Randy Cordova, The Arizona Republic
May 12, 2014
At age 53, Craig Johnson (pictured above) has the kind of career that most writers would envy. He is the author of the successful mystery series that features Walt Longmire, a plain-spoken sheriff in Wyoming's fictional Absaroka County. The books inspired the A&E series "Longmire," the network's highest-rated scripted series.
The success hasn't changed Johnson. He still lives in Ucross, Wyo. (population: 25), and has no plans to go Hollywood: "Are you insane? This is my ranch. I poured the concrete. I built the barn."
It's a busy period for Johnson. "Longmire," for which Johnson gets an executive consultant credit, returns for its third season Monday, June 2. And he's on the road promoting "Any Other Name," the 11th Longmire book, which finds the sheriff facing the birth of his first grandchild and a suicide in a neighboring county.
Question: How did you know you were a writer?
Answer: My father says I come from a long line of bulls--t, but I'm just the first one smart enough to write it down. I've always been entranced by the idea of people that can tell a story. It's a valuable trait.
Q: Did your background prepare you for this career?
A: I did a little bit of everything. I had one of those Jack Kerouac lifestyles. I traveled around a lot and did a lot of different things. I was either preparing myself to be a writer or preparing myself to be homeless. Thank goodness the writing thing turned out.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of Walt Longmire?
A: As soon as I started developing the idea of Walt, I knew he was not going to be the usual crime-fiction protagonist: Six-foot-two-inches of twisted steel and sex appeal. Walt's a little bit more old-school. He's overage, overweight, overly depressed, yet he still gets up in the morning and tries to do the job. I think that's kind of heroic. And I write them in the first person, because I want it to be as if you went into the Busy Bee Cafe in Durant, Wyo., and the sheriff came over and told you what happened in the last month.
Q: Is Walt based on you?
A: My wife has the best answer. She says this is who Craig would like to be in 10 years, but he's off to an incredibly slow start. He's a better guy than I am. He's a truly decent, kind, caring human being and he really goes out of his way in some very dire circumstances to try and be a good guy. Walt's kind of old-school that way. He's a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers kind of character, and those characters have been missing from the public psyche for so long. It's almost avant-garde now.
Q: But he's a lot more shaded than those guys.
A: He is, but he has to be. He has to be more fully drawn, simply because the world he works in is more complex.
Q:Your first book wasn't published until you were in your 40s, which some people see as a late start. Why didn't you start sooner?
A: There are two honest answers to that question. First, you run out of excuses. I remember finishing my ranch and getting things up and running. When that was done, I knew I always wanted to be a writer so now would be the time. The other thing is you stumble upon a story that you think is good enough to invest the time and energy.
Q: Were you surprised by the success?
A: Oh gosh, yes. I was just hoping for enough response that I would be able to continue being a writer. I got a really great agent, a great publisher and I started getting on the New York Times bestseller list and then I hear, 'Hey, we'd like to do a TV show based on the character.' It's pretty good for a cowboy who lives in a town of 25 people.
Q: How does a TV show change your life?
A: There's a story I like. I was going to jump on a plane in Red Lodge, Mont., and I stopped at a diner wearing a Absaroka County sheriff's ballcap from the TV show. This woman looked at the ballcap and says, "Where did you get that?" I thought, "Oh, she thinks I'm a real sheriff." I didn't want to have to chase (a criminal) down the streets of Red Lodge, so I decided I'd point out it's not a real county. I tell her that, and she goes, "The hell it's not. That's Walt Longmire's county." I felt a little proud, so I tell her that I'm Craig Johnson, the guy who writes the books. She goes, "There are books?"
I've always thought I should tell (my publisher) Viking the slogan should be: "Yes, there are books."
Craig Johnson book signing: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 15. The Poisoned Pen Bookstore, 4014 N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale. Free. 480-947-2974, poisonedpen.com.
'Longmire': Season premieres 11 p.m. Monday, June 2, on A&E.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8849. Twitter.com/randy_cordova.