Just about a year ago, author Craig Johnson was riding high. The premiere of “Longmire,” the A&E; TV series based on his Walt Longmire mystery novels, was the highest rated scripted drama in the network’s history and he had just started his book tour for “As the Crow Flies,” the eighth book in the series.
He had stopped at a diner in Red Lodge, Mont., and as he was paying the cashier for his meal, he noticed an older woman staring at his hat -- a cap bearing the logo of his fictional Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department. In a rather aggressive tone, the woman asked Johnson where he got the hat. Thinking she must’ve thought he was a real sheriff’s deputy, Johnson said, “Its not a real county.” She gave him a stern look and said, “The hell its not! It’s Walt Longmire’s county.”
Taken aback, Johnson explained that he wrote the books on which the TV show are based. Her reply: “There are books?”
Johnson doesn’t mind a bit. His newest novel in the series, “A Serpents Tooth,” has Sheriff Longmire and his crew on a scavenger hunt across Absaroka County searching for the missing mother of a Mormon “Lost Boy” who escaped from a heavily guarded polygamist compound.
Jacket Copy caught up with the author by phone twice to discuss “A Serpent’s Tooth” and his experience with TV. Johnson will be appearing in Los Angeles this weekend to promote “A Serpent’s Tooth” at the Autry National Center (5 p.m. June 8) and at Book Soup (4 p.m. June 9).
In your last book, “As the Crow Flies,” you left off with Walt’s daughter’s getting hitched. Why continue the marriage theme with polygamy in “A Serpent’s Tooth”?
I read that there had been a Warren Jeffs compound over in Custer County just across the border in South Dakota. I found it kind of appalling that these splinter polygamy fundamentalist groups had armed compounds and it weirded me out a little bit. I thought, “What would Walt do in this situation? How would he deal with it?” It seemed like the way to introduce that into his world was to have one of those Mormon “Lost Boys” suddenly appear in his county. Here you have this young teenage boy that has no resources, no knowledge of the outside world. Then to find out his mother is missing, that makes it Walt’s business at that point.
Your titles are all very colorful. What’s the meaning behind “A Serpents Tooth?”
It’s a quote from King Lear. It’s King Lear’s line to Cordelia: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” The subtext of the book is this relationship between parents and children and what is perceived as ungrateful children throughout the book.
How does humor fit it with a topic as serious as a polygamist compound full of guns?
Anyone that’s ever had a tough job knows the way you make it through the day is you either laugh or cry. I can always tell when somebody is writing crime fiction that’s never been around cops before. Everyone is so earnest about breaking the case. They don’t take the time to let the characters breathe and let them be alive. For me, it’s essential to the story and books. The humor, it’s always going to be there. It a defense mechanism for the characters.
How many more Walt Longmire books do you have in you?
I’ve got more than I’ll ever be able to do. I don’t ever worry about running out of ideas. I’ll die before I ever get all the ideas written down. Most topics come from social problems and things I see in the newspapers. And my gosh, there’s enough social problems out there I’ll be writing until I’m 120 and fall over my computer.
How has your life changed since the TV show?
It’s a whole brave new world for me. It’s exponentially evolving as the year has gone on. Here I am, a cowboy author in a town of 25 [Ucross] in northern Wyoming. And all of sudden, my character is on Sunset Boulevard 20 stories high. It’s a little odd.
It has had a large-scale effect as far the as the sale of books, especially the backlist of books. Its been kind of amazing to see how many people have gone back to the beginning and binge-read all the books and write me angry e-mails as to why I only write one book a year.
Which book has been selling the best?
“The Cold Dish” is chugging right along. I don’t think it hurts that it has actor Robert Taylor’s pretty face on the cover.... It’s kinda nice to see it eight years later seeing a little bit of a rebirth. That’s the seminal novel where we find out about Walt, Vick, Henry and everybody. As a writer, you can take a little more time with development of the place and characters with a first novel.
To be honest with you, that was all it was supposed to be -- a stand-alone novel. Then Kathryn Court of Penguin sat me down at lunch with the advance copy of “The Cold Dish” and said, “We’d like some more of these.” My statement back to her was, “I’d be happy to write you some more books." She said, “I don’t think you understand. We would love some more of these. We think these characters and this place, the relationships and everything, people are going to want more of this and we think you got a series on your hands.”
What exactly is your role on the show?
You are speaking to an executive creative consultant! That means I know where the port-o-potties are on the set.
I’m not John Grisham or Stephen King. I can’t dictate to Hollywood what they should do and how they should do it, but I do get to review the scripts. The writers put together synopses of all the episodes for me and touch base about the plot -- stuff like, “Could this happen in Wyoming? Is this the jurisdiction of a sheriff?” I go down to the set at the beginning of the season to absorb what’s going on, and nine out of 10 times I get asked about details aren’t that strong in books, like what color are sheriff’s department shirts? Or what kind of truck should Walt drive? I remember being in a quandary over that because I had no idea. I rely so much on readers’ imagination to do so much of my work for me.
Why do you think people have embraced Walt & Co.?
This guy [Walt] lives by the cowboy code. He’s a bit derivative of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, those stand-up types of guys. They do the right thing. I think society is growing tired of gray area characters -- the antihero. You can’t tell the good guy from the bad guy. It was executive producer Greer Shephard that knew. One of first meetings I had with her, she looked at “The Cold Dish” and Walt Longmire and said, “America is ready for this guy.”
One of the first things my mother asked me when I finished the first draft was, “Is he a good man?” He is a good man. He’s decent, has a good heart. He cares for people, and he does the right thing and that’s something that needs to be heralded in modern day.
Tell us a little about your involvement with the Poo-Poo project.
The Poo-Poo project is in conjunction with the Teton Raptor Center in Jackson Hole. Thousands of owls are constantly looking for dark, confined spaces to hide and nest. The center discovered that one of those places happens to be the vent cap in public restrooms. Owls get trapped in the ventilation pipes of vault toilets. I can’t think of a more ignominious ending for anything, especially for something as beautiful as an owl. The project raises money to fabricate screens and bolt them to the vent stacks of the restrooms....
I heard about it when I was writing the short story e-book “Messenger,” so a portion of the proceeds from the book are going to them. It’s been one of the bestselling e-books that we’ve had so far.
Is it true you respond to all the emails from your fans personally?
I do. On my website, I’ve got a contact button and it’s my email here at the ranch. Generally, the emails I get start off with, “Whoever it is that’s responsible for answering Mr. Johnson’s emails...” I’m always sitting here at the ranch thinking I need to make up a character that answers my emails: Buck, the broken-down cowboy from out on the Powder River: “We done answered 17 emails today and we ain’t answerin’ another one. Better luck tomorrow."