New York Times bestselling author Craig Johnson departs from the familiar Wyoming setting fans have come to expect. Instead he sends his ficticous Sheriff Walt Longmire to Mexico to rescue his daughter who was kidnapped by a villan from his previous book.
In conversation with YPR's Kay Erickson, Ucross, Wyoming-based author Craig Johnson talks about the 14th book in the series that was released September 4, 2018.
Depth of Winter is a departure from the other Longmire books, often set in fictional Absaroka County in northern Wyoming. This one does not take place in Wyoming and without the usual characters readers have come to know. Now Sheriff Longmire has gone has gone to a northern Mexican desert to find his daughter Cady who was kidnapped by a villain from a previous book, Tomas Bedarte, the head of a Mexican drug cartel.
Craig Johnson: it’s a little bit different this time round. We’ve had a culmination of conflict between Walt and a fellow named Tomas Bedard since the 9th book in the series, A Serpent’s Tooth. And it’s a situation that’s developed between he and Walt, where the conflict has risen to the point where he actually has taken Walt’s daughter and kidnapped her and taken her to Mexico; is holding her there. And Walt finds himself in a kind of desperate situation where to have to go after his daughter and he is pretty much on his own to a certain extent.
It’s just one of those epic books that you have to work your way up to it. And last year’s The Western Star got the ball rolling and I need the impetus of that book to continue on. And now it’s time for Depth of Winter which Walt, as an army of one, heads into northern Mexico. So it’s a little different from the usual books but I think people will find it interesting.
KE: You have said in the past that many of the ideas for your books come from headlines. Was there a headline for Depth of Winter?
CJ: Actually what it was was a series of articles that I read in The Guardian that was about the violent culture of the narco society down there in northern Mexico. I started reading about that and I started thinking about the character of Tomas Bedard and of all the places where he might feel at home and actually thrive. It seemed to me that within the chaos and the violence of northern Mexico that was probably where it was he would come to roost.
He kind of made the mistake of taking Walt on in Absaroka County in Wyoming in A Serpent’s Tooth. And that didn’t end very well for him because Walt had all of his resources and all of his accomplices to help him. But in this book Walt is kind of alone. He is out of his county, he is out of his state, and he is out of his country. And basically has to go find his way along in northern Mexico which is a completely different world for him.
KE: It is rather serendipitous that Mexico is part of this book because we hear a lot the headlines about concerns with Mexico with building a wall, "bad hombres" in Mexico, so Mexico being a character in this book is not that far of a stretch for headlines now.
CJ: No, no. Not at all. And with the situation being the way it is down there. I mean there is just so much chaos going on. But…you can fall prey like in a lot of ways to reading too much of the headlines and seeing the sensationalism of the situation and not seeing the people.
And I have gone to Mexico numerous times over the years. And then actually went down and did some research for this particular book while I was in Mexico too. For me, it is very important to see past those headlines and see the Mexican people as they are. And also to give a realistic interpretation, especially what it is like along the border country in Juarez right across the river from El Paso.
I think that one of the big elements in this book is the characters you get to meet in this book are very, very different from the characters that you normally meet in a place like Wyoming or Montana. And that is one of the joys of writing a series of books is the opportunity to kind of get outside the envelope a little bit--stretch the envelope a little bit and try and motive the characters into places that they are not particularly comfortable but also allow them a certain amount of development.
I think one of the biggest things you can fall prey to whenever you are writing a series of books is to start to get formulaic where you start repeating yourself as far as the characters are concerned or as far as the plot lines are concerned. And so this is quite a departure but I think it is a departure readers will enjoy.
KE: How do you see Walt Longmire as a person?
CJ: Decent. That’s the word that always comes to mind whenever I think of Walt. It’s a word that is kind of antiquated I suppose in modern society these days. It’s just not heard that often. But when we were growing up, one of the things our parents always admonished us with to be decent—to be a decent human being. To care about other people. To make an effort along those lines to be just a good person.
And I think Walt is kind of emblematic of a lot of law enforcement, especially sheriffs that we find on the High Plains. They are very concerned about the people in their counties. Whenever I do ride alongs with a lot of the sheriffs in Wyoming and Montana, one of the phrases I hear over and over again is 'my people… my people…my people.' There’s a kinship there that might be a little different from a lot of other forms of law enforcement, in the sense that people are giving you their vote. And so they feel connected to you. And there is a certain amount of responsibility that goes along with that.
And I think that Walt bears that responsibility very easily. I think it’s something he takes to quite easily. He has a code that he lives by. That he tries to do the right thing. He gets up every morning and tries to do the job.
The way I have described Walt in the past is over: he’s overweight, he’s over-age, and he’s overly depressed. But he gets up in the morning and tries to do the job. In that sense I think he bares certain amount resonance with readers, and viewers, as being a regular guy who is just trying to do the right thing.
KE: Are any of your characters based on real people?
CJ: Oh, my favorite quote on that is from Wallace Stegner on writing and teaching fiction, where he says the greatest piece of fiction is ever written is the disclaimer at the beginning of every book is that says nobody in this book is based off anybody alive or dead. Of course they are! (laughter) And the difficulty with that is I live in a state that has only a half-million people in it.
So if I stick someone on my books from Gillette, and I’m down there doing a library event in Rock Springs. Inevitably someone will come over to me and say, 'is that so-and-so from Gillette in your third book?' And I have to say, 'I can neither confirm nor deny that maybe the person you just mentioned.'
And it’s even worse that the books have a lot of Native (Indian) involvement. And where my ranch is located, just to the north is the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations, and there are only 5,000 enrolled members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. I’m not fooling anybody whenever I’m sticking any of them in the books.
It’s kind of nice because the books have been very popular on the rez along with the television show. To the point where now there a lot of people on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation who claim to be characters in my book that I have never met. And I think that’s kind of complementary in the long run.
KE: You travel a lot. You have your book tour in September. But you also go overseas. How do readers in Germany, France and England see the West that you have created in your books?
CJ: Well, I think one of the reasons for the popularities of the books in foreign languages. First of all you are always going to be victim to how good your translation is. If you have a good publisher and a good translator you get a good book and if you don’t, you get a bad book. And I have been extraordinarily fortunate to be partnered up with a lot of really wonderful foreign publishers.
But I think it might not be what they are responding to in the books as much as what they are responding against in the books. There are an awful lot of stereotypes and clichés about the American West. A lot of times they’ve been inundated with a lot of the Western movies, the Western television shows, the Western books like that. But one of the things I’m trying to do is trying to break up some of those clichés and stereotypes and try and do something different with the characters so they are a little more multi-dimensional, that they have a sense of humor, not only about the world but about themselves. And that’s something different from what they’re used to with a lot of the pulp, the more pulp oriented kind of Westerns. They get to see the characters more as real people, the place as a more of a real place rather than just backdrop and setting for some epic romantic American vision. Instead there is more of a reality that they get to respond to and they seem to respond to it quite well.
KE: There is a lot of humor in your books. Does humor come easy to you?
CJ: I hope it does. My wife sometimes doesn’t think I’m very funny at all. So it’s according to the audience I think.
But for me it’s one of the big elements of the books in a number of different ways. The first one is I get a lot of law enforcement that contact me about the books and one of the things they really enjoy is the humor that’s in the books. And anyone that’s ever had a difficult job knows that the only way you make it through the day is by having a sense of humor. At the end of the day you’re either gonna laugh or you’re gonna cry. And know which one I would rather do.
I think also it’s an empathetic quality. Who do you like hanging around with? Who do you like spending time with? People that make you laugh. For me that’s an essential element to the books. Because I want all of my characters to have a varying degree of a sense of humor.
At the beginning of the book there is a part where Walt finds out that the indiscriminate vehicle that they are going to be taking down into Mexico, like into the narco culture and into these very dangerous territories is a 1959 Cadillac convertible, bright pink in color. And the guy that’s driving the car asks Walt, do you have any more questions? And Walt says, 'yeah, how much Mary Kay did you have to sell to get this thing anyway?'
I think it’s also one of the situations where if you ratchet up the tension in a story line and there’s violence, which there is a great deal of violence in this book, simply because it’s impossible to write a book about narco culture in northern Mexico and make it a cozy. You’re going have to find ways to relieve that tension for the reader. You can’t just have a slow strong grind of violence and mayhem through to the end. I suppose you could but I would find that a very boring book. And so the way that you break it up, the way that you find a release for that tension is by implementing the humor of those characters.
KE: How many more Longmire books are there in you?
CJ: I don’t know? How many years do you think I’ve got left? I’m 57 now. I like to think I’ve got a good 20-30 books left in me in the greater scope of things. I got to admit I really enjoy writing the Walt Longmire books.
I’ve got other books that I’ve started. I’ve got a psychological thriller and a historical Western and a couple of other pieces that I’ve started. But as far as series go and as far as mysteries go, Walt pretty much gives me all of the opportunities that I want in developing the characters and exploring ideas, and social issues and all of those types of things. And to think that people like reading the books or watching the TV show for the same reasons I like writing the books or that they enjoyed making the TV show - that Walt is just good company. I’m always reading to climb into the truck and see where he’s headed and what’s going to happen.
KE: What’s it like meeting your fans. You have a lot of appearances at bookstores. I know you’ve got some coming up the tail end of September in Billings and Bozeman. Are you ever surprised by what people ask when you are at these events?
CJ: Always. (laugh) I’m always amazed. I guess first of all by how invested they are in the characters and in this world. I mean we’ve got this little event down here in Buffalo, Wyoming. It was just kind of the model for Durant in Johnson County. Kind of the model of Absaroka County.
Once we had the cast from the television show show up. And I’m there and about 15,000 people. And it’s every bit of the disaster that you are imaging right now in the sense that there are no hotel rooms for 90 miles around. No food in the restaurants and grocery stores. No money in any of the banks or ATM machines. And it’s just stunning to me. It’s just absolutely stunning to me that people are that invested. I would hope that that is the case because I’m putting everything I have into these books. And I want people to get the most out of them they possibly can.
But how can you not be humbled and stunned when you walk into the Country Bookshelf there in Bozeman and there are 200 people there waiting for you to walk in. I don’t want to ever lose the thrill. I don’t want to ever lose the magnificence of that kind of attention. It’s just amazing to me.
KE Thank you Craig Johnson. Your 14th book, Depth of Winter, coming out Sept.4, 2018. Thank you so much.
CJ: My pleasure, dear.
Johnson’s books were the inspiration for the Longmire television series on Netflix.
Craig Johnson Appearances in Wyoming and Montana
- 9/22/18 Billings, MT - Barnes and Noble
- 9/23/18 Bozeman, MT - Country Bookshelf
- 9/24/18 Cody, WY - Park County Library with Legends
- 9/25/18 Thermopolis, WY - Storyteller Books
- 9/26/18 Sheridan, WY - Sheridan Library with Sheridan Stationery
- 9/29/18 Ten Sleep, WY - Red Reflet Dinner with Craig Johnson