Characters are key

Craig Johnson keeps it real in his novels, TV's 'Longmire'
2013-06-02T00:00:00Z Characters are keyAnn Brown Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 02, 2013 12:00 am  • 

People, place and plot trump process and procedure in Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire mystery series.

"It's not 'CSI: Wyoming,' " quips Johnson in a phone call from his ranch after he'd finished his morning chores early last month.

Johnson lives on a small (by Wyoming standards), 260-acre ranch outside of Ucross. Population: 25.

He describes Longmire, the cowboy-hat-wearing protagonist of Johnson's multilayer, modern Western thrillers, as the sheriff "in the least populated county in the least populated state."

Written in the first person, Johnson's intricate, complex characters solve crimes in fictional Absaroka County.

The 52-year-old writer doesn't toss in gratuitous violence to ratchet up tension or rely on whiz-bang technology.

Instead, his Longmire is a complex character who majored in English in college. The character's wife was murdered and as sheriff he must be both a policeman and a politician.

The book series has been turned into a crime drama on A&E. Johnson spent time on the set near Santa Fe, N.M., for the filming of the second season, which debuted Monday.

Johnson, who frequents the best-sellers lists and has a truck bed full of writing awards, is also popular in Tucson.

He has participated in several Tucson Festivals of Books and spoke at the Brandeis University Book & Author Luncheon in March. One of his two daughters went to the University of Arizona about 10 years ago.

On June 12, Johnson - who always wears a cowboy hat at sign-ings - will be in Tucson to sign and discuss his latest book, "A Serpent's Tooth."

• • •

"Johnson's characters are so real, people can identify with them," says Mary L. Stevens, who attended book groups at Clues and Mostly Books last month.

Longmire and the other characters solve murder and mayhem with wit against the backdrop of Wyoming's scenic, ethereal wide-openness.

Johnson is realistic and respectful as he integrates Native American culture in his books, says avid reader Susan Fifer.

Indians - he says he does not use the politically correct "Native Americans" - are his friends and neighbors. Johnson's ranch is adjacent to the Crow and Cheyenne reservations.

"I treat them as human, not as set dressing," says Johnson. Indians are intrinsic to his books. Henry Standing Bear, who Johnson readily admits resembles his friend, Marcus Red Thunder, is an essential character. He's played by Lou Diamond Phillips in the show.

An avid reader of books and newspapers, Johnson keeps a clip file of news stories that may spark of an idea. He's a fanatic outliner who knows what the story is about and where it will go before he writes a word.

• • •

"I did everything else" before "The Cold Dish" was published in 2004, Johnson says. "I ran out of excuses" not to write.

Johnson's education focused on writing - he has a bachelor's degree from Marshall University in West Virginia and an M.A. from Temple University in Philadelphia.

The "everything else" included working as "a sort of stationary patrolman within Central Park" more than 20 years ago. He hauled horses across the country. He taught. Built a log cabin, barns, corrals, furniture and a house. Renovated a building for his wife's store in Sheridan, Wyo.

Johnson wrote the first two chapters of "Cold Dish" in his 30s. "They were really bad," he says. He tucked them away in a desk drawer.

After about 10 years of physical labor and research, he finished the book; it was a whopping 650 pages. His agent said it had be to cut to 250 pages.

Johnson had envisioned a single book, but his publisher and editors felt readers would want to know more about the characters and the place. The book series was born.

• • •

"I'm tickled to death" with the "Longmire" A&E TV series, says Johnson, who gives feedback on scripts and technical points. (No, you can't drive to Cheyenne in 30 minutes.)

He's confident that the writers and producers will keep the books' integrity. (They "won't send Walt to Hawaii and have him ride a surfboard.")

Johnson says he's pleased with the casting of Australian Robert Taylor in the Longmire role. Taylor's height - 6 feet, 4 inches - and rugged physicality add a necessary dimension to the rural sheriff who never knows who or what he might encounter.

Johnson knew Taylor was right for the role when he saw Taylor's audition. In the scene, the actors enter a woman's home to tell her her husband was dead. Taylor was the only actor who knew to remove his hat as he stepped into the house.

• • •

Mention "Craig Johnson" or "Walt Longmire" at one of Tucson's mystery book groups and you'll hear plenty of ooohs and aaaahs.

"He writes good stories," Stevens says.

On StarNet: Chat with Craig Johnson at noon Tuesday at live.azstarnet.com

Chat with Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire mystery series on which the A&E TV series "Longmire" is based, chats online from the set of the TV series at noon Tuesday at live.azstarnet.com

If you can't attend the chat live, post questions earlier and come back to read the transcript.

If you go

• What: Craig Johnson will sign and discuss "A Serpent's Tooth" (Viking, $26.95).

• When: Noon June 12.

• Where: Clues Unlimited, 3146 E. Fort Lowell Road.

• Info: cluesunlimited.com

• Reservations: Call 326-8533. A light lunch will be served.

Novels by Craig Johnson

"The Cold Dish"

"Death Without Company"

"Kindness Goes Unpunished"

"Another Man's Moccasins"

"The Dark Horse"

"Junkyard Dogs"

"Hell is Empty"

"As the Crow Flies"

"A Serpent's Tooth"

"Spirit of Steamboat" (Oct. 17 release date)

E-Books

"Divorce Horse" (short story)

"Christmas in Absaroka County" (short stories)

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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