Craig Johnson, with his Walt Longmire series, is currently one of my favorite authors. I became a fan courtesy of two book discussion groups at BookPeople, Austin’s amazing independent bookstore. I read one of his books for one group and another for a different group. I enjoyed both. For one of those meetings we did a group phone interview of sorts with Johnson. I found him as fascinating as his books.
I made a point of attending his book signing at BookPeople in 2012, during which he told hilarious and fascinating stories not only about his books but also about the launch of the A&E TV series, Longmire, based on his book series.
The TV series premiered June 3, 2012 with 4.1 million total viewers watching, a record for that channel. Last month’s season premiere for the second season used his book Hell Is Empty as a launching pad.
The television series is good but not as great as the book series. Incidentally, Hell is Empty, which came out in May 2011, was voted Mystery Novel of the Year by the Library Journal.
Having by now read all of his novels about Walt Longmire, a county sheriff in Wyoming, I made plans to attend his book signing last week for his newest book, and to cobble together comments from a direct interview with me and those made during a talk he gave to the large crowd assembled to meet him or, in some cases, see him again. The result follows.
I talked to Craig for 20 minutes before he spoke to the large assembled crowd about his ninth novel, A Serpent’s Tooth. As with his earlier books Walt is joined by longtime friend Henry Standing Bear and Undersheriff Vic Moretti as he investigates crimes in fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming.
Craig lives in Ucross, Wyoming, population 25, and has said he draws from experiences in his town as well as prior work in law enforcement when writing about Walt and his county.
I began by taking to Craig about the television show, guessing, correctly, that he is getting new readers because of the television series. In fact, he said, sales are way up for The Cold Dish, the first book in his series and that’s a direct result of people reading the series after discovering the television series. He is getting, on a regular basis, people who write him to apologize for getting into the books only after first being exposed to the television series. A good demonstration of that exact conversation occurred later that night.
He is an executive creative consultant for the show, he said. They thought about hiring someone to do research before realizing it’d be easier to someone who has already done the research for his own books, he said. The relationship he has with the show is “pretty wonderful.” They will even send him scripts for the show and take other steps that while great most authors whose works are turned into TV series do not get, he said. They will text him all all hours of the day–a recent query happened at 3:30 a.m.–with questions related to the book and TV series.
I asked him to tell me a story I had heard him allude to in the past: The hiring of Lou Diamond Phillips to play the role of Henry, a large tough Native American character.
They sent Johnson all the audition tapes including Philips. In his audition tape Phillips did not use the three contractions in the script–instead using the full words each time. This caught Craig’s attention because it means Lou knew enough about Henry to know he never speaks in contractions. He later learned Phillips went out and picked up The Cold Dish and read it before doing the audition. This impressed Craig greatly.
I asked Craig what he attributes the success of the book series and the television series to. Part of it, he said, is “he playing upon the romanticism of the American West.” Additionally, he has interesting, complex characters who develop over the books, instead of remaining stagnant like in some series.
Although I suspected he gets asked this question all the time I asked it anyway: How is he similar to Walt and how is he different? Walt is more serious than Craig, and Walt has serious problems with depression and ghosts from his past, Craig said.
They share a sense of humor and they both try to stop injustice, Walt with his badge and Craig with his laptop computer. Many of his books, in fact, are initially sparked by a news article he reads in which something unjust is occurring.
In the case of this book he had read an article about the “Lost Boys” who are removed from Mormon sects, he said. Sure enough, Walt encounters one of these Lost Boys in the first 50 pages of the new book.
“I don’t think this book is going to sell as much in Utah,” he joked. Hopefully people in other states will more than make up for that, he said.
Speakers inquired after Vic, Walt’s smart ass deputy. She “is back with a vengeance in this book after having a smaller role in the last few books,” Craig said.
Generally, law enforcement gets a pass in his books. He is tired of books and movies with bad or corrupt law enforcement, he said. Making the cops bad guys “seems a real easy tack we (authors) can take” but one he avoids.
He thinks of his television series as the “anti-CSI,” as it demonstrates solving crimes is not fast and easy, he said.
One person apologized for getting to know Craig’s books only after first learning of and liking the TV series, he said. This reminded me of our earlier conversation..
“That’s okay. Don’t apologize,” Craig told him. Most emails he gets these days include similar wording with people apologizing and he’s perfectly fine with people getting to know him via the TV series, he said.
Others had questions like my earlier ones about his relationship with the TV series. “I don’t have any horror stories” about working with Hollywood, unlike many authors he knew who have had problems, he told them.
Here’s hoping the book and television series continue to be such high quality. I’m halfway through his new book and so far I am loving it. For this article I want to give a special thanks to Scott Montgomery of BookPeople, who helped me get time to talk to Johnson in person. Montgomery wrote a good review of Johnson’s new book here.