C.B. McKenzie has been on our radar ever since his debut, Bad Country, won the Tony Hillerman Award, an award given to debut novelists that comes with a book deal with Minotaur Books. The novel features Rodeo Grace Garnet, a former bronc rider who now works as a private eye in a tough and tumble Arizona. Mr. McKenzie was kind enough to talk with us a while.
MysteryPeople: How did the character of Rodeo Grace Garnet come about?
C.B. McKenzie: I simply wanted a special sort of PI for this novel (series, if we do one) so I just started with a unique name and a back-story that fit both that name and the locale in which the character was born and reared. Rodeo took shape over the course of the first “Rodeo” book (the unpublished, SplashLand) and morphed, in Bad Country, from a more bantering former sports hero type to the taciturn skeptic of Bad Country. All the characters in this book are inventions, but Rodeo is pretty purely an invention and not based in any conscious way on any real person(s) or fictional character(s). He is also not any alter ego of mine. In some ways he’s a conventional noir character—but since there’s very limited exposition in this book and no internal monologue per se, Rodeo is not even described, internally or externally, but in secondhand ways, so he looks like what readers want him to look like (so too, is his dog not described, though readers tend to have very clear ideas about what the dog is) and readers can only draw their conclusions about his ethos, his code of conduct by observing his habits of action.
MP: Do you see his past occupation helping him out as a PI in any way?
CBM: Not really, except perhaps that having been a bronc rider he has tremendous hand strength which is occasionally useful. Rodeo is not a geologist or anthropologist or forensic psychologist or horse-whisperer, ex-Green Beret, sous chef, travel agent, financial consultant, etc. etc. if that’s what you mean. Bad Country is not one of those books that runs mostly on the steam of “insider knowledge”, but is a classical whodunit, just with some edge and writing in it.
MP: I really dug your take on the Southwest. What did you want to convey about the area?
CBM: It surprises me that early readers/reviewers get so much “sense of place” from Bad Country because, to my mind, there’s very little description in this book, certainly little description that is lush and beautiful, nothing like “travel agent” talk or “creative writing” that would attract tourists. Perhaps the fact that I love the South West in general, and Tucson/South Tucson/Barrio Historico especially and feel the place in my bones infects readers? The title of this novel is BAD Country, and I think the book inhabits a harsh place described without much authorial embellishment.
MP:The book is filled with a lot of well sketched characters who live on the margins. What draws you to write about these people?
CBM: The places in this book are all on margins so the people in them are often marginalized—the Res Rodeo was raised on is between Anglo West (Cowboy) and Native-American (Indian), and Rodeo is described by a couple of supporting characters as “an Indian Cowboy.” South Tucson is between Tucson and Mexico. The Hole is dirt off the grid and Rodeo’s “backyard” is a regular conduit for Undocumented Immigrants crossing from Mexico and South to the US and North. Rodeo winds up the book in El Paso (del Norte).
MP: This being your first novel did you draw from any influences?
CBM: This is actually my tenth completed book. Bad Country is only a “debut novel” because nobody cared to publish the others! I’ve written westerns, serial killer thrillers, mysteries, literary fiction and a PhD dissertation on speculative rhetorical theory, so… My next book—The Same, But White – is a Scandinavian noir detective mystery set in Iceland that has a porno literary novel (The Bad Translator, finished but unpublished) inside it as a meta-fiction element and this is an unusual concept to fully execute. Graham Greene is my style icon, but I like to think I am an Inventor who attempts unique projects—Bad Country, for instance as mentioned, has no exposition, navel-gazing, internal monologue, no chapters…—that’s not usual.
MP: What advice would you give to someone tackling their first book?
CBM: It sounds like a cliché, but “don’t write for a few weeks, then quit altogether.”
Copies of Bad Country are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.