It was about time that I had the chance to hear Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire series, do an entire program. I heard part of a program at the Tucson Festival of Books, but had to leave before the end, so I never had the chance to introduce myself as a friend of Jen Forbus'. He appeared at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore on his tour for the sixth book in the series, Junkyard Dogs. I can promise you that I can't do justice to this recap, since I'm not going to be able to capture the humor and tone of the comments between Craig Johnson and interviewer Robert Dugoni. This was a very funny program.
Barbara Peters commented that it might be the first time she'd ever seen Craig Johnson without his trademark hat. And, in his booming voice, he said, "It's hot!" Then he said his publisher had sent him on a Dixie tour, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and ending up in Houston. He said with that weather, he learned he never wants to live in the East. He said it was cooler here. Barbara said she doesn't think she's ever heard an author say the weather was an improvement when they came to Arizona in June.
Then, when Barbara asked if it was his Paris shoes tour, Johnson introduced his wife, Judy, and she showed off her shoes. He asked that everybody buy a book so he could afford her Paris shoes habit. Barbara mentioned that they had just made two trips to France, two weeks apart, and shoes might have played a part in it. But, Craig Johnson's books are very popular in France, and he just won the 2010 Prix du Roman Noir prize, an award for noir fiction.
Peters went on to say that every one of Johnson's six books have been Indie Next picks. Johnson said yes, he's been very pleased because the independent book sellers have selected those books as worth reading.
Then, Barbara Peters told us she had a special treat for us, and we wouldn't have to listen to her, because Robert Dugoni, author of Bodily Harm, was in town, and would do the interview.
Johnson said their friendship had been cemented at the last LA Times Book Festival when the two were on a panel together. It was the first time the recordings of the panels weren't free, so now you can buy a recording of the two on it together. Dugoni remarked he was a fan of Johnson's before he met him, and didn't know it. He said he's the type to go into a bookstore and ask for one book I should read. A bookseller gave him Johnson's The Cold Dish. He read it, liked it, and thought it had crisp dialogue, and the story moved. He gave it to his wife to read. Then, he was on one end of the panel in LA, and Craig Johnson was on the other. He kept wondering, how do I know this guy. When he mentioned The Cold Dish, he knew how he knew him.
Dugoni asked about the new book, Junkyard Dogs. He said to Johnson, you say you get your ideas from memories. What memories brought about Junkyard Dogs? Johnson told the story, saying he was from a town of 25 in Wyoming, and once the junkyard was gone, all the heavy industry was gone. Jimmy George had come home to Buffalo, Wyoming after the service, and started a salvage operation. After a couple decades, the junkyard covered a great deal of land. Then, the interstate highway came through, and the site they picked for the exit was right by the junkyard. So, the founding fathers bought another lot, right at the base of the Bighorn Mountains to swap for the junkyard site. So, the junkyard moved from Buffalo to Ucross.
Then, Sonny George, the son, took over. He was a real piece of work, best described as a junkyard mountain man. Well, Ucross is now home of the Ucross Foundation, an artist retreat on 22,000 acres, and artists come from all over the country. Their not real happy with the junkyard sprawl, and there was almost a range war over it. Craig said he witnessed it It was about the economy of the American West, and it was confrontational.
Craig knew Sonny pretty well. He had long hair, and a beard to his belt buckle. In the book, he describes the man as "Freezed-dried by winter, sun-dried by summers," and looking like "Beef jerky with blue eyes."
Johnson often does ride alongs with the sheriff of Johnson County, and the sheriff told him one day that they were going to Sonny George's. He had busted some ribs, and his kids wanted him to go to the hospital, and he wouldn't. He was going to try to negotiate with his to get in the squad car and go to the emergency room at the hospital. Craig said that could be interesting, and he knew Sonny, so he went along. They got him to go to the hospital, and, after about five minutes, the doctor came out and said that was something he'd never seen. George's hair had grown through his long underwear. The sheriff and Johnson agreed that was more information than they cared to know.
Robert Dugoni said he's the type who goes into bookstores, and picks up books and reads the first sentence. Here's the first sentence of Junkyard Dogs. "I tried to get a straight answer from his grandson and granddaughter-in-law as to why their grandfather had been tied with a hundred feet of nylon rope to the rear bumper of the 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado."
Craig said, "True story!" When he was teaching writing classes, he had one student who was always coming in with stories of his family. They had a lot of drama in their lives. So, one day, he came in with a story of his grandfather. They cleaned the chimney at the family's big house by soaking a mop with kerosene and putting it down the chimney. Johnson said he could see a lot of things that might have happened. Well, it was January, and the grandfather normally hooked a leg over the gutter and cleaned the chimney. Although he was 72, he was best fit to go up on the chimney. But, there was ice on the roof, so he asked his grandson to help him tie himself off, with a rope, thrown over the roof, and tied off below. So, the grandson did it, and the grandfather was cleaning the chimney when the grandmother came out, said she was going to town, and did anyone want to go. The grandfather said can't you see I'm cleaning the chimney. So, she went around the house. They heard the car door slam. Then, they heard the motor start, and the grandfather saw the look on his grandson's face, and the grandfather went sliding over the roof. The grandson later said they piled snow up on both sides of the driveway, so there was nothing really to stop him until he hit the mailbox. He was dragged into town, pulled along on that 100 feet of rope, waving to people as he went by.
Robert wanted to know how the people in town react when they see Johnson coming. Craig said if he goes into Pistol Pete's Cafe, it might get really quiet, and they'll tell each other, shut up. He'll put you in a book.
Does he use real people? Wallace Stegner once said the biggest piece of fiction ever written is the disclaimer at the front of a book. Of course he uses real people. And, he made the mistake of saying something at his publisher's, and the legal department told him, you have to cut out the stories. You can't use real names.
Johnson got back to Wyoming, and thought about it. He decided to take matters into his own hands, and he went through his book, and called everyone up who was mentioned. So, in a typical Western tradition, he told them he'd used them, and every one of them said, "Don't edit me! I'm going to buy 24 copies and show them to everyone so they know I'm famous."
Dugoni said he's a lawyer, so he knew what the legal department meant when they said don't use real people, but he still puts friends in his books. Craig said, and when people ask where do you get ideas, you just look at them.
Robert asked Johnson about storytelling, although he's a rancher. Craig answered that his father said he came from a long line of bullshitters, but he's the only one who wrote it down. It's a continuation of the storytelling tradition. He was talking to author Mark Sprague one day, and they discussed storytelling as a valuable resource.
Junkyard Dogs is the sixth in the Walt Longmire series. Dugoni wanted to know if Craig intended to write a series. The answer was no. He had no idea it would be a series. But, the president of Penguin told him we want more of these; think of doing this as a series. So, here he was, a Wyoming rancher, arguing with the president of Penguin saying he had other ideas. She told him to go back to the ranch and think about it, which is the same thing Craig's wife, Judy, says to him. Why don't you go out to the barn, do some chores, and think about it?
He said he is working on a literary piece about a man who runs over himself with his own car, and changes his life. It still has comedy. Johnson actually said he's having more fun with the writing now than he did in the beginning.
Dugoni remarked that he talked to John Lescroart, who writes legal thrillers. Lescroart said when he first started writing, his lawyer character, Dismas Hardy, was him. Now, he identifies with him less and less, and more with the detective, Abe Glitsky. Robert said in his first book, The Jury Master, David Sloane had Dugoni's background. So, he wanted to know, is Walt actually Craig Johnson?
Johnson responded by quoting his wife, Judy. "Craig hopes to be Walt in ten years, but he's off to an incredibly slow start."
He said Tony Hillerman told him to break things up; challenge yourself. So, he decided that he'd set the books in Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The Cold Dish was Walt's fall book. Death Without Company was winter. Kindness Goes Unpunished was spring, and Another Man's Moccasins was summer. Then, he realized he'd taken Walt through one year, and he was one year older, while Johnson himself was four years older.
Walt was depressed in the first book, but in the course of the series, he becomes more engaged in life, and with his family. His humor has become more like Craig's, and he's become closer to who Craig is. But, Johnson says Walt Longmire is a lot better person than he is.
Johnson has written the draft of the seventh book, and he's about half way through the rewrite. He's an indentured servant to Viking Penguin. They told him they're in it for the long haul. But, he has tons of freedom. His contract only says he must write a mystery, and it must have Walt Longmire.
He does try to keep the series fresh, though. The series has to grow to do that. He told us we've all read series when the author ran out of gas. Dugoni was quick to say we won't name names.
When Craig Johnson wrote his first book, he received lots of advice, much of it unsolicited from other authors. They told him, don't give Walt a dog because then you have to remember to feed it and take care of it. And, he thought, well I have to do that; why shouldn't Walt. So, he gave him a dog. And, now, as sheriff, when Walt has to drive long distances, he could talk to himself, or he could talk to the dog. And, it's better, as sheriff, not to be seen talking to yourself. So, there's a scene when Walt gets out of the truck, and tells the dog to stay in the truck, and don't play with the radio. He takes two steps, and thinks, that's our joke. He can play with the radio.
And, people told him to keep the sexual tension. Don't let anything happen for months and months. Craig wanted to know, what women are you dating? So, he wrote a sex scene in one of his books. And, a woman came up to him, and told him the sex scene went on forever. (At which point, Dugoni quickly said, you and Walt are a lot alike.) So, Johnson thought about it, and realized that sex scene was one paragraph. He asked the woman how many times she read it, and she turned bright read before saying, I read it a lot. Craig said he took that first scene to his wife, and said, I wrote my first sex scene. Read it, and if you laugh, it's not good.
Johnson said in writing mysteries, most people have never dealt with a murder, but, he would guess that almost everyone in the audience had had sex. Dugoni's interruption brought laughter, when he said, except my mother, and she had ten kids.
Craig Johnson doesn't enjoy the research, the ride alongs, and other research as much as he does writing. And, he said the benefits are great. He gets to travel around the country, on his publisher's dime, stay at five star hotels and eat at nice restaurants, talk to people about books, and meet up with friends such as Robert. He spoke at the National Book Festival, and afterwards the authors were picked up in limos. One author threw himself in the limo, and complained, I've been talking, and signing books, and dealing with people all day. Craig looked at him, and wanted to say, you've never had a real job, have you?
Questions from the audience included one about the characters. What characters are your most popular; who do you get the most emails about? Johnson said it varies from book to book. He'll hear there's not enough Henry or Vic or Virgil. This time, he heard, there wasn't enough dog in the book.
He was asked if you didn't read the series in order, which book should you read. He said maybe The Dark Horse. It's his "stranger in a strange land" book, about community. He made Walt Longmire a sheriff because he wanted to deal with Western justice, and have a man who was answerable to his community. He plays by the rules. He's a good guy. He cares. So, he's taken out of his comfort zone in The Dark Horse.
Johnson thought he was going to write a village mystery in which someone dies in a small village, and a stranger comes in, and asks questions. He thought he was writing the quintessential mystery, and discovered he was also writing the quintessential western. A stranger comes into a small western town, and begins to ask questions.
He said Junkyard Dogs is the funniest book he's written.
When asked about his audio books, Johnson he had to go back to Tony Hillerman again. Hillerman told him if you can, get George Guidall to do the audio books. And, he's been very happy with that. With the first book, Guidall asked him about pronunciation of the various names. They've worked well together until the latest book. In it, someone is playing Eddie Arnold's song, Cattle Call, in the room next to Walt's. And, Walt isn't the type to bang on the wall, so he sings along, and then the dog starts singing along. (Craig Johnson does a terrific yodel for the refrain of Cattle Call, by the way.) George called Johnson, and said, you son of a bitch. You know I don't sing. Johnson replied, I didn't say Walt sang it well.
Dugoni asked if there was any news Craig Johnson could pass on, and he admitted that Warner Brothers, Horizon and TNT are in the development stages for a TV series, but they're only in the development stages. When asked if there was any speculation as to who would play Walt, Johnson's immediate answer was "Gary Cooper." Unfortunately, they hadn't heard from him in a while, and he hasn't returned calls.
Craig Johnson's next book is called Hell is Empty. That's taken from The Tempest, Act I, Scene II, when the survivors of the shipwreck are swimming to Prospero's island, and they're all people from Prospero's past. He says, "Hell is empty. The devils are all here."
Walt and his Basque deputy, Santiago Saizarbitoria, are transporting prisoners. Santiago hasn't been happy with the education he's getting, and Walt is always quoting literature, so he asks everyone in the office for a list of ten books he should have read. Walt gives him books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Three Musketeers. Ruby, the dispatcher, who trys to improve everyone, gives him Pilgrim's Progress and Dante's Inferno. So, Santiago gets into a discussion with a prisoner who questions him, and asks about the books. Finally, the prisoner says, at least I'm not reading a book by Alexander Dumb Ass.
In the course of the book, there's a federal case in the mountains that doesn't go smoothly, and Walt has to handle it. Saizarbitoria tells him he knows he always wants a book, and gives him Dante's Inferno. So, who was the Dante's guide in the Inferno? Virgil.
Barbara Peters ended the program by saying Craig Johnson has appeared at the Poisoned Pen each year, for all six of his books. When the second book came out, he rode his motorcycle down from Wyoming to appear at the bookstore. She said she appreciates the opportunity to bring authors to the community, from the beginning of their career.
And, when I met Craig Johnson, I introduced myself as a friend of Jen Forbus', saying Jen was in Chicago at Printers' Row, in the rain, but I was lucky enough to be here today.
After the program, I had the chance to talk to Robert Dugoni and his wife. Dugoni is the author of three legal novels featuring David Sloane, a lawyer in Seattle. The books are The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, and Bodily Harm. Robert was a terrific interviewer, and he is presenting a writing workshop at the Poisoned Pen today. He also told me he would be willing to do a guest blog, so, hopefully, you'll be seeing that here soon.
Dugoni is one of ten children, and he said he loves libraries. His mother would take them to the library to give herself a break, so he considered the public library his second home. And, if I'm very, very lucky, he might do an Authors @ The Teague program sometime next year. Here's hoping, Robert!
Craig Johnson's website is www.craigallenjohnson.com
Junkyard Dogs by Craig Johnson. Viking, ©2010. ISBN 9780670021826 (hardcover), 306p.
Robert Dugoni's website is www.robertdugoni.com
Bodily Harm by Robert Dugoni. Simon & Schuster, ©2010. ISBN 9781416592969 (hardcover), 373p.