Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Craig Johnson, Man of Mystery, Interview by Rob Walker

Acme Blog Interview:
By Craig Johnson, questions provided by Robert Walker

The following interview took place in the Acme Bar on the wrong side of the tracks via Route 10, halfway between Charleston and West Hamlin, West Virginia. Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely intentional.

Imagine if you will, a fieldstone foundation bar pressed hard against the two-lane blacktop with a blinking red neon light just outside the window. It is a crisp early evening, and the leaves of the deciduous trees are preparing to inflame with the passing glory of an Appalachian September. Periodically, fully-laden coal trucks drive by, their air-brakes hissing at the bar as they pass. Inside, our two trusty companions are seated at a small table by the jukebox with Tom T. Hall’s classic, Pinto the Wonder Horse is Dead, playing through the two tinny 1950’s speakers…

A heavy-set waitress brought the fourth round Iron City beers to the battered table, carved with the passions of previous patrons and the water rings of an Olympic pattern ala Jackson Pollack. “You want me to run a tab?”

I tipped my cowboy hat back, “Yes Ma’am, that’d be easier.”

Rob Walker consulted his notes, scratched his beard, and looked at me as he adjusted the angle of the tiny tape-recorder on the table. “Craig Johnson, they say West Virginia is almost heaven and knowing you once lived here, would you say that Wyoming is heaven?’”

I smiled and took a sip of the worst beer ever brewed. “It’s pretty close. The majority of my adult life has been spent out west, and it’s the place where I settled and built my ranch … But I still have very fond memories of West Virginia. I’ve got a lot of family back here, although I can usually lure them west with the trout fishing in the Bighorn Mountains.”

My interviewer took a sip of his own beer and made a face. “You know, this stuff is horrible.”

“It is, isn’t it? I had a buddy from Pittsburgh who asked me if I’d ever drank the worst beer in the world—he’s the one who introduced me to Iron City. It kind of became my east-of-the-Mississippi beer.”

Rob continued to look at me. “Why are we drinking it?”

“Dollar a can.”

He looked out the window where the clouds were beginning to form along the rolling hills; they blocked out most of the sky. “Were you born and reared in West Virginia?”
I nodded, took a handful of peanuts from the basket on our table, shelled one and tossed the shells on the floor with the hundreds of others. “Cabell County Hospital back in 1961, or so they tell me. My mother seems to be a trustworthy type, so I take her word for it.” I took another sip of my beer. “You aren’t saying anything bad about my mother, are you Rob?”

“No, I… No.” He took another sip of his beer and made the same face—a full twist with a half-gainer. “Would you please give us a brief clue as to your history as a policeman in New York, and how you wound up on a ranch in Wyoming?”

“Jeeze, Rob, this is starting to sound like a senate subcommittee hearing…”
“Just speak clearly into the microphone.”

I took another slug of Iron City. “I had a grandfather who was a blacksmith and spent most of my life around horses. Out west, I learned that this was a pretty good way to keep a job as a young cowboy. I delivered some horses down to the area in Wyoming where my ranch is now and thought it might be a good place to light. I was only in my early twenties, but marked it in my Rand-McNally for later reference. The law enforcement part came after my post-graduate work in Philadelphia. I stumbled onto a civil-service class for potential police officers on Saturday mornings at 1 Police Plaza in New York. I took the class with the intention of getting material for the writing—and got hooked.” I sat my beer down and listened as the jukebox switched to Tom T. Hall’s Ballad of Forty Dollars. “It was good for me; gave me a practical basis for the novels. As an ex-cop, I can tell you that there are a lot of people out there writing crime fiction that might not know enough about the investigative process as they should.”

Rob forgot and took a mighty draught of his beer. “Achhh… That stuff tastes like ass…”

“Yep, it’s pretty bad.” I gave the high sign to the waitress. “Could we get another, please?”

Rob returned to his notes. “You’ve been writing mysteries for quite some time and have your fourth title starring Walt Longmire out now, Dead Man’s Moccasins…”

“That’s Another Man’s Moccasins.”

“Whatever.” The waitress dropped off the beers. “How did you get started?”

I watched Rob as he quickly downed his fourth beer; I think he was trying to keep up. “Well my father says I come from a long line of bull-shitters, it’s just that I’m the first to be educated enough to write mine down.” I took a sip of my fifth beer, just as bad as the fourth. “Living in a town of 25 on the high plains of Wyoming, you’ve got to be pretty self-sufficient, so I started thinking of an idea for a novel and was lucky enough to land a really powerful agent. It just happened that Viking/Penguin was in the position of acquiring mysteries from exotic locales like Tuscany, Turkey, Southeast Asia… And, of all places, Wyoming.”

He took another swallow from the can and held it out to look at it. “Do you suppose they get the water right out of the three rivers?”

“Probably; slag iron, carp, and all ‘though they say they’ve cleaned them up.”

He took another sip, and it seemed to me his eyes were becoming unfocused—but maybe it was mine. “How is your series character, Walt Longmire, like you, and how is he different from you?”

“Well, Walt’s older than me. I’ve referred to him as the ‘sadder but wiser sheriff’. I think he’s who I’d like to be in about ten years. He’s compassionate and hopeful; I think those are characteristics we share. That and we’re both smart-asses. Walt’s had a much rougher life than I’ve had, and I think he has a propensity to depression which I don’t have.”

“Would you classify any of your books as your favorite? And if so, would this have anything to do with the fact of some movie interest in Dead Man’s

“Another Man’s Moccasins.”

He sipped his Iron City. “…Whatever.”

“I don’t know—it’s like deciding which of your kids you like best. There are things I like about all of them, and there’s been Hollywood interest in all the novels; feature film stuff and television series but nothing solidified yet. I’m a write,r and I like writing books, all the other stuff I leave at the door. Usually my favorite novel is the one I’m currently working on, and my least favorite is usually the one I just finished.” I took another sip from my can. “Maybe I’m more like Walt than I’m willing to admit, but I think he drinks better beer.”

Rob continued to study his can. “Your friend was right; this is the worst beer I’ve ever tasted.”

I nodded my head, “You’ve never had a Budweiser, huh?”

He ignored me and continued with another question. “Your mysteries make Wyoming fascinating. Is that why you’ve chosen it as the place you want to write about? And how much has that to do with the people there?”

“I think if you’re writing about a place you love you have a responsibility to be truthful. Wyoming is my home, so I owe it a certain respect. There are always going to be opportunities to boy-howdy the place and characters, but that just wouldn’t be fair or good. The people who populate your novels are always going to be the crux of the writing. I remember when the president and publisher of Penguin, Kathryn Court, told me that I should consider continuing The Cold Dish as a series because readers are going to be interested in the characters. I argued with her, but everyday I get emails from people, constantly showing me how wrong I was. Fortunately, she won the argument.” I finished off the fifth and placed the empty can beside the others. “Do we have time for another?”

He belched loudly and held his stomach. “My bank account says yes, but my stomach says no.” His eyes tilted down to his notepad. “What’s in the works for the next Craig Johnson title? Can you reveal any secrets for your fans? Such as a title and the gist of the plot?”

“It’s kind of a village mystery in the British sense and is called The Dark Horse. There are two kinds of jails in Wyoming, high occupancy and low occupancy—the high occupancy jails sometimes farm off prisoners to the low occupancy jails. Walt receives one of these prisoners, a woman who supposedly killed her husband, but he just doesn’t believe that the whole story’s been told. He rents a car, throws on some street clothes, and heads over to another county.”

I watched as Rob stood a little unsteady. “So, Walt’s first undercover case?”
“Yep, in a town of forty—which introduces a number of inherent problems.”

“I bet.” He looked around. “Does this place have a bathroom?”

“Back corner, by the bar.”

I watched as he walked away, the peanut shells crunching under his hiking boots. “Hey Rob, does this mean the interview’s over?” I continued to watch his retreat, and then reached across and took his last beer. “Rob?” I also picked up his tiny tape recorder and began singing along with the jukebox to Tom T.’s I Like Beer… “It makes me a jolly good fellow…”

Craig Johnson


Morgan Mandel said...

Welcome to Acme Authors Link, Craig.
Have a good time & say hello to Rob for me.

Morgan Mandel

June said...

Great Post! I really enjoyed it.
Thanks for being here.


Norm Cowie said...

Hah ... great stuff ... was it the hat? ... the beers ?

And ... for some reason ... I wasn't having any trouble picturing your intrepid interviewer.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

This was a hoot! One of the very best interviews I've ever read. Ever!


Cathy said...

Great interview! I love Walt, so I hope you don't mind that I linked to this interview here.

Anonymous said...

Great interview, Craig. Er, Rob. Whoever.

Somehow I can picture the two of you perfectly. LOL

Pat Browning

Margot Justes said...

I'll agree with the rest-great post. Thank you for posting on ACME.

Margot Justes

Jen Forbus said...

What a wonderful laugh I've had this morning. Craig is just such a talented writer...and comedian! Thanks!!