Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Craig Johnson at the Poisoned Pen

I grab any opportunity to see Craig Johnson when he's on a book tour. He's quite a storyteller, if you haven't yet heard him. He was just at the Poisoned Pen on his "As the Crow Flies" tour.

Barbara Peters kicked off the event by asking Craig if he'd been to France recently, since they love him there. He said he and his wife, Judy, spent a month in March, and they're going back in November. They keep inviting him back, so he goes. He speaks no French, though, not one word. He makes sure he wears his hat the entire time. He said he can't understand the people who don't like the French, though. He finds them magnificent and charming.

The television series, "Longmire," based on Johnson's books is about to debuts on A&E on June 3. It was an eight-year courting dance with Hollywood. Friends there had warned Craig to be careful about his options, and retain the rights as long as possible. He'll never forget having dinner with Tony Hillerman in Albuquerque when PBS had the shows based on Hillerman's books. A woman came up to him and asked him how much control he had over what PBS was doing. He answered he had just enough control to take the check and run across the street to the bank.

Johnson feels fortunate that Warner Brothers put together a team headed by Greer Shepard as executive producer. She was executive producer of "The Closer" and "Nip & Tuck." Warner Brothers put some money behind the project, and started filming before it sold to A&E. They have seven episodes ready, with three more to film for the season. "Longmire" premieres on June 3.

Barbara told Craig the trailers remind her of "Bonanza" and it's going to be on Sunday nights as that was. Craig never made that connection. He said it's very outdoors, set in Wyoming, as compared to other crime shows. It has a different feel. It's not CSI: Wyoming. There's only one crime lab in all of Wyoming, in Cheyenne. Johnson once asked how long it took them to get DNA results in a high-profile case. He was told if it's really high-profile, about nine months.

Craig focuses on character, relationships, and place. That's his strong suit in writing novels. He enjoys the people populating his stories. Peters said maybe that's why "Longmire" reminds her of "Bonanza", the emphasis on character. Johnson said at one time there were fifty-seven westerns on TV at one time. That imagery of the iconic American West was sold internationally. But, "Longmire" is a modern-day western. Vic won't be on a horse.

Barbara commented that Craig and C.J. Box seemed to have taken Europe by storm. Box is more popular in Germany, while the French have taken to Johnson. He said that was partially because of Henry. The French love the Indians. They're curious about Indians and reservation life. Craig tries to portray that life honestly, both the good and bad aspects.

Lou Diamond Phillips plays Henry Standing Bear. Phillips surprised Craig. Johnson is called a creative consultant for the show. They sent him dvds of the actors and actresses trying out for the roles. His first thought was, too young and skinny for Henry. But, "La Bamba" was twenty-three years ago. Lou's older, and has put on a little weight. He's about 6 foot.

Robert Taylor, who plays Walt, is 6'4". The film team asked Craig why Walt is as big as he is. He said it's an occupational hazard. Western sheriffs have no back-up. They're it. Johnson told them it didn't matter. Everyone in Hollywood is 5'4". He didn't want Walt to be a studied character. He's a man who can put two fingers under the twine of a bail and swing it up five floors. When he received the dvd for Robert Taylor, his immediate response was to say, "He's dead." When he turned it over, the note said, "Nyah, nyah. He's 6'4"."

They had the name of casting a big name actor or a relatively unknown one who would become Walt Longmire. As they watched the dvd, it was Craig's wife, Judy, who said, "He moves like a westerner." Craig said he has lines in his face. That's what a western sheriff looks like. Judy said he's a handsome TV version of Craig, taller, better looking, with a better voice.

Henry doesn't use contractions in Johnson's books. When Craig watched the dvd with Lou Diamond Phillips in it, he noticed Lou had taken the contractions out of the script. So, Craig knew he had read the book. And, he told him later when he knew he was going to try for the part, he went out and bought all the books and read them. Then, once he got the role, he went to Billings, Montana on his own dime. He met Marcus Red Thunder, Craig's friend, and spent four days at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. They liked him so much they adopted him into the tribe. Craig said they haven't adopted him, even after eight years. Johnson asked Lou Diamond Phillips why he felt he had to do that because he had played Indians before. He said he had played Lakotas and others, but never played a Cheyenne. It was important to him to know how they lived.

When it came time for auditions for Vic, Craig said he wanted someone really strong. He didn't want them to cast some 110 pound model or actress. He wanted her to look like could throw someone across the hood of a car. She had four brothers, and a father who was a policeman. She has to be twice as bad, twice as strong, and twice as tough as others. All Craig knew about Katee Sackhoff who landed the role was that she played Starbuck on "Battlestar Galactica". Then, he watched her in an interview on YouTube. She grew up in Oregon with four brothers who were loggers. Her father ran a mechanic shop. Every other word out of her mouth was "F" this, and "F" that. He knew she'd be perfect.

Barbara asked Craig if he thought the TV show was going to change him. He said, no. He lives in a town of 25 in northern Wyoming. He still has to go down to the barn and shovel shit.

She said she meant will it reshape your writing and your characters to see them on TV. He enjoys seeing how the actors inhabit the characters. But, most of the characters are based on real people. For instance, Johnson's dad is Lucian Connally. So, he doesn't think it will change them. He's had an eight year head start. And, the arcs of the storylines will go in different directions. What makes a really good book doesn't always work on TV.

Craig does supply some of the ideas for the episodes. And, when he gets the synopsis, he'll rewrite it, saying this would happen in Wyoming, or that wouldn't happen in Wyoming. He looks at the scripts. Where he can really help is with the files of ideas he has. He has all kinds of ideas that wouldn't work as a book, but he gave the the treasure of the shorter ideas in his files.

Craig's latest book is As the Crow Flies. When Barbara commented that his books always had colorful titles, he held up the book and said, and look at the book. That color is the French influence. The path a crow flies is the straight line between two points. Johnson said Walt is pulled between two points, a homicide investigation he has no business being involved in, and the plans for his daughter's wedding.

Someone mentioned that not all the storylines had been wrapped up in the last book. For instance, Virgil's story wasn't completed. Craig said the last book, Hell is Empty, was hard on Walt. Virgil's story isn't told in this book. It's not a full year later; it's only a couple months later. Walt is still suffering from some of the physical difficulties encountered in  Hell is Empty. He received lots of email saying take it easier on Walt. His answer? He's big, and he can take it.

He gets a lot of email saying, There's not enough of my favorite character. Fill in the blank. Then, he started getting emails saying there's not enough Dog.

Asked about whether his titles change in the course of writing the book, he said it varies. Sometimes things change in the course of the book that may change what he intended as the title. Next year's book is already done. He's not happy with the title, and he's rethinking it. This book stayed As the Crow Flies. It's set on the reservation. He wanted to try to capture the place and spend time with friends on the rez.

Craig said that's something you won't get on the rez, political correctness. He was doing research at Custer National Park, looking for cliffs to use in a scene. He said Red Birney was one site, and White Birney was on the other. At the park office, they told him, "You can't say Red Birney." We call it Birney Post and Birney Day. Birney Day is names for the day school. When he said Birney Post and Birney Day to his Indian buddies, they said, "Do you mean Red Birney?" They're not politically correct. One man in the audience mentioned that Tony Hillerman used to say they call themselves Indians, not Native Americans. Craig agreed, saying tribal identification was much more important to them. The tribes in Wyoming are the Shoshone and Arapaho, the Lakota, and the Northern Cheyenne and Crow.

 Asked about difficulties in writing a series, Craig said he creates new worlds in every book to keep from getting bored. He doesn't want to create a formula with his series. His contracts have one sentence. It must be a mystery and have Walt Longmire in it. Last year's book was an allegorical novel. He took Walt off the rez and back east in one book. He doesn't want readers to get bored. Johnson is trying to raise the bar for readers. When someone doesn't like one book, he tells them just to wait. The next one will be different.

Craig still enjoys writing the books. He had more fun on the eighth and ninth books than he did with the first and second. After writing seven or eight, he figured he must know something about what he's doing. Peters immediately jumped on that, saying that's not like the second book, when he rode down to the Poisoned Pen on his motorcycle to publicize it. She said for some reason publishers are not always behind the second book, and it always does worse in sales that one. By book three, the readers and authors seem to have gained confidence. It's rare for the second book to sell as well as an author's first book.

As Craig mentioned earlier, book nine is done. He does have to get the title. He likes to get the next book done before the book tour. Johnson has fifty-two events for this year's title. He has some time away from the book. Then, when he goes back, he looks at it with new eyes before he turns it in. B

Does he have any impulses to write other things? Yes, he has some ideas for books that are different than the Walt books. Barbara said there might be a temptation to write spin-offs; give Vic a book. Craig said Walt is the glue that holds those books together.

Asked about "Longmire," he said there are ten episodes for the first season. They've filmed seven, and will have three more yet to film when it starts on June 3.

Dog was difficult to cast. Hollywood was horrified to find out Dog was part German Shepherd and part St. Bernard. They said they have to have four dogs because of the union. Was there anything that looked like Dog. He said the Leonberger was the closest.

There was even an owl handler on the first set. The owl would look at the handler because he had frozen mice. The owl is used as symbolism in the show. It's the embodiment of Martha, the symbolism for her. Craig said they paid a great deal of attention to detail. The sets even had Ruby's post-its.

Barbara mentioned that it was too late for them to get the books, but the publisher redid The Cold Dish covers with the movie tie-in cover. Craig said it's a little surprising to see it on the sides of buses.

What is it like to see his characters on the screen? He said the characters are talking to you and coming to life. It's like a houseplant you've had for eight years, and it gets up and starts talking to you.

In answer to a question, Craig said he was born in West Virginia, but had family in Montana and New Mexico. When he was seventeen or eighteen, he delivered horses down into Montana. He knew then he wanted to eventually build his own place. His grandfather and father built their own places. Twenty years ago, he bought land in Wyoming. When he ran out of projects, he wrote his first book.

As always, it was a fun, entertaining evening. It's always fun to catch Craig Johnson on his book tour.

Craig Johnson's website is

As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson. Viking. 2012. ISBN 9780670023516 (hardcover), 308p.


Anonymous said...

What a great guy, and how wonderful that you have been able to meet with him several times, Lesa! I'm still waiting for that opportunity, but determined it will happen some day.

Craig participated by phone with our library's book discussion when we read COLD DISH, and everyone enjoyed his perspective. It was the first time most of them had any interaction with an author and I'm still getting comments about that session!


Lesa said...

He's fabulous, isn't he, Lynne? I hope you do get the chance to meet him someday. I don't know where you're at, but he's doing 52 events on this tour, so maybe he'll be somewhere near you. It's worth it!

Unknown said...

I can't wait for the show to air this weekend. I am a big fan of Mr. Johnson and have read all of his books. He's a terrific story teller.