Friday, June 08, 2007

Craig Johnson on Creating Walt Longmire, Writing from the Heart, and Loving Wild Wyoming

Craig, I just finished The Cold Dish and thought it was wonderful: compelling, beautifully written, spiritual—and exciting. And now I have many questions about you and your book.

It seems like this book would have taken a long time to write. Do you write full time?

I’m one of the fortunate few, who get to write full time. That wasn’t particularly the case when I started The Cold Dish, but after it started selling I was able to hang up my rope, saddle and tool-belt. I built the ranch where I live myself, and I’m pretty glad I did it when I did ‘cause I don’t think I’d have the time to do it now.

Is Absaroka County a real place?
The series is about Walt Longmire, who is the sheriff in a rural county in northern Wyoming and has been for twenty-three years. Absaroka County is located alongside the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, which is strangely reminiscent of where I live in Johnson and Sheridan Counties, but it is fictitious. My ranch is about eighteen miles from Buffalo, Wyoming, the town from which I modeled Durant, and 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.

Your protagonist, Sheriff Walt Longmire, has a cool name. Did you construct it to hint at something about Walt—-as in, “he has long been mired in trouble?”
You know, I’ve been waiting three years for somebody to ask that question. My hat is off to you, Julia. Yes, it’s another metaphor for Walt. When we first meet him in The Cold Dish, he’s pretty depressed about his life, but by the time he’s into the investigation, he’s starting to come out of it. Of course, that’s what makes the ending so bitter-sweet.

Speaking of trouble, Walt seems reminiscent of some detectives of the hard boiled school—like if Lew Archer or Philip Marlowe went to Wyoming. Do you like reading detective fiction?
I’ve read a lot of the ‘golden era’ of crime literature, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Dorothy L. Sayers, but currently I try to stay well-read in all genres. I think you can fall into a trap writing and reading in a single genre. 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.

Here, here. At the center of the story is Walt’s friendship with Henry Standing Bear. What came first in your imagination—the bond between these men, or the mystery itself?
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. The friendship is the core of the series, and even though I think each book should have a distinct and interesting plot, I feel that they’re character-driven, with an aesthetic that draws you into the story through the characters.

Did you do any research on a Cheyenne reservation?
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. Indians are incredible in so many ways, their integrity, their humor, their spirituality… They are the bedrock of what I consider to be the west, and excuse the pun; it would be criminal to leave them out of the books.

Walt has a deputy, Victoria Moretti, who has an interesting relationship with him. Am I allowed to ask if this will ever be a romantic relationship? (Or maybe it has become one—I’ve only read book one).
Because of the strength of the men’s friendship and since the books are told from Walt’s perspective in first-person, 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. As to the question of whether the relationship between Walt and Vic will go anywhere? Read on…

Your book has subtle literary references, and your bio identifies you as someone with “a background in law enforcement and education.” Does that mean you were once an English teacher?

I’ve taught on a collegiate level, which is only slightly less intense than being a police officer. I love to read, so it was easy to think of Walt as a reader. 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.

He did remind me of Gary Cooper! One of my favorite descriptions in the book—and one of the funniest—is Walt’s description of Henry’s truck, which he despises. Did you ever have a vehicle you despised?
I’ve got four trucks, one car, and three motorcycles—-so, you can see a problem here, right? I bought the one you mentioned 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 things. It’s 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 as well as in Henry’s, an analogy for something so deep within me that I wouldn’t know where to begin to describe it.

I like the covers of your books. Are you pleased with them?
I love the covers of the books, but guess what? They’re changing. Sales for the series have been really good, but not astronomical, so Viking/Penguin wants to go with a change and make the covers more acceptable to a larger, urban audience—-so, I’m going to argue, right?

I guess. You live in a Wyoming town with a population of 25. Could you live in a big city?
I’ve actually lived in a lot of big cities, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Louisville… I’m not metro-phobic, I love cities, but I always knew I’d settle down back in the west and away from it all. I’ve never written as much as I do in Wyoming-it speaks to me.

I was in Wyoming once, and I was forced to go horseback riding on an evil quadriped named Shiny, who spent most of the trail ride trying to ignore me and the fact that my saddle was slowly falling off. Is horseback riding a Wyoming staple? I don’t remember anyone on horseback in the book.
Sorry, it’s a state tradition to put all the tourists on Shiny . . . I grew up riding, but Walt seems to not enjoy it so much. There is a scene on horseback in the latest of the books, Kindness Goes Unpunished. It figures that it would take place in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia and not in Wyoming. It’s my contrary nature, I guess.

Kindness Goes Unpunished is a terrific title!

Your book describes the beauty of Wyoming, and Walt mentions at one point the distinctive nature of Wyoming sunsets/sunrises. I believe this, since I live in the Midwest, where I barely notice the sun at all. Are these beautiful events attributable to the largeness of the Wyoming sky, or is there something else that makes the sunsets memorable?
I think that when you’re a westerner, you ignore nature at your own peril-—everybody knows somebody who had a brother or uncle who went out to feed cows in a blizzard and never came back. It’s harsh but representational of the culture. There’s always the summer, though, and that time in the afternoon when the sun hits the breaks of the Powder River or the Big Horn Mountains just right . . .

Parts of your books also remind me of old westerns. Did you watch those as a kid (or an adult)? Were you ever influenced by people like Zane Gray or Louis L’Amour?
You can’t write about the west and not be influenced by those guys. I think it’s important to acknowledge the iconoclastic aspects of the genre you work in, taking advantage of a high-context relationship with the reader for all sorts of reasons, laughs, for one. I write contemporary novels, but they’re set in the west, so I better know about the west in a non-fiction and fictional sense. I’m probably more influenced by western writers like Walter Van Tilberg Clark, Wallace Stegner, John Steinbeck, and Dorothy Johnson.

Walt and many of his acquaintances know a great deal about guns. Do you have a lot of gun knowledge, or is this something you had to research?
Both. I grew up with a father that knows a great deal about guns, but I also do a lot of research. The hard part is convincing your wife that you really need a Sharps buffalo rifle for research . . .

I can see how that would be a challenge. :)

You seem to have experienced a couple of whirlwind years in the publishing world. What’s been the most surprising to you about the whole book scene?

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 I’ve been most surprised by how much 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. I truly enjoy listening.

A lot of The Cold Dish takes place in the outdoors. Is Wyoming too beautiful a place to waste time indoors?
I like the outdoors and have spent the majority of my adult life in it, but curled up next to a fire with a good book is an awfully nice way to spend a snowy, windy evening . . .

Walt has an intensely spiritual experience. Do you have ghost stories of your own? If so, can you share one?
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 that are described in the books is in allowing the reader to interpret along with the characters—-did that really happen or did I imagine that? I’ve been out there on the ragged edge, where you’re talking to people who aren’t there.

I love the Shakespearean parallel. Will the Walt Longmire series be a long one?
That’s what Viking/Penguin tells me. I love the characters and the place, so I don’t ever see not writing them.

SOME BONUS QUESTIONS:

Why did you set the newest in the series in Philadelphia?
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.

Uh--excuse me: there was no bad episode of McCloud! "'Preciate your confidence, Craig!"

Why is there so much humor in your books?

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’s 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, by the way. He said, “Everything’s funny till you’re dead.” Then he paused for a moment and continued, “ . . . and dead can be pretty funny, too.”

Good point. What do you enjoy most about the process?
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.

What’s next?
It’ll be out next March and it’s called Another Man’s Moccasins, 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.

Cool! I hope to be caught up with the series by then. Thanks so much for talking with me, Craig!

24 comments:

Neil Plakcy said...

Great interview! I have loved all three books and I'm depressed that I have to wait nearly a year for the next one.

Karen Olson said...

Fantastic interview. I met Craig at Mayhem in Omaha a couple of weeks ago, and he's a great guy as well as being a great writer.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Neil and Karen. Yes, once I read THE COLD DISH I knew I had to talk to Craig Johnson! And Neil, you probably envy me--I still have two books to go. :)

Karen, I more and more wish I had gone to Mayhem. I could have met you and Craig both. :)

Robin L. said...

Julia - I found your blog via Erica Ridley's and am so glad I did. I want to go get all of your books and Craig Johnson's!

Julia Buckley said...

Wow, thanks, Robin! I hope you'll stop in again.

Bob said...

Wow! Great interview. I am a huge fan of Craig Johnson. I stop people in the street and recommend his books. Well, okay, in the library. Start doing that in the street and they lock you up.

And you watch sunsets in Montana because the sky really seems bigger there. It must be some strange phenomenon, but we pulled over to the side of the road and looked around. There just isn't anything there for a lot of the state and the sky seems so BIG.

But a word of warning... there are only two public toilets in Montana. One just as you enter and one just before you leave. Those ranchers either have strong bladders or little modesty!

Julia Buckley said...

Hmmm. You made it seem appealing with the sky imagery, but the toilet thing was a dose of realism that might keep me on the border, near one of the toilets. :)

Thanks, Bob!

Anonymous said...

I just finished "Death Without Company" and immediately went out searching for "The Cold Dish", then ordered in on Amazon.com. Found "Kindness Goes Unpunished" at Borders. All in 3 days. I'm hooked. What a wonderfully unique author. I can't wait for the next one!

Julia Buckley said...

I agree, anonymous. :) Craig is a great find.

Tyler said...

Hello Julia & folks around
… A few books later, I'm still crazy about Craig's novels. He's getting pretty well-known in France (Eu) as well, thanks to Oliver Gallmeister, his smart publisher in Paris (take a look at his website : Gallmeister.fr, you'll understand). Coming next spring as a resident writer in central France, in one of our National parks. Going to be great, preparing his 9th opus.
Nice to share your bright interview to introduce him. I'm the same kind of guy as Bob, buying Craig's books to give'em around.
Tyler

Anton said...

I am living in Russia and enjoy seeing Longmire TV Series. Great job !

Harold Dean said...

Love the series especially since I am so familiar with the area after doing a year long job over in Lincoln County. The views east of South Pass to Riverton and on up to the reservation look a great deal like some of the TV series shots. Harold Dean

Jim Baskin said...

Love your books, the storytelling and the atmosphere you create. Having lived in a small Wyoming town(Cowly Wyoming), I can visualize every aspect of your stories no matter where they take place. The day I moved into Cowley the Welcome To Cowley Wyoming sign said Population 260. The next morning I go to the local Post Office/grocery store/Co-Op store to get a PO box. Someone that previous night or early the next morning went out with a bucket of black paint, X'ed out the 260 and wrote under it 264! I love Wyoming!! And I did know a Sheriff almost similar to walt, they are out there in the West folks.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks everyone--I will share your comments with Craig.

Linda Ekwall said...

i really enjoy watching walt is what you might find in wyo. i know ive lived in casper wyo my whole life

Larry Lowe said...

I came across Walt Longmire driving backwards. Netflix recommended it and, against my better judgement, I gave it a try. TV westerns are so stereotyped.

Took about 5 minutes to set the hook firmly. I kept thinking that there was something about this guy that just resonated with my experience.

I was born in Sheridan, but grew up in a cabin in the Bighorns. We had an old WWII little Jeep and spent the summers driving all over the range.

One of the figures from my youth was an imposing hulk of a law enforcement type -- county Sheriff, I think -- by the name of Pete Peterson. Just the way Walt handles himself tells you the character is authentic.

Have absorbed the first season in two days and love the depth of it.

If the series gets picked up a second season, I'd love to see the production company shot an episode in the Bighorns. There are a number of very characteristic geographic features unique to the area: Hairpain turn, Steamboat Rock, Black Mountain, Shell Canyon, Shell Falls. That pocket mountain range has a character all its own. The U of Illinois geology department used to conduct summer field trips because you can find an example of every kind of geological feature within something like 50 miles.

As for a plot suggestion, I think it would be a good opportunity for Walt to have a full-on spiritual/paranormal experience in the process of resolving whatever mystery is at hand.

This would best be done at the Medicine Wheel when the full moon rises at midnight on the Fall Equinox or Summer Solstice. The Medicine Wheel is managed by the Crow. I can tell you for a fact that there is something mystical about the place.

Thanks, Craig, for bringing the ethos of my upbringing to vivid, accurate life.

Medicine Wheel

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for the comment, Larry! I'll pass it on to Craig.

Anonymous said...

Love the series.
Please no romance between Walt and Vic!!!! It makes it turn towards being a soap opera. It would ruin their bond.
Just do not see it.

Anonymous said...

I think the relationship between Walt and Vic is extremely important, and the only chance of real happiness for both of them. Both are flawed damaged people--- let's give them a little happiness.

samantha said...

I agree! They do deserve a little peace & happiness in their life but i dont believe it should happen while sean is still in the picture. That would go against Walt's character. He has too much respect for Vic to put her in that situation.

Ericka Cooper said...

I live in Riverton WY and have fallen in love with the Longmire show and look forward to the books. Longmire is very popular locally and we even see "Longmire for Sheriff" posters with our sheriff campaign. I can understand why now.

Julia Buckley said...

It's popular, and the show is great, but the books are the best. I know fans are very upset about the show being cancelled.

keith fisher said...

The books and show are great,maybe the books have the edge. I don't think I will ever get to wyoming l'm get on a bit and it's a long way from the UK. But the books and the show bring it all life

keith fisher said...

The books and show are great,maybe the books have the edge. I don't think I will ever get to wyoming l'm get on a bit and it's a long way from the UK. But the books and the show bring it all life