"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." - George Washington
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Author Craig Johnson puts fictional Wyo on the map
By Mark Wilcox
Wyoming Business Report
August 1, 2012
Craig Johnson is a small-town author cracking big-city markets.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Johnson said the writer asked him if he really lived in a town with a population of 25.
"No," he answered. "I think it's 19 - we're still elevated from the last census."
Johnson calls Ucross home, making his take on Wyoming more authentic as he sells his writing to New York, Hollywood and the world. His two latest books, the most recent released in May, both cracked the extended New York Times bestseller list.
But that is small news compared to the most recent accolade in Johnson's repertoire. A&E Television Networks picked up Johnson's book series about Walt Longmire, sheriff of a fictional town in a fictional county in Wyoming, to make into the series "Longmire."
'Longmire' the pilot
The debut of the series was the highest-rated debut in cable television this spring, attracting about 4.1 million viewers. Johnson said it is the most-viewed scripted show A&E has ever done.
Typically, pilot episodes will attract a lot of viewership, but numbers will drop off quickly after the show comes out. Not so with "Longmire;" viewership has increased weekly, now soaring to about 4.5 million per episode. Seizing on the positive buzz, A&E renewed the series for a second season after only four episodes, a record at the network.
A&E now employs Johnson as executive creative consultant, giving him a large say in how his characters are portrayed. Early on, he even went over casting reels. Additionally, the network spent $10.5 million advertising the debut of the series on everything from television ads to banners flying behind planes on the west coast. One friend after a day at the beach told Johnson, "I just got buzzed by the 'Longmire' Air Force." Johnson said the exposure has been helpful.
"Every ad that A&E came out with was tagged 'from the award-winning, best-selling novels by Craig Johnson,'" he said. "They don't have to do that. I'm not John Grisham. I'm not Stephen King. Nine times out of ten, they write you a check and that's it. You might recognize what comes on TV and you might not."
In fact, the exposure has revived sales of his first book, "The Cold Dish." Retooled with a cover sporting the actor who plays Longmire in the series, the eight-year-old book jumped onto the extended New York Times bestseller list for a few weeks. Such a revival is "not very common" according to Kathryn Court, Johnson's editor and the president and publisher of Penguin Books.
"The release of a new novel does sometimes spur sales of an earlier book and make it a bestseller," Court told the Business Report. And of A&E's promotional measures, she has only good things to say. "It has helped a great deal, and the people at A&E have been very cooperative."
While Penguin keeps sales figures confidential, Court said every book Johnson has put out has increased sales from the book before.
The 'man behind the man'
While the publicity is clearly a good thing for Johnson, especially with the prominent placement of his authorship in advertising, he said he feels doomed to be the "man behind the man."
When he recently noticed a bartender pausing to watch a commercial for Longmire, he played devil's advocate to feel her out.
"Do you watch that show?" he asked. She nodded and told him it's the best show on TV.
Johnson then smiled and said, "You don't know how glad I am to hear you say that. I'm the guy who writes the books."
Her reply made his smile fade "a little, but not entirely."
"There are books?"
Johnson said anyone not OK with obscurity, even as a relatively well-known author, should find another career.
"The majority of what I do is sit in a room by myself and write about my imaginary friends," he said. "That's what I do."
Johnson doesn't believe in writer's block. According to him, an author can circumvent it by having a plot outline since writer's block is simply not knowing what's going to happen next.
"I'm not a big one waiting around for a muse to write," Johnson told the Business Report. "That's just being lazy. There's no waiting around for the enthusiasm. I've never seen a ditch digger with a shovel in his hand saying 'I'm just not feeling this ditch today.'"
Consequently, Johnson writes a lot. Johnson made his authorial debut in 2004. He has published a book per year since then. And even though his latest came out about two months ago, the next book is written with a publishing date on the record. He is already at work on the book after that.
While he never sets a specific daily goal for himself like some authors, he acknowledges that writing is sometimes like being "in the zone" playing a sport.
"If you're sinking three pointers from the perimeter, you'll just stay out there and shoot all day," he said. "You'll work all day, all night, whatever."
The Wyoming connection
Before being published, when Johnson first got called back by Penguin, he said Court sat him down to tell him she thought his book should be made into a series.
"I loved the Wyoming setting," she said, "and that together with Craig's great sense of character and witty writing, made me believe 'The Cold Dish' would be very appealing."
But like many Wyomingites, Johnson isn't afraid to tell it like he sees it.
"I started arguing with the president of Penguin," he said, trying to tell her in his greenhorn way it should be a standalone novel. She told him to go back to his ranch in Ucross and ask himself if the characters have more stories to tell. Johnson proceeded to cut 200 pages so it would less resemble "War and Peace" in Absaroka County and leave him more stories to tell in other books.
"A lot of these stories I wanted to hear more of," he said. "Nobody else is going to [write them.]" In retrospect, he admits that Court was right. "I'm having more fun writing the eighth and ninth book."
Though some of the friends Johnson writes about are imaginary, the basis for many is not. He has been called out by some asking him if a certain character is inspired by a specific person. He usually "neither confirms or denies" the question, but he will admit one character is fully based on his friend Marcus Red Thunder.
The character is played by Lou Diamond Phillips in the TV series, who flew out to meet Red Thunder and was even adopted into the tribe after coming to know the customs and experiencing such ceremonies as the sweat lodge.
Red Thunder met Johnson when the author was starting his business, the Bucking Buffalo Supply Co. in Sheridan. The character Johnson writes around Red Thunder's personality does a lot to combat stereotyping.
"We're not all stereotypical, stone-faced, stoic, grunting Indians - some of us have some depth," Red Thunder said. "It's neat the way this character can bring attention to some of my own ideals I spread."
And though the genre Johnson writes isn't known for its scruples, he finds a way to work in morals like those taught through the character absorbing Red Thunder's personality.
"I'm writing crime fiction, but I kind of think about it as socially responsible crime fiction," he said. "There's always some social problem I'm trying to contend with."