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"Longmire" series author Craig Johnson talks about its development and its future

A man poses for a portrait.
Penguin Publishing Group
Author Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson is the New York Times bestselling author of the “Walt Longmire Mysteries”, the basis for the hit Netflix original series, “Longmire.”

He is the recipient of the Western Writers of America Spur Award for fiction, and his novella “Spirit of Steamboat” was the first One Book Wyoming selection - where the same book is read and discussed throughout the state. He lives in Ucross, Wyoming. Wyoming Public Radio’s Grady Kirkpatrick recently spoke with Johnson.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

Grady Kirkpatrick: “The Walt Longmire Mysteries,” a series of Western mystery novels, was first published in 2004. The stories are set in a fictional town and county in Wyoming that follows the life and times of Sheriff Walt Longmire, along with an interesting cast of characters. I'm happy to welcome author Craig Johnson. Welcome, Craig.

Craig Johnson: Thanks. Good to be here.

Penguin Publishing Group

GK: Your next novel in the Longmire series “First Frost” is due out May 28. That looks to be unique among the series, in that the majority of the story goes back in time following Walt Longmire’s and Henry Standing Bear’s graduation from college. There have been references to their past in other books, but I expect this will illuminate the details of that time. Can you give us a preview?

CJ: It's one of those crossroads in their lives. And it was funny because I was talking to a good friend of mine who explained to me, because I'd never understood why it is that we change, when exactly is it we change our summer palm leaf hats over to our wool hats. And he looked at me, he goes, “Well, first frost.” And I was like, “Wow, that's a title to a book.”

The majority of it takes place in 1964. And what it is, is Walt and Henry graduate from their respective colleges out there in California. Walt from USC [University of Southern California], where he majored in football and Henry from Berkeley, where he majored in revolution. And they get ready to go on this massive road trip. They lose their deferments and kind of read the writing on the wall with the draft coming for Vietnam. And Henry is supposed to report to Fort Polk in Louisiana and Walt is supposed to report to Parris Island, off the coast of South Carolina, and it leads to this epic Route 66 road trip in 1964 on the mother road like that. And, of course, the question is how far do they get before they get into trouble? And of course, the answer is not very far at all. They barely get out of California and Arizona, before they get into trouble. So it'll be something exciting, I think, for people to read. It's very telling of who these guys were all those years ago, and how they changed over the years and these things that had happened to them in this particular portion of their lives.

GK: And in fact, both Walt and Henry served in Vietnam. Have you received a lot of feedback on the series from veterans who've served in the military?

CJ: I have. They didn't use a lot of that in the actual television show, “Longmire.” They kind of intimated that they had had military history, but didn't go into a great deal of detail. I mean, I've got entire books like that. I mean, “Another Man's Moccasins,” the fourth book in the series. The majority of that book actually takes place in 1968, during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, when Walt’s a marine investigator, one of the first marine investigators up until 1968. They were pretty much muscle for Navy investigators like that. But then they started having their own detectives, and Walt was one of the very first ones. It was fun to get in touch with their archives for the Marine Corps back in D.C. because I was asking them all these questions about the first detectives, and they're like, “How did you know about that?” I said, “Well, I'm kind of working on his character. And I'm thinking he's probably going to be one of the first marine investigators during the Tet Offensive in 1968.” And it turned out to be a really kind of revelatory book like that, which is always what I'm looking for. I'm always looking for some way to do something different.

I've said before that I don't ever want to have Walt on a cruise ship. I don't ever want to have Walt chasing al Qaeda in Crook County. I mean, I want him dealing with things that Western sheriffs deal with. There's a reality there. I mean, especially when you have a very strong Wyoming-based audience, they can kind of sniff out the BS pretty quick. Whenever they're reading your books, or watching your TV shows and thinking, “There's no way that would ever happen here like that.” And so I want to make sure that I'm going to be respectful to my reading audience in my home. It's one of the things that when you write about a place, one of the demands that it makes is that maybe you should be honest about it, you know, kind of important.

GK: There always seems to be some interesting nuance within the stories and characters. It's rarely just straightforward. Was that something you made a point to include in your stories initially?

CJ: Oh, absolutely. You always want to write the books in layers. Because a lot of people read different books for different reasons. And so you need to satisfy a lot of those different tastes. The other thing is if somebody picks up one of my books, I guess, they're going to spend, what, a couple of days a week, maybe a couple of weeks, reading that book? I'm going to spend a year writing that book. And so it better be really interesting to me, to hold my attention for that kind of period of time.

Just to use this year's book, the “Longmire Defence,” I had introduced the character of Walt’s grandfather, who he learned a great deal about and there was a great deal of animosity in that relationship. And I always wanted to go back and find out, what was the kernel of that? Where did that start? What was the catalyst to this antagonistic kind of relationship that he had with his grandfather? And, was it really the way that Walt remembered? It was a little bit different, maybe, now that he's gotten a little bit older. I always love that great phrase from Mark Twain where he said, “I always thought when I was in my 20s, I thought my father was an idiot. And then I got into being in my 40s, and I thought I couldn't believe how smart the old guy had gotten.”

GK: The majority of the stories are based in Wyoming, a little bit in Montana, one in Mexico and one in Philadelphia, where Walt’s undersheriff, the feisty Italian Victoria Mariani, is from. Was Philadelphia a random selection for a city outside of Wyoming for their stories, or is there a Philly-Wyoming connection?

CJ: Well, we've got two daughters and a granddaughter who live in the Philadelphia region. And that was where I actually met my wife when I was doing graduate work. And so that's it. It’s always held a special kind of place in my heart like that. And in that book, the third book, “Kindness Goes Unpunished,” the reasoning behind that was that Westerners in the environs of the West are one thing, but Westerners in the environs of a large eastern city are something a little bit different. It's not that it hadn't been done before. I think there was a Clint Eastwood movie called “Coogan's Bluff,” even a television show called “McCloud,” where these cowboys are in the big city, but they always kind of treated the cowboy character as kind of a buffoon.

I've always thought Walt Longmire is kind of a world class detective. He's a regular Sherlock Holmes, Hercules, so he can kind of hold his own. And in this book, it was kind of a challenge to make sure that it was done properly. And with the amount of respect that I have for the character to make sure that [when] Walt goes up against the sixth largest police department in the United States, you know what, he does pretty well. He's pretty good at what he does. So that was another opportunity to kind of, like, take Walt, maybe in a different area and do something a little bit different. I mean, whenever I was thinking about doing a series of books 20 years ago, or even longer than that, I was thinking, “Okay, well, most of the crime fiction at that period of time was very Noir.” It was all alcoholics, divorce, detectives burying bodies in their backyards and in the big cities or something. And so, I thought, “Well, what if you had the sheriff in the least populated county in the least populated state?” That would be something that would be very, very different than what everybody's doing nowadays. And then the thing that I didn't take into consideration, of course, is how many people can you kill in the least populated county and the least populated state before it starts getting a little bit ridiculous. And so that's when I started doing Walt, kind of like a ball team, he’s kind of home in a way, all the way through the series. I'll have him in Absaroka County at one point, and then he'll be in another part of Wyoming or Montana, or over in South Dakota, or even Philadelphia or Vietnam in 1968. To kind of spread things out a little bit and make it a little bit more believable that he would have the kind of antagonists that he comes up against on a regular basis. It's a little bit more believable that way in my estimation.

GK: The Longmire series was picked up for a crime drama television series, which premiered in 2012. Was that a big surprise when you got the call on that?

CJ: Oh, it was I mean, I questioned their sanity, whether a TV show about the sheriff, as I said, in the least populated county and state would work. They said, “Well, we've got some ways we think that this will actually work.” It was kind of nice, because the producers were really wonderful folks who had done a lot of really incredible shows. They had some really strong ideas about, you know, how this should be done and it's the right way like that. And it was quite a surprise, I have to admit. And then we were the highest rated scripted drama on the cable network that we were on, which was A&E for about three years. And then something horrible happened, they decided they wanted to buy the show from Warner Brothers who wouldn't sell it. And so they canceled the show, a very popular show. And then it got picked up by Netflix and I don't know, quadrupled its audience at that point in time and became one of the best viewed shows on Netflix on an every other week basis. And then, of course, three years after that something terrible happened. And Netflix came to Warner Brothers and said, “We want to buy “Longmire.”” And they said, “Well, we didn't sell to A&E, we're not going to sell it to you.” And I think in the back of their minds, they had this idea that we had this little Indian cowboy show, and it's good, but you know, it'll fade away after a few years with no more new episodes. And that was seven years ago. It's still just going right along, picking up revenue, picking up viewers, and we seem to be kind of trapped in our own success. But hey, there are worse things that could happen. And at the beginning of every episode, there's a little blip up there for about five seconds, it says, “Based on the novels by Craig Johnson,” and I couldn't buy publicity like that. It's great.

GK: And there's also been an event that takes place in Buffalo, Wyoming, nearly every year, Longmire Days. It's been very popular for your fans and well attended. And besides the great storytelling and the mystery solving, what do you think it is about the “Longmire” series that has attracted so many people not just here in Wyoming, but around the world?

CJ: Well, we've been extraordinarily fortunate in the sense that we got some really fantastic producers and directors. And then to top it all off, we got some really fantastic actors. A lot of them have gone on to do incredible work, I mean, Zahn McClarnon went on and did “Dark Winds” and all the shows that he's involved with, for goodness sake, “Fargo” and all the others. Katee Sackhoff, you know, the “Star Wars” things that she's doing. And Robert Taylor is consistently working just about all the time. And Lou Diamond Phillips, I mean, we really, you know, drew a good hand of cards to do that particular show. And it has struck a chord, I think, with a lot of people. I think the other thing is that it kind of goes to the core of who Walt Longmire is. I mean, there's a lot of stuff, as I've said, that I see television shows and books do that I don't think are particularly honest, you know, about who and what we are. And I like to think that Walt is and whenever anybody asks me for a one word description of Walt Longmire, it's always “decent.” “Decent” is the term that I use. And I'm not ashamed of Walt. When people watch the TV show, or the books have been translated into a couple of dozen languages, whenever they read the books, I'm not ashamed of it. I feel like he's an honest representation of who we are here in the Northern Rocky Mountain West. I mean, he's intelligent, he's insightful, he's well read, he's dogged, he's tough. But he's also kind and even handed and justified in what it is that he does. He's just a decent guy like that. And I think people really kind of respond to that type of thing these days. I think that the anti-hero thing has been great, but it sure has been going on for an awfully long time. And so I think everybody was kind of ready for maybe just a blue ribbon, straight ahead, good guy.

GK: “First Frost,” the next book in the “Longmire” series, is out May 28.

Craig Johnson is the New York Times bestselling author of the “Walt Longmire Mysteries”, the basis for the hit Netflix original series, “Longmire.” He is the recipient of the Western Writers of America Spur Award for fiction, and his novella “Spirit of Steamboat” was the first One Book Wyoming selection - where the same book is read and discussed throughout the state. He lives in Ucross, Wyoming. Wyoming Public Radio’s Grady Kirkpatrick recently spoke with Johnson.

Grady has taken a circuitous route from his hometown of Kansas City to Wyoming. Sometime after the London Bridge had fallen down, he moved to Arizona and attended Arizona State University and actually graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. ("He's a Lumberjack and he's OK……..!") He began his radio career in Prescott in 1982 and eventually returned to Kansas City where he continued in radio through the summer of 1991. Public Radio and the Commonwealth of Kentucky beckoned him to the bluegrass state where he worked as Operations/Program Manager at WKMS in Murray and WNKU in Highland Heights just across the Ohio from Cincinnati.
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