Thursday, 2 June 2011

Dancing With Myself: CRAIG JOHNSON interviews CRAIG JOHNSON

First of all, I'm starting with some personal news. 

It may not interest many, but I'm a proud dad.

My eldest daughter, still hanging in there as a 7 year old, swam 3000m this evening.  It was an amazing effort for one so young and I need to tell everyone I know.

Nancy, I'm always proud of you, just sometimes the pride steps up to another level.

Personal news over.

I've just finished reading 'Death Without Company', written by today's guest and one of the first in the Walt Longmire series.

What can I tell you about it?

Walt is practically the perfect character to base a series around. 

He treats everyone with respect, has a strong sense of humour, is well-liked and knows just about everyone in his town.

Set in a wintry Wyoming, Walt's old mentor/chess partner, Lucian Connally, has his suspicions about the death of an elderly guest of the nursing home they share (and it turns out they share much more than an address).

History is unraveled and then tangles itself up with the present as Walt Delves further and further into a series of murky goings on.

Part sleuth, part philosopher, part sentimental old guy, he's as well rounded a character as you'll find.

In this tale There's a potential love-interest, a new man at the station, his staff and his great friend Henry Standing Bear.

The thing I like so much about the book is the way the descriptions and events can meader for a while, then when lulled into a gentle sense of security, a line will power from the page and tell you all you need to know about a person, event or scene with no further explanation necessary.

The characters are good to be around, the narrative is beautifully told and the dialogue is something else.  Highly recommended.

For all those reasons, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to introduce today's guest, Craig Johnson.

After a few phone calls, one to a United States Senator, one two a hockey player for the Los Angeles Kings, a world famous horse reiner and a real estate salesman in Minneapolis—I finally got hold of mystery author Craig Johnson in Ucross, Wyoming (population 25).

“Hey, is this Craig Johnson?”

There was a rustling of the phone being adjusted. “Yep, who’s this?”

“Craig Johnson.”

“Never heard of you. What do you want?”

“I’m calling for Nigel P. Bird.”

“Him I’ve heard of. What does he want?”

“I’m supposed to interview you for his blog.”

“How many questions?”

I looked at my list. “Twelve.”

“Look I’m irrigating here at the ranch and don’t have a lot of time. Make it seven and I’ll do it.”


There was a voice in the background and a muffled response before he came back on the line. “Take it or leave it.”

“All right, how are writers of mysteries different than other writers? Is it a perception? Or real?”

“I think that if you buy into it, it’s real. I once heard a pretty famous literary writer whose work could also easily be categorized as ‘crime-fiction’ say that the difference is that in ‘literature’, character trumps plot and in mysteries it’s the other way ‘round. Personally, I just think there’s good writing and bad writing, in all genres. I’ve read a lot of bad mysteries, but then again I’ve read a lot of bad literature, too. I think the quote that’s come back to me most is ‘that if I read another novel about another divorce on another New England beach writing another novel about another divorce on another New England Beach ’, etc… I call it ‘The New Yorker Syndrome’.

I don’t mean to pick on literary novelists, but it seems as if they feel they’re above telling a story; that the writing should be so good that it carries the work. I’ve been burned more than once on that deal. With mystery writing it can be said the other way around; that I’ve got a story to tell so I can’t be bothered with details—well, the details are the story. I think there’s a balance you have to strike in your own head, somewhere between character and story; a tightrope that only you as the writer can walk. All the great writers I admire were magnificent at their craft, but they also knew there had to be a story.”

I checked to make sure the recording levels on my cassette player were on.

“Hey, you’re not recording this, are you?”

“Of course not. What about the flashback mystery: Would you ever write a mystery with Lucian as Sheriff and Walt as deputy? In Wyoming in the 70’s? Ruby as a twist? Walt’s wife living and Cady as a kid?”

“Oh, that stuff is always rolling around in my head. I desperately wanted to reveal the seminal portions of Walt’s Vietnam experiences, but knew for it to be relevant it had to have some connection with the contemporary. Finding the key that tied the two was crucial to writing ‘Another Man’s Moccasins’. I’ll write another book like that, but I’ll have to uncover some sort of precedence for it in the characters lives, now.”

I glanced at my tape, which looked like it might run out. “Have you ever thought about writing a mystery in a voice that is first person? Not just point of view of killer, but voice of a killer?”

“Sure. The biggest hurdle for me in writing ‘crime-fiction’ was as my ol’ buddy Tony Hillerman used to say—sitting in all the chairs. To write about a killer, you have to understand them. Richard III certainly didn’t consider himself to be the bad guy in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, he thought of himself as misunderstood, maligned and unloved, all motivations for what happens later, including his death. The best writing is not black and white, but just gray—like real life. The best moment you can have as a mystery writer is the moment where you say to yourself, ‘I can see why he or she would do that’.”

There was a loud click as the tape rolled to the end and clicked off.

“Hey, I thought you said you weren’t recording this.”

“I’m not, that was just my toast in the toaster.” I struggled to flip the tape over and get it turned back on. “You were saying?”

“I guess the answer to your question would be yes. Hell, Walt’s killed a few people in the seven books I’ve written, does that count?”

“Sure.” I watched as the tape began rolling. “Did they have to change anything significant for your publications abroad? You’ve won numerous awards, are your books popular in France for reasons that might not make them as popular in other countries?

“I’ve been blessed by a pretty marvelous translator in France by the name of Sophie Aslinides who does a miraculous job of translating every nuance of the novels. It’s not so much what they leave out, but what they’ve kept in. The books don’t get edited by my French publisher, but they are meticulously translated and I think that’s one of the reasons they’ve been as popular as they are. A bad translation means a bad book, a good translation means a good book; I got a great translation. As far as what other countries and cultures are going to respond to, I figure it’ll be the same things the French have enjoyed—the humor, the open spaces, the Indians. But I’m just guessing…”

“Would you ever write a mystery where the killer gets away?”

“Not a Walt book, at least not without his approval. One of the abilities that Walt has that does elevate him into that upper echelon of detectives is his inability to let things go—and that includes culprits. I could maybe do it in another book, a stand-alone, maybe. Maybe.”

“What distinguishes a good mystery from a great mystery?”

“Literary content; and ability to deal with a lot more than is presented. Mystery is just a form for the writing, but if you’re lucky you’re allowed a lot of freedom within that form. There are things that people expect, but there are also things that they don’t—for me that’s the gray area where exciting things can happen, surprises that you can transmit to the reader.”

“What book would you read repeatedly, and why?”

“Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. People ask me why it is she only wrote one book, and I always answer—because it was all she had to.”

There was more rustling and I could tell the interview was coming to an end. “I’d like to thank you for taking the time…”

“Hey, I’ve got a question for you?”


“Have you read any of my books?”

“The Walt Longmire books, no, I have to admit that I haven’t but I’m really looking forward...”


Thanks so much, Craig.  You sure do things with style.

HELL IS EMPTY is available whenever you're ready, by the way.


  1. Great interview. That made me laugh! I think I'll give his books a go. Do you need to start from book 1 do you think or are they good as stand alones too?

  2. I think they'll stand alone, but I reckon it's always good to start early so that you have lots to look forward to.