Shelf Awareness comes this terrific and timely post about Craig Johnson, one of my favorite authors. Mystery Readers NorCal will be hosting Craig Johnson (who will appear with Stetson) on June 19 at 7 p.m. in Berkeley, CA. Comment below to RSVP and for directions.
Mystery author and Wyoming resident Craig Johnson knows not to appear at signings without his signature accessory: a cowboy hat. Although space is at a premium when he travels by motorcycle, "I have to designate one entire saddlebag just for holding my hat," he said. One year he sported a baseball cap on tour instead. "Everybody was totally disappointed. Every time I showed up at an event people asked, 'Where's your hat?' "
With hat in hand, Johnson is trekking across the country this summer promoting Hell Is Empty (Viking), the seventh novel is his series starring Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire, and the newly released paperback edition of Junkyard Dogs (Penguin). After a national, publisher-sponsored tour takes him to 15 cities from Pennsylvania to California, Johnson will hit the road again to visit independent bookstores in the West and Northwest.
Johnson's mode of transportation during the regional excursion is an iron steed dubbed Rocinante, a nod to Don Quixote's horse and John Steinbeck's camper-truck. Putting the seldom-used motorcycle (which gets excellent gas mileage) to good use was part of the motivation for the tour. "I thought I was going to have to donate it to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles," joked Johnson. In the five years he has been doing the road trip, the number of stores he visits has increased from a few to nearly 20 in six states--Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon and Washington.
Johnson sets aside about two months each year for book-related travel, an undertaking he looks forward to after the solitude of writing. "When it comes time for me to go on tour, I've got to be honest. I really enjoy it," he said. "I like meeting people who have read my books and discussing what's happening with the characters, where they're going, the relationships, and the underpinnings of the sociological and cultural aspects of the stories."
Johnson moved to Ucross, Wyo., two decades ago after a rather nomadic lifestyle--residing in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York City. "I had some education in writing, but I wasn't so sure that I had something to write about," he said. For me it was important to go out and experience life, which sounds very Hemingway- or Steinbeck-esque. But that's the way I felt about it. If you're going to write about people then you had better go out there and see who people are. Not just the ones in your neighborhood but all over the country."
Turns out, Johnson found his stories in the dramatic landscape and intriguing inhabitants of the American West. "If you ever come to Wyoming, you'll meet all the people that are in my novels," he confessed. Home for the writer is a 260-acre ranch. He built the house himself--living in a tent during construction--along with a garage, barn and corrals. "Building the ranch was probably the only way I could settle in and stay in one place," Johnson said.
The abode is situated in the shadow of the Bighorn Mountains, where much of Hell Is Empty takes place. In his latest adventure, Longmire aids an FBI taskforce transporting a group of prisoners though the mountains. When the convicts escape and reinforcements are trapped by impassable roads during a severe snowstorm, it's up to the sheriff to stop the bad guys.
Woven throughout the nail-biting storyline are elements of western lore, Indian mysticism and references to Dante's Inferno. Mystery readers "want what literary fiction has to offer--fully developed characters, arc of storyline, place, history, humor," Johnson noted. "They want all of those things, and at the end they want to know who the hell did it." Making sure fans get their money's worth is his top priority. "I treat it like a contract between myself and the reader. When they shell out hard-earned bucks for my books, I need to come through with all of those things--the literary aspects and the crime fiction aspects. If I fail, I don't expect them to pick up the next contract."
Sheriff Longmire and his comrades have garnered fans around the globe, from China to the Czech Republic. The characters and their creator are especially popular in France, where Johnson has visited eight times in the last two years to promote the page-turners and accept awards. (A group of schoolchildren once befriended "le cowboy" outside the Louvre in Paris.)
Johnson recently returned from New Mexico, where the pilot for the A&E television series Longmire was filmed. What is it like for him to see his characters come to life? "I acquaint it with having a houseplant for 10 years and then getting up one morning and all of a sudden it starts talking to you. It's a little unsettling. But it's also wonderfully fantastic because they've done such an amazing job." He was invited to be a creative consultant on the set, where actors toted copies of his books and avid reader Lou Diamond Phillips (cast as Longmire's friend Henry Standing Bear) quoted passages to him from the text.
As Johnson indulges his wanderlust and logs the miles this summer, his focus is on renewing contracts with readers and on lassoing new ones. Whether it's a gathering of two or two hundred, "it really doesn't matter to me," he said. "If someone has made the effort in this chaotic, hectic world to track you down on tour and come into a bookstore and talk with you about your books, that's a wonderful thing."
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