When asked about writing as a career and how that subject is discussed with strangers, Craig Johnson, creator of the popular Sheriff Walt Longmire series of mystery novels, lets out a bellowing laugh.
“It’s like being a drug dealer,” he said. “You don’t want people looking at you askance, so you just keep it to yourself.”
The author’s irreverent attitude for the Western will be on display this weekend when he makes two Triangle stops on his current tour. Promoting the latest novel in the Longmire series, “Dry Bones,” Johnson will appear at McIntyre’s Books in Pittsboro Saturday and at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Sunday. The book is the 13th in the series centered on the rural sheriff – books Johnson says he started writing only because he ran out of things to build on his Wyoming homestead.
“For me the big thing was that I built my own ranch here in Wyoming, near Ucross, which has a population of 25,” he says. “I poured the concrete, stacked the logs, just did it all myself. Finally I ran out of excuses and thought to myself, ‘You built a ranch and have it up and running, so now is the time to write The Great American Novel that you’ve thought about,’ and I sat down and wrote ‘Cold Dish,’ the first Longmire novel.”
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The series is built around the character of Sheriff Walt Longmire, guardian of the constituents of the least-populated county in the state of Wyoming. Johnson says that the trials of the character became clearer in his mind as he found out just how fanciful the antics of lawmen on television truly were.
“When all of the ‘CSI’ stuff was all over television with forensics and ballistics about twelve years ago, I asked a Wyoming investigator with the Division of Criminal Investigations one time, ‘If you needed to get DNA evidence, how long would it take you to get it?’ And he paused and asked, ‘Is it a high-profile case?’ I said yeah, and he answered, ‘About seven months.’ I couldn’t help but think that the stuff people saw on the TV shows wasn’t being particularly honest with the viewer.
“I thought that if you take the opposite direction with all of the technology stuff, and take the sheriff of the least populated county in the least populated state in America, maybe it would force you to work with character and pace.”
An important voice
When Johnson wrote 2004’s “The Cold Dish,” it wasn’t with the clear intention to redefine the western-mystery genre for a new generation of readers, but the success of the Longmire series has made him a celebrated author. A multiple award winner in his particular field of fiction, he found himself drawn to the stories that surrounded his particular region of the United States, and soon became an important voice in the new West.
“I sat down and thought that I had an idea about this girl that is a product of fetal alcohol syndrome up on the northern end of the Cheyenne reservation, which is just north of my ranch,” Johnson says. “I have a lot of friends on the reservation, and I’ve dealt a lot with the racial relations in the contemporary American West. So I knew if I was writing a story about a sheriff in this part of the country I wanted him to deal with issues that folks in this part of the country deal with. I didn’t want to write books where Walt was on a cruise ship, or riding a skateboard, or any foolishness like that; I wanted him dealing with things that western sheriffs have to deal with, so that was the mindset I had going into it.”
‘Longmire’ on TV
Of course, there is an argument that the dealings of a rural lawman are easier than the backroom deals made in Hollywood, which was a new venture Johnson found himself involved in when the show “Longmire” debuted on the A&E channel in 2012. After three successful seasons on the cable channel, the show was canceled amid outraged cries from dedicated fans. It’s now set to return for a fourth season on Netflix’s streaming service. Johnson says he was just as puzzled as anyone else at the cancellation news.
“It was just very odd,” Johnson recalls, “because A&E got into a little fight with Warner Brothers, basically saying they wanted to own the show. Well, Warner Brothers had the show running in over a hundred different countries, and it was the highest-rated scripted drama in A&E’s history, so they didn’t really want to sell it. A&E threatened to cancel it, and they did, and it just seems silly to me for a network to cancel the highest rated drama you’ve had in the history of the channel – but Hollywood seems to run on an entirely different set of principles than a lot of other businesses.”
Either way, the series has had a positive impact on book sales.
“It’s been interesting to see what has happened, because when you are pulling in 6 million television viewers a night, it does have an effect on my books,” he says.
And while some fans of the show are surprised to learn there is a whole series of books based on the Longmire character that predates the TV series, Johnson understands it will always be easier to get folks to sit in front of a TV set than read the story the show is based on.
“I’m totally fine if people refuse to read the books but still watch the show,” he says. “The readers will always have a different view of the characters and place, and as much as I love the people I’m working with on the show, I still have a tremendous advantage over them. That advantage is called the readers’ imagination. It’s hard for Hollywood to compete with that.”
Meet the author
▪ McIntyre’s Books at Fearrington Village (2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro) at 11 a.m. Saturday. More info at fearrington.com.
▪ Quail Ridge Books (3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh) at 3 p.m. Sunday. More info at quailridgebooks.com.
Win ‘Dry Bones’
If you’d like to win a copy of “Dry Bones,” Craig Johnson’s latest novel in the Longmire series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight Thursday (May 28) and include your mailing address. You must put “Longmire” in the subject line to be entered.