Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Craig Johnson at the Poisoned Pen
You can always tell when Craig Johnson is in the house. I went to the Poisoned Pen the other night to see him on his book tour. We were quite early, and 45 minutes before the program was to start, there was a booming voice from the front of the store, and my friend turned to me and said, "Craig Johnson is here."
Craig isn't the type to be in a room with an audience for forty-five minutes without telling stories. He started by telling us about his first library event in Wyoming. The staff at the library in Meeteetse contacted him and told him they loved his first book, The Cold Dish, and wanted to ask him to come and talk about it. He said the only thing he'd ever been told in a library was to shut up. Then, they emphasized they were a small library. There's only about 350 people in Meeteetse, and they didn't know if they could handle his honorarium. After he told them all he wanted was a six pack of Ranier beer, he thinks he's appeared at every library in Wyoming in recent years. Craig said he's been in every place there's a library in the state. He hasn't bought a beer in five years.
Craig enjoys touring. He appeared at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C,, and got to meet authors he always wanted to meet. After a reception at the Library of Congress, limos picked up the authors to take them back to five star hotels. One big name author threw himself into the limo, and said, "I have been signing and talking all day, and I'm absolutely exhausted." Craig's wife, Judy, tried to stop him, but he leaned forward and said, "You've never had a real job, have you?" He said book tours are fun, except for the strip searches at the airport. He gets to go to wonderful bookstores, talk to friends who read his books, fly around on the publisher's dime, and stay at nice hotels. What's the problem with that?
Someone asked him about the time he spends on the computer, and he said he doesn't play on it. He's convinced computer solitaire was responsible for Tony Hillerman's death. He was always playing cards. Johnson is a two finger typist. He does Facebook because his wife insists on it. He has to replace keyboards, though, because he types with passion.
He said author Ivan Doig still works on a mechanical typewriter. They get together whenever Johnson gets to Montana, but they send postcards back and forth to get a lunch date set up. Doig doesn't even always answer the phone.
Craig said he doesn't play any games on the computer. He does get up every morning and turn on the computer and read his email. There's nothing he likes better than having a couple dozen people praise you. It's a good way to start the day. He reads all his emails and responds. Sometimes, it's only one line when he's on the road.
Johnson was just up on the rez working on his next book. It's another world up there. He had a lookout cabin in Custer National Forest. You can rent them for $10. Some of the cabins don't even have water, but you can haul it in. It's $10 a night, and all the firewood you can use.
Johnson's friend, Marcus Red Thunder, was hired as a creative consultant for the filming of the pilot of Longmire, based on Johnson's books. Craig kept answering questions about the Cheyenne and Crow, and he had to call Marcus and get the answers. Finally, he told the TV team that Marcus could answer all their questions about Indians. One thing he did was train Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Henry, in the pronunciation of the Cheyenne dialect.
Marcus is the living embodiment of Henry's sense of humor. In researching the second book, Johnson learned there had been a Mennonite church on the rez. He asked Marcus about Mennonites on the rez. He looked up, and said, "It didn't take."
Marcus and Craig were driving on 212 across the rez when they saw a boy, about 10 or 11, with one shoe on. Marcus said pull over, I know that boy. And, he said, "Hey, you lost your shoe." The boy answered, "No, I found one." Craig thought, that's going in a book. The Cheyennes are indestructible, self-depreciating, with a dry humor. The next book is set on the Cheyenne rez. It's the wedding book. Walt's daughter, Cady, is marrying Vic's little brother.
Johnson said anytime there was something important in his life, a strong woman was there to help him. The president of Penguin talked him into making the Walt Longmire books into a series. He intended The Cold Dish to be a standalone. She told him a series survives on the complexity of characters. Craig said in the series that die, the characters never change. It's important to have the evolution of characters. There will be more complications for Johnson's characters down the road.
Cady wants to get married on the rez. That's a nightmare because everyone has an opinion. The Cheyennes don't discuss differences of opinion. They'll listen, and walk out if they disagree. They don't get into discussions.
Three books ago, Johnson was already thinking about the present one, Hell is Empty. Virgil was introduced in Another Man's Moccasins. His voice was damaged in that book. Now, he started talking. Virgil has a checkered past. His life was what Walt and Henry's lives would have been if they had gone bad.
Feels as if this was a whole program, doesn't it? The program hadn't even started yet. Barbara Peters arrived with the beef jerky to go with the beer that had been served earlier. She asked Craig about his beard. He said it was left over. He grows one every winter, and usually shaves it when spring comes. But, spring never came to Wyoming this year. He left it to irritate his wife.
Peters mentioned how big Johnson was in France. He's been there about eight times in two years. He said he has to go keep his wife in French shoes. When Peters commented that they love westerns over there, he corrected her, saying they love Indians over there. Barbara said that's right. Buffalo Bill took his Wild West Show to France. According to Craig, since they war, the French have been inundated with pulp westerns, TV, and movies. He said he had lunch with publishers and he was talking about some of the western authors he liked, and they knew all of them. They have a knowledge of the period West. They're curious about the contemporary American West, and how it all turned out. He started to talk about space, and you could drive hundreds of miles without cities. Barbara Peters mentioned a spacious area of central France, the Auvergne. And, she told us Wyoming has a French influence. Grand Tetons is French for big breasts.
Craig Johnson's Longmire series has been sold to Warner Brothers and A & E. Peters commented that it's nice to see authors they know sell their books to TV. Michael Koryta sold The Cypress House. They can use a generic train in that one.
Asked why A & E was filming Longmire in New Mexico, Craig answered that Chris Donahue had been told to scout locations in Wyoming and Montana. He asked what the exact time of year it was supposed to be in the pilot, and, told early fall, he said Wyoming and Montana in January do not look like early fall. True Grit and No Country for Old Men were filmed in Las Vegas, New Mexico. New Mexico gives incentives to film companies, and there are motion picture crews there.
When he was asked about his books being made into TV, Barbara interjected that TV is just another form of storytelling. Craig had a quick story. He was having dinner in Albuquerque with a lesser known mystery author named Tony Hillerman. It was at the time that PBS was doing movies from his books. A woman came up to him and asked how much control he had with PBS. Hillerman responded that he had just enough control to take the checks and put them in the bank.
Here's how the sale came about. Warner Brothers had an agent with CAA, Creative Artists Agencies in LA, whose job was to find material that might work for TV or movies. That agent went to Craig's literary agent's office, and asked if she had any stories with strong characters. The agent reached back and handed over The Cold Dish. Asked if there were any others, the agent said not until you read that one.
Craig had a conference call with the people on board, and realized they all did quality work. He decided a weekly series was kind of nice. There would be more exposure of his work than with a movie, and there would be the chance to tell more than one story. He said nowadays the more mature work is done on TV. If it's not skateboards or vampires, it doesn't get made for the movies. After a three hour conference call, they told him they'd like to make him an Executive Creative Consultant. He told us that's someone who knows where the porta potties are. However, they kept him in the loop, and asked questions. His author friends told him that's not the way it normally goes.
After a couple weeks, the screenwriters told him they had a hard time fitting The Cold Dish into forty-five minutes. He said that didn't surprise him because his original draft was 600 pages. They said they'd wanted to use the books for overarching the entire series. But, they wanted to bounce ideas for various episodes off him. Craig said some of the ideas were good, some bad, and he told them the difference. Then, Warner Brothers said they wanted to send him the manuscript of the pilot episode. He warned them he had lost writer friends that way, because he will critique it, and he's meticulous. He asked if they were sure they wanted him to go through it. They said yes, and sent Johnson a forty-eight page manuscript. He made 57 changes, and sent it back. There was no response, and he thought, well, that's that. But, two weeks later, he received another package. They made 55 of the 57 changes. That was the turning point.
Then, they wanted to send him dvds of the actor tryouts. Johnson's writer friends said, "What the f..k?" Craig said watching those was like tending a house plant for seven or eight years, and then one morning it starts talking to you.
The company asked, "Why is Walt 6'5" and 250 pounds?" He was a ranch kid, a big Wyoming ranch kid. Johnson didn't want him a studied character who knew self-defense. He was an offensive tackle for USC in the '60s. There are counties in Wyoming as big as Maryland, and they have limited resources. A law enforcement officer can drive forty miles to beat in a door during a bar fight, and it's you alone, with no backup. Craig said he knew from his short exposure in law enforcement how little animals react when they see big animals. That was Walt. The studio told him that they wouldn't be able to find someone 6'5" who can act. Craig answered, it doesn't matter. Everyone in Hollywood is 5'8".
Craig's wife, Judy, said, "That's the guy." He moves like a westerner. He has the movement, the gestures. He's age appropriate. He's magnificent. He was in The Matrix, and has done TV series. Robert Taylor is from Australia. You can't tell when he's talking, except when he tells New Zealand jokes. One day, he stood and told Craig all about Walt Longmire; that he was depressed after his wife's death. Then, he looked at Craig and said, "I can't believe I'm telling you about Walt Longmire." Johnson answered, as of this morning, there was only one expert. Now there are two.
When it came time to cast Henry Standing Bear, they said the only twelve Indian actors in LA had auditioned. It had to be someone sharp, and fast, and no one was clicking. When they asked Craig what he thought of Lou Diamond Phillips, he thought he was too young and too skinny. Then he realized he was thinking of him in La Bamba, and that was thirty years ago. He's older now, and he did a fantastic audition. It blew Johnson away. He had heard the other auditions. When Phillips read for the role, he used no contractions. Craig realized he'd read the books. Lou Diamond Phillips knew he had seven books of material. He knew Henry's passages, and quoted them to Johnson. Then he said, "People quote all my movie lines back to me. Am I annoying you?" Johnson told him he knew he'd read all the books.
Barbara Peters mentioned that Craig had been at the Poisoned Pen for every book. The Cold Dish had been a selection of their Firsts book club. For the second one, Johnson rode down on his motorcycle because his publisher didn't want him to tour for the book. But, the attitude of the publisher has changed since then.
Craig wanted to thank the audience. He said he was surprised to know he had a big enough following that Hell is Empty appeared at #24 on the New York Times Bestseller List.