On sale this week, Stephen Graham Jones' Mongrels, a darkly humorous yet heartfelt story of a boy growing up on the fringes of society whose family happens to be a bunch of werewolf-esque drifters, pulls off a wonderful blend of horror, fantasy, and literary intrigue—the result is a powerful, wholly unique coming-of-age story. Stephen, who spent a few years working in a library, was kind enough to stop by LLF to share his own experiences. Enjoy!
At twenty-seven, freshly PhD’d in Florida, I came back to West Texas to do what I’d always done, what I’d always figured I’d do: manual labor. School had just been a detour, just been a way I could read and talk about books. But I’d been chopping cotton and working on fences since before I was out of elementary. So throwing dishwashers and refrigerators in the warehouse at Sear’s, man, that was the dream, pretty much. We had scheduled breaks. There was air-conditioning. No snakes were going to bite me in the face. But I got bit all the same, I guess. By an air-conditioner, of all things: it wrenched my back in a permanent way, a way the doctors all said I was way too young for. So, after being laid up a couple weeks, I finally got to where I could read the newspaper, mine the classifieds for what I figured I had to do now: desk work.
There was one job that seemed to be plentiful—evidently there was a great need for this. I’d never known. Had everyone been keeping it secret from me? ’Bookkeeper.’ There were columns and columns of postings for bookkeepers. I’d only thought the warehouse at Sears was the dream. This, though? This was the dream I’d never dared dream: going to someone’s house, organizing their books on the shelves in whatever way they wanted. Getting to handle books all day. And get paid for it.
My first callback learned me a thing or two about dreams, I suppose. Evidently this ‘bookkeeping,’ it wasn’t what I’d imagined. So I went back to the classifieds. There was only one job I thought I had a chance at. It was at the local university library. By then I’d spent a good chunk of my hours in libraries, but I’d never considered working in one. It wasn’t a cottonfield, it wasn’t a transmission shop. But, for qualifications—it was like they’d written this specifically for me. “There will be a spelling test.” I remember that so, so clearly. Coming up through elementary, spelling had always been my one dependable trick. Why spell a word wrong, when you can hear the right way to spell it, right there in how it’s said?
So I went in, took that oral spelling test, and got all hundred words right, so started work the next week, cataloging gift books alongside a guy named Craig Wheeler, and working under a woman named Diane Warner, who’s a poet. I could not possibly have landed in a better position. And, these gift books that were my job, they broke my heart daily. Probably six, eight times a day I’d roll my cart out to those shelves, and then I’d dig in our catalogue for an hour or two, seeing if we had a copy, if we needed a copy, and, if we did, then I had to create the record. Entering CIP data correctly? That’s one of the higher arts there is, I’m convinced. And rigging the call number so somebody would find this perfect book one fine day. And then—this was important—putting my initials in that book before I said goodbye to it. Long before I was sending my own books out into the world, I was already doing it with these gift books.
But, the ones we didn’t need. Those are the ones that broke my heart. It was against the rules for me to smuggle them home, of course—otherwise I’d start finding that we needed none of them on the library shelves, actually—so they all had to get destroyed. Beautiful, perfect books. Even comic books, which I fought and begged for. Which I still miss.
And we had scheduled breaks here, too. Instead of sitting at my desk, though, I’d go wander the stacks. Up one row, back down another, holding my hands out to brush my fingertips along these spines the same as I’d used to walk the fields at home, the tall cotton brushing the palm of my hand. It’s what I’d been doing since I was ten years old. Just, instead of a hoe in my hand, I had a pencil now.
I’ve never again worked so perfect a job.
As luck would have it, too, faculty from the English department started showing up, such that, a year or two later, I was on faculty, and now here I am, publishing books, being a professor, living in books. But? None of that happens without my wife helping me sit up in my bed, and us reading the classifieds together because we needed money for groceries, and my finger stopping at “Bookkeeper,” and both of us so young and dumb and pure, both of us knowing that this, this is the job for me, this is what I’ve been waiting for all these years.
Yes, I’ll keep your books.
For a year or two, I got to.
Thank you, libraries.
Thanks, Stephen! Be sure to check out Mongrels, on sale now. It's an experience not to be missed, as Carrie Vaughn, New York Times bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series states, "I’ve never seen anything quite like it and I won’t forget it anytime soon.”