Friday, September 20, 2013

Longmire creator works to keep character, setting true

Deanna Darr Journal staff
September 19, 2013

You'll never see Walt Longmire burying bodies in the backyard, selling drugs or enjoying a vacation on a cruise ship.
Staying true to his characters and writing honestly about the place he lives is always uppermost in the mind of author Craig Johnson, creator of the dedicated Wyoming sheriff who is the center of a series of best-selling books and a top-rated TV show on A&E.
"I don't want people throwing my books across the room," Johnson said in a recent phone interview from his ranch in Ucross, Wyo., population 25. "I tend to look at Walt as the living embodiment of those white-hat cowboys. He has a code that he lives by. I think that's one of the strengths of the books."
Johnson will appear at this weekend's South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood. He is part of a panel of authors who will discuss the "Western Crime Wave" at a box lunch at noon Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Deadwood Mountain Grand.
"It just seems that anytime you're working within a genre, it can kind of be a breeding ground for run-of-the-mill writing: The mountains are always looming; the gun barrel is always red-hot," he said. "You try and do something a little different within the genre. Don't write Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey. Don't try to repeat those past glories. Look at the genre and see what you can do differently."
Johnson has tried to do just that with his series of Longmire mystery novels. He wrote the first one, "The Cold Dish," about 10 years ago, intending it to be a stand-alone novel about a Wyoming sheriff who is a reluctant hero, but has his faults.
"I was just very fortunate," Johnson said of the success that quickly followed. "I kind of had that Cinderella kind of experience. I sat down and wrote that first draft, and it got passed on to a big agent, then Penguin."
The publisher talked him into doing a series, telling him that his characters and the setting had a lot to say. His books, including "Another Man's Moccasins," "The Dark Horse" and "Junkyard Dogs," have won a long list of awards and have appeared on the New York Times best-sellers list. The success continued when A&E called, wanting to create a television series around his characters. "Longmire," starring Australian actor Robert Taylor in the title role, just completed its second season. Johnson serves as a creative consultant on the show, which has become the network's top-rated original drama of all time.
"Every day, I'm reminded of just how stupid I was and how smart they are," he said.
Set in Wyoming, the books and the series show the good and the bad of living in the American West.
"I think you can get a little too precious when you talk about your area," he said. "I think the more specific you are about the American West, the more universal it becomes. Even though I'm writing about a place that's unique and people that are unique, I still want people to feel that they know them and get an honest portrayal. That's part of the job when you're writing about a place you love or that you live: You can't write about only the good; you have to have honesty."
Never underestimate the romance of the American West, Johnson said.
"It's wide open; we have a lot of space and a lot of characters. A lot of people live in the American West that couldn't live in other places. That makes for rich ground for writing novels," he said.
The complexities of the characters in the Longmire series are satisfying to the readers of today who are demanding more from the books they read, Johnson said.
"You've got to write it like literary fiction," he said. "There was a day when people were satisfied with a simple story. But readers are sophisticated these days. They want a fully developed story line and history. It raises the bar."
Here's more from Johnson:
On his ranch: "I got here 25 years ago. I was working for a rancher in Montana in my 20s and delivered some horses to this area," he said. He decided he'd like to live there, and put the time and money together to build his place.
Where he writes: "I write everywhere," he said. "I used to be a little more precious about it. I had to be here at the ranch, at my desk, with my coffee cup. Now I'm at a train station in Spain; I just open my laptop and go. I have to get the ideas down quick."
Where he gets his inspiration: "I collect newspapers wherever I go. I tend to look for social ills, some kind of problem that is currently being dealt with in the contemporary West."
Who is Walt Longmire? "He's kind of a conglomeration of people. The books are written in first person, so it's hard to separate him from me," he said. Walt is a character who is "over," Johnson said. "He's overweight, he's depressed, but he still gets up and gets the job done. I always wanted Walt to be a faulted hero. I didn't want him to be perfect. He's deeply faulted."
What he's working on now: His book for next year, called "Spirit of Steamboat," takes Walt back to 1988 in the early months of being sheriff. Already, the Wyoming Library Association has named it the state's inaugural One Wyoming One Read selection for 2014.
Working with A&E: "They've been pretty fantastic. They've had me in the loop from the get-go. They didn't know much about Wyoming or sheriffing, so they could either hire a bunch of people or just have me in the loop," he said.
Johnson gets a script synopsis, then is able to edit the script once it is submitted to him. That way, he can thwart plot points that could never happen, such as Walt arresting someone on the reservation or a character trying to get to Cheyenne and back in an hour.
The entire cast, including Taylor, Bailey Chase, Katee Sackhoff, Cassidy Freeman and Lou Diamond Phillips, recently came to Buffalo, Wyo., to celebrate Longmire Days.
"I don't think they were prepared for the crowd that showed up. That was kind of nice to get that support," he said. "I'm tickled to death. We're the highest-rated scripted drama in A&E history. It's great to get that response."
Contact Deanna Darr at 394-8416 or

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