A Conversation with Bestselling Author Craig Johnson
An hour-long television program based on Craig Johnson’s Western contemporary series, Longmire, debuted June 3 on the A&E network. And his eighth novel in the series, As the Crow Flies, was released last month by Viking. from Penguin.
Craig, have you always been a writer?
Nope, my father says I just come from a long line of bullslingers and I’m the first one to be smart enough to write them down… Honestly, I came from a family of readers and I think it’s a short step from there to writing books. I built my ranch myself and finally settled into the life with the thought that I’d always wanted to write a novel. I guess what basically happened was that I ran out of excuses.
When and where did you make your first sale?
Viking/Penguin picked up the first in my Walt Longmire series six years ago, and it’s been off to the races since then. Kathryn Court, the president of Penguin USA shoved a copy of The Cold Dish (a novel I considered to be a stand-alone) across the lunch table in New York and said, “We’d like some more of these…” Do you believe I argued with her? Thank goodness she won. My agent asked me who I wanted to be with and I thought of all those Steinbeck books I’d read as a child (and still do) and chose Viking/Penguin. It’s been pretty wonderful working with a literary press that gives me a lot of leeway. My last two contracts stated that the books had to be mysteries and have Walt in them… That’s a lot of freedom.
What made you decide to settle in Wyoming to write your first book?
I grew up in the Midwest, but my grandparents lived in Kansas and New Mexico, so I wasn’t completely unaware of the American West. When I was eighteen I loaded up an old Army pack, a thousand bucks and lit out for the territories. I think Louis L’Amour would’ve approved. Anyway, in my journeys I was working for a rancher up in Montana and delivered some horses down to Wyoming where I inevitably built my ranch near Ucross.
Your western contemporary mysteries and articles have received quite a few awards. Which means the most to you?
Getting pulled over by a highway patrolman between Basin and Otto in the Red Desert and being told, “I read you books, Mr. Johnson…” He let me off, so I guess he liked them. I get a lot of emails from law enforcement telling me that they think I get it right, and that means a lot to me.
You latest book tour encompassed quite a few towns and events. Do you enjoy meeting readers and talking about your books, or do you prefer to stay at home on the ranch and promote your work via the Internet? And which methods of promoting your books have been the most effective?
Oh, I like living on the ranch and writing or else I wouldn’t have chosen this as a livelihood. I like meeting people and talking about the books though. They say that print ads, commercials, Internet and all that sells books, but I still think the old hand sale buzz of somebody saying, “Hey, have you read..?” Still works the best. Maybe it’s because the nearest town to my ranch has a population of 25, but I genuinely like people and enjoy talking to them about my books. I also think that the book sellers are the best friends an author can have. I do events in every one-horse book store on the High Plains because those people are important not only in the sense of sales, but their ability to tell me where I got it wrong and where I got it right. It’s an occupational hazard in living in a state with only a half-million occupants, that folks recognize characters in the books.
What do you enjoy most about writing and what chaps your hide?
As stated above, I really enjoy the isolation of writing. Heck, in any right-minded country they’d lock me away for sitting in a room by myself and typing about my imaginary friends. Dislikes..? Oh, people who I meet that proudly proclaim, “I don’t read.” That just worries me… Somehow I bet they find time to sit in front of a television for four hours a night. I think reading is a good habit for your mind, it keeps you alert and engaged unlike a lot of other activities.
What’s life like on your ranch near Ucross, Wyoming, and what’s your writing schedule like?
Well, I have a ranch so I get things sorted out at daybreak, make a big pot of coffee, and sit down to write. Sometimes I break for lunch, sometimes I don’t. I came to this wonderful life in my mid-forties, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them find out I shouldn’t be doing it. I attempt to only work six days a week, but I eventually end up in my writing loft with ideas that can’t wait, or trying to fix up mistakes I’ve made.
Tell us about your protagonist, Walt Longmire? And how much of him is autobiographical?
More than I’d be willing to admit. Walt’s probably who I’d like to be in about ten years, but I’m off to an incredibly slow start. In my experiences with law enforcement, I tried to put together my version of an ideal sheriff. Not that Walt’s perfect by any means, but the kind of guy I’d want pulling his cruiser in behind me; kind, patient, tenacious, intelligent and with a sense of humor. He’s no Captain Marvel, but he’s very good at his job. I think the humor is important, anybody that’s ever done the job knows how important a sense of humor is in getting you through the day.
Advice for fledgling western mystery writers?
Keep it real, do your research, and be honest to the place you love. Don’t have your protagonist running around on a cruise ship. One of the things I try to do is pull the seminal information for my novels from local newspapers, which keeps the books grounded in the social and cultural problems my neighbors and I face. I could just come up with wild plots, but I think that’s a disservice to the modern mystery reader, they tend to be looking for something more than just a ‘who dunnit’. There’s so much out there that needs addressing, I don’t think you have to go off looking very far away. That’s the advice I’d give.