Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Craig Johnson on The Bighorn Mountains, The Third Man Syndrome, and "The Bulwark Between Justice and Chaos."

Hi, Craig! Thanks for agreeing to chat once again.

Your new Walt Longmire mystery, HELL IS EMPTY, is a fascinating read, especially, for me, because of all of its literary parallels. Dante’s INFERNO plays an important role in the story. Did you have the idea that you wanted Walt to go, symbolically, through many levels of hell?

It’s a novel that I’ve had in the works for a few years now, and it took that long to get all the pieces into place. I knew when I introduced Virgil White Buffalo in Another Man’s Moccasins that I was committed to the idea of an allegorical tale that would utilize Inferno. I knew that Walt was going to return to the Bighorn mountains, specifically to the area where he ventured in my first novel, The Cold Dish—but I didn’t want the book to simply be another manhunt in the snow (I figure that’s been done to death), so I started thinking about which works of literature explored the things I’d be dealing with in Hell is Empty.

Two things most people aren’t aware of are that there are only one or two sentences describing hell in the Bible--that the majority of the images we have of hell actually come from Dante, and that the further you go down into Dante’s hell, the colder it gets, the epic poem finally ending in a frozen lake with snow and wind. The parallels were there--I just had to find a way to use them so that people who were familiar with Inferno weren’t bored and so that readers who weren’t wouldn’t be intimidated.

Even though you reference Dante continually, the title is taken from a line in Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, one of my favorite plays. I see many parallels between your book and that play—specifically the recurring theme of illusion versus reality. On Shakespeare’s magical island, one can rarely tell what is and what is not. Did you try to use that idea in your mystery?

Yes, illusion and reality is certainly primary in Hell Is Empty, but its discussion was also a problem in the sense that I didn’t want to replicate what I’d done in The Cold Dish. Taking the idea in a new direction was challenging, so I decided to use Walt’s disbelief. The main question at that point was when was Virgil there, and when wasn’t he? It’s called ‘Third Man Syndrome’ when you’re out on the trail and suddenly feel as if someone is there with you, even to the point of pouring them a cup of coffee or offering them your canteen.

Because this mystery takes place almost entirely outside, in the vast wilderness, it is not so much a who-dunnit as it is an odyssey. Did this make it easier or more difficult to maintain the tension in the plot?

Well, it’s an odyssey disguised as a thriller with mystery elements to the plot; questions not so much about who done it, but more of why or how. It’s pretty obvious who the bad guys are in Hell is Empty; something is going to happen, it’s just a question of the inevitable when, and that defines the momentum.

The outdoors setting wasn’t a hindrance to the tension of the plot—hell, most of the exciting times in my life have been out of doors! The location of the novel was crucial in that the setting becomes a character unto itself. I know that phrase sounds a little hackneyed, but it’s true. The spiritual elements of The Old Cheyenne are tied to the land. My type of people have only been in this country for a couple hundred years, whereas my Indian friend’s ancestors have been here for thousands—is it hard to believe that they might know a little more about the place than we do?

No--but fascinating! Walt experiences several existential yet beautiful moments in which he questions the meaning of it all. One of my favorites is this: “Maybe our greatest fears were made clear this high, so close to the cold emptiness of the unprotected skies. Perhaps the voices were of the mountains themselves, whispering in our ears just how inconsequential and transient we really are.” This is lovely, and again has me thinking of THE TEMPEST and Prospero’s realization that everything fades (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on . . . “)

So here’s the question: Does the experience of being in nature for a long period of time make one aware of his or her lack of importance, or even make one question the reason for existence?

Thank you. I’ve often described the eastern part of the US like an oil-painting, whereas the high plains are more of a charcoal sketch, and that’s okay because things become clearer in a sparse environment. The landscape is humbling and introspective, but it’s also invigorating. As Wallace Stegner said, “We must protect and preserve the open spaces if for no other reason than the way they make us feel when we look upon them.”

And here’s the answer: It’s an amplifier for whatever your particular philosophies might be. I do know that it changes you; we go through our lives believing in the artificial world, the man-made world, but every once in a while we get a glimpse of something more. For me, a lot of the time, that’s in Wyoming ’s Bighorn mountains .

A beautiful answer.

Eyes are a recurring symbol in the novel, especially those of Reynaud Shade, your disturbing villain. I read significance into the fact that Shade had only one working eye, but that it was the “dead one” that seemed to be looking at Walt. How did you come up with Shade; did you always envision him as a one-eyed man?

“In the land of the blind…” Well, you get the point. His perspective of humanity is unfinished, uneven, out of balance—so I thought it was a way of expressing that in a physical sense. His past and the cycle of violence that produced him is one of the mysterious elements I mentioned before. I take the antagonists in my books very seriously. I’m not particularly a fan of the bad man character; there has to be a reason for this monster: how was he assembled, who assembled him, and where did he come from?

The Cheyenne say you can judge a man by the strength of his enemies, and Walt is pushed to his limits in confronting Raynaud Shade, a man whose glass eye shows more life than his own biological one. My favorite quote, of course, is Vic’s—“The voices in that fucker’s head are singing barber shop.”

Speaking of Shade, I love your character names, as you know. Walt Longmire is a terrific moniker for a tragic hero, and Reynard has come to be a word for “fox” in French. Did you choose the name to suit the man who outfoxes Longmire (and everyone else)?

Yes. I like playing with names; it’s just too much of a temptation. If this fox was going to play halfway between the lands of the living and the dead, what better last name than Shade (an archaic term for a ghost)?

And a mythological one! Walt has good friends and loyal colleagues, but he is ultimately a solitary man. Did you purposely create a protagonist whose essential loneliness is a reflection of his landscape?

One of the first images I had in assembling the novels was a vertical figure against a horizontal landscape. So I think, yes, Walt speaks to the place and the Western genre as a whole in that sense. And, there’s a percentage of crime fiction that derives its impact from some very basic questions about existence—who are we, why are we here, what are the rules, are there any rules? I think the sheriff walks that cosmic line and provides a bulwark between justice and chaos; that’s a pretty lonely beat.

But nobly so. At many points in the book people advise Walt to stop his quest. Aside from the fact that he is the sheriff, what quality is it that most pushes Walt forward into further conflicts?

It’s almost easier for Walt to keep moving than it is to stop; he’s definitely the unstoppable force. I think there’s a responsibility that comes from inheriting the mantle of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the rest of those white hats. Walt is a product of a more sophisticated time, but he still adheres to the cowboy code of ethics. He’s aware that, at times, he’s putting his ass on the line, but it’s who he is and what he does. There’s a chivalry to the man that’s inherent, a trait you can trace through crime fiction from Sam Spade, Spencer, Joe Leaphorn and Walt Longmire.

In every novel, Walt learns more wisdom and legend from Native American characters. Did you research these ideas in books, learn them from friends on the reservation, or make them up?

You can pretty much tell from my acknowledgements that I’m indebted to my Northern Cheyenne and Crow friends for allowing me access to their lives and culture. Most of the Indian characters in my books have a basis in individuals I know up on the Rez. I research the living daylights out of everything, but it’s the primary research of talking to my friends that trumps it all. Sometimes its not big, textbook history, but rather, small, social history that finds its way into the novels just because those moments can be more informing.

I was driving up on the Rez with my buddy, Marcus Red Thunder, and we came upon this ten-year-old kid walking along route 212 with only one shoe.

Marcus told me to pull over because he knew the kid. I stopped, and Marcus said, “Hey, you lost your shoe!”
The kid turns around with this beatific smile and says, “No, I found one!”
Now, that says a lot.

It does. Walt has difficulty switching from wilderness and isolation to civilization and other people. Have you ever experienced this phenomenon?

Oh yeah. I’ve mountaineered my whole life, and I don’t know how many times I’ve come out of the mountains, unlocked my truck and just sat there in the seat trying to remember what all those switches and buttons do. It’s the same with people; a lot of times I’ll go to a restaurant or café and just sit there and listen to people, attempting to reacquire my power of speech.

How do you feel about the casting of your Walt Longmire television series, and when does it come out?

It’s been a phenomenal experience; Shephard/Robin and Warner Television have pretty much kept me in the loop, which really isn’t something I expected. They made me an executive creative consultant and had me on-set for the entire shoot. The casting, the direction, just about everything has been amazing.

The pilot, which will become the first episode if the project is picked up, was shipped from Warner Horizon over to A&E this week. A board will have input, and it’ll be shown to a number of test audiences. By September we should have a definitive answer on whether it is that ‘Longmire’ will ever see the light of day.

Keep your fingers crossed.

I will! Thanks for a great series and a fine interview.

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