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Oklahoma author Joe Harwell began his writing career by reaching into himself

Mile of Cars Murders just published by Joe Harwell
Layton Isaacs

Joe Harwell, Oklahoma author, is publishing his sixth novel this month, Mile of Cars Murders. All of Harwell’s novels have been self-published. He began his writing career in his 50’s, surprising many members of his family by departing from all his prior job experiences.

Harwell said, “I think if you asked my kids or people in my family about my departure into writing some would say it was a hard right, some would say a hard left and some would say a u-turn.”

Harwell attributes his career change to changes in his living circumstances which resulted from his wife passing in 2008.

“I actually had my first spark of a story in the fall of 2005 when Becky was diagnosed with kidney failure. We were actually in the hospital waiting for a doctor to appear. You can wait and wait and wait. I was looking out the window trying to think of anything but the circumstances we were in. In one side of my head the old Dark Shadows tv show was playing and for some reason, the Heavener Runestone in Poteau where I grew up invaded that space. And I thought ‘What if the symbols on the Heavener Runestone had something to do with vampires?’ That’s where my Indian Rock Vampire book began” Harwell explains.

The metals market, where Harwell had been working, and his wife’s health both took a turn for the worse and she died in the fall of 2008 in November. While he and his family were grieving, the industry he had been working in dried up. There were no jobs available.

“You couldn’t buy an interview with a hundred dollar bill taped to your resume. So I was networking looking for work and I decided that the story that I’d had cooking in the back of my head needed to be written down. That book became The Indian Rock Vampire, my first novel,” Harwell states.

Harwell’s second and longest novel, Upside Down Heart, is a continuation of the Indian Rock Vampire series.

Harwell’s third novel, One Drug, was originally titled Ready to Go, which was inspired by conversations with his mother who has limited physical ability and lives in a nursing home. Every time he saw her she would say something to the effect of “I’m ready to go.” At that time there was a lot of political upheaval in the country over whether or not Social Security benefits could continue or whether seniors would have their benefits cut.

“The thought occurred to me that if this happened, an alternative to Social Security health benefits would be assisted suicide in such a way that it would become an industry. China might develop a wonder drug that could cure anything and if so, they would not share the formula with anyone else and it would totally change the balance of world power. That’s what the book is about,” Harwell said.

His fourth novel, Payne County Weekly, drew upon his own experience owning a newspaper and tv station in southeastern Oklahoma. He was at a political fundraiser in that region when one political candidate said there was no drug activity in the county.

Harwell chucked to himself because “There was more pot being grown in the backwoods of this county at that time than almost anywhere else in the country!”

In the late 90’s the OSBI began investigating and found that law enforcement was almost in league with all the drug dealers down there. What politicians had said about the lack of drug activity was patently untrue.

“Writing Payne County Weekly was also a release of grief for me to tell a fictionalized story about events that happened in real life at the death of my wife,” Harwell shared.

The book went over very well and is still a regional hit in Stillwater and Perkins.

Harwell didn’t intend to write a sequel to Payne County Weekly, but there were still ideas cooking in his head about some of the characters. So he decided to write a book with some of the same characters with the Oklahoma City bombing as a large part of the backdrop. While he was figuring out the storyline for the sequel in his head, he began writing Dragline, which draws upon his experience in the coal mining industry.

Harwell was a coal analysis lab technician for a time and found that there were a lot of things happening in the background of what he had assumed would be a pretty straightforward job. Harwell likes to write female characters and the book started with the idea for the main character of Dragline, Sissy MacKenzie, a rough and tumble girl who was the granddaughter of the coal mine owner.

When her grandfather is called to South America by the State Department for consulting work, she is left in charge. She slowly figures out that there is more going on than meets the eye with her grandfather’s trip.

Harwell admitted “While reading the manuscript to several writers’ groups in the area over 3 to 3 ½ years, I struggled with which direction to take the story, whether to keep it a straightforward mystery or add a paranormal twist to it.”

As Harwell was finishing Dragline, he found himself anxious to get back to his Payne County Weekly characters. He had the story for Mile of Cars Murders, which would parallel the Oklahoma City bombing, all figured out at that point. The book explores what happens to two people who are abducted on the same day as the bombing and how their grieving family has to try to find a way to go on without them without knowing what happened to them.

Harwell began reading the manuscript to three area writers groups and said “They (the writing groups) gave me the velvet hammer every time. Fix this or shorten that! I grew a lot as a writer.”

Harwell is already planning a sequel to Mile of Cars Murders focusing on how children of the newspaper owner from Payne County Weekly turn out.

When asked how he transformed himself into a writer, Harwell said writers groups had really helped him.

Then, he thought back to a character from the movies who inspired him. “In the film Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence sits all night trying to think of what he can do because a miracle is needed,” Harwell explains. “The next morning he decides to take the city of Aqaba. What happened to me was much like that, I had a desire to accomplish something on my own by reaching into myself.”

For more information on Harwell's books, go to

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