The Fifty-Two Pickup, a year-long Q&A
from the Longmire Book Club on
Facebook is coming. Until then enjoy
these earlier talks with Craig Johnson.
Universal Westerns: Publishers
Weekly talks with Author Craig
by Jordan Foster -- April 6, 2009
Craig Johnson's The Dark Horse 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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
© Craig Johnson All Rights Reserved