By Stephen Graham Jones
I wrote Not for Nothing right on the heels of a second read of Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. And that read was because the movie showed up on some ninety-nine cent shelf, to remind me, to impress me, to lure me. And I’ve been telling anybody who asked that that was probably right around 2006 — I was pretty sure Not for Nothing was the last novel I wrote before Flushboy, in 2007. Just looked at the timestamps on the old files, though, and:
And that’s kind of forever ago. Specifically, going by that date, it’s right about here, when I was carrying Spillane around in my pocket all the time:
And, when I wrote it, I was pretty sure I was the first to pull off this second-person PI shuffle. But ‘first’ only matters if you say it out loud, right? Robert Coover beat me to the punch with hisNoir in 2010, which broke my heart in all the usual ways. But, really, of course there’d been second-person PI stuff before that, in the choose-your-own-adventures mines. So we both got beat, I figure (but I got beat a lot worse). As for why Coover did it, I can’t say. As for why I did it, I half-suspect I cribbed the trick from those occasional drops into the rhetorical second-person you get in the old stuff, the Spillane and Marlowe and Chandler; when those narrators want to get really gritty but are trying to hide it so as to be not quite so abrasive, they can kind of hide behind second-person. And it’s a good trick. These writers and their characters, they were canny, they had a whole deck of tricks up their sleeves. Lots of stuff we should still be using more.
And, no worries: I’m not trying to situate myself alongside Coover, here. Maybe the better way to look at it, it’s that everybody shoots at the first body through the door, right? Second guy, he can sometimes duck right through.
And, Not for Nothing. I forget what-all titles it had, but I know what I still call it, what all the early versions of the novel are titled: Tar, Baby. The idea being that this case, the more Nick punches it, the more he finds himself stuck in it, just fighting to breathe. Which I guess is pretty much how it feels to write a novel.
Anyway, for a couple of weeks now I’ve been talking with a student (Tom Mavroudis) about love letters writers are always doing, and that’s what this book is for me — a love letter to where I grew up. Which I’ve kind of done once, with Growing Up Dead in Texas, and I’ve done again withWashed in the Blood (not out yet, but it’s the cap to what I consider not really a trilogy, but more of a . . . a ‘triptych?’ The same way Ledfeather caps Bird is Gone and The Fast Red Road, the way I look at it/them). I’m kind of made of love letters, I suspect. But, Growing Up Dead in Texas, that was about Greenwood. Just over the county line is Stanton — the main town we would go to, the town my mom and dad and uncles and aunts were all from.
So much of me is still there. I remember my granddad taking me to Dairy Treat for coke floats, and seeing all the high schoolers pulled up there as well, and watching them like they were an alien species, some untouchable breed of person. I remember walking down into the basement of kindergarten there, how I could manage this long scary staircase by myself, because I was wearing my special belt buckle that day. I’ve still got that buckle. I remember being four years old, standing by my uncle’s leg on the other side of the tracks, watching two cars take off from a starting line, how the air just filled with brown. I remember playing at the cemetery by the convent at Halloween, and a friend who’s dead now rising from behind a headstone, scaring me as deeply as I’ve ever been scared, all the way up to now. I remember getting on the news in Midland once for Old Settlers, because I was carving my cow-chip-to-throw with a knife I don’t have anymore, a knife a friend had brought back for me from Colorado, where I live now. I think a snapshot of me might still be up in the drugstore window, from one of those Old Settlers parades. They were always the high point of the year for me. I would borrow boots from my uncle, it was so special. I’ve ridden my three-wheeler in the parade, and I’ve sat up on the awnings and watched the parade pass. I’ve found my grandmother again and again in the shade of the bank, and I’ve eaten some serious lunches at the drugstore.
And the stories I grew up with, about Stanton. One of my uncles tells of foot-racing down some street once, and falling, burning all the skin from his chest, then rubbing horse liniment into it, and how that really only made it worse. That rocket at the playground, one of my friends kissed a girl up there, a long time before any of us were kissing girls. That rocket’s found its way into so many of my stories. And that overpass that’s here in Not for Nothing: it wasn’t in the story in 2006. But then one of my friends got a police job with Stanton for a while, and he told me a story of somebody who died up there, and it stuck. I still think about it. And, every time I sneak back through town, somebody’ll generally stop me here or there, and say, hey, aren’t you Dennis’s kid? Not because they remember me, but because we look the same, evidently. It’s cool to halfway belong somewhere like that. It’s not something I feel anywhere else.
And, that motel sign that’s all through Not for Nothing, that was all through Tar, Baby as well. That motel sign that’s all through my life. I don’t have even one picture of it. It was such a landmark that nobody I talk to ever thought to angle a camera up there, push a button. But surely it’s in some background? Anybody?
And these barbecue sandwiches Nick lives on: I would live on them too, if I could. I’m not much into shredded beef, but the way the Water Station (there’s water stations, and then there’s places that call themselves “Water Station”) used to do it, they had some kind of magic. But there was more magic. There’s my grandad, telling about when the sandhill cranes first started coming through Stanton, when he was a kid. How him and a friend went out with a .22, popped one just to see how it tasted. And how they didn’t try to eat any more after that. There’s all the summers I spent on the north edge of town, at church camp. There were campfires and snakes and a lot more injuries than really make sense, but what I remember best about church camp, it’s lying in our bunkhouse one night after lights off, fresh from some sermon about never saying ‘fool,’ how that was the worst thing any of us could do. How we were all lying there staring up into the darkness when one of us did it, one of us said it up into the night, fool, and how perfect that was. How I’m still reaching after that word. How I want just once to say something that well, that right.
And and and: stock tanks. They’re in here as well, from my dad’s stories, of people who died in them. Because of all those stories, I never liked swimming in stock tanks. I always knew something was waiting to pull me down. And the train tracks, they nearly did pull me down one night: a friend of mine was scared of trains, so, easing over the tracks one night after a dance, I play-acted that my truck had just died, stranding us deadcenter on the tracks, the train’s headlight still way on down there, no real danger at all. Until the crossbars came down all at once, right in front of my hood, right behind my tailgate. At which point the night got desperate fast. But we made it. We always made it, even when we shouldn’t have.
Greenwood’s my home, but Stanton is too. Just as much. So it was important for me to get it right. I’ve had a lot of concussions, I mean. There’s big swaths of my life that I just don’t really have access to, anymore. But my Aunt Tami, she’s got it all on instant rolodex, and if she doesn’t know an answer, then she knows who to ask.
But a lot of it I know already. A lot of I couldn’t forget if I tried.
When I was five, and just had one brother, and we were all living with my grandma, I would spend the afternoons underfoot up at White’s, the Ford House where she worked. And it was so magic. I’ll never forget that expanse of concrete floor, how it was all mine, how I could do whatever I wanted there. Maybe that’s why I fell so hard for the skating rink a few years later: all that concrete. The purple bus coming to get us over in Greenwood every Friday night, so we could drink pickle juice and puke, so we could ask girls to slow-skate, so we could jump hard each time David Lee Roth told us to, so we could fight in the parking lot and scrape together change for cokes. So we could go faster and faster and faster around in a circle.
It’s what you do, in a small town.
And I never even once planned on leaving. Not ever.
And now I’m probably a thousand miles away, a mile up the mountain. Instead of driving tractor or working the oil field like I figured, I write books. Sometimes you stumble into a life you’d never even suspected was out there.
It’s kind of where Nick starts out, in Not for Nothing. I guess I wasn’t making it up quite so much as I thought, maybe.
Which isn’t to say it was easy, either. I’m usually the last to talk about how romantically difficult it is to write. Maybe just because I’ve worked roofs and I’ve worked road crews, I’ve been a janitor and I’ve been a field hand, so I think I have some sense of what hard work can be. And making up stories, that’s not hard work. That’s fun. But sometimes, to get it halfway right, it does take a lot of runs.
Here’s some of the runs I took, getting Not for Nothing down:
“Kate” is appended to that one because, I guess, I had a slightly different version to send to my then-agent? As for that first page out of the gate in 2003, it looked a lot like:
The next draft is just two weeks later, by which time I’d figured out how to do drop-shadows, evidently — and note that I still wasn’t quite sold on “Graham” as my middle name, which does situate this as far back as 2003, I guess:
And, looking at that document, it’s already starting to become the second-person Not for Nothing that’s out now. Which doesn’t make sense — I clearly remember there being a third-person version in the mix somewhere — but neither is that surprising: you won’t find anybody less responsible with file names and the files themselves than me, I don’t figure (ask Paul Tremblay, who I wrote a novel with a bit ago). I’m thinking I must have retitled NFN, and saved it as whatever that other title was. Meaning either it’s burned and gone on some old Gateway 2000 with a 5 1/4 disk hole, or it’s going to show up as I keep peeling through these ancient-old files. But, so far, Tar, Baby#3, which is dated 2008 — I’m thinking my friend Gavin Pate may have read and corrected on this version? and maybe my then-student / now-editor Christopher Rosales? — there’s nothing drastically different, except by then I was using ‘Graham.’ And I also had the epigraph in place:
I’d heard Hicock read at Texas Tech, and was really sold on his poetry, especially this one “Flush,” which is a feeling I think a lot of people never get to feel, as they don’t know its complete and weekslong opposite. It’s formatted different now, though — formatted like he does it, here. I wrote to ask him how he wanted it formatted, but never heard back. So I figured how he did it in the first place was probably safest. And, if he winds up reading this, he’ll remember me as the dude who came to the hotel in Lubbock to pick him up, and ended up sitting on the couch in the lobby by him for a good twenty minutes, until some chance dialogue (neither of us are easy talkers) revealed he was him, and I was me, and we were already late for dinner.
And, peeling through this directory, I now see the problem: there’s no tarbaby4.doc, is there? Sucks. Who knows. I’ll never have the third-person version back, I’d guess. Or, really, what I’m thinking happened is that that was the first version, which I then over-wrote as third-person; the idea of saving versions never occurred to me until recently, I don’t think. I only ever did it as fallback, in case the current thing I was trying didn’t work out. But the new thing always works out, doesn’t it? You never go back. And I remember that back then I never had storage space on my computer. It was like my phone is now: delete one picture to take another. And it used to be that way with story files.
Anyway, only thing slightly cool about the leapfrogged-to fifth version, it’s this cool-fonted end I dreamed up:
As a lot of you know, you can spend far too long jacking around with title pages and this kind of stuff. Like playing dress-up, yes? It’s stuff that’ll never matter, that you’ll never send to an editor or publisher, but, too, it makes the file a ‘book,’ somehow, doesn’t it? Just to you? For me, anyway. Here’s what I did for this other book, back around the same time:
Back to Not for Nothing, though. In version 6, there’s still this note to myself, for next time I cracked the file open:
“F3″ is how I say ‘search’ when I’m only talking to myself. It’s from back when I used to live inside UltraEditor, and F3 was what you hit to search. It’s what I still call search. Anyway, at this point — #6 is Dec, 2010 — I’d screwed up and accidentally used names from Tar, Baby in other stuff (specifically, It Came from Del Rio). But it felt like such a betrayal to change it (and “Clay Banes” is stolen from somewhere, I just can’t recollect exactly where). And I never even halfway noticed until Dirty Noir wanted to publish chapters 1 and 2 of Not for Nothing, as I was calling it by then, and the editor there said, hey, is this the same Dodd who’s a zombie with bunny ears?
Wish I could say this name-flopping never happened, but, I mean: Doby Saxon, from Ledfeather? First draft of All the Beautiful Sinners, that was Jim Doe’s name. And I don’t even remember all Pidgin’s names, from The Fast Red Road (he’s got about three just in the book, doesn’t he?). And everybody in The Bird is Gone is going under a halfway-fake name, and all the ‘fake’ names I made up for Growing Up Dead in Texas are turning out to be names I just actually remembered, which kind of explains why they sounded so right. And on and on, I can’t even remember all the screw-ups (the one name that was always pure? Nolan Dugatti). Luckily I have editors, and copyeditors, and readers; without all of them, I’d just name all my characters the same name, I’m sure (which, Daniel Crocker has a story like that, where everybody’s named “Charlie,” and it so rocks — kind of like all the “Paul”s in Evenson’s Last Days. names can be so fun).
And, then, long after my agent was sure Dzanc had lost this manuscript along with Flushboy, they got hold of us asking if these were still available. That was right around 2010, maybe? For which I’m sure I owe Dan Wickett many thanks. And, yep, it was 2010; I’d met Dan at AWP in Denver, I think, and also via something Ledfeather had been up for at Emerging Writers in 2007. Anyway, by 2010 Tar, Baby was definitely and for forevermore Not for Nothing. It wasn’t just a title I was trying on, anymore. As to the why of it, it’s that I think Tar, Baby is a very cool title on the page. One I still miss. But to sell it out-loud, to have to say it over and over, that comma is so, so important. Like, Tar, breath, Baby. And, stupid as it probably sounds, the idea of pausing over that comma from here on out, it kind of grates. Or, it makes me feel like I’d be reaching for some level of coolness I don’t quite have. Never mind that I don’t think I can say ‘Baby‘ that great, without grinning like I’m getting away with something. Don’t get me wrong, ‘babe’ is every sixth word out of mouth, probably, for better or worse. And I’m an expert with ‘dude’ and ‘like’ and ‘all’ (“Dude, she was all like — “). But the prospect of saying ‘Tar, breath, Baby‘ over and over, and of also seeing it over and over without the comma, it kind of hurt my soul. So I dug around, found ‘Not for Nothing.’ And it fits so much better.
After Dzanc picked it up, then, I was able finally to start on the many-many edits getting it to the shelf would entail. This isn’t a complete list of the edited versions (I never think to save them all), but it’s some, anyway; Guy Intoci and me went back and forth from, it looks like, early June of 2013 until late August:
At which point, of course, it had this cover:
Talking storage units, too, the reason I set this story around them is that, when I was nineteen, I think it was — maybe eighteen? — I’d just quit working an asphalt job I’d hired onto only because I’d heard they buy you a new pair of lace-up Red Wings day one, which turned out to be true, and wonderful. I wore those boots down to nubs:
Anyway, walking past a storage unit in Midland one day, whatever truck I was driving surely broke down a mile or so behind me (think I was driving a 79 shortbed F-150 around then, with white headache rack and toolbox, and a smoky six-cylinder), I saw a golfer-type guy with a flatbed tied to his truck, and a five-gallon bucket of asphalt he was shoveling into a pot hole in front of a huge spread of storage units. I talked to him a bit about what he was doing, and then he decided he’d pay me to finish the job, which I did; I was used to getting work this way, had stood around down at the employment office more than a few times, where landowners pull up in trucks, say they need three of you who know how to use a shovel, or whatever — like that day-laborer scene inMachete, yes? Just with slightly less Robert Rodriguez. And when that pot-hole job was over, this golfer asked how I’d feel about painting all these units, maybe? And, I’m talking like, I don’t know, well more than a hundred. Just rows and rows of buildings. I quoted him some made-up price that I thought might get me across summer, and it was a bid that included renting a sprayer.
But he stopped me right there: I couldn’t spray.
The doors on the units didn’t seal tight enough, and he couldn’t have powdery white stripes getting onto his people’s stuff. Meaning I had to roll. And roll. And roll. And it was by-the-hour, because I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the whole job would cost, or how long it would take. As it turned out? Six weeks of rolling bright white paint into thirsty grey cinderblock in 112 degree weather, with not a drop of rain (if there had been, I’d have had to repaint that day’s work). I get extra-dark in the summer, just because the sun is a shining thing, and I’d grown up hoeing weeds, so the heat was nothing new, but this was something different.
In high school I’d had a job scraping houses for the painters to come through, and I figured this job would be more of that. And I guess I was right. But it was a lot more. And, except for spot-jobs on places I’m living, that’s the absolute last time I’ve painted. That summer, though, I got to know all the people who were always going to their units. The vending machine guys were the most regular: they’d have to swing by at least once a day, to restock. And some of those days I’d end up helping that golfer empty out a unit, and of course I’d get lost feeling through all these lives. And then there’s all the stuff the people who are cleaning out their unit just stack back by the dumpsters: it was a treasure trove. That’s one of the summers that’s still very distinct in my head, after all the rest kind of smear together. I was living in white, I was breathing white, I was baking in the sun, I was melting away, I was turning to leather, I was probably drinking a gallon of water every couple of hours. But I was getting paid, too. And Burger King was right next door. Me with money and my pockets and that kind of access, it’s a beautiful thing (this is a Burger King I’d once bought a large water from, to pour on my truck, since my truck was on fire).
Anyyway, here’s what that #1 file of Not for Nothing looked like, with edits. Probably unreadable at this non-zoom — maybe even unreadable when/if you click — but it’s not about the particulars, it’s about that this is how Guy Intoci edits. All my drafts of Growing Up Dead in Texas look like this as well (well, worse, really. GDTx required a lot more work, a lot more drafts). You’ve got to question every line, interrogate every word:
As for some close-ups, here’s one of our countless small interchanges-in-the-margins (this one’s v.4, chosen at random, pretty much):
And, yes yes yes: I just scrolled down in that directory and found a version of Tar, Baby in WordPerfect, which I was going back and forth from back then. I mean, I can’t open it, of course. But it’s from the ‘dead’ year of 2004. Probably some fun in there, maybe even some third-person fun. For another day, though.
Also, with Guy and, eventually, the copyeditor grilling me about the story and all it contained, I eventually had to search this up:
Scrolling down through that NFN directory, too, here’s a piece of the notes-file I keep for every novel—just things I spark on while writing, that I don’t have time for right then, and don’t want to append to the bottom of the document, such that I have to keep pushing it ahead (problem there is you get to where you’re pushing so much ahead that it becomes too much, and you quit). A sandbox, like. There’s pages and pages and pages of this, and then just so many cut scenes:
Also in that file is the list of alt_titles I always keep, in case I rewrite and the working title no longer applies:
Also in those notes, what I kept meaning to be the hook line, except it never would work:
There’s also a lot of stuff in this file that I’ll never understand again:
And . . . aside from alternate covers, which I doubt I have permission to post, this is about all the dirt I can dig up on Not for Nothing. Except for that, like all the other books, this one’s the closest to my heart, the one that means the most, the place where I really live, and probably where I’ll end up going when I die, if I’m lucky.