Junkyard Dogs is the latest in the author's popular Walt Longmire mystery series.
Craig Johnson, author of Junkyard Dogs, the latest in the Sherrif Walt Longmire mystery books set in Wyoming.
Nobody is particularly fond of seeing "party lights" in the rearview mirror, but unlike many people, author Craig Johnson would probably start smiling and making mental notes if he was pulled over. The author of the popular Walt Longmire mysteries has penned six books so far, and his success has even garnered some Hollywood interest. Junkyard Dogs, his newest work, released May 27.
Johnson's books are written with a wry sense of humor — a welcome quality that serves to balance out macabre murder scenes. He also very clearly draws from his years as a law enforcement officer but avoids falling into a rut of procedural detective stories by delving into the deeper mysteries of the human condition.
In short? His books are good stuff.
The Dark Horse, Johnson's previous work, was named to Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2009 and is currently in paperback. Before that, Another Man's Moccasins received the Western Writers of America's coveted Spur Award for Best Western Short Novel of 2009 as well as the 2009 Mountains and Plains Regional Book Award for fiction book of the year. And incidentally, C&I readers may remember his short story "Old Indian Trick" as the winner of our short story contest back in March 2006.
Walt Longmire, the fictional Wyoming sheriff central to Johnson's stories, does his work against the background of Wyoming's wide-open spaces. Not so coincidentally, Johnson makes his home in the small town of Ucross, Wyoming, population 25. His affinity for the West and everything that it stands for couldn't be clearer in his books, and the results speak for themselves. C&I caught up with Johnson as he was preparing for the release of Junkyard Dogs.
Cowboys & Indians: Tell us about your place in Ucross.
Craig Johnson: I think a lot of people dream of moving out into the middle of nowhere and building a place, and I'm not afraid of much, but the actuality can be a little daunting. The land came first, and I got lucky and found a little spot near Ucross, Wyoming (population 25) that was about 260 acres-bigger than a spot for a house trailer but smaller than the King Ranch.
It was called the Music Ranch, not sure why — I guess there must have been a family with the last name of Music, but we renamed it the Bucking Buffalo Ranch, since we love cowboys and Indians. There wasn't much but the deer and the antelope playing on it — a collapsed line shack and a dry stock well was all, but it was beautiful, with red scoria hills, sage and buffalo grass, petrified wood, and quartz crystal fields.
C&I: Do you get to ride much?
Johnson: Not as much as when I used to get paid to do it. When the books took off and you're on tour a couple of months out of the year, it's difficult to find time, so I just have a few trail horses for now. My favorite thing in the world to do is trailer them up into the Big Horn Mountains with a fly rod and just disappear for a few days.
C&I: How have your day-to-day writing habits changed now, with six novels under your belt?
Johnson: Not a lot. I still get up in the morning early and get the ranch squared away 'cause like my grandfather used to say, "the animals can't wait." Then I make a big pot of coffee and sit down and work. I tend to refer to it as the ditch digging school of literature. I've never heard of a ditch digger with digger's block - you get the shovel in your hands and things will happen. I break for a light lunch then get back at it until my wife gets home from her store in Sheridan (Bucking Buffalo Supply Co.— better plug it so I'm still married), and then we have dinner and I read.
C&I: Your first three books are all being translated into French. Are you entering the European market, or are you looking to attract some Quebec readership?
Johnson: You know, of all the places I would've thought that the books would really take off, France would've been one of the last on my list — it's so civilized — but they have and with a vengeance. I think the French version of The Cold Dish, retitled Little Bird (yes, in English) is in its fifth printing and has been up for all kinds of [French] national awards since it was published last May ... As for Quebec, sure, I know that Little Bird is for sale on Amazon.ca, and the Canadian audience has received all the books with relish. J.D. Singh, a bookseller in Toronto (The Sleuth of Baker Street), has touted them on Canadian Public Broadcasting! Thanks to our neighbors in the North.
C&I: You've met with a good margin of success doing something you obviously care very much about. Do you pinch yourself sometimes, or have you adjusted to the life?
Johnson: Did you just try to wake me up? Stop that. Yep, it's pretty much a dream come true. They pay me to sit in a room with my imaginary friends and type about them; in any right-minded society, they'd lock me up and throw away the key.
C&I: I noticed that your bio often lists your winning entry in the Cowboys & Indians short story contest "Old Indian Trick" among your other awards and achievements. Ever get any comments on that?
Johnson: All the time. Mostly its people wanting to know where they can get a copy, and I'm proud to say that ASAP Publishing in Los Angeles is coming out with a collection of the short stories next year.
C&I: Let's talk about The Dark Horse. You've said many times that the places in your books are (mostly) real. Does that go for The Dark Horse as well?
Johnson: Yep, Absalom is Arvada, Wyoming, but with a bad attitude. Part of what we refer to as the UCLA area — Ucross, Clearmont, Leiter, and Arvada. The Walt Longmire series is a lot about community, and I wanted to transplant my sheriff to a place not too far away, where society had broken down. Arvada's actually a great place out on the Powder River, but I kind of changed it around to what I needed for the story. I did apologize to the town as a whole in the acknowledgements.
C&I: There are plenty of tense moments in The Dark Horse and your other books that get defused by the characters' banter and wit. What can you tell us about the role that humor plays in your writing?
Johnson: It's essential. People who have done a difficult and dangerous job (i.e., police officers, firemen, teachers ...) know that if you don't keep a sense of humor on the job, you won't be on it for long. That's one of the faults I find with most crime fiction, that the writers take themselves so seriously. It's just not natural, and it certainly isn't very fun.
C&I: There are some harrowing night scenes in this one, and you really do a fantastic job of penning them. I would have run out of words for "dark"pretty quick.
Johnson: Anybody that's ever had to make time on a horse over broken ground, especially in the dark, knows what that's like — they don't put headlights on horses, and yep, it was a challenge. Action scenes are always tough because no matter what you're writing about, somebody out there has done it; and if you get it wrong, they're going to tell you about it. It's important to get that stuff right, I mean if there's a guy sitting in Orlando, Florida, or Paris, France, I want them to know what the Powder River country looks like, what the sage smells like ... If you love a place like I love the American West, it's important.
C&I: Most cop shows or detective dramas these days feature so much technology as part of the action. Why do you seem to limit the Absaroka County Sheriff Department's IT budget so much? They're probably eligible for some funding, you know.
Johnson: Those shows are a little misleading in that they get DNA samples back from the lab in an hour ... I don't know anybody who gets that ... Absaroka County is indicative of a lot of rural counties in a lot of states — wonderfully committed people doing the best they can with what they have to work with financially. They get funding, but not that much. County budgets are not large. The nice thing about that is that it forces me to write character-driven mysteries that rely on the people, and I think that's what readers really want to read. They might, just might, be getting tired of all the technology. It's not that much fun reading about and watching cops on their cell phones receiving information from labs; at least, I hope so.
C&I: The title of The Dark Horse immediately made me think there was going to be more about Sheriff Longmire's re-election at stake — are you foreshadowing something for us?
Johnson: Walt's kind of a reluctant sheriff, and he's been at it for an awfully long time. I think he's always thinking about how it's all going to end. The title The Dark Horse is bit of a double-entendre (see, I have been to France), it has to do with the election, but it also has to do with the British definition of the phrase, which is somebody who has unknown abilities. It's really a classic western in the sense that somebody gets killed and a stranger rides (albeit in a pickup truck) into town and starts asking questions.
C&I: Tell us a little more about Junkyard Dogs.
Johnson: A multimillion dollar housing development moves in next to a junkyard in Absaroka County, setting off a modern-day range war. It may not sound like it, but I think it's probably the funniest book I've written so far.
C&I: This will be the sixth book chronicling the trials and tribulations of Sheriff Walt Longmire. I know it's your job to put him through the ringer but c'mon, Craig. He's been through a lot. Are you going to let up on him a little bit?
Johnson: Actually, I am. He gets off pretty easy in Junkyard Dogs, but [in] the one after that he gets torn up again — it's the nature of the beast. Anyway, he's a big guy; he can take it.
C&I: The book covers all have a really stylized look. I'm not embarrassed to say that I'm always as excited to see the new cover as I am to read the story. How did that process come about? Did you have any input on that?
Johnson: Actually, I did. When I first started out, everybody told me that I wasn't going to have anything to say about what was on the covers, but Viking/Penguin kept asking. We all went through a lot in their development. The first cover of The Cold Dish was kind of awful so they changed it — without too much time to ponder as its publication was imminent — to the one ... on the hardcover, which [is] a generic mountain winter scene, albeit with a bloody feather. The next two book [covers] and the paperback cover for the first [are] paintings by Gregory Manchess, who is from the Seattle area. Great art but they read as Zane Grey look-alikes (not that that is so bad but it is not representational). So, [now there are] the new, more graphic renditions that everyone really loves. The artist's name is Darren Welch, and he lives in Tennessee. I think he does a grand job in representing the philosophy and characters in the books, as well as presenting the excitement — not easy, that's for sure.
C&I: Any interest from Hollywood in Walt Longmire that you can tell us about? What do you think Walt's reaction would be if he found himself the subject of a TV miniseries?
Johnson: I'm writing the agent in L.A. to find out how much I can say and will get right back to you on this one. As to your question on what Walt would think of a television series about him, I'm pretty sure he'd be embarrassed. He wants Gary Cooper to play him, but Gary's not returning our calls. ... From what I understand that's the way it goes in Hollywood — nobody ever dies, they just stop returning your calls.