Or, “What Does Jefferson’s Airplane have to do with it?”
26 Pickup—The Half Ton
I will add to the question about the music in Craig’s books. In The Western Star, Grace Slick makes an appearance. Music is obviously important to Craig. When you add certain songs/characters to your books is it a spur of the moment decision or planned in advance?
I’m not very good at the seat of the pants thing, simply because I tend to get things wrong. Whenever I’m putting real people in my books, I try to make sure that I’ve done my research and get the facts straight, otherwise it ruins the believability of the book for the reader and annoys the real people.
In the book you mention, I originally had Walt being picked up by a truck driver, but that didn’t really assist in informing the reader that this was the sixties (early seventies, but basically the same thing). I immediately thought of the music of the period, which is a sure-fire shortcut to getting the reader there. So, I thought that if I could get Walt picked up by a rock band that might be something different and give me a number of opportunities to not only advance the period, but the characters as well.
First of all it had to be a band or an artist that was touring not only that year but at that period of time, and believe it or not it was a little difficult to come up with one… Bob Dylan was touring, but he wasn’t anywhere near Wyoming at the time thatthe book took place–then I discovered that Jefferson Airplane had done a concert in Central Park in New York and at that time would’ve been on their bus on their way back to San Francisco. Well, the direct course would’ve had them coming through Wyoming at just the right time.
I have a good friend out in California who was a Federal Judge and is an enormous fan of Bob Dylan, as a matter of fact I used him as a character in The Western Star… Anyway, I knew he’d be disappointed if I didn’t gerrymander Dylan, but because Walt always seems to bloom in the company of women, I decided on Grace Slick.
You have to be careful when you put celebrities in your books in that no matter who they are, you need to treat them with respect. I really enjoyed writing a genuine Rock legend into the book and I think the sequence poses a number of questions. What if Walt had taken Grace up on her invitation to stay on the bus and continue on to San Francisco in the late sixties/early seventies? What would his life had been like? Would he have pursued a career in music, instead?
I think it was fun to include one of those moments that are crossroads in your life, where one small decision would’ve set your life in a completely different trajectory.
I like to think that I did a good job in portraying Grace in the book and after it came out, I received a package in the mail, and it was my book. I remember being puzzled by it and wondered why somebody would mail me back a copy of The Western Star?
The mystery was solved when I opened it to the title page where Grace Slick had not only signed it, but informed me that in no uncertain terms, she would’ve gotten Walt to stay on that bus…I believe her.
Some years back, I took liberties with the classic Clement Moore poem – from a cowpoke’s perspective, no less. I apologize.
A Visit From Craig Cringle
‘Twas the night afore Christmas, an’ all ‘crost the spread All the cowpokes were drunk, an’ the hosses were fed. The bunkhouse was warmed by a fire of cut wood, All the Pappy’d been finished, but it was sure good!
Most fellers were passed out, but a few could still move, An’ one o’ the hombres had crawled ‘hind the stove. I was jes’ semi-conscious, yet was sure that I’d heard The clatter of hooves, but said nary a word.
Who could that be ridin’ in from the cold? So out the winder I peered an’ lo an’ behold Was a wagon behind eight hosses, all roan, With a white-whiskered red-suited driver, alone.
He sported a 50X hat from H-Bar The color of whiskey, as I saw from afar. His cheeks were so rosy an’ his smile was so wide I was sure he had sampled the jug by his side.
He hopped from his seat and pulled down a sack Then hoisted it up and clambered ’round back. The bunkhouse door creaked, and he paused just a tick Afore sneakin’ inside, an’ then he worked quick.
Set out bottles of likker an’ new cowboy boots, A couple of sidearms for them as could shoot, Some Kings ropes an’ saddles for riders galore An’ bottles of likker…oh, I said that before.
He crept out the door without making a sound Then he mounted his wagon and turning around Looked me right in the eye an’ winked with a grin, Hollered, “Boy Howdy!” then I recognized him.
“He’s the hombre what writes them novels I think, ‘Bout the Wyoming sheriff, the one likes to drink Rainier by the case-full, an’ sometimes some Pappy An’ plays chess with ol’ Lucian, ’cause it keeps the man happy.”
Afore I could think of a nice thing to say He hollered “Boy Howdy!”, an’ then rode away. But I heered him exclaim as he rolled out of sight, “Happy Post-Its and more Longmire stories tonight!”
December 24th, 1972 “This is your first call out with me, so don’t do anything stupid.” I studied the old Doolittle Raider who’d hired me in the fall as he navigated the road leading up the Bighorn Mountains in the little Bronco half-cab that was his personal vehicle. “Define stupid.” “I’m looking at it.” He shook his head, his rough hands wrapped around the steering wheel like a braided leather quirt. “As in don’t say or do anything stupid, you got me?” I saluted him, mostly out of habit but also because I knew it would annoy him. Most everything I did these days seemed to annoy him, which begged the question as to why he’d hired me as a deputy. “Just stand there and look intimidating, that’s what I hired you for.” Well, that settled that. The weather wasn’t great, and the sifting we’d gotten in the afternoon had turned into a full-on cascade of snow now that night had settled in. There was only a couple of inches in town, but the foothills of the mountain were getting pounded the way they always did, and he’d surprised us all by showing up at 4:25 in the afternoon on a Christmas Eve – but that was the kind of thing he did. * * * The Ferg had already headed home, and Ruby our dispatcher busied herself by going over and turning off the coffee maker and emptying the grounds in the wastepaper basket while Lucian Connally had climbed the stairs of the old Carnegie Library we called the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Office, on his one good leg. Unbuttoning the top button of his red and black wool hunting coat and revealing his star, he stood at the landing to catch his breath, looking around at the all but empty office. “Where the heck is everybody?” Heck was not the term he would’ve ordinarily used, but in the presence of our grand dame dispatcher, he generally tempered his language. Ruby poured out the remainder of the coffee in the mini-sink and rinsed out the pot before returning it to the burner. “Going home. It’s a holiday in case you hadn’t noticed – you heathen.” He glanced up at the Seth Thomas, ticking on the wall. “Near as I can tell, we owe the county another thirty-five minutes of service.” She pulled on her own coat and gathered her purse. Buttoning up, she pulled the pocketbook strap over her shoulder like Pancho Villa straightening a bandolier full of ammunition and squared off with him. “Where have you been all day?” I liked her. He coughed a noise of indignation and shoved the Stetson Open Road back on his head, a dollop of silver hair escaping from his overgrown crew cut. “Well, where do you think I’ve been?” “From the smell of you, I’d say you and your cronies have been smoking and drinking and playing poker in the back of the Euskadi Bar.” With that, she stepped around him and continued down the steps past the gallery of photographs of all the sheriffs past and singularly present. He turned and watched her go, pulling out his briarwood pipe and fixings as he called after her. “We haven’t been smoking, just so you know.” He stuffed the bowl from the beaded, leather pouch the Cheyenne Tribal Elders had given him. “Not that it seems like such a bad idea.” Her voice echoed up from the landing below as she got to the front door. “…And if you keep that new deputy of yours here for one of your cockamamie schemes rather than letting him go home to his young wife on a Christmas Eve, Lucian Connally, I will personally come in here the day after tomorrow and skin you alive.” I hung there in the doorway of my office listening to the argument come to an abrupt stop as the front door opened and hissed shut. He puffed on his pipe, lighting it in his two hands before whipping out the match and dropping it in the astray on Ruby’s desk and then raising his face to look at me. “Damn, what’d you do to set her on the warpath?” “Me?” He limped over to the coffee maker on the wooden leg and fingered the handle of the empty pot, even though I’d never seen him drink the stuff after 9 AM. “So, no official office Christmas party, I take it?” I looked around the empty place and the dissolute candles on Ruby’s desk that read NOEL, the only celebratory decoration in sight. “I suppose not.” He nodded, leaning against the counter, rearranging the candles so that they now read LEON. “What’s your name again, Troop?” I folded my arms; it was a game we played. “Longmire, Walt Longmire.” “Longmire, that’s right.” Studying me, he puffed on the pipe. “I knew your grandfather.” “Yes, Sir.” “So, you gonna man the fort for the next thirty-three minutes?” “Unless you’d like to take over.” He glanced at me, unsure if that might not have been a trace of sarcasm he’d heard. “So, you wanna just sit around here for a half hour listening to the clock tick, or do you wanna go learn something?” This was how it usually started, what Ruby referred to as the cockamamie schemes, with me sitting in his office being regaled with stories of law enforcement of yore or getting hauled out on some emergencywhich really wasn’t an emergency but just something to occupy his time – and mine. I guessed that was what you got to do when you were the Absaroka County Sheriff, dip in and out of investigations as you pleased. “What is it I’m going to learn?” He puffed on his pipe, the smoke curling up and around his walnut-stained iris like the devil incarnate. “Every. Damn. Thing.” * * * His duty vehicle was a boat of a Plymouth Fury that handled like a pole barge, especially in the snow, so we’d squeezed in the utility vehicle with its four-wheel-drive and enough room for two, regular-sized passengers, one of us who was not. “Let me see your intimidating look.” I watched at him as he sawed the wheel, not having put the thing in four-wheel-drive, as far as I knew. “My what?” “Your most intimidating look.” He shook his head some more as we took a cutoff at the west part of town, traversing the gravel road and approaching a ranch gate. “The guy we’re going up against is one ornery customer, and I want to see if you can throw a scare into him.” I stared at him, as he glanced at me. “A Rose Bowl and four years in the Corp and that’s as intimidating as you can look?” I frowned a little. “That’s it? You look constipated.” Slowing the Bronco, he pulled up beside the gate where a couple of cords of firewood rested, collecting snow. “Get me an armload of that wood and throw it in the back, pronto.” Sighing, I climbed out in the swirling flakes and did as he said, knocking the pieces together to get rid of the built-up snow. Not bothering with lowering the tailgate, I stacked the firewood and started to climb back in when he stopped me. “Get another armload.” Once again, I did as he asked and dumped some more. Then I climbed in and closed the door behind me, trailing an arm along the back of the seat behind him because it was the only way I fit. “Happy?” He ignored me and simply drove the rest of the way up to the tiny log cabin on the virgin snow, which indicated that no one had gone in or out for some time. “Who’s this?” “Willis Dietz, used to own a stock service, provided bucking horses and bulls for the rodeo.” He shut off the V8 and then climbed out, heading for the door as I followed. He stopped and looked back at me. “Well, bring the wood, damn it.” I dutifully returned and then loaded two arm loads in one, struggling to get back just as he knocked on the wooden door with hardened knuckles. We stood there under the eaves of the small porch as I looked at the long lines of split logs stacked against the lee side of the house and wondered why Lucian had had us pick up firewood from below. There was some noise and pretty soon the door was yanked wide. A skinny man about Lucian’s age with hair standing on end stood there holding said door by the weight of his belt buckle and a Charter Arms .32 revolver in his left hand. “Whatta you want?” “Merry Christmas, Willis.” He gestured toward me, all smiles. “We brought you some firewood.” “I got plenty.” He didn’t move to get out of the way. “At least I did until people started stealing it – you finally here to do something about that?” Lucian glanced past me at the falling snow, even going so far as to reach up and brush some from my shoulder, but still not answering the man’s question. “Well, you can’t have too much firewood on a night like tonight” Reluctantly, the man stepped aside in order to allow all of us into the tight confines of the kitchen, overwhelmingly heated by one of the old, wood-burning stoves where a green enamel percolator sat burbling into the glass knob on its lid. “Willis, this here is…” He gestured toward me, snapping his finger as if it might summon up my name. I sighed. “Longmire, Walt Longmire.” “Right, Longmire, that’s right… And even though he rivals Paul Bunyan, he’d probably like to put this wood down somewhere?” He leaned forward, looking through a doorway and what appeared to be a small living room to our left. “Have you a hearth hereabouts?” Dietz glanced at me, tossing the snub-nosed pistol onto the kitchen counter with a clatter, finally raising an arm and reluctantly gestured through the doorway as I sidled that way, finding several old, framed rodeo posters on the wall and a lumpy sofa and matching chair resting on a frayed, bearskin rug, all of it facing a river-rock fireplace where a miserable flame struggled to stay lit. Carefully resting the arm-and-a-half load of wood in a cradle there, I listened as the two men talked in the kitchen about somebody stealing the old man’s firewood and figured that was the emergency. Bored, I reached over and took a poker to move the coals before placing one of the logs I’d brought in on the andirons. Adjusting for maximum combustion, I rehung the tool back on the hook and then turned to see Lucian leading the way as they entered the room, the old sheriff sipping what I assumed was coffee in a buffalo china mug – there being a first time for everything. “Where’s the wife, Willis?” The skinny man slipped by Lucian with his own drink and sat in the single chair with a proprietary sense. “Left me.” “Left you? Again?” The old sheriff looked around the room before standing in front of the fire and stretching a hand out to warm it. “Well, they do that sometimes.” He suddenly glanced up at me with a quizzical look. “You throw that log on the fire?” “I did.” Pulling off my gloves, I stuffed them in the pockets of my horsehide jacket and leaned in the doorway, figuring I might look more intimidating standing up. “It needed tending.” I glanced over Lucian at the man with the over-sized belt buckle. “I hope you don’t mind, Mister Dietz.” He ignored both Lucian and me, staring at the partially blooming fire. “You fellas gonna do something about people stealing my firewood or what?” Lucian sipped his coffee some more but seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time studying the log with which I’d selected to build up the fire before redirecting his attention to the vintage rodeo posters on the wall. “’Fifty-four, that was year we had both Jim Shoulders and Casey Tibbs at the county rodeo, wasn’t it?” The old man begrudgingly nodded. “How long was it that you ran your stock company, Willis?” “Since before the war.” He groused. Lucian chuckled to himself. “Do you remember Rodeo Joe Odegard?” For the first time, the old man cracked the briefest of smiles. “Best rodeo clown I ever saw – rode rough stock before he started getting a little long in the tooth.” Willis crossed his legs and scratched his scalp, standing what little hair was there up even more. “A lot of fellas do that, just to stay in the game.” I crossed back to the fire and plucked the poker from the wall so that I could adjust the log, listening to the two old buzzards and was trying to figure out why it was we were here. Lucian sipped his coffee. “Ol’ Rodeo Joe run into this older clown up in North Dakota who was getting out of the business and bought up all of his trappings. You know, costumes, props and such? Well, this fellow had an act where he’d finish up his schtick with a visit to the outhouse.” The old man grunted. “An outhouse which was loosely constructed so that it would explode.” Willis glanced at him. The old sheriff held a hand out to me. “Gimmie me one of those logs, Troop?” I did as he said. Lucian examined the piece of wood I’d handed him and then looked back at the man. “Yep, you see the old guy used to use an eighth of a stick of dynamite to blow this prop outhouse apart at the climax of his act.” Dietz glanced around, his eyes not looking at either of us. “Well, ol’ Joe didn’t know that he was only supposed to use an eighth of a stick of dynamite – and instead used a quarter stick.” Lucian chuckled to himself and once again scrutinized the piece of wood in his hands as if looking for aphids before making a show of tossing it on the fire. The old man said nothing but glanced up at me, studying my face. “What’s wrong with him, anyway?” “I don’t know, maybe he’s constipated.” He stretched a hand out to me. “Gimmie another one of those pieces of wood, will you?” I plucked one from the pile and attempted to give it to him, wondering what he was up to. “No, that other one. The other one on top there – the round one.” I gave him a questioning look and then did as he asked, handing him the one he’d requested. Holding the piece of wood, his dark eyes sharpened. “Lodgepole Pine, aged a year at least; Cottonwood and Aspen burn faster but they make a lot of ash.” He glanced up at the stone fireplace. “Do you ever worry about stopping up your flume with all that pitch and tar?” Frowning, the old man shook his head. “Not so much, I just get a length of chain and rattle it around in there to keep it clean.” “Dangerous stuff, I’ve seen quite a few go up like a Saturn-V rocket in my time.” He sighed. “Must’ve been what happened to your neighbor, Mel Stephens. You hear about that?” Dietz said nothing and remained perfectly still. “We had a little disturbance earlier this evening. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it – I mean literally heard it.” The old sheriff examined the ends of the piece of firewood. “There was an explosion right here in the neighborhood, back down the road at the Stephens place. We’re not sure what it was, but something blew up and took the old fireplace of theirs and turned it into a pile of rubble.” The old man fidgeted as Lucian continued to analyze the log. “Fortunately, there was no one home, Mel had even taken the dog with ‘em to his brother’s place. The funny thing is, it just didn’t look like a gas fire, you know. I mean the house has a propane tank, but none of those lines were ruptured. Then it struck me that it looked like when my buddy Joe Odegard was experimenting with his exploding outhouse.” He breathed a laugh and continued to examine the piece of firewood in his hands. “Now, the average stick of dynamite is about eight inches in length, about one and a quarter inch in diameter, and generally weighs a little less than a half-pound. Somebody could easily hide one in a piece of firewood, why, say no bigger than this one.” The old man slowly sat forward, still staring at the logs in the fire. “Ol Rodeo Joe damn near blew himself up in that outhouse routine, and he couldn’t hear for about three weeks and that was with that quarter stick being in a container that cushioned the explosion. Hell, I’d imagine if you had one go up right in front of you with say a stone backing like this fine fireplace here, it’d kill you deader than last year’s fruitcake.” Lucian once again tossed the log on the fire. Dietz swallowed, his Adams apple bobbing like a lure. “Um, Sheriff, where exactly did you get them logs you brought in?” Lucian once again gestured toward me with the empty hand, and I gave him another piece of wood. “Well Willis, we figured we’d do you a favor and haul up some of those ones you had down by the ranch gate.” He extended the piece of firewood in both hands as if it were a prize-winning trout. “Yep, right off that stack you got down at your gate near the Stephens place.” The sheriff had just started to turn and throw the piece of firewood into the flames when Dietz hurriedly raised a hand. “Wait!” Lucian paused and then slowly smiled pointing the piece of firewood at the old man. “Is there something you’d like to tell me, Mister Dietz?” * * * As we drove down the mountain, I shook my head and watched the old sheriff navigate the deepening snow drifts, still in full-time, two-wheel drive. “You think just having him pay for the damages is enough?” “Oh, it would’ve been another story if he’d kept that .32 on him, but I think he’s learned his lesson.” He glanced over at me and grunted. “Troop, how ‘bout I just run you by your place and drop you off with that young wife of yours.” “What are you going to do?” We slid sideways as he corrected the skid. “Oh, I don’t know… Go back over to the Basquo bar, I guess.” “Why don’t you come on in with us – Martha has a turkey ready with all the trimmings.” “That’s all right, I don’t need your pity.” He snorted and glanced up at me. “…Longmire, Walt Longmire.” I nodded and smiled to myself, gazing out the windshield. “All right then, but I’ve still got one question.” “And what’s that?” “How did you know which logs had the dynamite inside them?” “I didn’t…” He continued driving into the darkness. “I just hoped like hell he did.”
This being the final week of not only 52 Pickup but the year as a whole, I asked my wife what question I should answer, and she gave me one saying that I should do something that looks back over the year and toward the new one coming in.
I could talk about health, prosperity, friendship and so many other things, but these Q&A articles are really more about writing, so I’ll stick to that as a guideline in keeping this answer under a thousand words…
I’m thankful for the blank page.
Every morning when I get up and square things away here at the ranch, I’m working for something, working for the opportunity to get in that stool in my loft and hit the button on the keyboard that’s going to open up my writing world. It’s a pristine, arctic expanse that I’ve heard people refer to as intimidating, daunting, and overwhelming—a landscape so fraught with possibility that the mind and body quell. Then I take that 12D mountaineering boot with the twelve-point crampon and step into the void, the crunch of new thought invading the vista of possibility, and then another, and another, and another… And pretty soon, it’s my world.
I’m thankful for the words.
I like to think that we’re all repositories for words, the end point for all the lessons, conversations and stories we’ve been party to, fertile ground where these words can settle and germinate. I got an unhappy email from a reader who said he was giving up on my books, because I used too many big words and used them in strange ways. I wrote him back and tried to explain that that was one of my jobs, to stretch those words like a canvas and to paint them in ways that explored their meaning so as to engage the reader in new ways. He said he didn’t like that and probably wasn’t going to read any more of my books, which is fair enough, but I think that’s part of an author’s job, to find new ways to say new things with the same old tools—the words.
I’m thankful for the ideas.
Hardly anybody that knows me hasn’t experienced that wayward look I get on my face when they’re talking to me in a perfectly normal conversation—but suddenly I’m out there in the white, thinking, assembling, manipulating. Usually, the poor person I’m in conversation with looks at me and says, “You’re writing in your head again, aren’t you?” I am. I don’t know what it is that starts you on the path of looking out windows when you’re supposed to be paying attention, but I think it must have something to do with the world not being enough. Most of the things I’ve been involved in in my life could be interpreted as looking for something, maybe even things that aren’t there—but I’m still looking.
I’m thankful for the characters.
If you’re lucky, and I mean really lucky, you’ll stumble onto people to write about. I remember when I first started writing almost twenty years ago, I was referred to as a young author and that rankled me, I have to admit. I was in my mid-forties and thought I was pretty well down the road. A lot of writers, I discovered, don’t really get their careers in gear until they reach middle-age, and there are probably a number of reasons for that, but I think it has more to do with discovering who you want to write about and finding the character that will give you that voice. I’m thankful in that I’ve got an ensemble to draw from, but the main voice will always be Walt and I’m glad I found him.
The last thing on this list that I’m thankful for? You.
“I was wondering why the artwork on the covers of your books have changed?” -John Zabell
Hi John, They’ve actually changed a number of times.
One thing you might not know is that most beginning author contracts only have one thing in bold print—the author will not have final say in cover selection. Kind of gives you the feeling they’ve run into trouble with authors along these lines, huh? I’ve always figured they had entire art departments and probably knew what they were doing back in New York, at least for the most part.
When I first started out with The Cold Dish back in 2005 in hardback, Viking decided to go with a photographic cover design featuring an ominous-looking copse of snow-covered trees to represent, I’m assuming, the Bighorn Mountains here in Wyoming. The only problem? There was a sidewalk, and I had to explain to the folks back at Viking/Penguin that most of the Bighorns aren’t paved. They corrected that, and the first book went out.
When it sold well enough for us to start thinking of doing Longmire as a series, the publisher sent me portfolios of about twenty artists and let me choose. I picked a marvelous painter out of Kentucky, Gregory Manchess, who had done a lot of movie posters, stamps, book covers and even sixty for Louis L’Amour. I’ve still got his cover painting for The Cold Dish paperback hanging in the kitchen here at the ranch.
After three covers, Penguin got antsy again and wanted to change once more. They sent me another set of artist portfolios, and I picked out Greg Molica who does the Nashville Music Festival posters because his stuff looked like old WPA artwork from the ‘30’s. His designs stuck for ten more books until we got to The Western Star when Viking/Penguin thought that with the success of the TV series, we should try to establish some kind of synchronicity that wasn’t getting done by the little medallion on all the books that read A NETFLIX ORIGINAL SERIES: LONGMIRE.
We introduced them to TJ Scott and Dennys llic at Cinematic Pictures Publishing and their Longmire coffee table book. The publisher liked the idea, and we went with versions of those, mostly with Robert Taylor either in the distance or with his hat covering most of his face so as to not disturb the image that non-TV watchers might have of Walt. We’ve been using those from book thirteen up through Next To Last Stand, the sixteenth book in the series, even if that one’s just Robert’s profile and in silhouette.
I’ve got a sneaking suspicion the art department back in New York is getting itchy, so we’ll see what happens with Daughter Of The Morning Star, which will be out in September of 2021.
I realize it’s frustrating for folks who want their books to all look similar on the shelves, but generally, the only way that happens is after the author has passed and the publisher goes back and re-issues the entire series.
“This is an odd question, but who picks out the author photos in your books, you or the publisher?” -Jeanette Palmer
You know, I just got an email from a fellow complimenting me on having an author photo with all the bumps and wrinkles; that it was very courageous of me to have one that looked like me rather than some thirty-five year-old, high school graduation photo like some authors have a tendency to use… And hell, here I thought I was looking pretty good in this one.
Oh, well. I guess the bar gets lower as you get older.
I fought with Viking/Penguin the year The Cold Dish came out because I wanted to have a photo that mimicked Walt’s statement about seeing only one eye and an ear in the rearview mirror of his truck and commenting that he thought from this limited view, he was looking pretty good. I lost that thought when they said folks should be able to recognize me and that an eye and ear wasn’t going to be enough.
My first author photo was one Judy took of me sitting in the ranch truck, which I think we used for about four years. I remember a fellow coming over to me to get his book signed and saying, “You don’t look like your photo.”
I looked up at him while signing his book. “Really?”
“Yep, I figured you’d be older and more pissed off.”
After four years, I started thinking that I needed to have more of a rotation and swore to myself that I’d change the thing every couple of books so that I didn’t start thinking I was younger than I really am. Nothing worse than walking into a library or bookstore for the first time and having them look at the flap photo and not have any idea who you are.
The next one was taken in the dugout of a baseball field in San Mateo where we happened to be for a book event. It’s usually Judy that takes the photos and I always give her credit even though she doesn’t want it. The next was from a professional photographer who asked if I could take an extra twenty minutes after an event in Miami, so I did but only if he’d give me one of the photos. I had to remind him about that when he tried to charge me a year later. The next one was a big hurry, so I just walked out into the northern pasture and had Judy take another one.
I finally hit the big time when we were at a charity auction where they were auctioning off a sitting with my good friend Adam Jahiel, a world-class photographer from over in Story. You can find Adam here on Facebook and on the internet. His work is just astounding and captures so much of Wyoming, the place I call home.
We did one sitting and one of the results is on the back flap of Next To Last Stand. Yep, the wrinkles and bumps are showing, but I never figured I was going to make a living on my looks, so thank goodness I can at least write a little bit.
In answer to your question, my wife Judy has final say on the photo front and she wasn’t willing to go with the eye and ear photo, either…
“We (your readers) have all attracted attention for laughing aloud in public while reading your books. What are a couple of scenes from your books that have actually made you laugh as you were writing them? And how ever did you come up with them?” -Anne Maclachlan
Hi Anne, I think for me the major difference falls somewhere between humor and comedy.
For me, comedy is plot driven, and believe me I have no problem with that. I think it was in Death Without Company that I had a religious individual say something pretty mild while sitting at the counter of the Busy Bee with Walt and Vic, who then leaned forward and apologized to the undersheriff for his language. Well, you can hear that train coming… That was a situation I set up for comic effect, but my favorites are the ones that simply evolve from the characters themselves, from their humanity.
I was working on this year’s Longmire Christmas Story and there was an exchange between the new part-time dispatcher, Barrett Long and Walt. Judy was reading it and suddenly burst out laughing and I asked her at what? Here’s the excerpt. “They do, but the disturbance is at Ella Murdoch’s house up near the hospital.” “Didn’t she croak-it a month ago?” I glanced at him. “We don’t use the term croak-it in this department.”
Now, when I wrote that, I didn’t think it was remotely funny but about half the time that’s the way it works, I’m not really aware until somebody reads it and that’s usually Judy. There’s sublime quality to the humor of the characters, and I guess I don’t think of myself as a comedic writer, but one of the things I really enjoy is hearing Judy laugh when she’s reading my stuff. The same goes with the public readings–I always enjoy it when the crowds are laughing, I suppose because I like to think that they’re having a good time.
Each of the characters are a joy to write in that they all have a particular quality to their humor like in the most recent book when Walt is trying on a tuxedo that’s too small for him and Henry refers to him as a “well-dressed refrigerator”. Henry is always a great foil for poor Walt, so is Lucian, but the literary bomb will always be Vic. As a counterpoint to Walt, she simply can’t be beaten. Her eastern perspective and language are always there, waiting like an ambush predator.
There are risks involved when you use comedic elements in your writing, because everyone’s tastes are different, and folks are easily offended these days. I could leave it out, but I can’t help but think that an important element would be lost. There will be people who are upset by some of the humor or Vic’s language, but toning that down would be a form of artistic censorship and I just can’t go along with that.
Now, more to your point, are there any scenes that I laughed at out loud while writing? Everyday; it’s one of the payoffs in doing what I do. Judy gets a big laugh out of when I’m up in the loft writing and laughing. A specific one? There are quite a few, like the opening scene in Junkyard Dogs where Walt hears the story of the old guy tied to the back of the car while cleaning his chimney, in Hell Is Empty where Vic refers to the Hispanic credit card grifter as Pancho Visa, the K-9 Unit story in An Obvious Fact… But oddly enough, the one that comes to mind first isn’t from any of the novels, but from the short story, ‘Messenger’, that’s included in the anthology, Wait for Signs. If I need a smile, all I have to do is summon up the image of Walt and Henry holding Vic by the legs over a porta potty as they’re confronted by a bear.
“In an earlier answer you talked about preferring to read books for your research. But I’m curious how you get access to them. Do you buy them or borrow from the library? And how do you build your research list or determine what to read next? And lastly as a result of your research have you changed something in one of your stories?” -Charis Wilson
I suppose I’m preaching to the chorus whenever I say, I like buying books. I think it goes all the way back to grade school when they used to have these Weekly Reader book catalogs where you’d pick out the books you want, and they eventually show up.
But the biggest influence in my childhood was the big, Carnegie Library downtown. Walking in there was like walking into the Library of Alexandria, Antioch, Serapeum and al Hakam II all rolled into one. There were these marble steps, Corinthian columns, rows and rows of oak file cabinets for a mysterious thing called the Dewey Decimal System, and most important of all, books. What seemed like miles and miles of books. Tall windows and massive, cushiony chairs that wrapped around you as a young boy discovered Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Harper Lee, Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey and so many others… It was like being a member of a secret society or club that knew things and hid them in a special place—books. I grew up in a family of readers, and I can’t help but think that that is one of the strongest elements in developing a reader. Some of the most powerful images I have of my parents is with a book in their hands.
I was distracted from my first love, reading, by sports and the other great mystery in life, girls, but I finally came back to reading as a young adult and it’s continued to this day. I’ve developed into something of a book snob in that if a book is worth reading, then it’s worth owning and if it’s worth owning then it’s worth having in hardback. Generally speaking, if I stumble onto a good book for research, chances are I’ll be circling around and reading it again sometime, and is there anything more horrifying than kind of remembering a book and then not being able to find it? So, I’ve assembled my own library… A couple of them, actually. The library here at the ranch, the one at the guest cabin (which was built because I bought a hallway of old barrister bookcases from a law firm that was switching to digital), another at my cabin on the mountain, another in my shop and the last in my tack shed in the barn. But it’s not like I’ve got a problem or anything.
Bookstores to me, are a constant treat and one of the occupational hazards of my life. Up until this year I’ve had the joy of touring to some of the most beautiful and amazing bookstores in the world (and will again) and I rarely escape them without buying a book. I love bookstores and bookstore owners, they’re like member of that secret society I mentioned and there’s a brotherhood in being able to see them year after year.
One of the great joys of writing for me, is the research—climbing aboard my legal pads and using my pens to pole up a line-of-thought like a mysterious river in some uncharted territory in an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale—deadly to the most dangerous threat to man, ignorance. I don’t know everything when I start out on a book, heck, I hardly know anything, but hopefully I’m getting smarter through the journey.
Lastly, to your question—have I ever changed anything in my books because of discoveries in the research? Absolutely. It’s never all that much fun to be wrong, but to change course and make things right in your book, that’s priceless. There’s no sliding rule to truth and I think that’s why I enjoy writing about Walt so much in that the same goes with his view of justice. There’s no absolute in what’s right and wrong for all cases in that the letter of the law need be tempered with humanity, but as a guide or polestar, doing the right thing is pretty important. I think I learned that somewhere, maybe in a book.
“What is it about Longmire that appeals to the French? What is it like to do a book tour in France? What about Henry’s time in France? We need to know more about the French connection. “ – Ann Wilson
If someone had told me that the series of books I was going to write about the sheriff of the least populated county in Wyoming was going to be a runaway success in a foreign country—maybe France wouldn’t have been my first guess?
Of course, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the American West carries an allure for other parts of the world. Once, while walking with my French publisher Oliver Gallmeister in Paris, we passed a patisserie and an elderly woman came out the door who looked as if she’d been sent over from Central Casting–the black dress, sensible shoes, scarf and carrying an armload of baguettes. We made eye-contact and as I always do in such situations, I tipped my hat (yes, I do wear it overseas) and to my horror she burst out crying.
I turned to Oliver and asked him if I’d done something wrong, at which point he and the woman entered into a flurry of French, and then Oliver started laughing. Finally, he turned to me and said that after the war that she used to sit with her father and watch westerns, but she never thought she would have a real cowboy tip his hat to her on a Parisian street.
I’ve got a theory about the attraction of westerns around the world, and it has to do with WWII. After the war, when the majority of countries were in a rebuilding period, the US inundated them with our media, our movies, our books and eventually our TV—and what was the predominant form of that period? At one time there were almost a hundred and fifty westerns on television and all of that content got sent overseas. I think, in a lot of countries, kids grew up watching westerns just the way that we did here.
That having been said, I’m afraid that attraction is fading, just as it is here. In a recent article from Western Writers of America it was noted that the sales of westerns in general but especially overseas has been steadily falling over the last few decades. I think the reason for this is too many writers are content to mimic Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey; the difficulty being that Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey were pretty good at writing Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. No offense, but audiences are a little more sophisticated these days and the standard oater just isn’t going to hold their interest.
However, I think I have an advantage in that my books are contemporary westerns, but another reason is the same as it is here in the US, character. Location, plot, and all those things are important, but if you don’t care about the characters then any book is going to be an uphill battle. When I ask French readers what it is that draws them to the novels, they consistently say the same thing that most American readers say—the characters.
That’s not to say that I don’t have some secret weapons on my side… As I mentioned, my publisher in France, Oliver Gallmeister, is one of the sharpest individuals I’ve ever met, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge and love of the American West; then there’s my translator, Sophie Aslanides. I’ve seen Sophie and Oliver argue for three days over one word… Their attention to detail and their passion for the written word has pretty much put me on the best-seller’s list in France. I’ve said it before about the TV show, that you’re only as good as the folks you work with, and in France, I’ve had a charmed life.
“When writing a mystery series, how do you prevent yourself from creating the same “aha!” moment when you reveal the culprit? How do you stray from the same “mystery novel” footprint? I’ve read other author’s work… and some, (cough cough… Dan Brown) you can make an educated guess in the first 60 pages as who the bad guy is, and you’d probably be right. How do you prevent this? How do you structure your writing to make sure you’re not predictable? And how do you use different characters to prevent the story from repeating itself over such a long series? Very Respectfully, Zach Crowe”
That is a very technical question, but I’ll try and give you a straight-but-not-too-long answer… I do outlines of each book, which allow me to spot some of the problems before they arise. One of the really satisfying things about being a writer is when you accept the fact that at some point, if you’re doing your job to its fullest, the story is going to go off the rails. You always think you know what the novel is about, but there’s always that improvisational moment where the work takes on a life of its own, and if you’re lucky, it’ll be an existence very different to anything you’ve written before. It takes a certain amount of practice, but hopefully you get to the point where it not only becomes exciting but enjoyable.
It’s easy to fall into the rut of formula when there are certain mechanics involved, and those exist in the mystery genre. I think a lot of it has to do with being aware of what those are. I think there are something like 250 hardback mysteries published every month, so there’s no way to keep up with all of them but I have my favorite authors—along with the classics. You can’t bend the rules if you don’t know what the rules are; besides, why respond to something you don’t recognize? There are things you have to do to play fair with the reader, to give them an equal footing with your protagonist, but there are also ways of changing up the game—sometimes it’s a who done it, sometimes a why done it, and then even a how done it. I think one advantage is in thinking outside the box and just knowing what’s been done before.
Humor is a powerful tool in all these situations and something I employ a lot. Humor gets people thinking, but it also distracts. An awful lot of the time when I drop a clue, I do it when something funny happens—readers tend to remember the funny but not so much the clue that way. Settling on a culprit, especially an honest one, is always tough, but I think the Latin phrase cui bono says it best—who benefits? Someone has to be motivated enough to want to kill someone and that better be a powerful motivation. Therein lies the difficulty, though, and once again the intricacies and individuality of each novel save you if you let them. Also, don’t allow your personal prejudices to have an effect in choosing antagonist. For instance, there are writers I read and when I hit a certain character type, I know they’re the culprit simply because I know the author doesn’t like them.
Repetition is always a problem, but some of the things I’ve mentioned above guard against that. Another would be in having an entourage of characters you can draw from, providing an ebb and flow that allows each novel to have a separate style and voice. The difficulty in this is that readers sometimes want all of the same characters in the same amounts and that leads to the repetition you mention.
What it finally comes down to is that you have to take chances even though a certain percentage of your readership are going to be resistant to it. A lot of readers get used to an environ and ensemble that’s comforting and they don’t want you venturing out and taking chances, but as I’ve said, it’s an important part of being a writer—a real writer and not a sausage maker.