Author Q&A with CJ Howell

Author Q&A with CJ Howell

The Salt Cutter is a thrilling read from beginning to end. CJ Howell puts the reader alongside a Soldier in Uyuni, Bolivia.

"The soldier knows they’re coming for him. Hunting him down so they can deal their own brand of justice. He needs to get out. To make it to the border and escape what is waiting for him. He’s prepared to do anything to survive. Even kill."

This book is part of our Black Spring Crime Series, endorsed by UK crime fiction giants, Ian Rankin and Lee Child. It was a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and shortlisted for the Big Moose Prize. 

CJ has sent us a fantastic piece all about how a holiday as a young man turned into a cracking noir thriller, that was published by us in December last year. 

The Journey and the Destination

When I was twenty years old, I stuffed a small backpack with three t-shirts, four pairs of underwear, five pairs of socks, and a hoodie, walked out of my house in Boulder, Colorado and started hitchhiking to Tierra del Fuego. I was inspired by Paul Theroux’s great book The Old Patagonian Express where he takes trains non-stop from Boston to Argentina.

I loved the book, but he never got off the damn train. My idea was to travel on foot catching whatever rides came along. Five and half months later I was in Bolivia, standing at the edge of the Great Salt Flats of Uyuni. I arrived just as the Soldier does in my novel The. Salt Cutter, riding fourteen hours atop a crate truck stacked with hundred-kilogram bales of coca leaves through the middle of a freezing night in the Atacama Desert. And just like the Soldier, I was stuck. My plan was to take the train from Uyuni to Antofagasta, Chile, only the railway workers were on strike and the trains weren’t running, and there were no roads across the salt flat to the border. I felt like I’d stepped out of time, stranded in the most spectacularly beautiful place I’d ever been, waiting for what, I didn’t know.

I eventually made it to Tierra del Fuego and returned to the States and finished college. I worked for a year to save money and then drove my pickup truck to Guatemala, rented a one-room mud brick adobe and wrote a book about my experience. That book was never published. I spent my twenties trying, and failing, to make it as a writer. I bartended my way through the University of Colorado’s Creative Writing Program, where I read a lot of books I wouldn’t have otherwise read and wrote a lot of short stories I otherwise wouldn’t have written, but after three years I was no closer to a career as a writer. So, I did what many a desperate soul with no clear life path has done before me, I went to law school.

Those three years at the University of Arizona in Tucson were some of the best of my life. But then, to my shock and bewilderment, I had to actually be a lawyer. In truth, I hadn’t thought that far ahead when I went to law school. I just saw three years of living on student loans and a way out of bartending where I wouldn’t have to scrape and claw to make the rent.

I didn’t write a word for six years. I was working long hours at a Washington, D.C. law firm and miserable.  We also had a baby on the way and while I was thrilled about starting a family, it did seem to cement the probability that I’d be stuck as a lawyer forever. So, I started writing my first novel, The Last of the Smoking Bartenders [published in 2013]. I had become a lawyer so I wouldn’t have to depend on writing and now I was writing so I wouldn’t have to be a lawyer.

The Last of the Smoking Bartenders didn’t free me from a life of interpreting statutes and regulations but it was exactly what I needed. It got good reviews, Booklist named it a Best Crime Fiction Debut of 2014, and I met a lot of great writers and wonderful people doing readings and other events. With my joy in writing renewed, I quickly wrote The Hundred Mile View [p. March 2016], I accepted an offer from a Norwegian publishing house – I was reading a lot of Norwegian crime fiction at the time (huge Jo Nesbo fan) – and thought what the hell, maybe I’ll get a trip to Oslo out of it. Unfortunately, that publishing house went out of business three weeks after the book was published. It was a total loss.

I was back at square one. I didn’t know what I was going to write next. But for twenty-five years this idea, this place, lurked in the back of my mind. I always thought Uyuni would be the perfect setting for a noir thriller. The barrenness, the stark beauty, the extreme isolation. So, I went back there. Not the Uyuni of today, but the one I remember. Before the internet. Before cell phones. Side-stepped out of time. Where you lived moment to moment, and you never knew what was going to happen next. And that was how The Salt Cutter was born.

These days I’m still a lawyer but the work is more interesting, it takes me to Indian reservations across the American West. I just finished a new novel with the working title It's Always the Boyfriend that I’m going to start shopping to agents. And while I’m still on the journey, my real destination is raising two amazing kids with my beautiful wife who I met in law school. I couldn’t have planned any of this if I’d tried. And if this had been my plan, I’m sure it would have worked out completely differently.

The Salt Cutter was released 8 December 2023, grab your copy now!

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