What does mystery novelist Craig Johnson enjoy the most about going on book tours?
That’s not just an author-interview cliché. Johnson, creator of the popular and long-running Walt Longmire series, lives, like his protagonist, on a ranch near a tiny Wyoming town, pop. 25. So it’s not like he’s going to run into anybody new — or, some days, anybody at all — on an average day.
It’s likely been a long while since Johnson has given a reading before an audience that’s smaller than his hometown’s population. The books have inspired a loyal following — his 13th, “Dry Bones,” came out this spring, featuring Sheriff Longmire investigating a murder connected to a dispute over an excavated Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil.
Johnson’s books have also been adapted into the acclaimed television series “Longmire,” starring Robert Taylor as Johnson’s small-town sheriff sleuth. The series was cancelled by A&E last year during a contract dispute and immediately snapped up by Netflix, which will produce new episodes this fall.
Johnson will be in Madison on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at HotelRED, 1501 Monroe St., for an event sponsored by the Wisconsin Book Festival. From his ranch, Johnson talked about the Netflix deal, the challenges of keeping a long-running series going, and how Walt is good company.
What’s it like to have a character become beloved like this?
It’s a little strange. Especially with the TV show and stuff happening. Whenever Hollywood gets a hold of your stuff, it’s like having a houseplant in your house that suddenly starts talking to you. I always feel a little bit of a shock when the show’s on.
To me, the character is one of the reasons I wrote the books. I really like Walt’s company. He’s a good guy. He’s decent, he’s kind, he’s funny, he’s intelligent. I’ll be out doing ranch work — it’s irrigation season right now, which I call the devil’s handiwork. It’s got three components — hydraulic, mechanical and electrical — and I guarantee you if two of them are working, the third one will screw you. I’ll come in bloodied and muddied and sweating and just angry. My wife will look at me and say “Go write.” And it makes everything better. He’s just good company.
Do you see Walt as a different or better version of yourself?
My wife also has the best remark about that. “Walt Longmire is who Craig would like to be in 10 years. He’s just off to an incredibly slow start.”
Does knowing Walt so well make it easier to write books now, knowing exactly how he thinks and responds?
When you’re writing a series, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time. But then again, the challenge is to do something different with every single book. We’ve all started series of books where they’re really great when they start out, and six or seven books in, they just seem to rotate plots, or the characters don’t seem to be developing. For me, it’s very important not to rest on my laurels and make sure that Walt doesn’t remain the same.
When I wrote the first book, it was during a time when all the “CSI” stuff was happening. All the books were about the forensics and the ballistics and all that. That’s all fine and well, and I’m as interested in that stuff as anybody else. But I’m not as interested in that as I am in character and place. I’m always going to be more interested in the characters populating a novel than the equipment that they use. That’s the challenge of writing a crime series in one of the least populated towns in America.
Fans are very happy that “Longmire” has been rescued by Netflix and will have new episodes this fall. It seems like there are a lot of ways a TV adaptation could get a series wrong, but the consensus is that this one got it right.
A lot of it has to do with — just like any other business — if you get involved with good people, good things will happen. I was just extraordinarily fortunate that the people at Warner Bros. and the people that wanted to run the show were just amazing people. So you get good people, and then you do the hard part: leave them alone and let them do what they do. You have to realize that it’s going to be another art form. What makes a good book does not slavishly make for good television.
Were you surprised that the show’s getting a second life on Netflix?
The people who were responsible were the “Longmire Posse,” these fans that just got mad as hell at A&E for canceling it. They got into a big fight with Warner Bros. because they wanted to own the show. They told Warner Bros. either you sell it to us or we’re going to cancel it. Warner’s response was “Well, you’re going to look kinda silly canceling the highest-rated scripted drama you’ve ever had.”
Well, they did. Fortunately, we had Netflix to jump right in there in a heartbeat. It’s been amazing to see how much they’ve been behind the series and how much more freedom the producers and writers have in the process. When you’re on television, you’re limited to 42 minutes and that’s it. Netlfix, they don’t care.