Howard Owen (MA English ‘82/H&S) built an impressive career in journalism, beginning at the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1978 and retiring from the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star in 2013. His years of service in news coverage isn’t the only writing commitment he pursued in that timeframe, nor is it the one that has necessarily garnered him the most attention. His daily hour of creative writing over the past 26 years has brought him much-deserved acclaim. In 2012, Howard’s novel Oregon Hill won the Hammett Prize, awarded annually by the International Association of Crime Writers North American Branch for literary excellence in the field of crime-writing, and drawing new fans to his series that follows the lovable underdog protagonist Willie Black.
Early in Howard’s career at the Richmond Times Dispatch, he decided to take advantage of his employer’s offer of graduate degree tuition and enrolled at VCU to earn an MA in English. After finishing the degree, Howard stayed in the Richmond area and in touch with faculty from the department. He also began a daily ritual of at least one hour of writing. In his words, that hour everyday can have a profound impact. “It is possible to do great things with an hour a day, every day.” And he did, publishing his first book, Littlejohn, in 1989.
An invitation by VCU English professor and much-acclaimed novelist Tom De Haven to write a short story for the anthology Richmond Noir started Howard considering a series of novels starring Willie Black. Howard’s most recent publication, Grace, is the fifth in that series that centers around the investigatory pursuits of journalist Willie Black. “As a character goes, he has a good heart with bad habits.” Each of the five books in the series takes place in a different Richmond locale. Having fallen in love with the city—which he describes perfectly as a “big enough to keep me entertained without driving me crazy”—Howard has used a different Richmond neighborhood or site for each episode. Monroe Park, Shockoe Bottom, Parker Field, Grace Street, the Philadelphia Quarry and Oregon Hill have each had a turn in a starring role and “in many ways act as an extra character in the plot.”
Now with the recent publication of his 14th book, Howard has proven that his commitment to creative writing is as fervent as his main character’s thirst for truth. Lucky for crime fiction series fans, there is no sign that Willie, or Howard, is ready to retire his habit.
Register for the April 26, 2017 VCU Alumni Monroe Scholars Book and Author Luncheon featuring Howard Owen
Written by Caitlin Hanbury