Best-selling author Craig Johnson talks about his new book ahead of Lawrence visit
photo by: Contributed photo
The mind behind a well-known Wyoming sheriff will soon come to town.
Craig Johnson, the New York Times best-selling author of the Walt Longmire mystery series, will visit Lawrence as part of the Free State Festival, which kicks off on Monday and continues through Sept. 23.
Johnson, 57, will read from his new book, “Depth of Winter,” at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Lawrence Arts Center. Admission is $30 and includes a copy of the book.
Ahead of his Lawrence appearance, Johnson spoke to the Journal-World about his new book, how he keeps his writing fresh and his knowledge of Kansas.
This interview has been slightly edited for length.
Lawrence Journal-World: You’re scheduled to read from your new book at the Free State Festival. Do you know what you will be reading from “Depth of Winter”?
Craig Johnson: Oh yeah, it’s from the very beginning. It’s a scene between Walt and a man who is euphemistically referred to as “The Seer.” He’s a contact Walt has over in Mexico as he’s going after these drug cartels who have his daughter. The Seer is actually blind and he is also missing his leg and has a hunchback. It’s one of those things we’ve all seen in the movies where they all accumulate a team and go down to Mexico and do a job, like “The Professionals” or “The Magnificent Seven.” Walt, by accident, puts together maybe the most misbegotten team that seems to be doomed to disasters, and this is where they start formulating the plan.
photo by: Contributed photo
LJW: The book is called “Depth of Winter,” but Longmire is going south to 110-degree heat in the northern Mexico desert. Is there a certain idea behind that?
Johnson: It’s a little bit of a metaphor. The book is a lot about how Walt is going to try to hold on to his humanity in this situation. He is going into this narco culture where violence is a way of life. Very little that Walt has done as a sheriff on the Wyoming-Montana border has prepared him for the violence that is involved with dealing with these individuals.
LJW: Has Longmire ever gone into Mexico in this series?
Johnson: No, not at all. This was one of those books that’s been building for about five novels when (the reader) is first introduced to Tomás Bidarte, who is Walt’s archnemesis, I suppose. The books are written on a cycled pattern of four seasons. To go back to your previous question, this is the winter book and it’s called “Depth of Winter” and the temperature never goes below 100 degrees. It’s a little bit of a curve ball for the readers.
Nonetheless, it’s been a little over a year that Walt has been dealing with Tomás Bidarte and he’s been wreaking havoc on Walt’s life and the final straw is when he takes Walt’s daughter. He made the mistake five books ago of taking Walt on in Absaroka County (back in Wyoming) where Walt had all of his backup and his resources. That didn’t end well for him.
So I knew he was going to try to lure Walt into a topography that is better fitted for his activities. With a character that is that absolutely ruthless, it just seemed the narco culture of northern Mexico fit him to a T.
One of the characters refers to him as “the monster among monsters.” He’s absolutely the worst of the worst and he has something that is very important to Walt. He has no choice and he has to go down there and retrieve his daughter. I think, in many ways, Walt has also committed himself to the fact that he’s probably going to die doing this. He doesn’t have all of his usual resources or his usual backup. He doesn’t have jurisdiction, nothing to work with. Not only is he out of his county, he’s out of his state and he’s out of his country. He’s not receiving a great deal of help from the federal government in the United States and he’s not receiving any help at all from the Mexican government.
He decides he has to do this on his own. To make that kind of commitment it gives him a kind of Zen-like quality that he knows he’s going to die and he’s OK with that. He knows he has to get his daughter out of there; that’s the most important thing.
LJW: This is one of many books in the series. How do you keep these books fresh?
Johnson: When I wrote the first book in the series “Cold Dish,” that was just a standalone book, but Viking/Penguin (book publishing company) got a hold of it.
The big question was, do these characters have other stories to tell? And the answer came back, yeah, they probably do. There is a lot more I want to know about a lot of these characters, let alone Walt.
That kind of opened it up for the opportunity to do a series. But you have to be careful because you don’t want to become formulaic where you are pumping out the same stories or the characters are the same. We have all started series of books and you get five or seven books in and you begin noticing recycling stories, plot or the characters aren’t growing or evolving or the relationships aren’t changing. For me it’s nice that Viking/Penguin is a wonderful literary press and doesn’t put any pressure on me, and they turn me loose and allow me to do whatever I want to do.
One of the key elements is finding different things to write about and not just having Walt in Absaroka County doing the same thing that he does all the time. It would be kind of ridiculous after a certain point in time for everybody to die. If Walt was investigating a murder every couple of months in Absaroka County in Wyoming, that would be the most dangerous county in the American West. To try to break that up a bit, I’ve moved Walt’s jurisdiction around, up into Montana, over in South Dakota and all the way into Philadelphia. There is even a book where we learn about his first homicide investigation in Vietnam in 1967, and now this one down in Mexico.
I think you can gain something from that, not only as a reader but as a writer, where you are stretching the characters. If they are in their comfort zone, that’s one thing, but if you are testing and putting them in situations they may not be comfortable in, that gives them the opportunity to grow, and that makes for much better books.
LJW: Your book series was turned into a TV show called “Longmire,” which originally aired on A&E but moved to Netflix. The show ended last year. How did the show affect you and your view of the series you created?
Johnson: I can tell you a Montana story to explain what my life has been like since TV. When I’m not wearing a cowboy hat, I’m wearing Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department ball caps. If you didn’t know Absaroka County, then they look pretty real. I go to pay for lunch and a woman behind the counter asked where I got the hat. I thought, Oh no she thinks I’m a real sheriff. I pointed at the hat and said it’s not a real county and she said “The hell it’s not, that’s Walt Longmire’s county.” It gave me an indication of how widespread Walt has become.
I think what we’re seeing, now that Netflix decided to stop after six seasons, it’s a little bit of a battle between Netflix and Warner Brothers. We’ve heard a lot of rumors from Warner that there is interest to do TV movies with the same cast. It’s not absolutely dead. We’ve jumped networks before, and we are not ashamed to jump networks again. Hopefully everybody will keep their fingers crossed.
LJW: Have you ever been to Lawrence or Kansas?
Johnson: Yes. My grandparents actually lived near Lawrence. And one of my favorite places to eat is a little down the road, the Brookville Hotel (in Abilene). I’m hoping to get a nice chicken dinner when I’m down that way. My grandparents lived on the outskirts of Lawrence (before moving to Abilene) so I’m very knowledgeable of the area. I’m really looking forward to coming too because after you’ve been on the road for 14 years, you cover a lot of ground, but this will be something new, and I’m really excited about it.
LJW: If you’re already knowledgeable about the area, maybe Kansas can be the locale of one of your future books.
Johnson: Hey, you never know! Never say never. I would tell you no and then the next year I would be like, “You know what? I actually am going to write about Kansas.”