I’ve been unfortunately slow to come to Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series — unfortunate for me, because Johnson’s books are both charming and exciting, edgily so in the latter case. Johnson’s mix of humor and high-stakes action is apparent from the start of Junkyard Dogs, the sixth novel in the series, which begins with the story of a seventy-two-year-old man who’s been dragged by rope behind an Oldsmobile for two-and-a-quarter miles (he waved at familiar faces along the way) and continues on with some pressing and potentially related questions: How did this happen? Why is there a thumb in a cooler back in junkyard the he owns? And what’s down in the cellar that no one in the family wants anyone to see? As elsewhere in the series, the inhabitants of Durant, Wyoming miss no opportunity for adventure and intrigue and Durant itself provides a rich backdrop against which everything unfolds: a harsh winter this time out, a battle over real estate development brewing, and romance crossing some clearly drawn class lines.
Throughout it all, Sheriff Longmire’s narration offers both wit and wisdom and some wry, if more laconic, insights on himself, especially as he endures seemingly endless injuries and mishaps. His deputies, Victoria Moretti and Santiago Saizarbitoria, aren’t just supporting cast members but full-fledged characters in their own right and with their own dramas. In this novel, Vic is trying to find her way (and maybe find herself) as she navigates both a personal and professional relationship with her boss within the context of buying a house, and The Basquo (as Santiago is called) struggles to figure out an array of sudden fears, stemming both from new fatherhood and from recent job dangers that cut, literally, too close to home.
Johnson will be reading from Junkyard Dogs at two locations in the Triangle this week: on Friday evening, June 4, at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, and then on Saturday morning, June 5, at McIntyre’s Fine Books in Fearrington Village. In advance of those appearances, Johnson took a moment to answer a few questions here.
Art Taylor: A fair amount of critical work has focused on the hard-boiled mystery novel emerging from the classic western — just a hop, skip and a jump from the lone cowboy on the prairie to the loner detective walking his mean streets. In Walt Longmire, you’ve got a character who’s both a cowboy figure and a detective. Do you see him as a continuation of those archetypal figure or as a break in tradition?
Craig Johnson: Probably a break; I’ve never thought of Walt as a “lone-wolf” type of character because to be honest I find those kinds of characters to be sort of boring these days—hasn’t that stuff been done to death? The reason I made Walt a sheriff is because I wanted him to be emblematic of a community and stand for something instead of in opposition to it. Of course with that kind of writing you have to realize that there’s going to be a lot of baggage with both a detective story and a western, but I think that’s where the humor comes in handy for not only pointing up those connections but poking a little fun at them as well. My readers are like cheap dates; they don’t mind being taken advantage of as long as they’re aware of it.
In many ways, your writing — with its deceptively easygoing style, surprising twists and coincidences, and then its ability to fold even the most wayward parts together — reminds me of an even earlier tradition: the tall tale, also associated with the West. How do you go about writing your novels? Is plot predominant — the whole thing predetermined before you begin — or it is a looser storytelling at work, seeing what happens next, following the characters and gathering it all together as you can?
Oh no, I’m a fanatic outliner—I have to know where a story is going and what it’s about before I write a word. I like to think that I write socially responsible crime fiction that has something to say to the culture as a whole, and to do that you have to know everything. Without a doubt the novels are character driven, but with the modern crime-fiction readers being as sophisticated as they are, I think you have to raise the game and try to have all the things that literary fiction brings to the table: arc of story, social commentary, and fully-developed characters, humor… And you better know who damn well did it because isn’t that one of the biggest messages in a whodunit? Who done it? Of course that doesn’t mean I’m not open to those improvisational moments because that’s where some of the best writing occurs. You want the characters to breathe, to surprise you; if the characters surprise me, then I’ve got a shooting match of surprising the reader.
Walt’s name echoes his troubles: Longmire, long mired in a variety of woes. In an early scene in Junkyard Dogs, the doctor asks about Walt’s shotgun wound, his drowning, his scar tissue, and his eye trouble, and as the novel progresses, he’s pepper-sprayed, bitten, and…. Well, do you ever think you’re being too hard on the poor guy? (And why are you so hard on him?)
He’s a big guy; he can take it. I sometimes give him a pretty hard time physically in the novels, but I think that’s just inherent. Crime fiction has the advantages of dealing with people in extreme situations where the stakes can’t be any higher. It’s life and death. That kind of dramatic conflict makes for good storytelling, and if I have to rough the sheriff up a little for that, I’m sure he’ll forgive me. I don’t know; most guys I know in law-enforcement would call getting pepper-sprayed and bitten in the ass a light day….
From the physical to the mental and emotional: Walt comments to one character that he “learned a long time ago that matters of the heart are well outside my jurisdiction.” But such matters seem central to all of this, and not just because we have Valentine’s Day smack in the novel’s center. Isn’t Walt — concerned about Santiago and about Vic, thinking about his daughter’s upcoming wedding, etc. — being a little disingenuous here?
Disingenuous, no. Not getting his hopes up—yes. I think in one of the other novels he complains that they haven’t come up with an emotional flak jacket yet. He cares, and he cares a lot. If my characters weren’t personally involved with the story, why would the reader be? As to the jurisdictional applications of the statement, he’s just trying to not stick his nose in where it doesn’t belong — a place where he has wont to be.
Going back to that cowboy figure: Walt takes the heavy blows, but in many ways it’s Vic who might come across as the more stereotypically masculine at times: tough as nails, swearing like a sailor, the gunbelt and those Browning tactical boots. Was it purposeful, some of that reversal of gender roles?
Absolutely. The novels are in Walt’s first-person voice, and I knew that there was going to be a preponderance of masculinity, so I thought I better counter-balance that with some really strong female characters — predominantly Vic. Sister of four brothers in the Philadelphia PD, father who’s a chief of detectives — she has to be twice as tough and twice as good at her job to be noticed half as much. Of course, a lot of this goes back to that pre-conceived baggage we were talking about, but I think it helps the novels to have that very, very urban voice.
Finally, another quick reflection of Walt’s: “I thought about the damage we all did in life simply by being ourselves and getting up in the morning.” Family relations, friendships, romances — all are fraught with pitfalls here. Is that just good drama — keeping readers turning the pages — or do you see that as an unavoidable part of the human condition? And (a question you’ve had a million times, I know), how much is Walt the voice of your own beliefs and concerns and questions?
The novels are deemed as crime fiction because Walt is a sheriff, but any good writing is an attempt to discern the universality of the human condition. As I said, mysteries have the advantage of cutting to the chase perhaps better than any other form. Most of the things I’ve done in assembling the series have gone in direct conflict with what other mystery authors advised me to do, but I feel like my life gets more and more complicated every day, so why should my characters get off easy? The complications in their lives are what make up the details, and the details are that universality we were talking about. Universality lies in specificity.
Am I like Walt? Oh, probably more than I’m willing to admit. Let’s put it this way: My wife says Walt Longmire is who I’d like to be in ten years, but I’m off to an incredibly slow start.