CJ Howell has gotten praise from critics, readers, and fellow writers from his novel, The Last Of The Smoking Bartenders. In the novel, Tom, a man living off the grid, who may or may not be a secret agent, sets out to stop a group of terrorists from blowing up Hoover Dam. The journey takes him through the lives of several fringe dwellers of the American West with more than a couple acts of arson. CJ Howell will be joining us at our July 22nd Noir At The Bar, along with Andrew Hilbert, Brad Parks, and Jesse Sublett, and was also kind enough to let us ask him a few questions.
MysteryPeople: The Last of the Smoking Bartenders is such a unique novel. What was the initial idea that sparked it?
CJ Howell: I wanted a character who was traveling off the grid. When I was young, I hitchhiked from Boulder, Colorado, to Tierra del Fuego. This was before cell phones and even email. I crashed on many kind people’s couches and floors and got stuck sleeping on park benches and under bushes or in bus stations. There was an immediacy to that kind of living that has always stuck with me. But the character needed motivation for living off the grid, so I steeped him in post 9-11 paranoia and the desperation of the Great Recession and set him off on an adventure.
MP: It is also a unique title. Did you have it in mind from the beginning?
CJH: No, the original title was “American Wasteland”, but that seemed to be too generic as the writing progressed. The Last of the Smoking Bartenders was the title of a little end piece to a short story collection of mine and it just seemed to fit thematically. All the characters are sort of hold outs against change, clinging to the way the West used to be, the freedom that it once offered.
Here is the original The Last of the Smoking Bartenders:
“There was a time, not long ago, although some days it feels like it was just a sepia toned dream, when bartenders carried smokes behind their ears. They were quick with a match to light your smoke, and if you needed a smoke, they always had one for you (since they knew you’d leave ‘em an extra buck which was worth ten smokes). They’d keep one smoldering in an ashtray at the end of the bar and take drags off it from time to time. With shirt sleeves rolled up they’d dribble ashes on the polished oak bar, smoke rolling in the faces of the regulars, whispering a trail to the bronze tiled ceiling.
They don’t let ‘em do that no more.”
MP: Tom is a character who may or may not be living in his head. How was your approach to writing him.
CJH: I approached him as a sane person who from time to time was forced to question whether the fundamental facts that shaped his life were real. And whether deep down he wanted them to be real. Or if he had the power to decide.
MP: Do you consider him a hero, anti-hero, or something else?
CJH: I can’t consider Tom a hero, you know, because of all the arson and murder and whatnot, but I think he sees himself as a hero. He wouldn’t want to be considered an anti-hero. I don’t think people are good or bad. They just are. Whether they come across as a hero or not is a matter of what story is being told and who’s telling it. I like writing characters that we are conflicted about. That has led to some criticism that sometimes my protagonists are too unlikable. But I think we like Tom, and I’m good with that.
MP: This is a different look at the American West. What did you want to convey about the place?
CJH: It’s a good question and hard thing to explain. In many ways I wrote the book to show what the West looks like through they eyes of the people eking it out on the margins. I wanted the West to be a character in the book. The things that happened to the characters couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Stark, rugged, beautiful, harsh, the vast open spaces and unrelenting danger ever present in daily life. Modern society is never going to imprint neatly on that landscape. Today the West is full of contradictions, anachronisms. It is still a place of outlaws and individualists. But it is only getting harder for them as the march toward progress continues. I think that’s why the title fits the theme — what’s the West coming to when you can’t even smoke in a bar anymore? Of course the irony for me is that I quit smoking years back after I gave up bartending and now I can’t even imagine being able to smoke in a bar. It seems barbaric. I travel a lot, and I still get a kick out of the few places where it’s somehow not yet outlawed, like Oklahoma and Montana. That’s freedom, man.
MP: What can you tell us about your upcoming book?
CJH: The Hundred Mile View is scheduled for release in 2016. It’s set on the Navajo Nation and features plenty of murder, meth, and moral ambiguity. What else would you expect?
Copies of The Last of the Smoking Bartenders are available on our shelves and through special order here at the store or over the phone. Come by Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s on Wednesday, July 22nd at 7 PM for readings from CJ Howell, Brad Parks, Jesse Sublett, and Andrew Hilbert. Copies of each author’s latest will be on sale at Opal Divine’s for signing purposes after the speaking portion finishes up.