In this month’s Scene Of The Crime, we talk to one of our favorite authors, Craig Johnson, whose Sheriff Walt Longmire series takes place in his home of Northern Wyoming. If you’re a fan of A&E’s show Longmire, then you’re already a fan of Craig’s work. The show is based on his books.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What do you personally love about your area of Wyoming?
CRAIG JOHNSON: Probably the fact that I can strike off in any direction and be in the middle of nowhere in no time, heck, the town closest to my ranch has a population of only 25—so I live in the middle of nowhere… There’s a balance to my life in that I get to live in the cerebral world of a writer, but I’m also afforded the advantages of being out of doors. There are limitations to living in a place like northern Wyoming, but to me the advantages far outweigh them. There aren’t too many restaurants, or too much live theatre or music, but as Gretel Erlich has said, there’s a solace in open spaces, a focus that enables my writing that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It’s easy to get distracted in the modern age, and I’m afraid that if I lived somewhere else, I wouldn’t get as much done. Besides, when I need more civilization, I can go to Paris—thank you French readers.
MP: What is the biggest misconception about the place and people?
CJ: Well, the majority of the knowledge of the American West that people carry is from the movies they’ve seen, and that’s a little skewed… I guess the biggest thing people are surprised about is the sense of community in far-flung, ranching regions. There’s a feeling of self-imposed isolation (why else would you live in the least populated state in the country), but there’s also a strong feeling of community. During calving and branding season, the ranchers have to really pull together–it was one of the reasons I made Walt a sheriff, because he would be immediately answerable to his constituency and connected to his community, sheriffing being the only elected form of law-enforcement. I think the rogue characters have a place in literature, but I don’t think I’d enjoy writing about them—I like the push and pull of Walt’s job.
MP: How does Northern Wyoming inform Walt?
CJ: I’m always shocked when reviewers refer to Walt and his world as lean and leathery; I guess I look at that world as being very full and abundant, but maybe I’ve been in Wyoming too long… Walt is a very iconoclastic figure, I guess, but I’ve attempted to humanize him by searching for the complexities within. He’s very much a Western style hero but in a modern world–he has to match up with that diversity and nuance that hopefully takes the books to another level. I think the environs allow for that, that and the other characters. Henry Standing Bear is not your average, stereotypical Indian, so Walt can’t be the stereotypical cowboy. One of the joys of writing contemporary western/mysteries is that it affords me the opportunity to take on the baggage of those genre clichés and turn them on their ear; I think that’s one of the reasons the books are as popular as they are.
MP: Each book takes place in the next season of Walt’s life, as opposed to the usual year gap for a series character. How does the setting help you with this?
CJ: Besides providing me with a completely different environment (January on the high plains ain’t nuthin’ like July), it gives me a continuity in the novels that I like, allowing me to follow up with the characters within a few months rather than a full year. I would always be wondering what the characters were up to in those time spans…
MP: You’ve said that winter is your favorite season to write in. Why is this?
CJ: I have a ranch, and that’s the slow time; when the earth sleeps. I generally put up about twenty cords of firewood (sometimes with the help of unsuspecting booksellers that come up for a visit…) and then settle in for the serious writing. I’ve always been a cold-weather person, but the severity of Wyoming weather pretty much forces you to go back inside, and the thing I do inside is write. I don’t have to feel guilty about not moving the irrigation or working the stock—I can just write.
MP: What can you do in a Wyoming mystery that you can’t do in a New York or LA one?
CJ: Suspect a grizzly bear.