MysteryPeople Q&A with C. J. Howell

 

  • 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.

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Crime Fiction Friday: MERCY KILLING by C.J. Howell

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We were excited to have CJ Howell at our Noir At The Bar last Wednesday. CJ is a master at portraying men whose sanity is an ethereal thing. It’s demonstrated in his acclaimed The Last Of The Smoking Bartenders and this short piece about wounded animals, old friends, and saw-off shotguns both real and imaginary. Signed copies of The Last of The Smoking Bartenders are available on our shelves.

“Mercy Killing” by CJ Howell

“I am sitting at a table on the patio of a Mexican restaurant in downtown Boulder. I am waiting for Brady. We have a mission.

The last time I saw Brady was at the Hilton eighteen floors above the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. That mission ended badly — faulty research, inconsistent background info, and dubious objectives. Funding issues came into play. We couldn’t trust our contact and couldn’t find our target. We smelled a set-up and I skinned out while Brady destroyed our three hundred dollar a night room with help from Jim Beam. I was doing ninety down I-80 West by the time he knew I was gone. That was five years ago.

Brady follows a waitress onto the patio. The waitress is cute, probably breathtaking if you get her out of that cheesy golf shirt with the La Estrellita logo tattooed on her tit. College girl, full of what she was going to be. Brady obviously sees me but he pauses for a moment, as if stunned by the blinding mountain sun. He lifts his sunglasses onto his forehead and looks around, gently holding onto the girl’s elbow, and then he slides his shades back over his eyes and pulls up a chair.

“Captain.”

“Admiral.”

His face is pale with a greenish tint like verdigris. The temperature is in the mid-nineties but he wears baggy jeans with the cuffs rolled up and a T-shirt covered by a wrinkled plaid button down. Brady never dresses for the weather. The few times I’ve seen him in shorts his legs were pasty and spotted with purple blotches like bruises or bad eczema. It’s impossible, but he looks taller than when I’ve seen him last, although his boyish features make his height hard to judge accurately. He has always seemed small. A man-sized toddler.”

Read the rest of the story.

Noir At The Bar with Andrew Hilbert, Jesse Sublett, CJ Howell, and Brad Parks Happening This Wednesday

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This Wednesday’s Noir at the Bar should be a lot of laughs. Every guest author in attendance – Jesse Sublett, C.J. Howell, Brad Parks, and Andrew Hilbert – is known for the humor in their work. Their characters’ rough escapades provoke as much laughter as gunfire.


andrew hilbertAndrew Hilbert is the zen anarchist of Austin publishing. his own novella, Death Thing, starts with Gilbert, a white, middle-aged man fed up with his car being broken into, so he sets up a brutal booby-trap for the next thief to come along. Soon he’s on a bloody spiral involving a bizzarro cop, a vigilante organization, two slacker drug dealers, and fast food carnage. This book is wrong in all the right ways. Read a review from Dead End Follies. Death Thing will be available for sale at the event. You can also find copies on our shelves, or call to reserve a copy. 


cj howellCJ Howell’s novel, The Last Of The Smoking Bartenders, has been the book people have been telling their other avid reader friends about for the last year and a half. The story revolves around Tom, a man living off the grid, convinced he’s a government agent out to stop a terrorist attack on Hoover Dam. He treks across the modern West populated with disenfranchised Navajo and fringe dwellers, creating a path of havoc and arson in his wake. There is no other other novel to compare to it. The Last of the Smoking Bartenders will be available for sale at the event. You can also find copies on our shelves, or call to reserve a copy.


brad parksBrad Parks is a naturally funny man, so it is no surprise his series character Carter Ross often views the situations he is in from a humorous angle, even if they are dire. In his latest, The Fraud, Ross is juggling a series of carjackings tied to the country club set and the pregnancy of his girlfriend/managing editor. it is a great introduction to a fun series. The Fraud will be available for sale at the event. You can also find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.


Jesse SublettWe will also have music and a reading from Jesse Sublett. His true crime book, 1960s Austin Gangsters, follows the Overton Gang, whose criminal deeds provided a lot of black humor. 1960s Austin Gangsters will be available for sale at the event. You can also find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.


We’ll all be down at the Penn Field Opal Divine’s, 3601 Congress, at 7PM, Wednesday, July 22nd. All of the authors’ books will be available for sale at the event. Join us for a drink and more than a few laughs.

MysteryPeople Q&A with C.J. Howell

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.