Q&A: Stephen Graham Jones on 'The Only Good Indians' and writing hoops into horror
2020 is a nightmare, and the horror genre has become something I’ve sought refuge in—I don’t think I’m alone in this. When it comes to literary horror, the best stuff hones in on a real life social, emotional or societal tension and blows that drama out in the most grotesque way possible. In these extremes, the reader can see the truth, or something like it.
That’s why Stephen Graham Jones’s new novel, The Only Good Indians, appealed to me. I was eager to see Jones center the Native experience in something being marketed as a horror novel. However, to classify The Only Good Indians as a great genre novel would be oversimplifying things.
For one, it contains some of the most vivid basketball writing I’ve read in some time, which I did not know about going in. Throughout the narrative arc of Denorah, a basketball savant within the culture of her reservation, Jones elevates basketball into something with far more meaning than a game. So I reached out to Jones at his home in Boulder, CO—where he’s teaching in Colorado’s English department—to talk about writing hoops, his playing background and the oft-perplexing Bulls guard Zach LaVine, among other things.
Q: You’re clearly someone who knows the game well. What’s your formative memory about your relationship with basketball?
Stephen Graham Jones: It’s in seventh grade when we had to try out for the junior high basketball team. That was in Greenwood, Texas. We were just out in the sticks, up in the pastures. I don't think we had a post office, so we didn’t have a place on the map. There was a seventh grade team and an eighth grade team and I tried it out. I got cut. The coach picked out 12 guys to stay on one end of the court and said, “The rest of y'all, go down there.” I remember being at the other end of the court trying to shoot, but I knew I hadn't been picked.
I remember I was just crying because I hadn't made it. But the next year I was living in a different town and I made the basketball team. And then my ninth grade year, I came back to West Texas. I was the only freshman to make varsity, I got pulled up later that year towards the end of the season. And I mean, I just rode the bench, but I got to go to the big coliseums and watch or sit on the bench while we played a regional, that kind of stuff.
So my I played freshman and sophomore years. And then my junior year, I was living up here in Colorado for a year and made the team here too. We were at a really big school. I made the team, but then one day the coach approached me and he said that I was going to have to sit a game for every truancy I had in school. So I counted up like the last three weeks and I had so many truancies that I was going to miss the whole season, so I just quit. And the team went undefeated that year.
What was your game like? What position did you play?
It was always a post. When you're at a 2A school, that’s where you go if you’re sort of tall. By the end of my senior year, I was 6’3’’.
Yeah, so in Class 2A, you’re definitely a center.
And the result of that is I never got any ball handling skills.
When did you start watching basketball? When you played, did you watch it as well or did that come later?
I wasn't watching it anywhere. I didn't watch basketball at all until 1995. I was working on my Masters at North Texas. I was in Denton, Texas, and I was in an itty bitty efficiency apartment. I had 300 pages of student finals stacked around me on my desk. Our walls were so thin at that apartment complex that if I didn't have my television tuned to what my neighbor was watching, I would hear it anyway. So I just turned it to match him and it turned out to be basketball.
It was the middle of Michael Jordan’s run with the Bulls, and I really got into that. I happened to tune in during the semifinals, I think, and I stuck with it through the finals and I was hooked and ever since then I’ve watched pro ball.
But I always was playing. I played in the church leagues or community leagues and I just kept playing and playing. I’d go to the Y and play and I’d find games at the park. In about 2006, 2007, I was playing and I blew my meniscus out. I thought, “I can keep playing for a week or two.” And a few weeks later I’m playing up on campus and I blew out my ACL and then I had to have that rebuilt. They decided to do micro-fracture surgery.
But I recovered from that and I was back to playing and then about 2010, I ruptured my Achilles playing ball. And that’s a long recovery. I did the rehab and the doctor said, “You can basically assume that your Achilles is made out of Kevlar. Now it's super tough. You'll be able to play for the rest of your life.” And so three days after he said that I went out and ruptured again.
And so I finally decided that I had to quit. I decided that was slowing down my writing, so I had to choose between basketball and writing. So I choose writing because it wasn't going to land me on the surgery table anymore. So I haven't played in probably 10 years. I can’t even shoot free throws because it always turns into a game. So that’s why The Only Good Indians has basketball in it. I can’t play on the court anymore. So I have to play on the page.
When you were working on those scenes, what were you watching, reading or thinking about?
You know what really impressed me? And I kind of wrote about this a little bit in the book, bu I've always loved the way that Reggie Miller talks about Cheryl Miller. So I put some of that in the book. So if there, if there is any inspiration for it, it's probably just how, how lovingly he talks about his sister and her game. And she probably didn't kick her leg out when she would shoot a three like Reggie did.
In 2003 I tried to put basketball into a novel, The Bird Has Gone, but it didn't work out. I mean, I left some in it, but I couldn't get it on the page in the right way. And then I tried again in 2007 and a novel and again, I didn't get on the page in the way I meant it to. And I think the reason was that I was still playing hard back then. But now that I'm remved from it, it gives me the distance. I can kind of mythologize it in a way.
Are you watching the Finals?
Yeah, I am. I felt like everybody was all over Durant when he went to the Warriors to get a ring, or whatever. But nobody seems to be mad at LeBron and Davis for doing the same thing.
Which players do you follow?
I love Lillard in Portland. I just love how controlled he is and his game. And he has such nerve, too. It's amazing. Probably my favorite player to watch is actually Zach LaVine. I’ve been liking the way he moves. I don’t think he makes the best decisions on the court, but man, if he gets a breakaway...
I’ve always been fascinated by the changing dynamic of young athletes in Texas. Football is still king, but basketball is gaining a big foothold and tons of huge basketball prospects come from Texas these days. Did you play football also?
Coaches would always try to get me to play football, because football coaches think basketball players make good split ends. I could catch the ball pretty well back then, and jump and run. But football never held any interest at all. On Friday nights, I would go to games, but I was always doing stuff under the stands. I was never cared about the game, you know?
You talked a little about mythologizing basketball, and I’d be curious to know what you make of how much information we have now, with player tracking, deep analytics. Every movement is recorded. Do you like having access to everything, or do you like some mystique too?
Pretty much whatever you want, you can dial it up on YouTube. I don't know if that's bad. Sometimes it’s ten o’clock and I’m bored and I find myself watching Tracy McGrady highlight videos and I don’t think that’s bad.
As far as using it for writing, I don't use basketball in that way. Basketball is writing fuel for me, but it's not, like, content fuel. In the same way that Steph Curry will pull up on the logo and put all his weight into the ball and try to get it to the rim, that’s what writing is like to me you know? You're just picking a spot out there and throwing up a prayer.