“In Thanks”

52 Pickup 2.0 #52, 12/29/2020

What are you thankful for?
-Judy Johnson

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.

See you on the trail,
Craig

PS: Happy New Year.

“Eye of the Beholder”

52 Pick-up 2.0, #51 – 12/22/2020

“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.

I sure hope nobody’s rooting for that…

See you on the trail,
Craig

“Portrait of the Artist…”

52 Pick-Up 2.0, #50 – 12/15/2020


“This is an odd question, but who picks out the author photos in your books, you or the publisher?”
-Jeanette Palmer


Hi Jeanette,

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…

See you on the trail,
Craig

“The Best Medicine”

52 Pick-up 2.0, #49 – 12/8/2020

“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.

Yep, that was more like comedy.

See you on the trail,
Craig

‘Reading The Range”

52 Pick-up 2.0, #48 – 12/1/2020

“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
 
Hi Charis,
 
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.

See you on the trail,
Craig

“Toujours L’Amour”

52 Pick-up 2.0, #47, 11/24/2020

“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

Hi Ann,

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.

See you on the trail,
Au revoir,
Craig

“Changeup Pitch”


52 Pick-up 2.0, #46 – 11/17/2020

“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”

Hi Zach,

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.

See you on the trail,
Craig

“Because It’s There”

52 Pick-up 2.0, #45 – 11/10/2020

“I seem to recall that Walt and Henry got into trouble golfing one time, but you don’t strike me as a golfer. What recreational activities do you take part in?”
-June Anderson

Hi June,

I ranch, so there’s no such thing as recreation… Just kidding.

No, I don’t golf, but my wife does; she even won the women’s division of the Mike Schmitt Tournament back in Philadelphia when she lived there. Me, I prescribe to the Mark Twain adage that “golf is a good walk spoiled”.

There are lots of things I do enjoy—fishing, horseback riding, mountain climbing.

In my youth I climbed in South America, Europe, Asia, and there are a few peaks I’d still like to bag even though I’m getting a little old for that stuff. I’d enjoy seeing the base camp for Everest even though I think climbing it is behind me—I’d just like to have a look at the tallest mountain in the world with my own eyes.

I like being outside. We’re getting those last gasps of fall here in Wyoming, and anybody who’s lived here any length of time, knows what’s coming. I love the bittersweet aspect of the season when the skies grow darker earlier, leaves are falling, and the air has a crisp feel to it. Snow is already encroaching on the Bighorn Mountains, and they’ll always be the reason I live where I do.

I remember when I was building the ranch—I’d look up and see the tallest mountain in the Bighorn Range, Cloud Peak (13,171’), and think how can people live down here and not want to go up there? Once I got the ranch built, I did, and have summited Cloud Peak and some of the others numerous times over the years, sometimes even alone, which drives my wife crazy.

It’s not the most technical of climbs, weather permitting, and I used a lot of those experiences in Hell Is Empty when Walt is chasing escaped criminals into the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. I guess most of the things I do lead me to isolated places, which is interesting in that I generally enjoy the company of people. I guess it’s a way of recharging my batteries like nothing else does. When you’re involved in an outdoor activity like horseback riding, fly-fishing, or mountain climbing it demands a certain amount of concentration, and I guess that’s another attraction. The writing is always on my mind, even then, or if not then, then later when I’m assessing the experience. Everything is grist for the mill, and I guess that’s telling.

Artists and photographers see the world in a very different way, and I guess that’s true for writers as well. My wife, Judy, is more of an artist and sees the world in colors and light, but I experience the world in words, and the way I can use those words so that the reader can be a part of the experience.

The writing swallows me up every day, and I have to guard against being a one-note-Johnnie, so sometimes it’s something as simple as splitting wood or walking the dog.

But maybe not golf.

See you on the trail,
Craig

“Wanted Poster”

52 Pick-up 2.0, #44, 11/3/2020

“I’ve noticed a lot of authors are abandoning some forms of social media or don’t put much effort into their pages, but you’ve got a healthy presence—is this kind of activity enjoyable for you?”
-Gary Frazier

Hi Gary,

Yep, I guess it is. Like anything else, social media can be pushed to being good or bad, and I think you have to decide why it is you’re in the game. Long ago I decided that I was going to use it as a way of staying in touch with readers and as a casual form of interaction; simply saying that I wasn’t going to get too personal or express my views in a lot of volatile subjects—not that I don’t have them, but there’s a time and place. There are enough folks arguing about politics, religion, and other things, and I just decided I wasn’t going to engage in that for a number of reasons: first off, if it’s a casual form of communication, I was going to keep it light, and also because I didn’t want to spend my days arguing with people I don’t know or may never meet. My writing time is precious to me, and I don’t want to spend it on some blog arguing the relative merits of what brand of truck I prefer.

When Facebook and others first came out, I remember that the publishers kind of threw all of us authors to the wolves saying, “You should have a presence in social media, so get at it.” Well, we did but that didn’t mean we specifically knew what we were doing. I guess I did something right because I discovered quickly that Facebook/Private accounts were limited to 5,000 friends, so when I got there they explained that I would have to transition over to a public persona account with unlimited Friends—the difficulty being that when you subscribe to that type of account you lose the ability to comment on your Friends streams. I really didn’t want to do that because I think of any kind of communication as a two-way street. So, now I have two pages, one dormant one that I comment from and the other, my official, active page. It gets confusing for people, and I generally have to message them and direct them to the public page when they want to Friend me but the communication is well worth the effort.

By the way, if you’re interested, here’s the link to the official page. https://www.facebook.com/OfficialCraigJohnson

I think one of the biggest mistakes you can make is banging your drum too loudly, that is only being on there to sell books. One of the greatest benefits of social media is the interaction I have with readers which may be because I live in a town of 25, or just that I enjoy it. With the advent of cell phones, it’s so easy to take photographs and share them, and as they say, every picture tells a story.

The Thirty Seconds of Zen I put up on Sunday mornings kind of evolved from an attempt to give folks a moment of pleasant contemplation, something their lives may not provide on a daily basis. Not everyone has the luxury of sitting by a stream in the Bighorn Mountains, so I feel it’s only conscionable to share.

Then there’s 52 Pickup, which you’re reading now. When Ry Brooks started up the Longmire Book Club on Facebook, I was just impressed by the amazing job he was doing and I thought that maybe I should be helping him do some of the lifting, so I contacted him and said why don’t we do a weekly piece where readers can ask questions and I can respond with more than a few sentences. It’s one of the few, writing luxuries I allow myself and hopefully people enjoy them—a break from all the religion and politics…

See you on the trail,
Craig

“Play It Again, Walt”

52 Pick-up 2.0, #43, 10/27/2020

“I’ve noticed a lot of musical references in Next To Last Stand and was wondering if music is a large component in the ideas for all your novels.”
-Betty Wagner
 
Hi Betty,
 
Yep, music is an essential part of all the novels for a number of reasons, but mostly because I love music so much, all kinds of music. I write up in the loft here at the ranch, and I have a pretty good stereo that I generally turn on while writing. I think music might be the most emotive art, and its abilities to summon up emotions in the listener are hard to ignore.

People always ask what I listen to while writing and generally it’s the pieces or genre that happens to fit the novel, but I also have a friend who is a member of the Academy and sends me the soundtracks that she receives. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t watch much TV or movies and what I do tend to watch is old and black & white, which gives me an advantage in that I don’t generally know the movies whose soundtracks she sends me. Film music is highly emotive and does a pretty good job of getting me into the story if I need it.

I was looking through a local marketplace online and noticed an old Victrola for sale for a more than reasonable price and wrote the individual a note about it and he responded that if I was the Craig Johnson he’d sell it to me for half-price and a copy of the new book… I took the deal and placed it in the living room of a little cabin I’ve got and plucked out the first old 78 in the bin and placed it on the turntable, lowering the metal needle—Tchaikovsky’s Moscow Cantata. I was just frozen to the ground listening to it. With all the little pops and cracks, I was immediately swept away thinking about all the individuals who had listened to this particular record album before me.

In the Next To Last Stand it was an opportunity to set a time and place for Magic Mike and the Wavers, to pin them in a period with which Walt would be conversant. Music provides bookmarks in our lives, a soundtrack to our very existence. It’s funny, though, because Walt doesn’t have the best personal memories connected to the 60’s music, whereas Vic just enjoys the tunes, having not been around for the tumultuous period. Music is such a marvelous way to summon up a period in the reader and another opportunity to establish a high context connection so long as I don’t get too esoteric. In those scenes, if I chose carefully enough, the reader instantly hears what I want them to hear.


Another reason is that I like doing what the characters do, see, taste, feel, and hear. As stated above, I know what can happen when you hear certain songs, how transformative that it can be. Sense-memory is always a shortcut to getting into the character’s world.

Another reason for all the music is Walt is a musician. I think it’s one of the hallmarks of his character that’s intertwined with his abilities in math and investigation. He rarely makes it home to his little unfinished cabin, but when he does, I think he’s drawn to the old Henry F. Miller piano his wife refinished all those years ago. He has a poet’s soul heightened with the temperament of a musician which gives him a different connection to the world, an ability to slow its tempo to where he can read the music of life, which can sometime distract him—but sometimes distraction is important.

Like reading.

See you on the trail,
Craig