“Office Space” – 52 Pickup, Week 45

Question #46

“I’ve noticed in interview photographs a number of items on the desk where you write on your ranch, any chance of giving us a tour?”

-Brian Bowden


Oh boy, there’s a Pandora’s box… Einstein once said when questioned about the chaotic state of his work area in Princeton, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” If that’s the case, then I’m completely safe in that I must be walking around with Fibber McGee’s closet in my head.

It’s probably going to seem like an odd assortment of items, but my old friend Dorothy Kisling used to leave things out where she could look at them and I one time asked her why and she said, “Because they make me happy.”

I clean my desk off after I finish each novel, at least the research books I’m using for that particular excerpt of Walt’s life, and then trade the new stacks in for the book I’m currently working on, but there are some items that stay on the desk year round.

I guess you have to start with the computer. I once visited a good friend’s– Christopher Moore–writing room in his house in San Francisco and noticed he had one of those modern desktop computers and I was pretty impressed. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be and having that big screen sitting there dominating the space really appealed to me. Up to that point, I’d been writing on the same, original laptop I’d bought decades ago that my wife used to call “the coffin” because it sounded like one when I opened it. I have a regular keyboard that gets replaced at least once a year, because as a two-finger typist, I hammer the living daylights out of the thing.

Front and center is an ashtray from one of Hemingway’s haunts, Harry’s New York Bar, that I found at a street sale in Paris that holds a Cheyenne horse rattle, a buffalo hide baseball, a grizzly bear claw, a marble from Mark Twain’s house in Connecticut, and a Will Rogers Medallion Award pin.

There’s a library reading lamp to my left with a tortoiseshell shade with a Walt Longmire for Sheriff button and a pair of brass knuckles setting on the base. On the other side of the screen is another reading lamp that belonged to my father. I use Henry’s stag-handled knife in a beaded Cheyenne sheath as the paperweight on the stack of books to my left and the elk-gripped Colt .45 just like the one Walt carries on the stack to my right. There’s a cigar humidor on the back corner along with an old, brass pipe and tobacco holder from the thirties with a bucking bronco lid, and a commemorative mug from the territorial prison in Rawlins that holds a small Basque flag, a ruler of great women writers, and a Cheyenne talking stick, this one a buffalo.

There’s an old brass telescope that I use to spy on the critters out the window facing the north pasture, three silver Kachina dolls, and a decommissioned, Vietnam era hand grenade.

There’s also a postcard my mother sent to a friend of hers from Cleveland the year the Indians won the World Series back in ’48, an old, Belgian, rotary-dial phone, and a bar tray of Holinshed’s Chronicles of 1577 extolling the virtues of whiskey.

There are rows of more books along the back, behind the computer screen, that I regularly use for research purposes including all of mine plus both volumes of the Britannica Dictionary, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, George Bird Grinnell’s The Cheyenne Indians and By Cheyenne Campfires, Bancroft’s Works Volume twenty-five on Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming, Jack O’Connor’s Complete Book of Shooting and Rifles and Shotguns along with both volumes of Peter J. Powell’s Sweet Medicine and Stands In Timber’s Cheyenne Memories.

Hanging off the bindings of many of these tomes are a collection of sheriff’s badges that have been given to me over the years along with tiny busts of Will Rogers, Charles Dickens, and William Shakespeare, and a small, brass owl. There’s a hat that Mike Hodges made for me that is what I described Walt’s as in The Cold Dish, about three sizes too big to fit on my head. There are a few photographs, some framed and some not of my wife, Judy, my granddaughter Lola, Max, the dog that was the model for Dog in the novels, and a couple of other folks who are catalysts for characters in the books.

There are Inuit masks on the facings of the window, one for each of my fishing trips to Alaska, and a horse war shield that hangs above my desk.

Immediately adjacent to the desk are a commemorative, Lou Gehrig baseball bat and a battered Fender Stratocaster with a homemade amp that I made out of an old suitcase for when I get stuck and need to do something with my hands to get going again.

The stool I sit on is an old, wooden 1800’s industrial age model with a foot rail and back with an old wool shirt-jac that I keep there for cold days. I also keep a pair of Navajo moccasins that I sometimes slip on during my literary travels.

There was one time I got stuck mountaineering in an attempt to climb Mount Rainier and was lucky enough to be stuck with Lou Whitaker, the brother of Jim Whitaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest. It was in a hut at around eleven thousand feet and a surprise storm had come raging in and we were pretty well trapped. We were all sitting around listening to the Alpine legend telling stories of himself and his brother as they trained for the highest mountain in the world when he pulled out a pair of pink, fluffy slippers out of his pack and slipped them on. Seeing my questioning look, he smiled, “You’ve got to make the mountain your home, Craig.”

One of the things I always tell my writing students is that like a mountain, you need to make the writing space your own so that you feel comfortable there, a place where you feel free to be creative and write.

—Craig Johnson


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