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Craig Johnson: Longmire novel spotlights 'horrifying' reality for Native women

Best-selling author Craig Johnson's new novel Daughter of the Morning Star is now on sale. Photo by Judith Johnson, courtesy of Penguin/Random House
Best-selling author Craig Johnson's new novel "Daughter of the Morning Star" is now on sale. Photo by Judith Johnson, courtesy of Penguin/Random House

NEW YORK, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Author Craig Johnson says he hopes Daughter of the Morning Star, his 17th Sheriff Walt Longmire mystery, makes readers aware that thousands of Indigenous women go missing and are murdered in the United States each year.

"If you look at the percentage that Natives make up of the population, and you see the state of missing and murdered women, it's nothing but horrifying," Johnson told UPI in a recent phone interview.

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"When I put the [Department of Justice-FBI] statistics in the first draft, my publisher, Viking/Penguin, couldn't even believe those were correct," he added. "It's just one of those things that an awful lot of the time gets swept under the rug. Nobody talks about it. Nobody deals with it."

The novel went on sale Tuesday. It takes Walt and his lifelong friend, Henry Standing Bear, from their Wyoming homes to Montana, where they investigate death threats made against talented high school basketball player Jaya, the niece of Tribal Police Chief Lolo Long. The story is set a year after Jaya's older sister Jeanie disappeared.

Johnson gave one of the most memorable lines in his book to the Native character of Lonnie Little Bird. It sums up the situation perfectly: "You are never defeated until your women's hearts are on the ground, but what if there are no women and no hearts?"

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"I am a married man with two daughters and a granddaughter. It hits very close to home," said Johnson, who lives near Native reservations in Wyoming and often visits friends, conducts research and promotes his books there.

"These are my friends, my neighbors and their opinions are very important to me. They are just extraordinary people, and it is important to me that I get them right."

Johnson said if he is going to spend the better part of a year writing a book, there has to be a good reason for it -- and a clever idea for a plot simply isn't enough.

"If all you're trying to do is write a 350-page book where you just stack up bodies like cord wood, you're missing the point," Johnson said.

"I need to have something to say," he added. "There needs to be a social issue. I tend to refer to it as 'the burr under the saddle blanket school of writing.' If there is something I am dissatisfied about or upset about, then I can use that as fuel."

The key is to address adversity in an entertaining way, using principled characters readers have come to love and trust.

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"I could get on there and preach for 350 pages, but that would be a pretty boring book," he said. "You have to try and find a vehicle for that social issue. They have to match up."

Johnson looks to Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and John Steinbeck for inspiration on how to tell great stories that reflect real-life troubles.

"They painted on a large canvas, but they always brought it back to a very human scale," he said. "That's one of the issues when trying to write this type of book."

Longmire, a TV drama based on Johnson's books, ran from 2012-17 and starred Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips, Adam Bartley, Louanne Stephens, Katee Sackhoff, Cassidy Freeman, A Martinez, Bailey Chase and Zahn McClarnon. It remains popular in reruns on Netflix.

Johnson and most of the cast reminisced about the show earlier this month in a group video conference that was part of the annual Longmire Days fan festival.

"That's kind of a circus. Talking to that many actors is like herding cats," Johnson laughed. "The schedules are brutal. They're always running off."

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Taylor called in from his native Australia, while Phillips and McClarnon participated, even though they were physically at work on new productions. The rest of the stars chimed in from their homes and cars.

"That says something about the friendship and camaraderie the show has fostered for all of these people," Johnson noted.

Last year's Longmire Days event was entirely virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the 2021 edition -- which raised money for the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center -- was a hybrid. Johnson interviewed the individual stars remotely and streamed the videos for fans who couldn't get to Wyoming. He personally greeted those who made the trip.

Tourists were able to check out the real-life locations that inspired places in the books and TV series, and then attended a rodeo and took part in a 5K/1 mile fun run at which Johnson waited in a truck at the finish line and handed out autographed cans of Longmire's favorite Rainier beer.

"It turned out to be marvelous," he said.

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