Universal Westerns: PW Talks with Author Craig Johnson

by Jordan Foster -- Publishers Weekly, 4/6/2009

Craig Johnson's The Dark Horse (Reviews, Mar. 30) is his fifth contemporary mystery featuring Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire.

What would you want everyone to know about Walt's home state of Wyoming?

It's diverse, and even if there are only 535,000 of us, it's not as square as it looks, culturally or physically. We get called “the big empty,” but open places tend to draw in the interesting.

What made you decide to set The Dark Horse outside of Walt's jurisdiction?

I overheard a conversation in a Wyoming sheriff's office when one sheriff called another to see if he'd mind if he came into the other sheriff's county and took a look around—it concerned a case he was working on. Now, as an ex-cop pretty familiar with the fiefdoms that can result out of jurisdictional application, I was curious to see how this other sheriff would respond. The sheriff in whose office I was sitting put his hand over the phone and said, “He says he'll pay for my gas.” I thought it was so funny, I ended up putting it in the book.

Native American culture figures prominently in your books. What's your inspiration?

My ranch is adjacent to both the Crow and Cheyenne reservations, and I've got an awful lot of friends up there. They're an amazing people; I'm consistently humbled by how remarkable they are. There's one guy, Marcus Red Thunder, whom I use freely in assembling the character of Henry Standing Bear. He's got a sharp sense of humor. Most Indians I know have great senses of humor. Of course, looking at the treatment of Native Americans from a historical perspective, you have to laugh or you'd end up crying your eyes out.

Do you consider your books to be “westerns”?

They are in the sense that they're novels set in the American West, but I try to deal with the universal imperative of the human condition. I love and live in the West, but I also try to be honest about it. I'd be a fool to not realize that there's a certain amount of baggage that goes along with writing contemporary western fiction, but instead of falling into the ruts, I try and take it down the road less traveled.

Like Walt, you also live in a small Wyoming town. Do people assume that the two of you are interchangeable?

At events, a lot of people start their questions with, “So when you and Henry went up in the mountains....” I always correct them, for fear that they might want me to arrest someone



Craig Johnson on The Cold Dish

Who is Walt based on? Henry? Vic?VVic?

I agree with Wallace Stegner that the greatest fraud perpetrated on the reading public is the statement at the beginning of each novel that states that this is a work of fiction and that any similarity to persons living or dead… What a crock. I'm always looking for traits, turns of phrase, anything that might help me inform my characters; it's all grist for the mill.

Walt is special because he's the voice of the book, the head that you have to be inside for hundreds of pages; so, he better be honest and be real. I think that the reading public is pretty smart; they can tell if you're on thin ice. I try and keep Walt close and, while I wouldn't say he was me, I'd say he was closer, on a whole, than any of the other characters. He's who I'd like to be in about ten years, but I'm off to an awfully slow start… I assembled him, to a certain extent, from a lot of my experiences and from a lot of the individuals that I worked with in law enforcement. I basically tried to engender a sheriff that embodied all the best qualities of police work that I could think of: compassion, intelligence, dogged determination, and strong sense of right and wrong.

Henry is a composite character who I developed from two very close friends, one a Lakota Sioux the other a Cree. They're both pretty incredible guys with great senses of humor and a kind of wistful spirituality that gives me an ability to explore areas that Walt might otherwise leave untouched. I think a lot of writers make the same mistake with Indians that they do with cops, forgetting that they're people.

Vic. Where do I start? I needed an urban voice in The Cold Dish, and I was interested in making her a different kind of character than what you might assume to live in Absaroka County, Wyoming. I needed somebody who was savvy and smart and being kind of sexy wasn't a necessarily a bad thing…

Why did you make Walt's deputy a woman?

Sexual tension. Even with the difference in age and background, I thought it might be more interesting if they had this unrequited relationship, the potential of something happening even if it never did. I also needed a female voice to balance out the weight of the masculine narrative. I've always thought, like Walt, that life is infinitely more interesting with women around.

Why does Vic have such a foul mouth?

There's that great line in Inherit the Wind , ‘There are few enough words everybody understands…' My father is a master of profanity and, I have to admit, that at times it can be pretty damn funny. It just doesn't fit with Walt's voice, but it doesn't hurt to have Vic be more than just a little profane. It's the way cops talk, at least all the cops I worked with.

Why did you write a murder mystery?

I grew up with parents that read the genre, and I can see how wanting to know who done it can be a powerful motivation for finishing a book; Lord knows I used it to write one, but I think it just kind of happened by accident. I'm interested in who done it as much as the next guy, but I suspect that I might be more interested in what happens to the people who are involved after a crime has been committed. How life continues along with the investigation of criminal activity. And I'm interested in consequence.

Why write?

I'm a product of one of those families that used to go out on the porch and talk after dinner, not watch television, not surf the net… Just talk. Maybe I'm giving away my age a little, but I think it's also a product of a rural upbringing. My father says I come from a long line of bullshitters, and I'm just the first one to write the bullshit down.

I guess a lot of it comes from being interested in people, enjoying listening to them talk about themselves, and trying to recreate conversation in a novel.

I also enjoy the mechanics of writing, rolling up your sleeves in the face of that empty, blank page and getting started, following through with a story and seeing where it takes you. I was one of those kids that used to get hit with an eraser for looking out the windows and was told by second grade teachers that I'd never get ahead by day-dreaming… Shows how much they knew.

Did your surroundings growing up have anything to do with you being a writer?

I suppose so. Growing up in a rural situation gives you two options, finding a way to entertain yourself or having adults find something to occupy your time, like bailing hay. You'd be surprised how far your imagination will go to keep you away from honest labor.

I've always read a lot, and I think readers make good writers. I think that might be one of the reasons I enjoy writing and reading, the effort. It's not a passive form of entertainment, you have to put some effort out to get anything from it and that appeals to me.

Where did you get the idea for The Cold Dish?

There was a highly publicized case in New Jersey, which involved a young woman who had been abused in a similar situation. I think that's where the back-story came from. How these things can happen, how they're dealt with in a community, and how law enforcement is involved. How complete victories and losses can be an elusive quality in a complicated society such as ours, and how everybody gets hurt in these situations, everybody.

Why is the rape victim a Native American?

Indian. All the Indians I know laugh when people refer to them as Native Americans. Now to the question. Melissa is an Indian because I've always been interested in cross-cultural relationships, whether they are large, on a social basis, or small, interpersonal connections. I wondered what would happen between Walt and Henry, and what would happen to this little town on the edge of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Also, it's a story about the west, and the Indians have to be there, they're too wonderful to leave out.

Are the places in the book real?

Yep, every damn one of ‘em. It's easy to see stories everywhere I go. I wake up in Walt's world every morning.

Where did you practice law enforcement?

It was a large, metropolitan department in the east, which gave me an insight into the procedural aspects of law enforcement that makes writing this kind of novel a little easier. Walking a beat in a city is very different from sheriffing a county the size of Vermont, but there are similarities. I spent a lot of time with another good friend, Sheriff Larry Kirkpatrick of Johnson County, refitting my experiences to a more rural jurisdiction. I rode around with Larry a lot; herding cattle off the highway with a cruiser is a real talent…

Why is Chapter 12 different from the rest of the book?

As a writer, you get to know what your strengths and weaknesses are and, if you're honest, you get to work on both. I've always felt the most insecure about my writing the closer it gets to poetry and spirituality. I think we've all been pushed out onto the ragged edge of reality, and it's difficult to describe what happens there in words. When Walt gets stuck on the mountain in the blizzard, he has to confront himself. I think that's what I was trying to capture in the second part of Chapter 12. Most people love it, some people hate it, but I don't think it's the last time I'll go there.

Why did you decide to continue the story and write a second novel?

Because my agent told me to. Just kidding. After I finished the book, I wandered around the ranch for a couple of weeks with my lower lip pooched out. Finally my wife asked me what was wrong. It was like a death, all these people and places were gone, and I couldn't help but wonder where they were and what had happened to them since I'd finished the book. I know I don't want to write Walt Longmire mysteries for the rest of my life, but I think I have enough interest in their lives to write a few more.