Author Smoke Monkey International: author James Westhoff’s genre-defying tale of adventure, archeology, dishwashing, and destiny
This summer, Hermosa Beach writer James Westhoff welcomed two babies into the world.
His first child, daughter Lila, was born on July 6.
And on August 2, Westhoff released his first novel, “Smoke Monkey International.”
Both babies got their start at the University of California at San Diego, where the author met his wife, artist Elisa Johns, and wrote the short story that would develop into his first book.
“Between freshman and sophomore year of college at UCSD I went up to Idaho,” Westhoff said. “I didn’t want to be home that summer so I just went up there and worked as a dishwasher. I met all of these wacky people and it always just stuck in my head as this interesting story.”
Turning that short story into a novel took ten years. And describing “Smoke Monkey International” is an arduous task unto itself.
At its core, the novel follows two main characters, Ted and Marona, through the most tumultuous times of their lives. Ted has just dropped out of his senior year of college after a completely shameful experience. Marona has abandoned her marriage and her young daughter after a plot to expose her husband’s infidelity backfires horribly. Ted runs away to Valvert in Idaho, a resort based on Sun Valley, and tries to self-impose punishment by working as a dishwasher. Marona flees to the ruins of Central America to study prayer and archeology with a professor of questionable sanity. All the while, a cast of extraordinarily bizarre side characters and the mystery of the Smoke Monkey weave in and out of the protagonists’ lives.
Ted is based largely on the author, himself, as a younger man. Like many college students, Ted is bright, confused and as self-involved as he is self-deprecating.
“Ted is pretty much me, yeah,” said Westhoff, a Hermosa Beach resident who has worked a decade as an English teacher, waking predawn to work on his novel. “I didn’t actually drop out of college but all of it is loosely based on a mix of my experiences, the guys I lived with, the way we talked. But I was careful because I didn’t want it to just seem like a story written by a guy just out of college about dropping out.”
Most of the characters in the book are a blend of realities, too. With the exception of Salton Steve.
“The Salton Steve character was a guy I worked with,” Westhoff said. “His name was Steve Salmon and I have this idea that he is somehow going to get a hold of this book and read it and then hunt me down. And then that would be the next book.”
Salton Steve is the most eccentric character of the bunch, which says a lot since he is contending with a drunken faith-based archeologist, a philandering and gold-sniffing ex-pilot, a conniving Mormon businessman and a woman who pays pretty girls to sleep with her husband.
Depending on how much you believe Salton Steve, he could be a geological genius with a flare for illegal drug proliferation or your everyday nut job, wasting his middle aged years washing dishes and telling tall tales.
“That guy was just crazy,” Westhoff said of Steve Salmon. “He said he had an FBI rap because he could find or make drugs out of anything. And I kept testing him. We’d go out on a walk and I’d say, ‘Produce a drug,’ and he’d go digging around the forest and come back with stuff. It was wild.”
The madness didn’t end there.
“And he was a former petroleum geologist in British Columbia,” said Westhoff. “He claimed he had been blacklisted because he was too proficient at finding gold and petroleum, and that he was upsetting the balance of the market so he had to be removed. And then he said he got busted with 18 pounds of marijuana that he found along the Freedom River in Kansas. I had no idea where the bullshit ended. But everything I put to the test, I’d find out was true.”
Smoke Monkey International’s relationship with reality is as complicated as its plot and makes it all the more enjoyable to read. Westhoff’s approach to the intricate story is filled with sharply observed wit and emotion that could only come from a remarkably keen mind and a playful imagination living inside a man that is truly fascinated by human beings.
He also likes screwing with people.
“You know there is this whole idea in life that you have to really take control and go for it, you have to be active,” Westhoff said. “I think of Ted and Marona and how they both tried to just take life on – and that it totally backfired on them with this chain of unintended consequences. And I like that idea a lot, of subverting this ‘go get ‘em’ attitude. Maybe that comes from teaching, because kids have that idea hammered into them. And I think, ‘Who are these kids going to turn out to be if they base their whole lives thinking they’re good at something they’re not?’”
His unique vision created a novel that exists in realm of mystery, adventure, coming of age, science fiction, and humor.
Genre-bending grants freedom to a writer as he writes, but places limits when he publishes. After ten years of working on “Smoke Monkey International,” Westhoff decided to publish his book independently.
“I tried traditional publishing, though not very hard,” the author said. “I just hate that process. You feel like you just have to get so lucky. A couple of agents said no because it wasn’t specific enough to a genre. I didn’t want to spend another five years trying to get it into book stores. I didn’t want to be that guy that didn’t finish my book. My wife went to art school, I went to writing school, and we know so many people who just didn’t follow through.”
“The timing is great now to publish independently,” Westhoff continued. “There’s so much you can do with electronic publishing, CreateSpace, blogs and Twitter. You can market your books yourself. If you do it yourself, you have complete control over all of it. And maybe you don’t become a best-selling author but you don’t have to worry about what genre it is. It’s very liberating.”
The electronic copy of Smoke Monkey International has sold slowly but steadily since its August release. The hard copy became available at the end of October
“I am perfectly satisfied,” Westhoff said. “I get a check from Amazon every month, and maybe we go out to dinner with it. I’m not sure how the hard copy will sell. But hopefully, there are enough people out there that will want to read it. I think everything finds an audience, it might be small, but it’s still an audience.”
Jim Westhoff will read from Smoke Monkey International at Live at the Lounge on Nov. 17, along with other local authors. 6:30 p.m., 1018 Hermosa Ave., Hermosa Beach. The event is free.