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OUT OF THE PAST & TRAINS NOT TAKEN: AN INTERVIEW WITH CRAIG JOHNSON

It's fitting for couple of reasons Craig Johnson is the first author to be interviewed at The Hard Word. One he is close friend. Craig's first year as a published author, was my first year as a book seller. His first novel featuring Northern Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, was the first novel I championed. Also, he has found a way to marry some of the best tropes of crime fiction and the western in the series, playing off both genres to create something fresh with each book. This time he takes a a mode of transportation that is known to play in both, trains, with a why-dunnit in the present tied to a who-dunnit in Walt's past when he was a young deputy at a Wyoming Sheriff's Council meeting that takes place on a a classic steam locomotive moving across the state, The Western Star. I talked to Craig about the book, the seventies setting, and Walt.

1. The Western Star gives a tip of the hat to Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express, a mystery known for its great reveal at the end. Did you see that as a challenge to take on?

Oh, I think it would be a no-win situation to take Agatha on head-to-head... Whenever I'm toiling in another author's field I like to think that their hand is on my shoulder, hopefully smiling along with me. One of the things I think she did marvelously was the motivations for her characters and that's something a lot of people mess up, the why of who-done-it. Like Dickens or Shakespeare, her characters are perfectly motivated in what they do. I think I did her credit and only hope she enjoyed the ride. 2. What did you have to keep in mind when you were writing about the 1972 story?

To not over do it. I think you can get into trouble by bringing the period up every time you turn around in a book; it has to be on your mind but not particularly in the reader's face. I think you establish the time and then do your best not to break the illusion. 3. Like Another Man's Moccasins this book has two story lines, one past, one present. How do you approach that structure?

Well, this one was different than Moccasins in that it's more of a parallel narrative combining the period story that is a traditional mystery, and the contemporary one that is more of a thriller. There are some daunting aspects to the structure, such as dual pacing and the connecting threads that dictate why these stories should be co-told in the first place, but I hope I succeeded. 4. While you use some opportunities to get twenty-something Walt off the train, a lot of it takes place inside it. Did setting a mystery in a confined area change any of the dynamics as opposed to the wide open spaces your hero usually works in?

Walt is a big man and working in the confines of the train became somewhat symbolic of his discomfort in having returned from the Vietnam War to a society he barely recognizes and the difficulties of being the only deputy on a train full of sheriffs. Walt isn't the same man in his twenties as he is now, and I think the compressed qualities of the story push him to make decisions in his life he might otherwise not have made. 5. This is the first time Walt physically interacts with Martha, limiting to phone conversations the last time. What made you decide to do it this time?

You know, it was becoming a thing... We actually get to meet her in one of the short stories in Wait for Signs--Slick-Tongued Devil--which became one of the touchstones for the TV series, but you're right, she was becoming this disembodied force in Walt's life and I didn't want that, so I felt it was time to introduce her and let her speak for herself. 6. There's a point in the book where Walt is offered by a rock singer to go to San Francisco with her. Where would Walt be now if he did?

Oh, boy... What a question. I guess no matter what the circumstance, Walt is a man of letters and I like to think he would've been teaching at Stanford with Wallace Stegner, or would have opened a bookstore in the Haight, palling around with Allen Ginsberg or keeping Jack Kerouac from drinking himself to death.

You can get a copy of The Western Star here.

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