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Q&A with Craig Johnson
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Q&A with Craig Johnson

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Two things author Craig Johnson always takes with him on the road are his boots and his hat.

“As any cowboy knows, it’s like an isolation chamber. You can take your cowboy hat and put it over your face and no one bothers you,” Johnson told the Star-Tribune.

And boots are simply what he wears on his feet. Even to the pool in a fancy hotel in North Carolina. He put his trunks on, realized he had no other shoes, and pulled on his boots and his hat. He walked to the pool to the delight of other hotel guests.

He’s in the middle of his national book tour, supporting his latest Walt Longmire novel, “As the Crow Flies.” In the last week, he’s made stops in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

He’ll be on the road another month. But tonight, he’ll take a break in Santa Fe to watch the television premier of A&E’s “Longmire,” a new series based on Johnson’s books. And Johnson’s books are based in Wyoming, in the fictional Absaroka County, a mash-up of Sheridan and Johnson Counties where Johnson lives in Ucross.

Though the series was filmed in New Mexico, producers took extra care to make it look like Walt Longmire’s home state.

The Star-Tribune recently caught up with Johnson between stops to talk books, television and Johnson’s dead body.

CST: Where are you now?

JOHNSON: I am in the Raleigh, N.C., airport on my way to Atlanta.

CST: And how’s it going?

JOHNSON: We made the New York Times bestsellers list again this year — just this week. It’s kind of nice, that with all the effort that Warner Brothers and A&E have been putting into the television show, I have to admit that there is a secret little happiness in the fact that I made it onto the New York Times bestseller list before all of this TV stuff kind of came out.

I feel like I kind of did it on my own.

CST: Out there on the road, can you still feel the buzz around the TV show?

JOHNSON: The amount of publicity that they’ve done is just stunning — there are billboards all over the major cities of the U.S., there are buses with this Wyoming sheriff on the side of them. They even had skywriters up and down the beaches of the East and the West Coast. Planes trailing these big banners that said: “Longmire on A&E June 3, 9 p.m.” …

They are going to run the show with limited commercial interruptions because Dodge pickup trucks is one of the sole advertisers for the premier episode. I’ve already warned my wife that if they have a special edition Longmire Dodge pickup truck, that I’m going to have to buy one.

CST: Why do you think these city folks are so interested?

JOHNSON: I think you can never underestimate the romanticism of the American West. I think that in particular Walt, this Wyoming sheriff that I write about, he’s kind of emblematic, he’s kind of a throwback, he’s kind of old school. He’s one of the guys that lives and dies by the cowboy code. He’s not one of these guys that kills 47 people in a single book. He’s a white-hat kind of a guy. With all the antiheroes that are out there, we are kind of due for a white-hat kind of guy.

CST: So what separates Longmire from other cop-dramas all over TV today?

JOHNSON: A lot of it has to do with the characters. For me, that’s one of the wonderful things about writing about Wyoming, trying to put all those wonderful layers in that maybe sometimes people don’t get. I don’t want people just to think that we are just a place of cowboys and Indians. The people of Wyoming, they’re very intricate, they’re very complex. They have a lot of things going on. To me, the complexities of their lives make them more believable than a lot of things you see on TV today.

I’m watching these pencil-thin model/actresses glide through crack houses in Armani suits and four inch heels. I’m like, that really isn’t the actuality of law enforcement just about anywhere.

CST: Have you seen the first episode yet?

JOHNSON: I actually worked on the first episode … They made me executive creative consultant, which means I know where the Porta-Pottys are on set.

CST: What’s an “executive creative consultant?”

JOHNSON: They knew that they are writing about a place that’s not Southern California, that’s not New York, and so they kind of needed an envoy, they needed somebody who could give them all the details, all the little aspects of Wyoming that perhaps they didn’t know … For me it was kind of exciting to work with [executive producer] Greer Shepherd from “The Closer” and “Nip/Tuck,” [director] Chris Chulack from “Southland” and “ER” and all these people …

I gave them file folders of all the shorter ideas I had that maybe weren’t long enough to actually be a book, but were short enough to work as a 45-minute teleplay. They bounced the scripts back and forth with me, I went through one just yesterday.

It was even to the point where they sent me DVD of actors and actress that they were thinking about using, which is just outrageous. Hollywood just doesn’t do that. I think that speaks to quality and the attention the producers took in trying to display Wyoming.

CST: Wow. Did they cast anyone you liked?

JOHNSON: Pretty much, every single one of the people that I was excited about, not that that was the leverage that gave them the roles, but just about everybody I wanted they picked up and used …

Robert Taylor is just fantastic as Walt. I was teasing them when they were doing the auditions because they kept asking, “Why is Walt as big as he is? Why is he 6-foot-5 and weigh 255 pounds?”

I said, “You know, he was an offensive tackle in college, he was a Marine investigator. The other thing is he’s a western sheriff. It’s kind of an occupational hazard in the sense that a lot of the counties in Wyoming, some of them are as big as Maryland …. If things get rough, you can’t make a phone call or a radio call and have 12 more cops there, it just doesn’t work that way. You’re kind of on your own. That’s why he’s as big as he is.”

Then I laughed about it and said it doesn’t matter anyway because everybody in Hollywood is 5-foot-4.

Well, as I got the DVD that had Robert in it, he was the guy that I really liked because he was a bit of an unknown … He hadn’t been branded by so many other types of movies and television. There are about half a dozen guys they kind of cycle through whenever you have a [character] that wears a cowboy hat …. I thought it was kind of nice that they were trying to use someone unique. Someone you would look at and think “Longmire.”

When I got Robert’s DVD I had to laugh, because they scribbled on the bottom, “He’s 6-foot, 4. Nah, Nah, Nah.”

CST: Do you plan on watching, just to see it on TV?

JOHNSON: They might have a big party in Santa Fe with the cast and the crew. Everyone arranged it so I would be down there in Santa Fe to watch the episode.

CST: Any chance for a cameo?

JOHNSON: They offered me a walk-on, one of those Alfred Hitchcock walk-on roles.

I was watching them film and I was watching Katee Sackhoff, who plays Moretti, yank some guy out of the car, throw him on the hood of a car, throw the cuffs on him and drag him across the street.

That’s of course when Chris Chulack says, “Do you want a walk-on?”

I said, “No, I don’t.”

He said, “No, you don’t have to get beat up. You can just be standing on the sidewalk there or you could be a patron at the Busy Bee or at Henry’s bar “The Red Pony,” something like that?”

You know, for some reason it felt like press passing. After assembling this world, and writing about this world for eight years, to suddenly jump into it just seemed really, really strange. I was just incapable of doing it.

And my wife is still mad as hell, because she really saw it as her ticket to television stardom. So I kind of blew that one.

CST: Any regrets?

JOHNSON: First of all, I think the only thing my acting ability would support is a dead body, so I think I probably made the right choice.

But who knows? They’ll still be filming when we get to Santa Fe this weekend. They may lure me out there to play a dead body or something like that.

CST: Now that, Wyoming, is something to watch for.

Contact Features Editor Kristy Gray at 307-266-0586 or kristy.gray@trib.com.

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Related to this story

People across the state of Wyoming are reading, "Spirit of Steamboat," the latest book in the Walt Longmire mystery series by Wyoming author Craig Johnson this year, and the Natrona County Public Library will celebrate the series in April.

Longmire Month will feature events to allow local residents to discuss themes raised in the book, watch episodes of, "Longmire," a TV show based on Johnson's books, and meet the author in person.

It's part of One Book Wyoming, a new program by the Wyoming State Library aimed at getting more people to read and creating a sense of community. Related events are being held throughout the state.

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