- Interview by Scott Montgomery
We are excited to have C,J. Howell joining us for our Sins Of The Southwest panel happening tomorrow, Friday June 10th, with J. Todd Scott. His latest, The Hundred Mile View, deals with an FBI agent who transfers out to the Navajo reservation, mainly to get back with his ex, and gets swept up in the violence of the Southwest. We talked to C.J. about his books and what drives his characters.
MysteryPeople Scott: You’ve used the Navajo Reservation as a setting for both of your books. What draws you to that setting?
C. J. Howell: There’s endless complexity. It’s a proudly American foreign country inside of America. The Last of the Smoking Bartenders has Navajo characters but like everyone in the book they fit into the landscape of social and economic isolation in the modern west. For The Hundred Mile View, I wanted to return there but go deeper. People can have strong religious and cultural identities and be isolated from “American” culture, or have multiple and separate identities, or travel freely and confidently in both societies. That and the most harsh, beautiful, and dramatic landscape in the world makes for fertile writing ground.
MPS: What is the biggest misconception about the Navajo?
CJH: Probably that it’s some kind of dying culture or a people of the past. For the last two hundred years the Navajo have had to deal with America. But it’s a blip in time. The Navajo culture will continue to endure, change and thrive no matter what America does.
MPS: What drew you to using the skinwalker legend?
CJH: Because it’s real. It’s a powerful belief that’s part of daily life for many people.
MPS: Motive is usually the engine of a character. What do you enjoy about writing ones with misguided ones?
CJH: Great question. I think our motives are often hidden from ourselves, or more precisely, we like to tell ourselves what our motives are. Motives should never be crystal clear because they rarely are to ourselves. I enjoy books in many different genres, but when I get bored with a book it’s usually because the characters’ motives are too simple or pure. That’s when characters become caricatures.
MPS: The violence in The Hundred Mile View is both realistic and exciting. How do you approach these passages?
CJH: I write sudden violence. That’s how it happens when people want to get away with it or survive it. In my bartending days I saw a lot of bar fights. There are the kind that are theater, where guys literally puff out their chests and put up their dukes. Some even actually asked to take it outside. But the real fights, where there were bad intentions, nobody announced when they were about to take a swing. Someone just snaps and puts someone on their ass. Or they don’t snap, they wait for the right unsuspecting moment when the other person is defenseless. Those are the psychopaths. Those are the ones to be afraid of.
MPS: I’m always curious if someone who writes as originally as you, has any influences. Do you?
CJH: Of course, I have many influences and they are constantly changing. I owe a lot to Cormac McCarthy. I read Blood Meridian and Child of God in high school and it was life changing. J.M. Coetzee had a big influence on me. I loved the mix of a good story with muted philosophicalness and his expansive time and meandering pace. His books are never in a hurry to get anywhere and yet they are a fast read. Lucia Berlin once told me that novel writing was like slipping into a warm bath. Coetzee gives me that feeling.
Catch C.J. Howell in person this Friday, June 10th, at 7 PM. He’ll be speaking and signing his latest novel, The Hundred Mile View, and he’ll be joined by J. Todd Scott, speaking and signing his debut, The Far Empty. YOu can find copies of Howell’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.