The first thing bestselling Longmire author and Wyoming resident Craig Johnson does whenever he finishes writing one of his books is immediately open a blank document and type out the first sentence for his next novel.
“I don't know if that's just because I'm superstitious and want to make sure the characters are going on, or if it is a sentimentality, and I want to make sure that the characters didn't come to an end,” he said.
Soon readers will get to see the first sentence, and much more, of his latest Longmire mystery “First Frost” when it hits bookstore shelves in May.
Back In Time
Set in the summer of 1964, recent college graduates Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear head out in an old ranch truck for an epic road trip across the country on iconic Route 66. Henry has to report to Tigerland, Fort Polk, in Louisiana, and Walt must go to Parris Island in South Carolina.
“The big question, of course, becomes how far do they get before they get into trouble? And the answer to that question is not very far,” Johnson told Cowboy State Daily. “They barely get into Arizona before they get into trouble.”
Johnson said he enjoyed taking his beloved Longmire series characters back to the prime of their lives. The two are in their early 20s and at the peak of their physical prowess after playing college football — Walt at the University of Southern California where the team won a Rose Bowl, and Henry at Berkeley.
“They lost their deferment, which got you an all-expense paid invitation to sunny Southeast Asia and a little-known country called Vietnam at that point in time,” Johnson said. “So, they're kind of having their last day in the sun.”
Early in their journey, the pair stumble into a town where people are getting hurt. Of course, they feel a moral obligation to do something about it.
“They're young, and they're not quite as smart, experienced or capable as they are later in life,” Johnson said. “There's a point in the book where Walt says, ‘We obviously should go to the authorities,’ and Henry looks at him and says, ‘When has that ever worked out for us before?’
“Of course, we know that later on Walt actually becomes one of the authorities, so it was fun to have them on the other side of the law in this given situation.”
Meanwhile back in the present day, Walt is forced to speak before a judge following the fatal events of “The Longmire Defense.” With powerful enemies lurking behind the scenes, the sheriff of Absaroka County must consider his options if he wants to finish the fight he started.
Research And Earlier Release Date
Johnson, who does the majority of his writing at his Wyoming ranch in Ucross, said the title for his new book comes from a discussion he had with some retired sheriffs.
“They were talking about when you switch over from your straw hat to your wool hat during the first frost and I thought, this is like the first frost in Walt and Henry's lives, where they're actually looking at their mortality because they’re going to go off to war and might never make it back home,” he said.
He also shared that Wyomingites might find something familiar about the internment camp featured in the book. Although set in Arizona, Johnson used his research on the Heart Mountain Relocation Center near Powell. It’s a place he’s always been intrigued by and first visited around the time he wrote his first Longmire novel.
“I've done all this research about the political activities of the people that had been there, and I always thought at some point in time I was going to have a book take place at Heart Mountain,” he said. “Well, little did I know that I would transport Heart Mountain down to Arizona, where they also had internment camps.”
He said the books “Beyond Heart Mountain” by Alan Ohashi, “Remembering Heart Mountain: Essays on Japanese American Internment in Wyoming” edited and contributions by Mike Mackey, and “A Matter of Conscience: Essays on the World War II Heart Mountain Draft Resistance Movement,” also by Mackey, were key in his research for the book.
“First Frost” is set to be released May 28, more than three months before his new novels have normally hit the shelves. The reason for the change is Johnson’s upcoming third novella “Tooth and Claw,” which is set to be released in October.
He began the shorter piece about five years ago, but didn’t have enough time to finish it until last year. It's another Longmire story that takes readers back to the early 1970s. Walt is doing security work for oil rigs on the North Slope of Alaska and Henry comes to visit. Of course, danger and adventure ensues.
“There are only so many things that far north in the Arctic Circle that have teeth and claws,” Johnson said. “It’s a little bit of a departure and much more of an Alistair MacLean-like adventure like ‘Ice Station Zebra’ or ‘Where Eagles Dare.’”
No Slowing Down
As avid fans know, when Johnson wrote “The Cold Dish” in 2004 it was never meant to be a series. However, encouragement from his publisher Viking Penguin got him thinking about continuing to tell stories in Walt’s world. Johnson had cut almost 200 pages out of his first book before it was published, meaning the material was there.
“The big question was, do these characters have something more to say? And the answer came roaring back that yeah, they did,” he said. “And nobody else was going to write it, so I guess it was up to me.”
Now 20 books in, Johnson has settled into a routine that keeps him busy.
“You get used to the idea that the book you're working on right now is for a year away and that's just for you and nobody gets to hear about that yet,” he said. “Then there's the one that's coming out and going through the editing process. And then there’s the book that you've finished and is out now. It’s a lot, but for me it’s enjoyable.”
Most of the ideas for his books are taken from newspaper articles from around Wyoming, which keep the books grounded in reality and also give him plenty of material for future stories.
“I don't think I'll ever run out,” he said. “I mean, I always laugh whenever people ask me if I worry about running out of material. My response to that is always, ‘No, I live in Wyoming, I will never run out.’”
And though Walt continues to question if he should retire, Johnson said he has no plans to have the sheriff him hang up his hat anytime soon.
“I think there would probably be people with pitchforks and torches at the end of my ranch road if I ever retired Walt,” Johnson said. “He’s still going strong.”
While nearly 20 years have passed in real time since Johnson introduced the world to Walt Longmire, the books follow a “Vivaldi version” of time, referencing composer Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” violin concertos with a year being a four-book cycle.
“So here I am writing the 20th book, and ultimately he’s only five years older than when we first met him,” he said. “So, he's aging at a much slower rate than I am and still seems to be pretty capable.”
And even after all these years, Johnson said he continues to enjoy Walt’s company.
“He's a smart guy, he's dogged and determined, and he's got a great sense of humor,” Johnson said. “He's also the last guy you want after you if you've done something wrong. He’s a really wonderful ambassador for Wyoming and the American West.”
Going On Tour
As part of the book launch in May, Johnson will go on a monthlong tour across the United States. There’ll be an additional tour in October when the novella is released, followed by an overseas tour in November.
“Some authors don’t do book tours anymore, but for me it's fun to get out and do those events, shake hands with people and meet people,” he said.
He also has some “Six Pack” library events coming up in the next few months with stops in Cody, Powell and Meeteetse in February, and Worland and Basin in April.
“The only thing that I charge libraries here in Wyoming is a six-pack of Rainier beer,” Johnson said about his Cowboy State appearance fee. “For me, it's important to go out and meet and see people that are buying my books.”
Visit Johnson’s website to learn more about his upcoming events or preorder “First Frost.”