We recently sat down with Ucross resident and world-renowned author Craig Johnson to talk about Longmire, his creative process and what role Wyoming plays in his writing. Earlier this month he embarked on a tour to promote the new paperback version of his 2016 novel The Highwayman, and you can catch him here at home in Cody on June 28th.
You’ve cited the natural world as inspiration, what specifically about Wyoming inspires your writing?
“Everything. It’s not a subtle place for nature. In many ways, it’s kind of a frontier. Geographically, topographically, even emotionally for the people who live here. Those in Wyoming tend to have strong feelings about it, a lot of passion. It’s not just for the characters in the books, the actual citizens of this state have a lot of love for the wilderness. I travel a lot, naturally, for my job, and I tend to think “Could I live here?” whenever I go somewhere new. And I am tempted, of course, by some places, but I built my ranch here. I actually, you know, physically built it, and it really anchored me. I travled a lot when I was younger, working odd jobs, doing a lot of different stuff, built building my ranch really just nailed me down. In the early morning, when the sun hits your shoulder and you turn around you’re really greeted with this wonderful, almost ethereal view. You can’t help but see that and just think, ‘My goodness, there truly is something special about this place.'”
Do you see yourself in Walt Longmire?
“Oh, my wife has the best remark about that: she says, ‘Walt Longmire is where Craig would like to be in ten years, it’s just that he’s off to an incredibly slow start.’ He’s got a lot of wonderful qualities, he’s very kind and attentive and actually he’s a sensitive guy. I think that sets him apart from some other heroes in the genre; you tend to have these characters that are rough-and-tumble, the classic hard-boiled kind of detective. Walt’s like that in some ways, but he’s a guy who actually feels. We’re alike in some ways, but I’d say we’re fundamentally different. First, he’s quite bit older than me. You know, I’m in my 50s and he’s in his 60s. Ten years may not seem like that much, but such a time gap can bring about a lot of change in a man. He’s had a lot of tragedy in his life, whereas I’ve led a fairly charmed life. I’ve got a loving wife, a steady career, I haven’t had to suffer nearly as much as he has. However, I’d be lying if I said we were wholly dissimilar. When you’re writing a book from the protagonist’s point of view, you’re essentially writing the entire novel through that character’s eyes, so it really helps if you can put yourself in their shoes. It’s certainly not impossible to write from the first person perspective when you can’t empathize with your subject, but I think it really does add a touch of heart and personality if you can identify with your character. That goes back to the western world, too. I live where Walt lives, breathe the same air that Walt breathes. I can go around and meet the people that he meets. A lot of the things that I come into contact with a lot of the same things he does in our everyday lives. You never know what’s gonna spark a new character, a storyline or even an entire novel.”
What made you decide to sit down and write a full-length novel?
“Being an author is kinda like being an astronaut, you know, the odds are so stacked against you, you might as well just shut up. * laughs * You tell people you want to do that, and they look at you like you’re an idiot. You really have to have a lot of drive, and not take ‘no’ for an answer. In a lot of ways, you have to work without that view of success in the distance. If you’re writing just because you want to be known as a writer, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. The greatest joy I get from sitting down at the computer and writing what I write is seeing these characters, to whom I’ve become very attached, grow and develop. Not only that, but I love seeing these places and the stories within develop and come to satisfying and plausible conclusions. I remember after the success of my first novel thinking, “I wrote this for free.” I think that’s where you should start. If you really want to write, if you think you can make a career of it, first you have to write for yourself. Tell the story you want to tell, exactly as you want to tell it. Anything after that is just ancillary.”
To what extent were/are you involved with the Longmire television show?
“Well I am a creative consultant on the show, so I can’t have too many criticisms of its direction. Hollywood in many ways is in a lot of ways like any other business: you find the absolute best people you can to work, you give them the tools to do their job, and then you do the hardest thing which is to leave them to it. The producers are very, very good at what they do. I didn’t just sign a blind option and have them pick it up and run with it. I actually signed a package deal with them, and I got to go down and meet them. We discussed the characters, the stories, really just everything and I asked for and valued their opinions. For me to tell them what to do would’ve been stupid, frankly. If I had gone down there and dictated their actions to them, it would’ve been a short-lived show to say the least. With the books, it’s just me. I do have editors and copy editors, but for the most part it’s up to me. After twelve years, I’ve got a lot of leeway. With a TV show, it’s much more complex. You’ve got the producers, writers, directors, actors, set builders, sound engineers, camera operators, and everybody plays a vital role. It’s such a group effort, and you really get the sense that they need the freedom to work in their own capacity, or you’ll get a half-assed version. I’m very happy with what they’ve done with my source material, and I’m proud of everyone who has had a role in it Longmire. Is it different from the books? Oh, of course it is, but you’re also talking about two different art forms. The way I look at it, it’s two separate but equal universes.”
Decades from now, what do you want readers to be able to get from your works?
“Well, first of all I’d like them to still be reading them! It’s an author’s worst fear, to be forgotten. There are so many authors who had success, but have been lost to time. You can look at the bestseller’s list back in the ’50s and ’60s or even as late as the ’90s and you won’t recognize a lot of the names. So, I think my biggest goal would be that people are still reading me years, even decades on. I think some have a tendency not only to denounce my work but Westerns in general as kind of shallow, or not necessarily ‘literary.’ You know, people have this conception of the Western, whether it be a book, movie, or television show, as the cliché of the dime novel, but they’re so much more than that. Just like every other genre, the Western has so many nuances and sub-genres, so many different ways to tell a story. What I’ve put into my work, I hope at least, goes beyond the paradigm of the spaghetti western. I think a lot of people empathize and connect to the characters I write, and I love that. I hope that the truths and statements that I’ve made in my writing remain as relevant years from now as they are today.”
What is next for Craig Johnson?
“Well, actually the next novel coming out is The Western Star, and it’s a little different from what I’ve done with the other books. This one takes place in a period of time where Walt is actually the deputy, and what happens is he’s down in Douglas doing a weapons re-certification down at the law enforcement academy, and when they finish up they go for a drink in the Bombay Hotel. In that bar there are pictures of Wyoming law enforcement everywhere, some are very old and black and white, so one of the younger sheriffs looks at a photo on the wall and says, ‘Is that you?’ And there’s this photo of him aboard this challenger locomotive, with 25 armed men with their light colored hats and their gun belts all looking at the camera. So, Walt says, “Well, yeah , that was the very last running of the Western Star.” The premise is that from 1948-1972, the Wyoming Sheriff’s Association had its annual meeting on a train. It’s 1972, and Walt had just come back from Vietnam and he’s going with Lucius Connelly on the Western Star. So, there’s 24 armed sheriffs on the train, but there were 25 to start. It’s out in September, so it’s still a little ways away, but I’m really very excited for this one.”
Special thanks to Craig and his wife Judith for taking time out of their busy schedule and for providing us with the photos for this article.