and thinking what could do this, what could make these people scared?

And so that was where my love affair with slashers probably began, with not even knowing who Michael Myers was, but knowing that there was something out there that was scaring these amazing people in my life.

And then in junior high, down around Austin, I got to running with a group of kids who every Friday night would get a stack of slashers from the video store free if we returned them early Saturday morning. So we'd go watch them in my friend's garage, he lived way out in the trees, and his dad had a little thirteen-inch TV with a ratty couch in the garage. And we'd pile onto the couch and watch Jason do all his kills and everything.

And then at some point in the night my friend's dad would come out there, he had a Freddy glove, Freddy was big enough by then to have merchandise. He'd scrape that glove along the metal door of the garage, and we would just scream and run. And that feeling of running terrified, but also smiling, I think is specifically what the slasher delivers to people. Those shades of difference between a laugh and a scream, you know? I think I got addicted to it right there, just never went away.

In slasher movies, the kills are creative, sometimes funny. And then, of course, the humor comes in, but the fear is real. So in terms of that humor, did you know from the start that this book was going to be more tongue-in-cheek, or did her voice just take over? How did that happen?

I guess it's two things. Number one, since I know the slasher really well, I knew that it's equal that slashers use comedy as a pressure release valve, so the horror didn't get too screechy and plateau immediately. So you've got to have it mechanically. But yeah, I think you called it. Jade was really the one who brought it in. It's kind of her both sardonic and sentimental way of looking at things. Or it's like she tries to mask her sentimental impulse with meanness, but it doesn't come across as meanness quite (laughs). She doesn't really have it in her to be quite mean, I don't think.

But yeah, that means so much to me that you were maybe smiling while you were reading it some, because, I mean, the reviews aren't out for this book yet, so I don't have any idea if it works or not. But if it made you smile, then that thrills me beyond words.

Not just smiling, a laugh. Even in a moment of peril (laughs), she finds a way to put it that is just funny and so unique to her. So yeah, I can't wait to hear what the rest of the critics say. But it's both a funny and a scary book, and that is hard to pull off

Thank you.

Let's talk about the final girl and that concept. It preoccupies Jade for so much of the novel. What does the spirit of the final girl embody to you? Including your descriptions from the book, which, by the way, she's somewhat removed from the first kill, you've got all the rules laid out. She's an innocent. Why was it important, for the final girl in particular, while you're deconstructing the slasher?

I guess it's important because I would hate to take a slasher apart and by association also dismantle the concept or the model of the final girl. I think the final girl is so important to us all because she is a model of how to resist bullies. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, they're all bullies. They come in and try to exert power over a group of people and finally just one person.

The cops can't stop them, the authorities never can stop them, and it comes down to basically being in the playground in second grade and pushing that kid back who's trying to take your lunch money. Saying, "No, I'm gonna keep my lunch money." That, to me, is basically what final girls do.

But I did want to chip away at the final girl a little bit, because I fear that over the past like four decades, maybe three decades, I guess, that the final girl has become such a shining paragon of virtue that you can't step into her shoes. She's so perfect that how can any of us be Laurie Strode? How can any of us be Sidney Prescott when none of us are that good?

And that's why with My Heart Is a Chainsaw, I wanted to propose the idea that final girls are final girls inside. It's not about how they look, how they dress, or anything like that. It's about whether they have that fighting spirit. And that's what I would love to imbue people with, I would love if they left My Heart Is a Chainsaw thinking, "Nobody's gonna take my lunch money."

And any of us can be the final girl?

Exactly. Exactly.

So how do you try to strike a balance between sort of supernatural slasher horror and the true-life horror of some of these childhood experiences of disruption or poverty, invisibility, whatever you were facing? Or the characters like Rex, all that Jade has to deal with. Because these two types of horror, I think for a lot of us, are always in conversation with each other, whether we're just fans of horror or we're actually creating.

If there's a Jason Voorhees in the story, then I think the final girl, the protagonist, the hero, can and probably should overcome and win against that killer, that house, that cave, that monster, whatever it is.

As for the poverty, the neglect, the abuse? I would probably never write a story where that was defeated because I think that would be a lie. I don't think you can defeat it. I think it's something you can not let define you, possibly. But at the same time, should you? I mean, you don't want to dismiss your past, either, that's who you are, you know?

The creepy janitor at school is, I think, more effective in a story as a looming presence than as someone to be pushed back against. I hate to put that kind of hat on janitors because one of my cousins is a janitor at a high school and he's not this kind of janitor (laughs). I think that you can have creepy accountants, you can have creepy all kinds of people, of course. But yeah, I think it's dangerous. I think it's wonderful to talk about the big issues; it's dangerous to offer easy solutions.

And I think the supernatural or the fake horror can sometimes stand in for how it feels to encounter the real-life horror. But I like what you said, how it would be dishonest to act like kids, in particular, can just overcome these forces that are stacked against them, the poverty and all these real-life horrors.

I mean, if I were writing fantasy, if I were writing Harry Potter, then, yeah, you can overcome your circumstances and become the greatest wizard in the world. That's fine and everything, but I write horror. And so that's not necessarily an option.

I'm not saying people can't have happy endings. I think in a novel, if you're investing 300, 400 pages of your time, then you need some payout at the end, and that payout generally doesn't take the form of, "Oh, things got worse, and everybody's dead." (laughs)

I want to talk about the changes in horror. I see it in cinema, and I assume it in publishing as well, especially since Jordan Peele's Get Out. And I know your publisher was calling you the big Jordan Peele of horror literature.

(laughs)

But he's been hugely influential. And so many more underrepresented writers of all types, Black, yes- but all types are having doors open for them. So I know you write screenplays.

Mm-hmm.

And I'm assuming The Only Good Indians got snatched up.

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

And My Heart Is a Chainsaw already feels like a movie, so-

(laughs)

I'm just like, when does it open, and why haven't I seen it yet?

(laughs).

Before I go into the Hollywood relationship, let's talk about this moment in horror and what you see happening; whether in cinema or literature. Are attitudes changing? Are people starting to take it more seriously? Are people beginning to see that it has beneficial, sort of nutrients for us?

I think what's changing is people's conception of horror. The audience, I say the audience, what I mean is the non-horror audience's conception of horror has been changed. And, yes, I think Jordan Peele's Get Out, kicked that door open, and I think another book that kicked the door open at the same time almost was Victor LaValle's The Ballad of Black Tom. I think those together, they wedged the door open just enough that a lot of it could just pile through.

It's been wonderful, but I think the effect of that is that for a long time, I think the mainstream audience was like, "Aright, you horror people, you go over here and play in your corner with your vampires, your werewolves, and your ghosts." And that doesn't matter to the real world.

What Get Out and The Ballad of Black Tom showed them in a way that the world couldn't deny was that horror is dealing with core issues of the world this non-horror audience lives in. And horror is vital; horror is in conversation with these big things. I think it's wonderful that Get Out and The Ballad of Black Tom were able to establish that.

I don't know if either of them could've done it by themselves, but I think together; I mean, I think a lot more people saw Get Out than read a book, of course. Or read a novella, specifically, because novellas don't get read as much as novels, even.

But I think Victor kind of brought that to fiction. He showed that it doesn't have to just be at the cineplex. The cineplex isn't less, I'm not saying anything like that-

No.

Of course (laughs).

Long live the cineplex.

Yeah.

Well, I'm thinking you must be a really fast writer, Stephen because this book came out so quickly (laughs).And I bet you're halfway or more to the next one. Are you one of those guys who is always writing? Like, whether or not you're working on scripts, you are always working on a novel?

Always am, a novel or a story or a novella, yeah. Fiction, for sure.

But yeah, I am already done with the next novel, for sure. I'm writing other stuff, too, but I've always got my fingers in a novel. I think the most useful rule I've found with fiction is always be writing the next thing. If you write a story and mail it out and you sit there on your hands for three months waiting for a response and you get a rejection at the end, then what have you really got?

I mean, what you do is you mail a story out and you write another, you mail that one out, you write another, just keep going and keep going. That's the way I do it. But you say your last novel took seven years. My Heart's a Chainsaw really took me eight years. I wrote it the first time in 2013.

Oh really?

Yeah.

I don't feel so bad now. (laughs)-

Yeah. You know, it didn't work at all.

Oh.

I didn't even give it to my agent. And then in 2017, I came back to it and wrote it a lot of times front to back, totally, I was trying all these different ways to get the story told. And it used to be like The Only Good Indians in three separate parts: Jade narrated the first part, but everybody who read it would always say, "I really like that first part with Jade. The other two, it kind of falls apart, or it's not as interesting." And so then that told me that I had to make Jade the main character. And it took a lot of rewriting. I think Chainsaw comes in at 120,000 words or so, but I bet I wrote 750,000 words to get those 120,000 words.

I love that story, because it makes me feel better about my seven-year process. So thank you for sharing that. And the one last thing I guess I'll ask, and there may not be an easy way to answer this. There may not be one answer for this. But I feel like, sometimes writers are circling back around to one central philosophy, one central idea that they tell in many different ways.

Mm-hmm.

A lot of my work has to do with family and family struggles juxtaposed with horror. What are some of the big ideas or a big idea that you try to impart with almost everything you write?

You know, I think every writer has one and at most two stories that they always tell, and they try to dress it up in different ways. They go in the closet and get in the wardrobe trunk and they're like, "Nobody will recognize it this time." But it's still the same story. (laughs). And that's what I do. So many of my stories, whether I want them to or not, turn out to be father-son stories. And I think My Heart Is A Chainsaw is probably a version of that, as well. Just with a daughter instead.

Right.

I think mine is what I was saying earlier, about resisting the big forces, being one against many and winning- finding a way to persist and push through and survive. I remember what got me through my teenage years, or, which, you know, all kinds of stuff going on, all kinds of terrible stuff going on, but what got me through was a comic book that I found on a round rack at a gas station when I was twelve years old. It was Secret Wars. Jim Shooter, Secret Wars. And in it, there's this vast cosmic entity called the Beyonder, who is kind of in another dimension, and he's like the god of his universe, I guess. He is everything, he's all-powerful.

Doctor Doom becomes aware of this vast power, the Beyonder, and he finds a way to come at the Beyonder such that he steals his power. And there's a point in the story where Doctor Doom had his leg cut off and his insides are on the outside and his face is torn away, he's functionally dead. But he pushes on anyway. He insists on winning.

Doctor Doom's not a good guy, but he always wants to rule the world and all the bad stuff, but I loved that Doctor Doom coming at the Beyonder was the thing that got me through all the hard times in my teens. Every situation I'd be in, I would just dial back in my head to Doctor Doom and I would say, "If he can do it, I can do it."

And so, I think, hopefully, I try to infuse a little bit of that into everything I write. I don't know if I can help it, because I do believe in it. I believe it's a good thing.

Well, you're living proof of it.

(laughs) Thank you, thank you (laughs).

I'm really a huge fan of your work. I love reading your work. You're right on my wavelength and it's been great talking to you about horror, this genre we both love so much. Congratulations on the new book and I hope you have a great summer.

Thank you. This is wonderful talking to you. It's always great hanging out with you.

Absolutely. Can't wait until the next time in person. Horror heads watching movies together somewhere.

I know.

Alright. Well, back to writing.

Yep.


Note: This interview above has been edited for length and clarity.

My Heart Is A Chainsaw is now available everywhere. Stephen Graham Jones looks under the hood of three ‘80s slashers in FANGORIA Vol 2 Issue #12 (get your copy here.)

Tananarive Due is an executive producer of Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. She co-wrote an episode of The Twilight Zone for CBS All Access and teaches Black Horror at UCLA. The online version of her Black Horror class is at www.sunkenplaceclass.com. or tananarivedue.com