By John Wilkens 12:00p.m. Jun 1, 2013
The San Diego Union-Tribune
Craig Johnson’s novel “A Serpent’s Tooth” is the ninth in a series featuring Walt Longmire, a genial sheriff in rural Wyoming. The story centers on a missing mom and her teenage son, kicked out of a Mormon splinter group that may have ties to the CIA and Big Oil.
“Longmire,” the TV series based on his characters, just started its second season on A&E, which means Johnson is busier than ever. This week he’ll leave the ranch he built himself near Ucross, Wyo., population 25, for a two-month book tour, half of it spent riding from store to store on his motorcycle.
He’ll be at Mysterious Galaxy Friday at 7 p.m.
Q: What’s your favorite part about touring?
A: Meeting the people. I think about how many authors there have been in other time periods who never really got to meet the people who read their books. I’m kind of glad that I live in the time that I do because somebody can read the books and jump on the email. On my website, the contact button is my personal email, and I have to laugh because the majority of emails start out, “Whoever it is that’s responsible for answering Mr. Johnson’s emails” and I’m sitting here at the ranch, looking at the computer and thinking, I need to come up with a character, a guy who’s responsible for answering my emails: “We done answered 17 emails today and we ain’t answering any more. Good luck tomorrow.” Something like that.
Q: What’s your least favorite part of touring?
A: Probably the travel part. Traveling these days is like going to jail. You’ve gotta get strip-searched and stand in line for four hours. You’re usually dealing with surly people who don’t want to help you out in any way, shape or form.
Q: And the food sometimes isn’t much better than jail food.
A: No, it’s not! You’re absolutely right about that. Oh, my God.
Q: Any particularly memorable questions you’ve been asked on the road?
A: The biggest one that always surprises me is that there are a lot of people who tend to forget that Walt and I are not the same guy. I come in there, I’m a big guy and I got a cowboy hat on and I think they just automatically make that connection. They’ll say, “When you carried Henry off the mountain” and I’m like, “Whoa, wait a minute. That was not a documentary. It’s a novel.” It doesn’t happen quite so much now that Robert Taylor has taken on the role of Longmire (on television). As my wife says, he’s kind of a TV version of me: taller, better looking, with a better voice.
Q: There must be parts of you, though, in the Walt Longmire character.
A: Yeah, any time you’re writing a character in the first person, that’s true. If you’re in his head for 350 to 400 pages, an awful lot of yourself is going to filter through into the philosophies and the beliefs of the character. My wife also has the best quote about that. She says Walt Longmire is who Craig would like to be in 10 years but he’s off to an incredibly slow start.
Q: One of the things I like about Longmire is how people always underestimate him, and how he seems to enjoy that.
A: He does. The “Aw shucks, I’m just an old cowboy” routine.
Q: Is there something of you in that?
A: There might be. It’s always nice when people underestimate you like that because it does give you a slight advantage. And Walt, I consider Walt to be a world-class detective. He’s a Hercule Poirot. He’s a Sherlock Holmes. He just suffers from living in the least-populated county in the least-populated state in America. So he doesn’t generally find Professor Moriarty blowing up the power plant in Casper. It’s usually a little more realistic and a little bit more grounded in the realities of rural America.
Q: Another thing I like about him is his empathy. Where does that come from?
A: That’s one of the key elements to the character. My least favorite kind of character is the 6 foot 2 of twisted steel and sex appeal. You know, “Every woman wanted him, every man feared him, he could kill anyone with a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil in three seconds.” I hate that guy because I’ve never met him. He’s certainly not the guy I’m looking at when I’m shaving in the morning. That’s kind of why I made Walt the way he is. He’s what I tend to refer to as over — he’s a little overage, a little overweight, a little overly depressed. But he still gets up in the morning and does the job and to me that’s heroic.
Q: Is “Serpent’s Tooth” based on something that happened in real life?
A: Yeah, you found me out right off the bat. I gotta admit that every single one of my books, its beginnings have come from a newspaper article. What that does for me is, I’ve discovered my greatest writing fuel is dissatisfaction. If I’ve got something I’m upset about or don’t think is right, an injustice that I think is being perpetrated, that is what I tend to refer to as the Burr Under My Saddleblanket School of Literature. If there is something you are fighting against or something you feel strongly about then generally it’ll carry you a lot further in the writing of a novel than just some clever idea. As Voltaire says, clever ideas come and go.
Q: Your books have a very strong sense of place. What are the pleasures and problems of setting them in rural Wyoming?
A: Oh, if I want to go to a good restaurant, I don’t have the advantages of somebody in San Diego, I guess. That’s one of the problems. The ranch here, the nearest town has a population of 25. I’m really, really out in the middle of nowhere but that’s kind of the way I like it. In all honesty, I am an individual who goes into a room and sits down with my imaginary friends and starts typing about them. I really don’t need a lot of resources. With the Internet and libraries, I can pretty much get anything I need as far as the research material is concerned.
I do think there’s kind of a longing in the human nature to go out into places where it’s more open and empty. That’s always been the case. I think the books satisfy that to a certain extent. Sometimes we like to feel that we’re responsible in forming the land and doing everything to the land. Well, to a certain extent, the land forms us, and I try to get as much of that as I can into the books.
Q: How long have you lived there?
A: I’ve been here about 25 years. I built my own ranch. I poured the concrete, stacked the logs, did everything myself. When the books took off and we made it on The New York Times best-seller list and they made a TV show, all my rancher friends asked, “When are you going to move to Jackson or New York or LA?” I look at them and say, “I built one ranch in my life and I’m going to die here.” When they haul me out of here feet first, that’s when I’ll be going somewhere else.
“A Serpent’s Tooth,” by Craig Johnson, Viking, 352 pages, $26.95