The cover of "A Serpent's Tooth" and author Craig Johnson. (Viking / Penguin; Catherine…)
Just about a year ago, author Craig Johnson was riding high. The premiere of "Longmire," the A&E TV series based on his Walt Longmire mystery novels, was the highest rated scripted drama in the network's history and he had just started his book tour for "As the Crow Flies," the eighth book in the series.
He had stopped at a diner in Red Lodge, Mont., and as he was paying the cashier for his meal, he noticed an older woman staring at his hat -- a cap bearing the logo of his fictional Absaroka County Sheriff's Department. In a rather aggressive tone, the woman asked Johnson where he got the hat. Thinking she must've thought he was a real sheriff's deputy, Johnson said, "Its not a real county." She gave him a stern look and said, "The hell its not! It's Walt Longmire's county."
Taken aback, Johnson explained that he wrote the books on which the TV show are based. Her reply: "There are books?"
Johnson doesn’t mind a bit. His newest novel in the series, “A Serpents Tooth,” has Sheriff Longmire and his crew on a scavenger hunt across Absaroka County searching for the missing mother of a Mormon “Lost Boy” who escaped from a heavily guarded polygamist compound.
Jacket Copy caught up with the author by phone twice to discuss "A Serpent's Tooth" and his experience with TV. Johnson will be appearing in Los Angeles this weekend to promote "A Serpent's Tooth" at the Autry National Center (5 p.m. June 8) and at Book Soup (4 p.m. June 9).
In your last book, "As the Crow Flies," you left off with Walt’s daughter’s getting hitched. Why continue the marriage theme with polygamy in "A Serpent’s Tooth"?
I read that there had been a Warren Jeffs compound over in Custer County just across the border in South Dakota. I found it kind of appalling that these splinter polygamy fundamentalist groups had armed compounds and it weirded me out a little bit. I thought, "What would Walt do in this situation? How would he deal with it?" It seemed like the way to introduce that into his world was to have one of those Mormon “Lost Boys” suddenly appear in his county. Here you have this young teenage boy that has no resources, no knowledge of the outside world. Then to find out his mother is missing, that makes it Walt’s business at that point.
Your titles are all very colorful. What’s the meaning behind “A Serpents Tooth?”
It’s a quote from King Lear. It’s King Lear’s line to Cordelia: "How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!" The subtext of the book is this relationship between parents and children and what is perceived as ungrateful children throughout the book.
How does humor fit it with a topic as serious as a polygamist compound full of guns?
Anyone that’s ever had a tough job knows the way you make it through the day is you either laugh or cry. I can always tell when somebody is writing crime fiction that’s never been around cops before. Everyone is so earnest about breaking the case. They don’t take the time to let the characters breathe and let them be alive. For me, it’s essential to the story and books. The humor, it’s always going to be there. It a defense mechanism for the characters.
How many more Walt Longmire books do you have in you?
I've got more than I’ll ever be able to do. I don’t ever worry about running out of ideas. I’ll die before I ever get all the ideas written down. Most topics come from social problems and things I see in the newspapers. And my gosh, there’s enough social problems out there I’ll be writing until I’m 120 and fall over my computer.
How has your life changed since the TV show?
It's a whole brave new world for me. It's exponentially evolving as the year has gone on. Here I am, a cowboy author in a town of 25 [Ucross] in northern Wyoming. And all of sudden, my character is on Sunset Boulevard 20 stories high. It's a little odd.
It has had a large-scale effect as far the as the sale of books, especially the backlist of books. Its been kind of amazing to see how many people have gone back to the beginning and binge-read all the books and write me angry e-mails as to why I only write one book a year.
Which book has been selling the best?
"The Cold Dish" is chugging right along. I don't think it hurts that it has actor Robert Taylor's pretty face on the cover.... It's kinda nice to see it eight years later seeing a little bit of a rebirth. That's the seminal novel where we find out about Walt, Vick, Henry and everybody. As a writer, you can take a little more time with development of the place and characters with a first novel.