As you know, Monday I was fortunate enough to spend the evening with one of my absolute favorite writers. Craig Johnson has an amazing talent for writing, but he's truly an all-around entertainer as well. His verbal story-telling skills are as honed as the written ones.
The Mystery Lovers Bookshop set up a grand evening. When I arrived Craig was making the rounds talking to folks in small groups at their tables -he referred to it as musical tables. So of course, I was pretty much eavesdropping when he was at the neighboring tables, but when he came to our table it was like chatting with family - just informal and fun. However, I was so excited that I had trouble articulating what I wanted to say. Craig did a great job of interpreting my sighs and babbles and hand gestures, though. I was trying to get across how incredible I thought the range of emotion he elicits from readers in KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED is. And how I think all the books are wonderful but that I felt like he really took Walt to the extremes in that novel and how the relationship between Walt and Cady ramped up the intensity. It didn't come out anywhere near that. As Craig was watching me struggle to get out what I could manage, I'm sure he was thinking, "spit it out already, girl!" He'd never say such a thing. He's far too well-mannered, but as long as I live I don't think I'll ever forget the look on his face when I was trying to remember the line, "attempted to keep time to the counting of my blessings." As I was driving to Oakmont, Pennsylvania, I was listening to ANOTHER MAN'S MOCCASINS. When I heard that line, I knew it had just become my new favorite line ever. So, I was trying to tell Craig about it. I could see in my head what I wanted to say, but somewhere between my brain and my mouth was a complete disconnect. Once he figured out what I was blabbering about, he said, "that was a difficult part for me to write." I don't know why it hit me then, but I realized how real his characters are to him. How much a part of him they are. Which I should have realized just from reading the books. They simply couldn't be that real to me if they weren't first that real to him.
So the small group discussions all occurred before dinner. Richard and Mary Alice planned a dinner to be themed with Craig and Walt - pulled pork sandwiches, mac and cheese and salad. It was delicious.
Following dinner, Craig did a more formal presentation to the whole group. Now formal might summon up the wrong image. It wasn't "formal" formal by any means. Craig was laid back having a great time sharing stories. But he did so for the whole group this time instead of just small groups at the tables. Craig is definitely a gifted storyteller. And he said a reason for this was a lack of television when he was growing up. After dinner, instead of sitting in front of the television, his family sat out on the front porch and told stories. He first starting learning his craft right there on the porch.
One of my favorite stories that Craig shared involved him being stopped for speeding by a police officer. He was talking to the young officer who read Craig's books. The chat was going well and then the officer was taking Craig's license back to his patrol car. Before the officer could get two steps away, Craig's wife Judy said, "well he'd have to be a real dick to give you a ticket now." You don't think she's an inspiration for any characters in Craig's novels do you??? When the officer came back with the ticket, he said, "now slow down Mr. Johnson because we'd like to keep reading your books."
As I've heard Craig mention before, humor is very important to him. So he felt that THE DARK HORSE was tough for him to write. He was aiming for a noir work, but Craig feels that that sort of writing requires the author to take himself seriously. The problem with this for Craig? In a serious scene, he has 27 jokes that pop into his head instead! By the way, Craig has coined the term "high planes noir" for THE DARK HORSE. But the humor is a good thing - of course I'm not going to argue with that. But Craig pointed out something we might not always pay attention to: when someone makes you laugh, you almost inevitably form an immediate bond with that person. And if you're working to make empathic characters, humor's almost a surefire way to establish that connection between the character and the reader.
Another great point that came out in Craig's discussion was the idea that you may like a person for their virtues, but you love them for their vices. I find this especially true in characters because it makes them more real. And Craig reinforced this with his statement, "my least favorite character is the six-foot-two of twisted steel. Every woman wanted him and every man feared him." Craig's never met this guy...and neither have I - have you? When 90-year-old ranchers come up and ask for your character's phone number, I think you've nailed the realism!
Craig went on to talk about two types of literary "dynamite": violence and sex. Most people have not experienced extreme violence in their lives. That's a good thing. But most people HAVE experienced sex, so "if you don't write it right, it becomes very funny, very quickly." So when a woman in Washington told Craig that she wanted to talk to him about his sex scene in KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED because it "went on forever," he sort of looked at her and said, "it was only a paragraph long. How many times did you read it?" She came clean and said "I read it a bunch of times." This story just goes to show that a little bit goes a long way. There's no need to go on for pages and pages with excessive detail of either sex or violence.
Craig also shared a time when his characters surprised him while he was writing - Craig is a devout outliner by the way. Craig was jolted as he was writing the mountain scene in THE COLD DISH. It's amazing to me that some of the most monumental scenes in my favorite books have been ones where the characters have surprised their writers. They are scenes that weren't ever planned out ahead of time and were born in the process of writing. I'm just awe-struck by the life that books and their characters can take on.
So this is just a taste of the wonderful evening I was able to share with Craig Johnson and the folks at Mystery Lovers Bookshop. And I'm enjoying reliving parts of it here with you all. So, I'll be really jazzed to meet back up with Craig in October at Bouchercon because he said he will be attending. And rest assured everyone, there is more Walt on the way! Book number six has been completed and work has already started on book number seven. Music to my ears!
In L.A. the hat fell almost to my eyes. In PA, the clips in my hair held it up high. Maybe in Indy it'll fit just right?