Talkin’ Walt

Author Craig Johnson. Photo by Adam Jahiel

Author Craig Johnson. Photo by Adam Jahiel

For master of contemporary western crime fiction Craig Johnson—best-selling author of the Longmire mysteries—the plot thickens.

Written by Jenn Thornton

With sixteen Longmire novels under his belt, author Craig Johnson is not turning the page on wildly popular protagonist Walt Longmire anytime soon. He’s besieged with new scenarios for the fictional Wyoming sheriff, one of which is the premise for a new book, out later this year. Prediction: So good, it’s criminal.

Craig, tell me about your journey as a storyteller. How did you come to writing?

I came from a family of readers, and our idea of hell was to be caught somewhere without a book. They were also storytellers, and I was the worst one, so I figured that maybe I’d try something different and write them down. I got an education in writing, but I didn’t let that stop me from becoming a writer. But, it was Tony Hillerman who gave me the best advice of anybody: “Don’t forget to tell a good story.”

Well, you took that advice to heart. Let’s talk about Walt Longmire. Where does he come from—might he be a little of you?

My wife has the best line about that—“Walt Longmire is who Craig wants to be in ten years, it’s just that he’s off to an incredibly slow start.” There are resemblances, but I haven’t had the tragedies in my life that Walt has, such as the loss of his wife; the old saying goes that you like people for their virtues, but you love them for their faults. Another major difference is that Walt is a denizen of the contemporary West; although there are obviously some iconoclastic and traditional Western aspects of Longmire, some things are departures.

You live in Wyoming, which is certainly grist for the mill, but what’s your life like there?

Ucross, Wyoming has a population of 25, but that’s inflated from the last census and there are only 19 of us. I built the ranch myself and I pretty much wake up every morning in Walt’s world, so it’s easy to see the things he sees, hear the things he hears, and feel the things he feels.

The West is fantastic territory for fiction. Why write western crime?

I think it was a question of updating both genres and trying to use the tools at hand to make something different. The irony of having what I consider to be one of the most capable detectives in the world and then sticking him in the least populated county in the least populated state in the country had an appeal. The Western aspect of the books, as you said, is unique and with the dramatic conflict of crime fiction is a powerful combination, it’s life and death—the stakes don’t get any higher.

What strikes me about your books is that sense of familiarity. How essential is relatability to you as a writer? 

I read a lot, and nothing annoys me more than when I read a book that’s supposed to take place in my part of the world and it’s so completely unbelievable, like chasing al Qaeda in Crook County… I think one of the challenges is taking the world for what it is, and then utilizing that to make a good story. One time somebody from the Office of Tourism down in Cheyenne said that they really loved my novels, and I did what I always do and asked, why? They said it was because when people call, wanting to go to the locations that happen in the books, they can tell them exactly where that area is down to the trail numbers, because I don’t make much of it up.

The American West has certainly produced its fair share of interesting characters. Is there anyone else in Western lore you might be interested in writing about?

Oh, that line is legion.

John Wayne is synonymous with the American West and integral to its mythology. I feel the same about Longmire. Does that feel right to you?

I always see those two characters the same way, vertical in a horizontal landscape—in opposition to something, overwhelmed but unconceding. It doesn’t particularly surprise me that there would be similarities in that I grew up watching Wayne’s movies, and as you say, he’s greatly impacted what we believe to be the American West.

Do you see any commonalities between characters that Wayne played and Longmire?

Well, Wayne has come to exemplify so many of those qualities that we take for granted in the genre, so of course there are similarities. There’s a brooding and solid quality to Wayne’s portrayals but also a surprisingly playful sense of humor and intellect. The way I describe Walt is that if you’re in a blizzard and slide off the road, he’s the guy you want to have help you—the guy that when chips are down, doesn’t have an ounce of give in him.

From a writing and character perspective, which of Wayne’s films do you think are among the best?

As a writer I’m always going to lean toward the ones with literary underpinnings. Hondo is a personal favorite because of Wayne’s performance and Louis L’Amour’s writing; Ernest Haycox’s short story Stage To Lordsburg that became Stagecoach; then there’s Dorothy Johnson’s short story, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and of course Charles Portis’ True Grit. I can’t help but think that as a performer, Wayne welcomed the opportunities afforded by good writing.

I wonder what would happen if Walt Longmire met John Wayne in one of your novels.

Did you know that both John Wayne and Walt Longmire were offensive tackles for the University of Southern California—imagine how stunned I was to discover that. I just figured if Walt was a stand-out tackle before Vietnam he might’ve caught the attention of one of the real powerhouses of that period, and since it was the 60’s and the kid had never seen the ocean, he probably would’ve gone to USC and played for the Trojans in the ’63 Rose Bowl. Well, since Wayne was an alumnus, he probably would’ve been there…

How many Longmires do you have left in you? Is there another?

Always. The next one is called Daughter Of The Morning Star, which will be out in September. I worried that when I started writing a series, it would be limiting and that it might get formulaic or repetitive, but so far that hasn’t happened. I’ve got so many scenarios in my head that I now worry about getting them all written before I die.

Finally, what is your truth that might be a little stranger than fiction?

I don’t think there is anything stranger than fiction, so I must write some pretty strange fiction….

Photo by Catherine Henriette

Photo by Catherine Henriette