Talking with Christopher Howard (Mongolia 1997) author of Tea of Ulaanbaatar

In the mail, I received a message that began:

As the minutes passed, the recycled air in the fuselage became like old breath. The planeload of Americans shot nervous looks at each other. Pinpricks of sweat forming on skin, cool but quickly warming. Charlotte joked that they had been abandoned, left to suffocate on the tarmac as a message to all foreigners.

They crowded around the windows to look at their new home. The skyline was made of Soviet-built apartment compounds, sooty smokestacks. They saw a man from the ground crew idling on the tarmac. The man looked up, saw their faces pressed against the portholes. They slapped the glass and called to him. He smiled, revealing rotten teeth, but made no move to assist.

The temperature soared.

So begins National Magazine Award finalist Christopher Howard’s second novel, Tea of Ulaanbaatar: the story of disaffected Peace Corps Volunteer Warren, who flees life in late-capitalist America to find himself stationed in the post-Soviet industrial hell of urban Mongolia. As the American presence crumbles, Warren seeks escape in tsus, the tea-ulaan-baatarmysterious “blood tea” that may be the final revenge of the defeated Khans — or that may be only a powerful hallucinogen operating on an uneasy mind — as a phantasmagoria of violence slowly envelops him.

With prose that combines Benjamin Kunkel’s satiric bite, William Burroughs’s dark historical reimagining, and a lush literary beauty all his own, Christopher Howard in Tea of Ulaanbaatar unfolds a story of expatriate angst, the dark side of globalization, and middle-class nightmares — and announces himself as one of the most inventive and ambitious of the new generation of American novelists.

This is all from the promotional material sent out by the publisher, Seven Stories Press, a small but important house here in New York. Next I read a glowing review published in the Boston Globe and decided to track down Chris Howard, and with the help of his publisher, I did. Here is some of the back-and-forth from our emails.

Chris, what’s your background?

howard-chrisI’m from Illinois. I hold bachelor’s degrees in English and philosophy from the University of Missouri/Columbia, and a master’s in English from Illinois State University. I’ve been a reporter, and have taught English, and many things, all to facilitate the writing addiction.

Where were you a PCV?

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

How would you sum up your tour?

I left early, just a few months into the trip. I was there in 1997. When looking back now, what I remember is the Mongolian people — some good, some bad, proud, laboring under adverse conditions, administrated by a government that has not always had the peoples’ best interests in mind, remnants of a vast empire. It’s striking how their fate parallels our own, in America.

How did this novel come about? What drove you to write it?

Part of it was I wondered why human history has been this neverending series of wars. You can’t even write it off as the biproduct of more primitive times, because we still engage in war at a whim — Vietnam, Iraq, etc. We fabricate reasons to go to war. We have bankrupted our nation, in part, to fight these arbitrary wars. Why must it be like this? Nowadays, part of it must be that the people who declare war get to talk tough but have no real stake in it. But this alone didn’t resolve the question for me, so I thought: Why not some artifact throughout the ages that prompts men to war? And so tsus was invented, the hallucinogenic, blood-red Mongolian tea of the novel. Everyone who drinks the tsus ends up having these same visions of a warlike apocalypse, but they’re hooked.

Why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place?

At that time — wrapping up my bachelor’s degrees — I was a true believer in the Peace Corps: go overseas and teach the developing world to read. I mean, what better job could there possibly be?

Why did you leave so quickly?

Giardia. I assume from the water. Quite a sporty parasite, in my experience.

You also were in the army?

I was in the 20th Infantry out of Fort Lewis, Washington. We tested the Stryker armored infantry carrier vehicles, and deployed only stateside for the duration of my contract. It’s true what they say, you make some of the best friends of your life in the Army. I respect the men of my company so much. Also some of the people I’ve met through the Veterans Administration since.

You weren’t drafted, right? Why did you join the army?

I was at an Army recruiter 72 hours after 9/11.

Have you read any Peace Corps books? Novels? Memoirs?

I read a lot and have an extensive library, but no, I’m embarrassed to say.

What writers do you connect with?

For living writers, I think the best are Joan Didion for White Album, Michael Herr for Dispatches, and Jedi Master Cormac McCarthy for everything. Right now I’m reading The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen, and it’s easily among the best books I’ve ever read. It’s so beautiful, it’s a little hard for me to finish. Maybe that will only make sense to some people. For dead writers, Hemingway, Orwell, and Turgenev.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the value of the Peace Corps. You having been in the army and the Peace Corps, which one should we support?

The infantry was a better fit for me, but I strongly support the ideal of both organizations.

What are you writing? Anything soon to be published?

I’ve been very lucky to get the same fantastic editor at Seven Stories, Jeanne Thornton, for the next book, Prince of the World. It is a continuation of a short story published in McSweeney’s years ago. The story takes place in 1818, where Labelle, a mute, possibly brain-damaged, possibly psychotic, half-black, half-Native American wanders up the Mississippi River after his mother dies. Writing Labelle has been one of the greatest joys of my life, and challenging too, because he is mute, and never speaks a word of dialogue throughout the text, depending on how you read it. He encounters river pirates, dragoons, and eventually ends up at the Illini massacre at Starved Rock, Illinois. The writing for this one was particularly slow-going because I am striving for 99% historical accuracy and there was a LOT of research. But I think the end result, the world of the Mississippi River and Starved Rock in the early 19th Century, with this melancholy wash infusing everything, has been worth the effort.

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