Craig Johnson, 55, is the creator and author of the Walt Longmire series of Western mysteries, which to date includes 11 novels, 2 novellas, and a book of short stories. The novels have also inspired a television series, Longmire, currently in production for its fifth season airing on Netflix. Johnson and his wife, Judith, make their home in rural Wyoming—and he has used his home, friends, and acquaintances as inspiration for his award-winning writing. His latest novel, An Obvious Fact, drags heroes Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear into controversy surrounding the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Editor Bob Welch caught up with Johnson to discuss his lifestyle, writing, and characters.
You built your own ranch in Ucross, Wyoming—population: 25?
I did. I delivered horses down to Ucross out of Montana when I was in my early 20s and fell in love with the place, thinking if I ever got the chance, it might be the place where I’d build my ranch. My grandfather built his place and my father built his, so I guess it’s tradition. The signs in Ucross say the population is 25, but we did a head count and only came up with 19 residents, so I’m thinking they’re still inflated from the last census.
What are the specific qualities of Wyoming and the people there that make it an interesting source for your work?
When I first had the idea for Walt, I saw a lone, vertical individual on a horizontal landscape and started from there—a man molded by his environment yet standing as its equal. At the time I started the Longmire novels, everything was CSI, with technology robbing the stories of their humanity. I thought that if I wrote a procedural about a sheriff in the least populated county in the least populated state in America, that it would be more about people and place, which is always where the best writing comes from.
I’m curious about your beginnings as a novelist. You had the first two chapters of The Cold Dish written when you began construction of your ranch—largely on your own. It took 10 years to come back to the novel. How much and in what ways did that hiatus impact the final product?
I was a young man when I started the first Walt book, The Cold Dish, and to be honest, I don’t think I was ready to write it. Heck, the difference in a man 10 years older in reading a book is impacting enough—I can’t even imagine the differences in writing one. Along with me, Walt became older, more patient, and more world weary, more like all of us—over age, overweight, and maybe a little overly depressed, but he still gets up in the morning and does the job. To me, that’s true heroism.
You don’t hesitate to acknowledge the real-life inspiration of many of your characters. What have you found to be the magic mix in creating memorable characters?
You never really know what’s going to come out of stitching people together to make the characters you need to tell your stories. It’s a challenge, but that’s one of the benefits of living in a place like Wyoming—the people here aren’t like anywhere else and that makes them awfully tempting to use as characters. A lot of it comes down to the voices; writing a novel is a lot like conducting a choral group in that each of the voices is there for a specific purpose in telling the story and they have to be distinct.
What makes Walt Longmire a character upon which a series of books and a television series can hang?
Decency. It’s a term that’s not used much these days, but Walt’s a good guy whom you can count on—covers the ground he stands on, as my grandfather used to say. I get so many young people that come up and tell me that they’ve never seen a character like him and I assume they never saw Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. Obviously, Walt Longmire works in a more sophisticated world, but he has a code he stands by, and in the age of the anti-hero, it’s refreshing and almost avant-garde. That was one of the major reasons the producers of Longmire picked up the books to use as the basis of the TV series on Netflix.
Did you ever imagine that these characters and this place could give you so much material? Do you anticipate ever struggling to continue to create believable adventures for Walt and the crew?
Never. One of the dirty little secrets is that most of my books stem from newspaper articles from the small towns of rural America. That keeps the novels grounded in a reality. I don’t ever want Walt out chasing Al-Qaeda in Crook County, or Walt on a cruise ship. I want him dealing with the things that Western sheriffs deal with every day.
What works and authors have been most influential to you? Do you have a favorite?
Probably John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. His understanding of human nature and the West is pretty impressive. People don’t think of him as a Western writer, but he is. Then there are all those writers of the golden era of Western American writing: Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, Jack Schaefer’s Monty Walsh, Dorothy Johnson’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, just to name a few.
For aspiring writers, what are some pointers you can share?
Write. Write every day, write about things you care about, write about things that are true, write about things that will change the world, write to understand yourself, write to understand others, write with your pockets full of inspiration so that you have supplies for the long journey.
Does a blank page ever intimidate you? What about the writing process do you enjoy?
Nope. One of my favorite stories: Picasso, when someone asked if a blank canvas ever intimidated him, responded, “That canvas should fear me.” As to what I enjoy about writing, just that, writing. If I’m out fighting with the stock or irrigation and I come in muddy, bloody, and pissed, my wife always tells me, “Go take a shower and write.” That always makes everything better.
An Obvious Fact hit bookstands on Sept. 13, and Season Four of Longmire is now available for purchase on DVD. Season Five hit Netflix on Sept. 23.