When Johnson was a newly published writer, he said, a tiny library in western Wyoming invited him to speak. There was no budget for an honoraria but Johnson said that was OK, his price was a six-pack of Rainier beer — his lifelong favorite and Walt Longmire’s too, as fans know.
Johnson has become famous since then and his speaking fee has increased — but meanwhile, he said, “all the newspapers in Wyoming” picked up the story of his introductory speaking fee. Johnson has now made the rounds of all 71 libraries in Wyoming and, he laughed, “I haven’t bought a beer in about seven or eight years.”
“Thank goodness somebody still reads,” Johnson said. “Thank goodness there are still newspapers and still books.” The frequent comment that “Longmire” viewers needn’t bother with the novels is simply wrong, he added: They’re substantially different stories.
That’s not a problem for Johnson, who likes the TV version just fine. “For years, when people would ask if there’d be a movie or TV show, I’d always laugh. ‘Don’t you think I’ve used up all my miracles?’ It’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. He figures TV executives and writers know how to make it fly on screen, he said; he keeps writing the novels.
Small-town newspaper stories are always sparks of Longmire plots and situations, Johnson said. “Every single novel I’ve written has come from a newspaper article,” he said. “It keeps Walt grounded in reality and dealing with things that Western sheriffs deal with.”
Those articles aren’t just police blotter items, Johnson said — they’re about modern lives and problems in today’s Wyoming. “It’s an incredible period of time in the American West,” Johnson said. “People tend to look backwards and think of gunfights and cowboys, but if you look more closely there’s so much going on here, sociologically and ecologically. It’s infinitely more complex now.”
Johnson used to fear running out of ideas. Not anymore, he said. “I’ve literally got a stack of newspaper articles in manila folders” that are destined to become Longmire mysteries, he said. “I’m never going to get them all written.”
Most writers find music in the background distracting, Johnson said, but it pumps him up. After he got fan mail from the lead guitarist in Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnson was so thrilled that he returned the favor by inserting the purveyors of “Freebird” into a novel scene. In the epilogue to “An Obvious Fact,” Longmire, who doesn’t miss much, fails to recognize a particular bar band until they’re packed and gone.
“You can’t get far in life just doing covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd,” he complains to his deputy. That was Lynyrd Skynyrd, she retorts.
Not too perfect
Johnson is almost but not quite Walt Longmire, the author said. Johnson said his wife likes to quip, “Walt is who Craig would like to be in 10 years, but he’s off to a slow start.”
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Actually, the sheriff would probably be the slow one. Johnson has always loved speed, he said — fast motorcycles, fast horses, fast anything — while Longmire has been heard to say that he’d never ride a chopper.
“Walt has spent a lifetime in law enforcement and he’s seen what happens,” Johnson said. “His perspective is a little different than mine.”
He may play well on screen, but the written Walt Longmire is not a made-for-TV cop. He’s overweight, overworked and depressed, Johnson said. He’s a grieving widower and a grandfather.
“When I was putting him together, he was too perfect,” Johnson said. “I thought, what can I do to damage him? I prefer the realism of a really developed character who has flaws. So I took his wife away from him. I knew that would be crippling for me, so I thought, we’ll see how he deals with it.”
But many of our superheroes today have dark sides, don’t they? And in many ways, Walt Longmire is a classic Western lawman — long of frame, slow to burn, quick mind under a cowboy hat but few words from his tight lips. Why so quiet, Walt?
“I was just thinking,” Longmire says in one novel. “I do that, sometimes, before I talk.”
If You Go
• What: Authors & Illustrators dinner and auction featuring keynote speaker Craig Johnson, author of the “Longmire” mystery novels.
• When: Silent auction at 5:30 p.m.; 7 p.m. dinner; 8 p.m. presentation by Johnson on Nov. 7.
• Where: Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St., Vancouver.
• Cost: $90 or $850 for table of 10. Private reception with Johnson at 5:30 p.m. additional $25.
• More info: www.fvrlf.org/, 360-906-4700