Please welcome Craig Johnson, author of the dynamic and mesmerizing series featuring Wyoming Sheriff, Walt Longmire!
1. Congratulations on your third title in the series! For the uninitiated, let's start with a bit of background info on what it's all about.
Thanks so much. The series is about Walt Longmire, who has been the sheriff in a rural county in northern Wyoming for twenty-three years. Absaroka County is located alongside the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, where his closest and life-long friend, Henry Standing Bear, lives. Their friendship is based on a mutual trust and respect to which the society of the contemporary high plains should aspire, but to which it unfortunately doesn’t always. Because of the strength of the men’s friendship and since the books are told from Walt’s perspective in first-person present tense, there is a propensity for the narrative to be overly masculine, so Walt’s under-sheriff and chief counterbalance is Victoria Moretti, who is everything that Walt is not--female, young, urban, technologically advanced and profane. Actually, there are a lot of female characters who look after Walt, enough so that my wife calls the novels sneaky-women’s-issues books cleverly disguised as masculine-adventure mysteries. I just try and make sure they’re good and worth the price of admission.
2. As a voracious reader of the genre, I've come across my share of realistically portrayed characters, yet very few have actually made me feel like they're someone I'd like to have a beer with. How easily does this humble and earthy character flow out of your pen?
I think when you’re writing first-person, you kind of have to keep the narrator close to the vest. I’ve been accused of being Walt, but I think he’s more of what I’d like to be in about ten years—and I’m off to an awfully slow start. In a cinematic-Cimarron sense, he’s a hold-over from an earlier time—a kind of man exemplified by some of the characters that Gary Cooper played—courageous, quiet, humble and kind.
My ranch is about eighteen miles from Buffalo, Wyoming, the town I modeled the fictitious Durant from; but, every time I drive in I get this Capra-esque feeling that I’m in Walt’s world, seeing the place as he would see it. He is in my head and my heart. I love the characters and the place, and I think that comes through in the writing.
3. The other main character, Henry Standing Bear, brings in some mystical aspects to the storyline, mostly hinted at for now, but with a slight indication towards being further developed; is this just an option you're leaving open, or something you might someday pursue?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve had a pretty varied life, and I’m not to the point where I can explain all the things I’ve experienced—the things I’ve seen out of the corners of my eyes—that’s for sure. There are stranger things, Horatio, than have been dreamt of in your philosophies… I think the trick in those mystical situations is in allowing the reader to interpret along with the characters—did that really happen or did I imagine that? I’m fortunate enough to have good friends on both the Crow and Cheyenne Reservations and am lucky enough to be one of the only white men ever asked to raise the center lodge pole in the Cheyenne Sundance, which is quite an honor. These people are incredible in so many ways, their integrity, their humor, their spirituality… They are the bedrock of what I consider to be the west.
4. You set your first two books set in Wyoming and your third in Philadelphia, what was the main reason for the change?
When I first started the books as a series, everybody told me that you can’t take the characters out of their environment. As with most rules, I chose to ignore that one and went east. It’s all a question of context and the west within the context of the west is one thing—the west within the context of the east is something very different. I wanted to see what would happen in the development of the characters and their relationships when the playing field was different. I figured I’d either put a finer point on it all, or it would be like a bad episode of McCloud. There were lots of opportunities with Kindness Goes Unpunished to have Walt work in a strange environ and still be effective—he’d be the last to admit it, but he’s a world-class detective. I also wanted to meet Vic Morretti’s family, but the main thing was to define Walt’s relationship with his daughter, Cady. I have two daughters and a new granddaughter—so family is paramount to me. It is to Walt as well and further defines his sense of community.
5. Additionally, your first two outings seemed to focus more on characterization as opposed to the action-centered approach of your latest- both approaches being wonderful on this end- but still having to wonder which approach was most enjoyed on your end?
Each book is different, and I don’t think that I can say one is more character driven than another. Character informs plot and vice-versa. In The Cold Dish and in Death Without Company, rural Wyoming indicates a more deliberate approach—life is slower and there is the space to more carefully consider action and reaction. In Kindness Goes Unpunished, the fast pace of a big city indicates a more immediate action and reaction, so it might seem more plot driven, but each has a separate approach that defines character. That’s one of the nice things about writing for the contemporary mystery audience--they expect a great deal, character development, arc of story, social conscience, humor, and plausible plot lines… I really enjoy all these approaches, because they raise the bar, and I don’t think that bar can ever be high enough.
6. You infuse a great deal of humor in your writing, and you don't do so bad at the poignant moments either; when all is said and done, would you rather leave 'em laughing or crying?
Thank you again. I’m a whore for laughs. Seriously, I think that laughter makes the poignant moments more powerful. George Bernard Shaw said, When the mouth is open with laughter you can insert a bitter medicine. I think my mind is working best when I’m laughing, and it is my assumption that the reader is as well.. I think it’s my job, to engage the reader with every tool I have. So, I think that I can do both—leave ‘em laughing and crying. There was an old rancher who explained cowboy humor to me—which isn’t so different from cop humor. He said, “Everything’s funny till you’re dead.” Then he paused for a moment and continued, “…And dead can be pretty funny, too.”
7. As we write, you're currently on the road busy with the promotion side of things; how is that coming along? When writing your first in the series, had you envisioned this side of the process, or do you often find yourself in some odd town thinking "How did I get here?"
The closest town to my ranch in northern Wyoming has a population of 25—where PD stands for prairie dog, and if you’ve got a loud voice you’ve got a town meeting, so I enjoy seeing anyone, anywhere. I think you have to keep an eye to the business of books or you’re doing a disservice to your publisher. People want to visit you, get your signature and make a connection—I understand that and treasure it. I enjoy the emails; the reading/signings—I feel privileged to be part of an age where there is an ease of communication. If I didn’t enjoy people and being a student of human nature, I don’t think I’d be writing for a living—and if I did, I wouldn’t be very good at it.
8. What, besides writing the actual book, do you find most enjoyable, and least enjoyable, of the process of getting your titles out there?
I enjoy research; the responsibility of ‘getting it right’ is a challenge but a welcomed one. The rewrites are also an epiphany—the time when a good book can become a hell of a lot better. I think that’s where most young authors mess up—not realizing the value of a rewrite. There’s a funny story about the painter, Matisse. He would sell a painting in Paris and people would come home to find their door open and the artist in there touching up his work. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything I was completely satisfied with—there’s always something more you could have done. On the down side are hotel rooms and the frightening moment when you wake up and can’t remember where you are. I’m fortunate enough that my wife is able to accompany me, but I miss my horses and my doges when I travel, and I miss the ranch. I need all that to keep me grounded—the place is my touchstone.
9. Of all the characters you yourself have ever read of, who would you most like to share a cup of coffee or a beer with?
Doc Ricketts from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, maybe Jean Val Jean from Les Miserables, Sidney Carton from Tale of Two Cities, Yossarian from Catch-22, Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, or Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. There are so many…
10. How long have you had that truck?
Quite a while. I bought it for a thousand bucks down in Denver. They said it had been used at a Christmas tree farm—they didn’t tell me it had been used to harvest. The thing is a tank, it may be ugly but it can be twenty degrees below zero at the shop and I can go down there and pull the choke and pump the gas and she fires right up. I immortalized her as Henry’s truck, Rez Dawg. I think she’s symbolic in my life, an analogy for something so deep within me that I wouldn’t know where to begin to describe it. My grandfather once asked me what was more important, something you only touch once or something you touch every day of your life. I’m still working on the answer.
11. And any hints as to what's next?
Yep. It’s called Another Man’s Moccasins, and it’s the fourth installment of the Walt Longmire mysteries. And, it’s two mysteries for the price of one. I talk with a lot of western sheriffs and to a man they said the worst case they have to deal with is the body dump, where a car stops up on a lonely stretch of highway, the trunk opens and a body is thrown out and the car drives away—there you are with a victim, no ID, no crime scene, nothing. That is what happens to Walt. It’s summer in Absaroka County, and the Highway Patrol comes and gets Walt, takes him out to a culvert by the highway, and shows him a dead Asian girl whose neck is broken. Walt knows she is Vietnamese and it reminds him of his first homicide investigation at Tan Son Nhut air base in Vietnam, circa 1968—a story he told Vonnie about in The Cold Dish. The subsequent investigation takes Walt back to his days as a Marine Investigator and, believe it or not, the two cases are related.
Thank you Craig, we look forward to what sounds like a great addition to the series!
Biographical: Craig Johnson:
Craig Johnson has received both critical and popular praise for his novels The Cold Dish (Viking/Penguin) and Death Without Company (Viking) with starred reviews in Kirkus and Booklist. The Cold Dish and Death Without Company have been made Booksense selections by the Independent Booksellers Association, and Killer Picks by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. The Cold Dish was a DILYS Award Finalist and was a Booksense Paperback Summer Pick for 2006. Death Without Company was selected by Booklist as one of the top-ten mysteries of 2006, won the Wyoming Historical Society’s fiction book of the year, and was short-listed to the Mountain & Plain Bookseller’s Association as Book of the Year. Old Indian Trick won the Tony Hillerman Mystery Short Story Award in November of 2005 and appeared in Cowboys & Indians Magazine in March 2006. Kindness Goes Unpunished, the third in the Walt Longmire series, is on sale now.
Craig now lives with his wife Judy in Ucross, Wyoming, population 25.