'Any Other Name' author Craig Johnson discusses his Walt Longmire series

Johnson published his eleventh Walt Longmire book with his new work 'Any Other Name.' 

Craig Johnson's newest book in his 'Longmire' series is 'Any Other Name.'

For fans of Sheriff Walt Longmire, it’s time to saddle up. Or at least hop in The Bullet, as the sheriff calls the truck he drives across the Powder River Basin, often in search of answers to mysterious doings.

The 11th Longmire mystery, "Any Other Name," has just been published. And the third season of the hit cable series adapted from the books, simply titled "Longmire," starts on June 2 on A&E.

For those unfamiliar with the books and the show, why wait any longer to get acquainted with Absaroka County, Wyoming? Craig Johnson, author of the novels and short stories starring the taciturn Walt Longmire, is from West Virginia but has lived in Montana and Wyoming since he was a young man.

Now 53, Johnson lives on a ranch he built himself in Ucross, Wyo. The town boasts a population of 25, though Johnson and his wife recently spent an evening after dinner counting neighbors and could only come up with 19. Perhaps the sheriff will soon have business with the Census Bureau.

He has plenty to keep him busy in the meantime. A former college football lineman at USC, Vietnam veteran, and recent widower, Longmire remains a decent man despite wide-ranging knowledge of humanity at its worst.

Johnson tells of Longmire’s adventures from the sheriff’s perspective. A tough-talking female deputy and a best friend from the Cheyenne Nation, as well as Walt’s plucky daughter, give the stories texture and balance to go with Johnson’s commanding sense of place.

Each book takes place in a season, meaning the sheriff has aged less than three years over the course of 10 novels. ("Spirit of Steamboat," published in 2013, is a novella.) Set in the contemporary West, the books and the show delve into poverty, human trafficking, polygamy, fracking, and, frequently, the still-uneasy relationship between whites and Native Americans.

Lest all of this sound too clinical, Johnson is anything but. Here is a sample of Walt Longmire’s observations from the new novel:

"It was December on the high plains, but you’d never know it to look at him, cupping his knotted hands together without a shiver or gloves for that matter and ducking his Stetson Open Road model hat down against the wind. Amplified by the flashing red lights of the railroad-crossing barrier, the brief flicker of orange glowed, reinforcing the impression that he was the devil and that the deal I had struck with him was venal and binding."

The sights and sounds of the West come alive in the Longmire series. "Any Other Name" includes a search for missing women that leads to a casino in Deadwood, S.D., soon followed by a late-night blizzard chase on foot through Custer State Park, where a herd of bison stamp past in ominous fashion.

Walt Longmire often says little, works too much, and has a stubborn streak as wide as the Great Plains. When he becomes a little more talkative, it’s mostly to impart trivia such as an impromptu digression into India’s Gujarat province and the subcaste Patels, who own one-third of all US hotels, facts shared by the sheriff in "Any Other Name." Longmire’s predecessor, Lucian Connolly, when asked by a neighboring county sheriff whether Walt has always been this way, answers, “Better than a bookmobile.”

Books and literary allusions abound in Longmire’s world. "Any Other Name" draws its inspiration from Shakespeare, as an epigraph from "Romeo and Juliet" makes clear: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Walt references Joseph Conrad in the first line of the story.

Walt Longmire’s charms extend to a sense of humor as dry as a summer drought. (Johnson, too, enjoys the ridiculous: a running gag in the new book has Longmire fumbling his badge when he reaches to show it to an interview subject.)

In the new book, Longmire, seated with a man who gets shot in the mouth by the bartender, sees “blood, tissue, and teeth scattering … onto the table.” Moments later, Longmire’s mentor asks how the shooting victim is faring.

“Alive, but he’s going to need some dental work,” the sheriff answers.

Dental work, minus the anesthetic, describes the feeling many novelists ascribe to Hollywood adaptations. Johnson stands among the few writers who have enjoyed the experience.

The A&E show mirrors the novels, helped, in part, by Johnson’s role as a consultant. A standout cast helps, too.

Robert Taylor (largely unknown in the US other than for a small part in "The Matrix"), an Australian, plays the middle-aged sheriff, with Katee Sackhoff ("Battlestar Galactica") as his transplanted-Philadelphian deputy and Lou Diamond Phillips ("La Bamba," "Young Guns") as Longmire’s best friend and frequent unofficial fellow crime-solver Henry Standing Bear. Henry often arrives to save Walt from both criminals and himself.

The actors’ chemistry on the show feels like slipping into one of Johnson’s novels. Filmed in New Mexico, the Longmire show looks much like the Powder River Basin of Wyoming where the novels are set, though Johnson notes Wyoming is greener than arid New Mexico.

Johnson, currently on a promotional tour, recently spoke to the Monitor about how many adventures Longmire has left, the success of the show (it’s the most-watched drama A&E has ever had), and why now seems to be the right time for an old-fashioned, white-hat hero.

On seeing his novels turned into a TV show: "I think it’s like any other business. I just happened to fall in with a really wonderful group of people. The producers and the directors, the actors, the crew, everybody, they’re just wonderful to work with. One of the first things they did was they made me a creative consultant on the show and so I was able to voice an opinion on a lot of things, which, probably, I didn’t have any business voicing an opinion on.

I mean, I’m an author from a town of 25, you know? I’m not John Grisham or Stephen King. I don’t know anything about television production. But I know these characters. I’d been writing about these characters for seven years before Hollywood found me. And I think it was just a lot easier for them to kind of keep me on the payroll and I was there if they had any questions about Wyoming or sheriffing or the Northern Cheyenne or a lot of the things the show uses (from the books)." 

On following the arc of the novels: "As far as the trajectory, there have been some differences between the TV show and the books. As a general rule, they really have followed the characters and the tone of the books. That’s kind of miraculous for something that appears in a 42-minute format. I mean, that’s the thing that’s really amazing to me, is that they’re able to tell a story in 42 minutes.

Generally, my books are 350, 400 pages long. So it’s kind of stuff to squeeze that kind of content into 42 minutes. They do a pretty miraculous job. A lot of times they have to take bits and pieces of the book and stitch them together – they can’t use an entire book."

On story ideas: "One of the things I did right off the bat was send them, and I continue to send them, newspaper articles, magazine articles, stories, and things I’ve heard in Montana and Wyoming. I use that as my homework writing the books. That’s the fodder for getting the book started.

After you write books for a while, you kind of become like a horse handicapper. You start recognizing which story will go the distance. Which ones will go to a 350-page novel, which ones will go to a 20-page story, which ones will go to a teleplay. They’ve used just about every one I’ve sent."

On short stories: "On my website, if people sign up for the newsletter – I send them a newsletter once a month, let them know where I’m going to be – and then every Christmas Eve, I send out a Longmire short story to everybody who’s on my newsletter list. Just as a gift.

Over the last 10 years, they’ve been piling up and a lot of people have been asking if there’s any way if they could get those in a printed format. And it looks like Viking Penguin is going to be putting out a hardback version of all the stories in one volume in October called 'Wait for Signs.'"

On becoming a Westerner: "I delivered horses down to Wyoming when I was in Montana when I was in my early 20s. I just fell in love with that little spot there [where he lives in Ucross, Wyo.]. It’s a small little place right there at the base of the Big Horn Mountains.

I literally poured the concrete, stacked the logs, and did it all myself. I got enough of it built so I could sit down and actually do what my education was in, which is writing. I started writing the first book, 'The Cold Dish.'

People always ask, 'How do you get started as a writer?,' and I believe there’s really only two honest answers. The first one is that you stumble across a story you think needs to be told. And I had this idea in my head about a sheriff in the least-populated county in the least-populated state in America: Wyoming. And what happens in the story line is there’s a young woman with fetal-alcohol syndrome and she’s Northern Cheyenne.

She’s taken into a basement and abused by these four young men from a nearby town and they get off with suspended sentences and then start turning up dead, shot with a Sharps .45-.70 Buffalo Rifle. And it’s a boomerang effect the sheriff has to solve. It’s a complex novel analyzing the state of justice on and off the reservation in the contemporary American West.

Then, the other thing that gets you going as a writer, you run out of excuses. That’s how it all got started. I made the mistake a lot of first-time authors make. I figured, if I get anybody to publish this, they’re never going to publish another one. So I’m putting everything in this one. It was close to 650 pages long, it was like 'War and Peace' in Absaroka County. Finally, I got an agent to look at it in New York and she said, 'The first thing you’re going to have to do is take about 200 pages out of it.' Which I did."

On the series of novels: "Kathryn Court [president and publisher at Penguin] sat me down and said, 'We think these characters and this place are interesting enough that people would want to know more about them. We think you should consider doing this as a series.' And that’s when I, with the knowledge of not even having one book published, started arguing with the president of Penguin USA and said, 'No, I don’t think that would work. I’ve got some other ideas I want to bounce off of you.'

And she said, 'Why don’t you go back to your ranch and think about this?' And I did. That’s how I started the series of books. And about seven years later, Warner Bros. came knocking and said, 'We’d like to do it as a TV show.' As it turned out, she was very right and I was very wrong."

On research: "The best thing I had for that was doing ride-alongs with local sheriffs. Most people don’t understand that sheriffs are the only elected law-enforcement officials in the United States. It’s kind of an exclusive kind of law enforcement.

I chose it for a particular reason. I wanted Walt to be emblematic and to be connected to his community. I really didn’t want him to be one of those 6-foot-2, twisted-steel with sex appeal who drives around in a car with chrome sunglasses on. I really wanted him to care about the people in his community.

The first thing I did was drive in 18 miles into Buffalo, Wyoming, and started doing ride-alongs with the then-sheriff, Larry Kirkpatrick. It turned out to be a treasure trove. I get all these e-mails from all these deputies – with the success of the books and the television show – and they call me up with all of these stories. And these stories are worth their weight in gold. I’ve used so many of them in the books."

On inspiration: "I’m a blue-collar, working-class author. I don’t sit around in poet shirts looking out windows waiting for the muse to strike. The reason for that is I’ve never seen a ditch-digger that went in the ditch with a shovel in his hand and said, 'I’m just not feeling the ditch.' You get in the hole and start digging the ditch. That’s kind of the way I look at writing.

It’s one of the joys of my life. It wouldn’t be good for me if I didn’t have a book a year to do. I re-write enough in one year. I like going and seeing Walt and the crew and seeing what they’re involved in.

They’re really good company, especially Walt. He’s a unique protagonist in crime fiction these days. Since the advent of the antihero in the late 1960s, we’ve had this plethora of quasi-good-guy-bad-guys that are the heroes. It’s hyper-accelerated so much in the last 10 years, you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys anymore. Walt’s almost avant-garde these days: a good guy who has a code he lives by and does the right thing and cares about people has been missing for so long an awful lot of people don’t recognize him anymore."

On "Longmire"’s reception at home: "I was out in the Powder River country, doing research on a motorcycle, with a camera and notebooks and stuff. I was out there riding around, checking locations.

I got thirsty, decided to head home and I stopped at a little bar out in Arvada, out in the Powder River country. I went in the bar to have a beer and I looked up and there was a big sign on the bar back that said, 'Longmire Longnecks Monday nights.' I asked the bartender, 'What’s the story on this?'

And he said, 'Craig, a lot of these ranchers out here, they don’t have satellite dishes or cable or anything. They all come in here and watch episodes of 'Longmire.' And the bar has Rainier (Walt’s preferred beverage in the books) for a buck apiece. And he said, 'The place is like the Super Bowl.'

I said, 'That’s great.' And he said, 'You don’t know how great that is. The last show people used to come in and watch was 'Gunsmoke.'"

Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.

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