Craig Johnson’s books featuring his put-upon Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire have grown in popularity and will be the basis for the A&E show “Longmire” starting this June. His latest book, As The Crow Flies, has Walt drawn into a murder case on The Cheyenne reservation. Craig will be here at BookPeople for a discussion and signing of the book on May 16th. Craig was kind enough to find the time to answer a few questions on writing, his Cheyenne friends, and his peyote research.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: You’ve described As The Crow Flies as going back to a traditional Walt Longmire book. What exactly do you mean by that?
CRAIG JOHNSON: Hmm. I don’t particularly remember saying that. Actually, if pressed, I guess I’d say that it’s more of a departure from the last book, Hell is Empty, an allegorical retelling of Dante’s Inferno-but I think that’s true of all the books; each one is a departure from the last. Hell is Empty was something really different; some people liked it, some didn’t but for me the most important thing is that I’m not writing the same books over and over in some kind of half-assed formula. A traditional Walt Longmire book? I’m not sure I even know what that is. I guess the narrative in As the Crow Flies is something a little different in the sense that the book takes place entirely on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, but Walt is back, surrounded by a lot of friends and family, dealing with societal problems, and in that sense I guess it’s more traditional.
MP: I couldn’t help but think that Tony Hillerman would have been proud of your depiction of Indian reservation life. What was important for you to convey about the Cheyenne reservation?
CJ: Thank you for the compliment, Tony was a wonderful guy and a great influence. The people, it’s always about the people. My hope is that the characters express the diversity and intelligence of my friends up on the Rez. One of the dirty little secrets of my books is that the Indian (Yes, I use that term because my Indian friends make fun of me when I use the politically correct term-Native American) characters are generally based on people I know up on the Rez. I’m writing about Indians, but I’m not an Indian so I take great pains in making sure I get them, their culture, history, spirituality, and their humor, right. Using real people makes that possible. The only problem is that there are only about two thousand people up on the Northern Cheyenne Rez and when I use people as characters, everybody knows who I’m talking about.
MP: What is it about Walt that makes it easier to for him to deal with the Cheyenne than with white law enforcement?
CJ: He’s invested on the Rez, an awful lot of Walt’s friends are up there; his family ties are there, which is displayed prominently in the fact that when his daughter gets married she wants it to happen at Crazy Head Springs up on the Rez. I think the Cheyenne trust Walt because he’s not an outsider-plus he has Henry Standing Bear, who is a conduit to and within the Rez.
MP: One thing that makes the book believable and human is how Walt is just as concerned about his daughter’s wedding as he was with solving the murder. Do you find these more everyday subplots just as important and how do you balance them with the genre elements?
CJ: It’s actually one of my favorite things to write about, that balancing act that the characters have to go through to do their job. We live in times that are more complex than before and I think the time of the straight up whodunit is pretty much waning. Readers want the complexity of character that allows for development, and an awful lot of the time that revelation comes from the most mundane things-one of my favorite scenes in the As the Crow Flies is when Walt realizes just how many times he’s failed his daughter in recognizing the most important moments in her life because in Cady’s words, “There’s always been a case”. My editor at Penguin, Kathryn Court, told me early on that the complexities of character are the life-blood of a series; the characters have to change and things have to happen. Eight years later, I see no reason to argue the point.
MP: Like Kindness Goes Unpunished and The Dark Horse, this story has Walt out of his jurisdiction. Do you find these books more difficult to write, since one of Walt’s greatest skills is utilizing his community?
CJ: Not particularly, Walt has a knack for making community wherever he goes. I’ve always said that Walt’s secret weapon is that he cares and this puts him in a position to have an effect on people’s lives. Sure, there are limits to the resources available to him outside his jurisdiction, but those types of challenges only make you work a little harder and if I didn’t want to work my brain a little harder I’d still be riding fence, or digging irrigation ditches.
MP: You called in to our Hard Word Book Club in April to discuss your book, Junkyard Dogs. You said you were tackling some dark themes about family and love as well as how weather pushes violence. Were you surprised for it to be considered one of your funniest books?
CJ: Yes. Crap, there’s a paradox, huh? I don’t know what happens but every time I try to get all Noir, the light in the Laughter on the 23rd Floor room goes on. I think it’s my own defense mechanism against the abyss of a chaotic and anarchistic universe. Like Oscar Wilde said, “I’m never so serious as when I’m joking and never joking as much as when I’m serious”.
MP: One of the best chapters in As The Crow Flies is the vision Walt has during a peyote ceremony. What kind of “research” did you do for that?
CJ:I can neither confirm nor deny any research I may have done in preparation for this or any book. Actually, I just called up some bookseller-friends I know, they’ll take anything.
MysteryPeople welcomes Craig Johnson to BookPeople Wednesday, May 16, 7p to speak about & sign As the Crow Flies.