CB McKenzie, author of Bad Country, on why he writes, anti-heroes, and what comes next

CB McKenzie’s debut novel, BAD COUNTRY, is out today, and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions! Please welcome him to the blog! Also, be sure to check the Events section out on his Facebook page to see if he’s coming to a city near you on tour.

cbmckenzieYou’ve already won the Tony Hillerman Prize…
I was thrilled to win the THP because it not only means publication under the Minotaur label, it offers association with a bunch of great people at the Tony Hillerman Conference and the opportunity to work with Executive Editor Peter Joseph of Thomas Dunne/ St. Martin’s.

Tell us more about Bad Country…
Bad Country is a hard-boiled Western Noir set in “Arizona Indian Country” and in Tucson. The story has two separate but interrelated plots—one case involves the serial killings of Native American men in an isolated desert place called El Hoyo (The Hole), the other is a drive-by shooting of teenaged boy from the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation in South Tucson. Both rompecabezas (“puzzlers”) are solved by a rodeo cowboy turned PI, Rodeo Grace Garnet who uses brain more than brawn to get his job done. Amy Greene (Long Man) calls Bad Country a “literary page-turner,” and I also think of Bad Country as a smart “salty peanuts book,” a fast read that is as hard to put down as a bowl of salty peanuts, but also a novel with some real and obvious literary merit.

…and what inspired you to write it?
Bad Country started off as a conventional serial killer thriller based on a book issued by The University of Arizona Press called Paths of Life, which is a non-technical guide to the Ten Major Tribes of Native-Americans in the Southwest USA and Northern Mexico (and a good companion read for Bad Country, btw): but then Bad Country morphed into a complex novel about family and friends, the dispossessed and marginalized, ethics, life and death and how humans imagine and execute both—and featuring one of the world’s greatest dogs. In large part, the inspiration for Bad Country was the self-assigned prompt to “write a literary mystery featuring Rodeo Grace Garnet, a character I have written about before (in the unpublished novel SplashLand) and always thought just deserved a good book. So in that way, Rodeo “wrote” the book by being the character that he is in the situation in which “I” put him: The character came first, the story followed.

badcountryI love the idea of a rodeo cowboy turned PI…
I think it’s important to the ethos of Rodeo that he is not only a former professional rodeo cowboy but a bronc rider because breaking wild ponies can be part of a ranch hand’s regular job ‘o work. And I think of Rodeo mostly as a “hand,” someone who works for a living, one job at a time, one day at a time doing the best he can with what physical and psychological resources he can muster as situations dictate.

What did [do] you enjoy most about writing [reading] Rodeo?
As a writer, I enjoy Rodeo because he is not my alter-ego, which condition allows me to get out of my own head when I am writing him. As a reader, I like Rodeo because, though always well-armed and prepared for a fight, he’s sort of cerebral: Rodeo doesn’t just kick everybody’s ass or stick a gun in a bad guy’s face when he stumbles upon a difficult plot point; he figures out the mystery, which, as a fan of Classic Whodunits, I appreciate. Rodeo’s also not any conventional kind of All-American “hero.” Though a pretty regular guy, Rodeo remains “edgy.” And I like “edgy.”

Why do you think readers will root for Rodeo?
Because Rodeo’s poor as dirt with a beat-up pick-up and a longstanding relationship with one of the great canines in all of Literature.

But, truth be told, I’m not sure everybody will “root” for Rodeo. And I like that too, because Rodeo’s an existential character who is true to his own nature and honors his own decisions while he doesn’t claim all the time that he is “doing the right thing” or on the side of “universal justice.” Rodeo’s not morally ambivalent, per se, but he has his own, unique code of conduct. If you like him, you do, and so, based on his ethos, you’ll “root” for him. But if you don’t like him, on a “personal” level, then you won’t root for him. Early readers have considered Rodeo a sympathetic character, but when one pre-publication journal suggested that Bad Country “offers readers an intriguing mystery and a new hero” I kind of cringed (though the positive review was much appreciated) because I don’t see Rodeo as any kind of “hero.” But I don’t consider him the typical anti-hero that you find in most noirs either. Rodeo’s just a man doing his job of work in the world: I think a lot of readers can appreciate that, but those looking for a noir “superman” might not.

Tell us more about El Hoyo, and why you decided to set the book there?
Bad Country is set in the Southwest because that’s where Rodeo is from and is a place I know and love, despite (or because of) its peculiarities and challenges, geographical and political. The Hole exists for practical reasons based mostly on plot needs—the story required a small, isolated county that was near enough to the border of Mexico that Undocumented Immigrants could walk through Rodeo’s “backyard” and in which a small and overworked sheriff’s department could represent the bulk of Law Enforcement. Rodeo’s stomping grounds in the abandoned real estate venture called Vista Montana Estates is drawn on the reality of real estate ventures in the 1970s that had many naïve investors (like Rodeo’s mother) buying up “SouthWestern Desert” in misguided and mismanaged land schemes. Rodeo’s house, in my imagination, is a version of my writer’s shack in Vermont (in which I lived for two years); “upgraded” since I was a “chopper of wood and a hauler of water” and had no plumbing or electricity and only a cobbled together shithouse in the back yard (which was pretty cold in the middle of a Green Mountain winter!).

no countryWhat kind of research did you do for the book?
The serial killer element of the book is based on Paths of Life, but other than that I didn’t do any “research” per se for this book beyond living my life as I have lived it where I have lived it. Library Journal called Bad Country “…a master class on how to create a mood and sense of place” but I think that was just accomplished by writing pretty well and with engaged imagination about a SouthWest landscape that has fascinated and attracted me since I was a kid. In the Tuxson scenes, though all the domestic settings are purely imaginary in fact, they are true in spirit to my Old Pueblo/South Tucson neighborhoods — places I lived and worked in for years.

You have a varied and very interesting background…
I seldom think that I have had a particularly interesting life since it’s just been my regular life, but people do say so since I was born and raised in a small town in Texas, dropped out of high school to go to college when I was sixteen, took seven years and nine colleges to get my BA (in Psychology from Arkansas PolyTech), then kicked around waiting tables and selling suits and lifeguarding until I became a fashion model in my late twenties which job I did, in the US and Europe, for a decade until I got Bell’s Palsy and had to quit the catwalk and moved to Vermont where I wrote and worked as a housepainter and farm hand until I went to graduate school in Arizona where I got my PhD since which time I have just been an ordinary professor until recently when I became a wage-earning novelist—this seems an ordinary enough life for a writer.

What made you decide to write a novel?
I have identified myself as and been labeled by others as “a writer” since I was a kid, so writing in general is just one of the habits-of-action that form my personality. I naturally gravitated towards “the novel” because the long-form suits my loquaciousness, I suppose: Except for my PhD dissertation and some short form assignments during my MFA days and a few scholarly articles for academic journals, I have not written anything but novels for the past twenty years. Bad Country is my ninth completed novel, so it’s not special as a “debut” novel to me. It’s the best novel I’ve written to date, but it’s just a “first novel” because nobody ever cared to publish any of the others. Nothing in particular prompted Bad Country but the desire to keep writing until I produced a book that would totally satisfy me, on a private level, and get published and sell, on a public level.

Will you tell us more about that progression?
In general, I think of writing as just a habit I have always had… It could be more like an addiction since, like my bad habits, it’s one I have tried on many occasions to shake, but with no luck. I don’t enjoy writing per se—I break into a flop sweat every time I write (even just answering these questions gives me heart palpitations) and except for earning a MFA doing it, “creative” writing has never until now really paid off for me in any material or social sense. But I have persisted with it because writing defines me on some personal/existential level and so to abandon it completely would be like denying some aspect of my nature and make me less “McKenzie.” We all have ideas about what we are in the world, and I have always just thought of myself as novelist, so Bad Country is just a product of a certain writerly lifestyle that makes me apprehend and appreciate the world through the eyes of a critical witness and a story-teller.

mrsgillicuddyWho are your favorite authors?
I’ve read all the Agatha Christie’s (once in chronological order by publication date) over and over since I was ten years old. I love PD James’ and The Todds’ writing, but bog down in their plots sometimes. I was reared on “Tony Hillermans.” If I could be any character in Literature I would be Huckleberry Finn, so Mark Twain. Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God is one of my favorite books and so I put the word “adipocerous” in Bad Country in a totally gratuitous way. I also put “gone baby gone” as a (rather facile, I admit) homage to Dennis Lehane. I have read Larry McMurtry since All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers and Hud is one of my favorite movies (Paul Newman’s “look” in that movie has long fashioned my own); Elmer Kelton, Louie L’Amour and Zane Gray are favorite western writers and Walt Longmire is the next incarnation of the classic western hero (Marshall Dillon with an edge)—I like Craig’s books even better than I like the TV show (Go Longmire!). My favorite detective TV shows are “Rockford Files,” “Columbo” and “Poirot.” Joan Didion makes me very jealous. David Sedaris slays me (and even sent me a postcard once when I sent him an unsolicited essay that he said he really liked). Joe Don Lansdale (Bubbha Ho Temp, etc) is also from Gladewater, Texas and my favorite Gladeite writer.

Has anyone influenced you more than most?
They might seem an odd combination, but Cormac McCarthy and Agatha Christie, the one for language and the other for plotting, are the writing parents of Bad Country. But Graham Greene is the writer I try most to emulate in general, because his prose is elegant, but not fussy or affected, he develops characters brilliantly and usually gives his readers an interesting (but not ever outlandish) plot to follow. While I can appreciate the type of extravagant exposition and description and enjoy the in-depth navel-gazing that Updike, Carver, Atwood, Cheever et al do as much as the next fella, I tend to enjoy books that are driven more by invention than observation , books like those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, and Umberto Eco. I like Treasure Island more than Moby Dick. My philosopher of choice is Alain Badiou.

thatoldaceintheholeWhat are you currently reading?
At the airport in Denver after the Mountains and Plains Independent Bookseller’s Convention, I finished Mike McGarrity’s Hard Country and started on BackLands. I’m doing an event with T. Jefferson Parker at Poison Pen Bookstore in Tempe on November 4, the release date of Bad Country, and so just finished Jeff’s excellent literary novel Full Measure. I skimmed Dame Agatha’s What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw this week. Lately, I have read with pleasure all my blurbers– Michael Farris Smith’s post-apocalyptic road trip noir Rivers, Mathew Guinn’s (short listed for an Edgar for Best First) Resurrectionist and Amy Greene’s beautiful Long Man. Because one of my nephew’s is going to Texas Tech in Lubbock (as did I for a short while), I reread Annie Proul’s That Old Ace in the Hole which is set in the Texas panhandle (where the second “Rodeo” book is likely to be set). Since my very next book is set in Iceland I read Haldor Laxness, Njal’s Saga and all the contemporary Scandinavians (Jar City is my favorite of these books, but I also like Jo Nesbo’s work). Friends of mine I like to read are Maximillian Werner, Alexander Long, Claudia Zuluaga, and Theo Gangi. For my teaching I read Stephen Bonnycastle’s In Search of Authority: An Introductory Guide to Literary Theory (I am a devotee of this most useful book). For my academic work I have to read a lot of theoretical stuff which is mostly too boring to mention (though I will recommend my own article, on “Material Artifact Analysis” found in Journal of Teaching Writing!).

When you’re not writing or teaching, how do you like to spend your free time?
I am not very ambitious in the main, so I have as much “free time” as anybody-not-retired I know of. At the moment I am visiting with my home folks in East Texas and mostly occupied with scraping paint off a boat dock and going downtown to Lee Public Library to check out some new mysteries and watching my nephew play Friday Night Lights football. My sister, JB Stroupe and I are driving to Shreveport this week to see an exhibition game with our beloved Dallas Mavericks (though I am most of all a San Antonio Spurs fan and have been since I watched George Gervin, my basketball idol, play in the ABA). I am very satisfied to sit with a cane pole stuck between my toes (I am not even an ambitious fisherman) or shoot some hoops at the city park or ride my bicycle or be a gym rat. When we lived in NYC I swam around the Statue of Liberty. When I have had the energy and cash I’ve skied all over Colorado, Utah, California, Vermont, New Hampshire, every ski area in New Mexico and even Arizona. As a fashion model I was fortunate to live an international lifestyle and love to travel. My wife, Kim Helmer and I just finished a cross country road trip of 5,000 miles from our old home in NYC to our new home in California. Staying in cheap motels and car camping is heaven for me. I have a pretty boring life really.

What’s next for you?
The University of California at Santa Cruz has graciously allowed me some time off from teaching to promote Bad Country and since my promo people, Hector DeJean and Cara McBroom at St. Martin’s/Minotaur, have set up events for me in Tempe/Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tucson, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Lubbock, Ft. Worth, Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Diego, Orange, CA and Jackson, Mississippi (see my author’s page on Facebook for specific dates, times and new locations, please) I am doing a “Pick-up Truck Promo Tour” for Bad Country. Then I’m back to California to teach at UCSC for the foreseeable future. I hope to have the new book, The Same, But White in shitty-first-draft form by early next year and then I’ll move to Iceland for a few months next summer to get the ambience of that place into my writing finger bones and flesh out the mystery part of the book with local color. So, what’s next for me? Just my normal life!

Keep up with CB: Facebook

The newest winner of the Tony Hillerman Prize, a debut mystery set in the Southwest starring a former rodeo cowboy turned private investigator, told in a transfixingly original style.

Rodeo Grace Garnet lives with his old dog in a remote corner of Arizona known to locals as El Hoyo. He doesn’t get many visitors in The Hole, but a body found near his home has drawn police attention to his front door. The victim is not one of the many undocumented immigrants who risk their lives to cross the border in Rodeo’s harsh and deadly “backyard,” but a member of a major Southwestern Indian tribe, whose death is part of a mysterious rompecabeza—a classic crime puzzler—that includes multiple murders, cold-blooded betrayals, and low-down scheming, with Rodeo caught in the middle.

Retired from the rodeo circuit and scraping by on piecework as a bounty hunter, warrant server, and divorce snoop, Rodeo doesn’t have much choice but to say yes when offered an unusual case. An elderly Indian woman from his own Reservation has hired him to help discover who murdered her grandson, but she seems strangely uninterested in the results. Her attitude seems heartless, but as Rodeo pursues interrelated cases, he learns that the old woman’s indifference is nothing compared to true hatred, and aligned against a variety of creative and cruel foes, the hard-pressed PI is about to discover just how far hate can go.

CB McKenzie’s Bad Country is a noir novel that is as deep and twisty as a desert arroyo. With confident, accomplished prose, McKenzie captures the rough-and-tumble outer reaches of the Southwest in a transfixingly original style that transcends the traditional crime novel.

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