“I think the human brain is hardwired to pursue the solving of puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, sudoku, the Higgs boson particle, why roofing and double pane window sales people always call during dinner or sex...” So says critically acclaimed wordsmith Stephen Mack Jones, who has spent decades constructing meaning through poetry and prose.
“I think most novelists—crime and otherwise—pursue the multitude of life’s mysteries, its beauty and horror, its warmth and bitter cold, oddities and conundrums,” he says. “Crime and mystery novels are puzzles for readers and sometimes the only way you can solve a mystery is to find meaning in the characters that populate the story. Characters and settings that are, I believe, little puzzles constructed often from sociopolitical and cultural ambiguities and personal experiences.”
This is certainly true of the author’s own award-winning books featuring vigilante hero August Snow, who returns in Dead of Winter—a socially conscious thriller that epitomizes its tagline: Gentrification has never been bloodier.
“Doesn’t matter if its Joyce Carol Oates or Attica Locke,” Jones continues. “It’s the puzzle of human beings colliding, dancing, howling alone, or weeping together that brings readers together in an effort to feel connected and understood.”
Jones’ first exposure to books, and the ideas contained within, came from his parents.
“Both my dad and mother impressed upon my brother and me the importance of reading and the inestimable value of education,” the Lansing, Michigan, native says. “Reading for me was escape: escape from seeing the impact of my father struggle in the service of my mom, brother, and me; escape from the limits my childhood asthma placed on my socialization; escape from watching my mother’s everyday fight to keep her husband patched up physically, psychologically, and spiritually while creating a safe place with good food for the family.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that reading led to writing. But before there were novels there was poetry and plays, each of which imparted a distinct lesson. Jones had a poem entitled “The Dream of 13 Black Women” published in The Atlantic as a high schooler, and remains a student of the craft.
“That’s been a lifetime ago. And frankly, that poem was one of the really good ones I wrote out of hundreds of really bad ones. Its hard work being a good poet!” he says. “Reading poetry continues to teach me the value of words—the weight and color and impact, the often-hidden poetry and multiple meanings often coexisting inside a single word.”
If poetry illuminated the economy and import of words, then plays did the same for discourse and direction.
“Playwriting taught me about the propulsive nature of dialog—there has to be meaningful movement in the dialog and the characters in specific settings. I mean unless you’re Samuel Beckett, then all bets are off,” Jones says. “I’d like to think my writing has benefited from these other artistic disciplines. At least, I hope it has.”
There was more pragmatic work, as well, with Jones spending several years in advertising and marketing (“I always feel like I have to light a novena candle and say a prayer of contrition when I talk about my so-called advertising/marketing communications ‘career.’”)—an experience that was not without its merits.
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