Books

Author profile | Craig Johnson

Mystery writer says he draws inspiration from newspapers for best-selling novels

Catherine Henriette

Mystery author Craig Johnson writes his best-selling novels from his sprawling ranch near the Bighorn Mountains on the Wyoming/Montana border.
Catherine Henriette Mystery author Craig Johnson writes his best-selling novels from his sprawling ranch near the Bighorn Mountains on the Wyoming/Montana border.

It’s a safe guess you might get a “Boy, howdy,” greeting when meeting Craig Johnson.

A best-selling author, best known for his Longmire mystery series, Johnson will be in Cedar Rapids on Friday evening to kickoff the 12th annual Out Loud! Author Series presented by the Metro Library Network.

It’s a greeting that’s very much in character for Johnson, who lives in rural Wyoming and is often spotted in a cowboy hat. It’s one that’s definitely in character for Walt Longmire, the main character created by Johnson who has been the focus of more than a dozen novels and stories.

“I stumbled onto an interesting character and after 15 novels, two novellas, and an anthology of short stories he has yet to bore me,” Johnson said, noting that he appreciates Walt Longmire’s down-to-earth characteristics. “My sheriff is not the usual 6-foot-2 (inches) of twisted steel and sex appeal that you see in a lot of crime fiction. He is more like all of us or what I refer to as ‘over,’ overweight, over age, overly depressed, but he gets up each morning with a sense of humor and a determination that I find truly heroic.”

His writing has garnered popular and critical acclaim.

“The Cold Dish” was a Dilys Award finalist and the French edition won Le Prix du Polar Nouvel Observateur/BibliObs. “Death Without Company,” the Wyoming State Historical Association’s Book of the Year, won France’s Le Prix 813. “Another Man’s Moccasins” was the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award winner and the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers’ Book of the Year, and “The Dark Horse,” the fifth in the series, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. “Junkyard Dogs” won the Watson Award for a mystery novel with the best sidekick, and “Hell is Empty,” selected by Library Journal as the Best Mystery of the Year, was a New York Times best-seller, as was “As the Crow Flies.”

The Longmire series has become so popular that in 2012 it was developed into the A&E series, “Longmire,” starring Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips and Katee Sackoff. It was the network’s most watched original drama series and now runs on Netflix.

“You hear a lot of authors complain about their dealings with Hollywood, and I can see how there are problems on both sides, but I was fortunate enough to team up with a really wonderful group of producers, directors, performers, and crew that made ‘Longmire’ something special,” said Johnson. “Witness that after six seasons the actors still want to do more and even take part in an annual festival in Wyoming, called Longmire Days, that we have each year.”

Johnson said there’s no lack of inspiration for the series to continue.

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“One of the dirty little secrets about my books is that the plots come from newspaper articles, every single one of them,” he said. “I think that helps me keep my character, Walt Longmire, anchored in a reality that western sheriffs deal with every day. I don’t ever want to write books where Walt is on a cruise ship or something stupid like that.”

He will continue to pull inspiration from the people, places and things around him, Johnson added.

“One of my favorite quotes on writing is the one from Wallace Stegner where he says, ‘The greatest piece of fiction ever written is the disclaimer at the beginning of each book that says none of the characters in this book are based off of anyone alive or dead.’ What a crock, I mean that’s what you’re supposed to do — find interesting people and populate your novels with them.”

While Johnson may have mastered the art for writing mysteries, he said there’s no mystery to the work he does day in and day out.

“I get up in the morning, and I write,” he said. “I live on a ranch I built in northern Wyoming and sometimes that takes precedence, but I’m not too precious about the ‘process.’ I just sit down at my desk and write — for me it’s like breathing.”

Of course getting out in that open air sure doesn’t hurt.

“There is solitude where I live. My ranch is at the base of the Bighorn Mountains on the Wyoming/Montana border and the nearest town to me has a population of 25,” Johnson said. “It’s an isolated place, but that gives me the focus I need to write. The Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations are just to the north of me, and they have a great influence on my life and writing, too.”

When he’s not writing, he’s probably ranching.

“I like being outside when I’m not writing, and I have to say it’s a pretty wonderful life, a balance between the intellectual and the physical that really appeals to me,” he said.

His advice on looking the part — whether picking up a pair of cowboy boots or a new hat — is as practical as his writing habits. “Don’t wear anything that has more character than you do.”

Johnson said he’s looking forward to visiting Iowa again. “I’ve been to Iowa a number of times, but I couldn’t live there, the food is too good and I’d end up weighing 300 pounds.”

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All jokes aside, Johnson said he appreciates the opportunity to connect with readers at events like the Out Loud! Author Series.

“I get to go to wonderful places and meet the people who read my books or watch the television show and want to talk with me — what’s the down side?”

If You Go

• What: Author Craig Johnson

• When: 7 to 9 p.m. Friday

• Where: The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, 7725 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids

• Cost: Free, but registration encouraged at metrolibrarynetwork.org/outloud/

• Other Out Loud! Author Series speakers: Cristina Henriquez at 7 p.m. June 14; and Jennifer Weiner at 7 p.m. June 28

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