Author Profile: Craig Johnson, author of Longmire

Being decent isn’t often considered a secret weapon. But when you’re working as a sheriff in the “least populated county in the least populated state,” as is the case for Sheriff Walt Longmire, the protagonist in author Craig Johnson’s wildly popular book series, Longmire, your wits can be your best — and sometimes only — defense.

“There were so many of these anti-hero characters around when I was starting to write about Walt,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview. “You couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. I thought: ‘What about a guy who’s kind of a stand-up guy?’”

Not that Walt is perfect. “He’s what I tend to refer to as over: Overweight, overage and overly depressed. But he gets up in the morning and tries to do the job.”

“I think that people respond to that.”

They have in droves. Johnson’s Longmire books regularly debut on the New York Times bestseller list, and the “Longmire” television show is among the most highly rated on Netflix, as it was on its previous network, A&E.

But Johnson isn’t the Hollywood type. This former East Coaster feels right at home on his ranch at the base of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming where he’s lived for more than 20 years.

Living there keeps him grounded, he says, and helps him write novels that accurately portray life in the rural west.

“When I read a piece of contemporary western fiction and they leave the Indians out I’m always like: really? A lot of my friends, neighbors, family are up on the res. For me it’s important that Indians be part of the story simply because they are such a part of the society where I live.”

In the books Sheriff Walt Longmire often consults with longtime friend Henry Standing Bear, a member of the Cheyenne reservation who has a dry sense of humor.

“I don’t think there’s any better way to dehumanize a group of individuals then by pretending they don’t have a sense of humor. And I don’t think anybody’s been demonized quite as much as the American Indian as not having a sense of humor.”

“They’re always portrayed as these cigar store Indian type characters: somber, straight-faced. That’s not the Indians I know. The Indians I know work at about 17 different layers of irony, and if you don’t know that irony, you get to be the butt of that irony. So it’s very important for me to make sure I get that across.”

What Johnson also gets across in his novels is rugged beauty of the Wyoming landscape, an unforgiving terrain that can lead to some great stories.

“The catalyst for my latest book, “The Highwayman,” came from sitting around talking with a buddy of mine who’s a captain on the highway patrol. We were discussing the Wind River Scenic Byway, this incredible canyon in the middle of Wyoming: 2,000-foot granite cliffs on either side, Class V river rapids, big horn sheep looking down on you, and three tunnels in the canyon itself that are left over from the 30s.”

“My buddy said: ‘You know what the old timers used to call the canyon? No man’s land.’ Because radio frequency wouldn’t go into the canyon. So when the highway patrol would go into the north end of the canyon, you wouldn’t hear from them again until they came out. And I thought that was too good to pass up.”

“The Highwayman” is also a modern take on a Charles Dickens story, “The Signal-Man.” “It’s a great, scary little story, and I thought: Could you update that? Try and do something new with that?”

Johnson’s admiration for classic authors comes from his background as a playwright, having studied playwriting first at Marshall University, then later at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“That helped out a lot in terms of understanding dramatic structure and character development. And now I’ve got this nice cannon of dramatic literature to draw from: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams — all of these really incredible writers who really inform a lot of my work.”

He also draws a brief period of time after undergrad when he “did that Jack Kerouac pinball method of self-realization where you just go around everywhere and do different things.”

For students anxious about life after graduation, working a series of odd jobs might not be a bad idea.

For Johnson, it was a life-changing experience that continues to influence his writing to this day: “For me that was an opportunity to explore what Steinbeck used to refer to as ‘the universality to the human condition,’ trying to find the pith and the marrow of who we are and what we have in common, rather than what we have in difference.”

Sounds like a decent thing to do.