Q&A: Craig Johnson



There’s great nostalgia associated with the lawmen of the Old West. Today, whether they’re riding into town on horseback or, say, arriving in a pickup with their dog on the seat next to them, we’re still rooting for the good guys. Walt Longmire, New York Times bestselling author Craig Johnson’s venerable sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, is back in Next To Last Stand–the 16th novel in the series. One of the beauties of the series is the author’s fidelity to his protagonist and the story’s setting. Johnson lives on and operates a working ranch–the real kind, with horses, fence mending, predators, harsh weather, and feed prices to worry about. The multi award-winning series has delighted fans from the pages of his novels to the small screen, in an original series on Netflix.

Currents: Please tell us about what Walt Longmire’s facing in Next To Last Stand.

Johnson: Well, Next To Last Stand isn’t really a book about the Little Bighorn, but rather a book about a painting about the Little Bighorn. I like including bits and pieces of western history in the books, especially when it’s something I didn’t know, or an added perspective or insight I wasn’t aware of? We’re living in an extraordinary time when there are a number of really wonderful non-fiction historians out there putting out books that don’t just follow the historical line and really dig into their subject matter, providing an accessible truth concerning their subjects. It wasn’t that long ago that reading history was a painful affair simply because a lot of it was done by academics who didn’t have a great deal of narrative ability, and I’m not talking about creative non-fiction where you go around making stuff up, but rather the simple ability of telling a good story. As horrid as the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was, it’s a compelling tale with some amazing individuals on both sides.

A lot of times for me it comes down to where the characters are in their lives and what kind of balance I want to strike with and for them. Walt was in a dark place and I was thinking it might be nice to distract him with something he can’t resist, research. It’s an investigation, but something Walt really hasn’t dealt with so much–the world of art.

Like I said above, you need to find an access point to any mammoth historical subject, so I needed to find some way of approaching the battle and Budweiser Painting, as Cassilly Adam’s Custer’s Last Fight is known, fit the bill. I’d seen the darn thing hanging in every bar, saloon and restaurant in the West and thought it might be interesting to do a little digging and discovered that the history of the painting was almost as dramatic as the point in history it depicts. I don’t want to get into it too much because I don’t want to give the plot points of the book away, suffice to say that it was and is a bit of a rollercoaster ride for the good sheriff.

Currents: Since Longmire’s 2004 debut in The Cold Dish, how has the character grown, and what are the biggest changes he’s experienced through the 16 novels?

Johnson: Well, when we first meet the sheriff he’s still going through the throes of depression since the loss of his wife, and like a lot of individuals his job and the people around him are what pulls him through. He still battles that particular demon, but like all of us, he soldiers on.

Walt is older than when we first met the Vietnam vet in the debut book of 2005, but maybe not as old as some people think in that the books are written in a cyclical manner or the Vivaldi, as I like to refer to it with each book a season it takes four novels to encompass one year of Longmire’s life–so, in essence after sixteen books, Walt is only four years older than when we first met him.

Currents: In some of the best mysteries–books in general–the setting is often an important, central character. How are some ways you’ve used your beautiful settings as part of the story?

Johnson: The famed Chicago newspaperman, Studs Terkel used to say, “Nothing ever happened nowhere.” Choosing to write a novel and subsequent series in the least populated county in the least populated state is kind of telling on my feeling about place as a central component in my books. When you’re talking about a place with the vastness of the American West, it’s going to have an effect on the stories and the characters. People often ask why my protagonist Walt Longmire doesn’t carry a cellphone? I always think, you’ve never been to Wyoming, have you?

Currents: We all love those iconic western sheriffs of our childhoods. Although not a western in the true sense, what challenges did you face writing about what for many is iconic Americana?

Johnson: Trying to do something different. That’s really the key whenever you attempt something in an iconoclastic way, finding something new to say and trying to say it in a different way. Walt embodies a lot of the aspects of the Western hero we’ve come to expect, but he different in a lot of ways, too. He extraordinarily intelligent, well-read and empathetic to the plight of the individuals he deals with, including those who’ve done bad.

It’s a different West out there these days and I like to refer to what I write as socially-responsible crime fiction–in other words, I’m trying to do something other than just pile up bodies like cord wood just to move a plot. There are so many things in modern society that I want to take a crack at, I’ll probably never get to all of them…

Currents: There’s a natural and naïve assumption that small towns and rural areas are safe from corruption and the violent crimes associated with large cities. What are some examples from your series where you’ve debunked this?

Johnson: Ha! Human nature is my answer to that. Dreadful things can happen in the most beautiful and sublime places. One of the dirty little tricks of my novels is that the catalytic thought of each has come from newspaper articles I pick up from all over my area of Wyoming and Montana. You wouldn’t believe the things that go on. That, along with the stories I get from sheriffs, police and highway patrolmen pretty much inform every novel I write.

Currents: You tell hilarious tales about growing up listening to family stories while sitting on the front porch. Please talk about how this experience shaped your love of storytelling.

Johnson: My friend Tony Hillerman once told me, “Don’t forget to tell a good story, Craig. You’ve set on enough front porches breaking up string beans and trailed along behind enough cows riding the drags with some old cowboy to know a good story when you hear one.” He was right. The Walt books are written in first-person, so it’s almost like a three-hundred page, stream of consciousness monologue, so its easy to see Walt sitting on a stool at the Busy Bee Café and turning toward a reader and saying, “Let me tell you about what happened to me last month…” At that point I don’t want the reader to even remember that they’re reading a book; I want them to fall into that world and not come back out ‘till the end.

Currents: What do you have planned next for Longmire’s fans?

Johnson: The working title of the next book is Daughter of the Morning Star, concerning a young, female basketball phenom from up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation who starts receiving death threats. The book has a lot to do with the plague of abductions and disappearances of Native women across the country, but then gets more complicated as the investigation progresses.

To learn more about Craig Johnson, Sheriff Walt Longmire, and the beautiful place they both call home, go to his website at www.craigallenjohnson.com where you can also find links to follow him on social media. Photo: Courtsey of Craig Johnson

Riptide      Nothing below the surface is what it seems.