Last month, indie publishing outfit New Pulp Press released The Last of the Smoking Bartenders by CJ Howell. It’s an intense and incendiary story about a drifter called Tom who’s actually an agent – deep undercover – out to foil a terrorist plot to blow up the mighty Hoover Dam, on the border between Colorado and Arizona. The question is: is Tom really an agent, or is he suffering some form of delusion? We invited debut author CJ Howell to join us here as part of New Talent November 2013 to tell us a little more about his book…
First of all, can you give us some background on yourself – I read that you used to write on napkins while you worked in bars? What’s your background and how did you get into writing crime?
I worked in a bunch of bars around Colorado, mostly in little towns, mom and pop places and a couple road houses. The type of places they expect you to drink with the customers. The customers who had nothing better to do than drink with the bartender tended to be clinging to the lowest rung of society, and I always listened to their schemes and gave them credence. Was I a bad influence? Most folks like to dream, and bellied up to the bar, a lot of them dream of crime. It was a natural fit.
And what do you think crime fiction lovers are going to love about The Last Smoking Bartender – and what’s it about, in a nutshell?
It has an element of the fantastic because it’s a life and death hunt to stop terrorists from blowing up the Hoover Dam as told by petty criminals, but at the same time it’s intensely real because the danger, drugs, and violence are everyday life in certain corners. In a nutshell, it’s about a man trying to save the country he loves but he has to do so without money. Forced into vagrancy because he’s being tracked through transmitters embedded in dollar bills, he finds the American Southwest a hostile landscape. It’s also a gritty story about what can go wrong with a few bad choices.
The title has a bit of a hook to it, in these days of no smoking in public places. Tell us what it means.
The title is emblematic of the new west. It works thematically with the book because all the characters are left behind by the modern world to some degree. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a good time. It’s just a dangerous world for the underclass where even smoking in a bar is illegal. I was working at a bar in Colorado when a smoking ordinance went into effect and we put out these big ash-cans that had “no-smoking” written on them, ostensibly so when we told people not to smoke they would have a place to put out their butts other than the floor. But everyone just used them as actual ashtrays. That went on for years. I always thought that was hilarious. A big FU to progress.
Terrorism and delusion seem to be key topics the book deals with. Where did your idea for the story and what you wanted to say come from?
The idea for the book started with the simple question – in American society is it crazy to willfully be poor? When I was 19 I hitchhiked from Colorado to Tierra del Fuego. It took seven months and I slept on park benches and under bushes and on the floors of kind strangers. A few years later I drove to Guatemala and lived in a mud brick adobe for 30 bucks a month and wrote a book about the hitchhiking trip called Run to Tierra del Fuego – it’s still unpublished if anyone wants it. All this was willful poverty. I could escape it at anytime. But living like that does affect the way you see the world. So for The Last of the Smoking Bartenders, I wanted to take a character who would live like that but he had to have a good reason, and the hysteria over terrorism was perfect.
It’s published by New Pulp Press – does it have a pulp flavour to it and can you characterise its style for us a little please?
I think New Pulp is ultra-realism. I may be alone in this, but I’ve always thought real life was more dangerous than fiction. The crime and mayhem in New Pulp books happen everyday, it’s just the writing and dedication to craft that make it literature.
How did you land your publishing deal with NPP?
Jon Bassoff. I’ve been reading his stuff since back when he was writing under different names. I sent him a rough draft about a year ago. He believed in the book from the beginning. That’s meant a lot to me. Now that Corrosion is taking off I hope he’ll still return my calls.
Who are the crime authors that you admire and why?
Frank Bill, Matthew McBride, Jake Hinkson, Benjamin Whitmer – there’s just a no bullshit rawness to the writing that I can’t live without. Deep down I think Cormac McCarthy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky are crime writers. Faulker’s Sanctuary had a profound influence on me. Seriously, when I read something judgmental, that smells of insincerity, or some kind of cable news view of the world where the white hats are always white and the black hats are always black, I just stop.
What are your plans for the future?
Writing. It’s always been what’s kept me sane. You can check out the first two chapters of my new book on my website cj-howell.com. I’m looking for an agent for the new book so…
Watch for our review of The Last of the Smoking Bartenders later in New Talent November.