Months ago, when I found out that there was a tv series set in Wyoming, based on a series of books, I’ve practically gone crazy. Even more when I found out that the protagonist is Walt Longmire, the sheriff of the less populated county in the less populated state in America.
The author of this successful book series is Craig Johnson, who lives in Ucross, Wyoming, population twenty-five. He is the author of fifteen novels in the Walt Longmire mystery series, which has garnered popular and critical acclaim. The first one is The Cold Dish.
I particularly like his books because of the humor, the well defined characters, and the important role of the Native Americans in the series and its developing.
So, let’s enjoy this interview with Craig Johnson, who I thanks warmly for this opportunity.
Question: There’s been a moment in your life when you said to yourself: I want to be a writer? How it happened?
Answer: I came from a family of oral story-tellers and I was the worst, so I thought maybe if I write them down I’d get better. It was also a family of readers, and our idea of hell was to be trapped somewhere without a book. I think growing up surrounded by books was a seminal aspect of becoming a writer.
Later, I studied literature in school and decided that’s what I wanted to do, but wanting to be a writer is like wanting to be an astronaut—the odds are so against you you might as well not tell anybody and embarrass yourself.
Q: How you had the idea to create the character of Walter Longmire?
A: Most of the choices I’ve made in my writing and in my life have been in response to things and Walt isn’t any different. I got tired of all the CSI stuff where technology seemed to be the be-all end-all of the story and wondered what it would be like if you made the protagonist the sheriff of the least populated county in the least populated state—focusing more on character and place than the make-believe science a lot of these shows subscribe to…
Q: What I love most of Walt, in the series and books, is his basically sense of decency. You wanted that or it just happened writing the books?
A: No, that was pretty much the idea from the get-go. I felt like we’d run the course of the anti-hero thing and wanted a guy we could actually root for, not a perfect protagonist, but a man who had a code that he lived by and an individual who cared about people.
When I was doing ride-alongs with sheriffs in Wyoming and Montana the phrase I kept hearing from them was “my people”. I liked that, the proprietorial part of neighborhood policing where you know the people and the area well enough to stop the problems before they happen.
Q: Do you have a favorite character in the series? If yes, who?
A: Oh, it’s interesting but hardly any readers ever say Walt when I ask them that question, because he’s the voice of the books. I think when you write a character in first-person, it’s hard to not have them be the character you’re the closest to. There are so many parts of the guy I appreciate–his honor, his humor, his fallibility… He’s just good company.
Q: Let’s talk about Vic. God, I would marry that girl! It’s funny write about her? Or difficult? I think she is the cardinal point of the book with Walt.
A: Well, she’s Italian… She’s a marvelous counterpoint to the sheriff, providing a contrast in voice to his masculinity and westerness. She’s actually based on my wife, Judy—so you can imagine what my day to day life is like. Since she’s such a counterpoint to Walt, she is fun to write mostly because of her sense of humor which is so different from all the other characters in the novels. Being an easterner, her perspectives are important in that they give me the opportunity to explain thing in cowboy culture that the other characters might take for granted.
Q: How is your writing process? Do you have some rituals? And also, how many time do you need to complete a novel?
A: Well, I own a ranch so the animals come first. I usually am up pretty early and get things squared away on the ranch according to what time of year it is, and then go up into my loft and get started writing.
Writing for me is a pleasure in that it balances out the physical labor of the ranch. I’ve long ago gotten over having to sit at my own desk with my special mug of coffee looking out my favorite window… With all the travel, I have to be able to write anywhere, whether its in a train or a hotel room. I guess, for me the ritual is the writing. Generally I can finish the first draft in six months, but some, according to the amount of research, can take longer…
Q: Thanks to your books I became interested in the Indian culture. I know you live near two reservations. What are your impression of them? I feel that you admire them so much.
A: I do, they’re my neighbors, my friends, and practically family. They’re amazing people, and an intrinsic part of the place I call home. There are facets of their character that I think haven’t been explored, such as their sense of humor, and the essence of their humanity. I try not to approach them as Indians, but as people, first.
Q: Who are your favorite writers? And there is a book that changed you, as a man and author?
A: John Steinbeck has to stand above all others, I’m in thrall of his understanding of humanity and the universality of the human condition—the ability to draw people together and express something about what we all have in common. I think that’s important in a time when governments and policies are trying so hard to drive us apart for their own ends.
Q: What you love most about Wyoming? And the most difficult thing to adapt at?
A: I love most everything about Wyoming, but most of all I love the silence that allows me to collect the thoughts I need to write my books. I think it would be difficult to do what I do in place like New York or Rome because there are so many distractions. A description I once heard was that if Europe is an oil painting, Wyoming is a charcoal sketch and I’m okay with that, an awful lot of things become apparent in that kind of simplicity.
For me, the most difficult thing is to find the right words to convey to the reader that topography as if they’re seeing it for the first time.