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".

There were a number of well-known actors who sent dvds, but Warner Brothers wanted someone who was unbranded. The last dvd Craig received was labeled Robert Taylor. Johnson said he thought he was dead. Then, he watched it, and thought he was pretty damn good. He was age appropriate. He had the wrinkles and lines, and people could believe he was a Wyoming sheriff. On the back of the dvd was a note from the screenwriters. "He's 6'4", ha ha ha ha."

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.

The third important character is Vic Moretti. Katee Sackhoff, who played in Battlestar Galactica, will be Vic. Craig liked her appearance for the role. She has broad shoulders and back. She was a swimmer. And, she looked like her nose had been broken. You can't be a street cop in Philadelphia, and not have had a broken nose. Vic has four brothers and came from a family of cops. Sackhoff did a great audition. Then, Johnson tracked down an interview she had given. She grew up with four brothers in a logging family in Portland, and she had to fight to stay alive. She's perfect for the part. And, Johnson told the story of calling her "Toots," and she pointed a finger at him, and said, "That's The Terror," showing she had read book three.

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.

Peters called Hell is Empty an amazing book. She said it had one of the baddest guys she had run across. Johnson admitted it was different. He said he doesn't follow a formula with his books. He'd rather have readers angry at him for writing this than writing formulaic. He said some authors' series die after seven or eight books because they become victims of their success, and they write the same book over and over.

Craig said this book includes the idea of hell as ice and cold. He likes to do something different with the books. This is his first thriller. He knows how bad the guys are, and the book also has mysterious elements. Good storytelling keeps readers in the game. This one is a question of why done it, not who did it. He's never happy when he doesn't know how a bad guy got to that point. But, Peters said a person's backstory should never be an excuse for their actions.

The mysterious elements in the book go back to The Cold Dish when Walt was walking out, and there was a gunshot. There's Indian spirituality in this book as well. When the subject of Indian spirituality came up, Craig mentioned that Lou Diamond Phillips spent four days on the Northern Cheyenne Rez to learn to be a Cheyenne. He said he had played Apaches before, but had never played a Cheyenne.

Johnson was aware the manhunt in the snow scenario had been done to death. He started thinking about Dante's Inferno three books back with Another Man's Moccasins. He asked how many people in the audience had read Dante's Inferno. Then, he asked how many had finished it. He knew he was going to have to be an expert on it if he was using it. Virgil was introduced in Another Man's Moccasins. Dante's bottom rings of hell are not fire, but ice and cold.

Santiago Saizarbitoria had been mad because Walt was always using literary quotes. So, he asked everyone for a list of ten books he should have read in college, and didn't. Walt gave him readable books that might encourage him to continue to read, books such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Three Musketeers, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Ruby, who was always trying to improve people, gave him Dante's Inferno and the New Testament. The Inferno was slow going. Hector, a gang banger out of LA, asked Santiago who wrote Dante's Inferno. So, Santiago asked him who was buried in Grant's Tomb. When Hector said he didn't know, Santiago said, I didn't think so. Hector looked at the other books on the pile, and responded, "Well, at least I'm not reading a book by Alexander Dumb Ass." Barbara immediately said, "There's that French theme again."

In Junkyard Dogs, Walt promises Santiago's wife that he won't let him be harmed again. But, things go wrong in Hell is Empty, and guys escape. Walt is the only one who can after them. Santiago tucks his copy of Dante's Inferno into Walt's backpack, saying he knows how he hates to be without something to read. And, then Walt's experiences start mirroring Dante's Inferno. He needs a guide - Virgil.

The title of Hell is Empty is taken from The Tempest. It's easy to get titles from Shakespeare. Johnson remarked that Shaw once said Shakespeare was so good you want to dig him up and throw rocks at him. But, this book is about what's real and what is not, as The Tempest was.

In going back to the discussion of the TV show, Johnson answered questions, saying Turk's name was changed to Branch Connelly, and he'll be in more than just the pilot. Cady moved back to be closer to her father after her mother's death. Walt and Henry are ten years younger. When Johnson questioned the ages, he was told they hope it runs for ten to fifteen years, and they don't want them on walkers.

The pilot cost $4 million dollars. After that, the price per episode should go down. They have the initial investments in props, etc. By September, the A&E board has to make a yes or no decision as to whether or not the show will be made. They'll screen audiences. Only 25% of pilots ever make it. Everything else gets thrown in the garbage.

Asked about the issues of the environment that appear in his books, Johnson said he gets many of his ideas from newspaper articles. The stories are grounded in the contemporary American West. For instance, take the story that kicks off Hell is Empty. Private companies take prisoners from one place to another, and they have shitty records. There was a story about a company transporting prisoners. They stopped for gas and drove 104 miles afterward before they did a headcount and realized two guys were missing. They found them in a culvert in Wyoming. Johnson feeds those articles into a file. The sediment from his research is just floating in the waters. By the time it's time to write the book, it's settled, and he can do a detailed outline.

He told us the pilot was to premiere Wednesday, June 23, but he's on book tour. Judy's going to go. Someone asked about James Lee Burke's movie. And, he said that's what drove him to try TV. Burke's movie had a great cast, but it went straight to dvd. Barbara said the same thing happened to Don Winslow's The Death and Life of Bobby Z. It went straight to dvd.

Craig told us his next book will be called As the Crow Flies. Then, he ended the program with a story about the other important character in his books, Dog. The production company asked what type of dog Dog was. Johnson said he was part German Shepherd and part St. Bernard. They said, "You mean Dog is a mutt?" He said, well, yes. Then, they said, isn't there anything that looks like Dog. They have to have four of those dogs for shooting TV. So, here it is. Craig Johnson said Dog could be played by a Leonberger.

Craig Johnson's website is http://www.craigallenjohnson.com/.

Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson. Viking. ©2011. ISBN 9780670022779 (hardcover), 320p.


le0pard13 said...

Wonderful recap of... everything, Lesa. Great tidbits of info of the novel series and the upcoming TV show (which I'm really looking forward to). Just picked up the audiobook of Hell is Empty, as well. Thanks.

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Michael. Craig offered a little of everything in his program, and I tried to capture the spirit of that. I'm with you. I'm hoping that series gets picked up by A&E.

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Thanks for allowing me yet another glimpse of an author whose work I read the minute it comes off the press. Craig Johnson did a workshop in Bend several years ago, before I'd even heard of him. By the time he was done talking, I was hooked. He's every bit as fun in person as he is on the page. You captured his lively nature. He loves people and words and ideas. I hope TV works for this talented and generous writer. He's a good teacher, too. Liz

Kay said...

Wow, Lesa, this was a marathon post for you. Good job and I loved all the tidbits about the TV series. Crossing my fingers that it will make the cut and that we'll all get to see it. I love the casting. And a new book as well. Yea!!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Liz. It's easy to get hooked on Craig as a speaker as well as an author, isn't it? You're right. He is fun in person. That's why I make it a point to try to go see him whenever he's in town.

Lesa said...

You're right. The post was longer than usual since Craig started talking 45 minutes before the actual program started. I'm so glad we went early! I'm keeping my fingers crossed with you that the TV show is picked up.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Craig Johnson yet but I am greatly looking forward to doing so. I really enjoyed your post.


Lesa said...

Thank you, Brenda. I hope you like Craig's books.

kathy d. said...

What a great post -- interesting and very funny.

Craig Johnson is quite a character, just full of information and fun.

I could kick myself for not having started this series. The library does not have the first book, which put me off. But I'll buy it now that I have read this post.

I sure hope the tv show is picked up. It would be the first tv Western I've watched voluntarily since Paladin and Gunsmoke many lifetimes ago.

Lesa said...

Many of us think Craig Johnson IS Walt Longmire, Kathy. The first book is in trade paperback, which should help some.

I'm with you. Hope the TV series is picked up. I'd love to see it.

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Of course he's Walt Longmire. Never doubted it for a minute. He fills the room with his presence. No crook would willingly take him on, though he is gentle with readers and writers. Liz

Lesa said...

I love that, Liz. You're right. He does fill the room with his presence.

kathy d. said...

Well, because of this post and Craig Johnson's hilarious anecdotes and descriptions of his characters, I did take the bold move of going to a bookstore and actually purchasing his first book.

So I should be opening it up soon.

My budget has gone to hell in a handbasket as the saying goes. Bookstores are like magnets to me.
(I know that everyone who loves books feels that way.)

Lesa said...

You're right, Kathy. The night I went to the Poisoned Pen, I spent over $50 on books. I'm sorry I involved you in my addiction, though. I hope you enjoy the book!

Deborah said...

Like Kathy D, I too bought ALL of Craig's books thanks to your reviews Lesa! And may I say thank you very much, I really loved these books. (when I say all, I mean all except Junkyard Dogs and Hell is Empty which are on their way to me courtesy of Amazon.com as we speak as they are not available in bookshops in Ireland...)

Lesa said...

Maybe Craig owes me a commission! No, that's OK. The only reward I'd like is to see Longmire get picked up. Thanks, Deborah. I hope you enjoy the books since you bought all of them because of my reviews. Fabulous! I increased his sales in Ireland.

kathy d. said...

I'm okay with my book purchases. I didn't stop with Craig Johnson's first book though.

I bought a Nero Wolfe, as I'm now seriously into this series, which I hadn't read since high school decades ago.

And I bought another Andrea Camilleri which lets me live vicariously in Sicily and enjoy delicious Italian food.

And I bought the first in Christopher Fowler's series, which is new to me.

I have worried with coming -- and definite -- NYC cutbacks in libraries, which will stifle book purchases, that my budget will be hit by this. And I'm trying to figure out a 12-step program for myself to avoid book-buying addiction.

jenny milchman said...

Great to hear of an author who enjoys touring. The way Lesa writes these events up, I always long to have been there.

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