'Longmire' gallops from page to screen

Craig Johnson's Sheriff Walter Longmire solves crimes on the Wyoming frontier.

Story highlights

  • Craig Johnson writes the "Longmire" novels
  • Sheriff Walt Longmire solves crime mysteries on the Wyoming frontier
  • A television series based on the novels debuts June 3

Craig Johnson looks like he could have stepped out of the pages of one of his own best-selling Western novels. He's a tall man in cowboy boots, a pearl snap shirt and a 10-gallon hat, carrying a leather satchel. With the late-day sun behind him, he could even pass for his fictional hero, Sheriff Walt Longmire.

There are some similarities between the writer and his subject, and readers have been known to confuse the two. Both men are ranchers in Wyoming, although Walt is from the fictional Absaroka County while Johnson lives in the very real town of Ucross, population 25. Both have a history in law enforcement: Johnson worked briefly in the field long ago, while Walt is a legendary lawman among crime fiction readers. In reality, Johnson dreamed up Walt Longmire years ago in his first novel, 2004's "The Cold Dish." Eight years and eight best-selling books later, both men are still going strong.

Johnson's newest, "As the Crow Flies," debuted on the New York Times bestseller list last week. This time out, Walt and his close friend Henry Standing Bear are drawn into a murder investigation after they see a young Crow woman fall to her death on the Northern Cheyenne reservation.

Johnson's Western crime novels have long been a favorite of critics and fans. Now, they're about to reach a whole new audience on cable television. A&E has adapted Johnson's creation into the new series "Longmire," premiering Sunday. Currently on a national promotional tour, the author sat down with CNN to talk about his new book, the TV series and life in Wyoming. The following is an edited transcript:

CNN: "Longmire" is about to premiere on TV. How involved have you been with the show?

Johnson: It's been a real surprise. Generally, what happens is, Hollywood writes you a check and says, "See you later." My situation has been a little bit different. I was asked to be an executive creative consultant on the show. I bounced back and forth with the writers on ideas for the show. Then they sent me the first screenplay for the pilot episode. I went through it, and I made something like 57 changes and sent it back to them, and out of the 57 changes, they made 55 of them. So it's been very hands-on and very responsive. They've kept me in the loop the whole time. I was on set for three weeks while they were filming the pilot. I was very lucky and have been working with really good people. It's been an amazing process.

CNN: It seems the TV series is bringing you wider exposure and new fans.

Johnson: It seems like it with the book sales. The crowds at book signings are larger. For me, it's all about the exposure for the books. I live in Ucross, Wyoming. I have a little ranch there. That's where I was when Hollywood found me, and that's where I'll be when Hollywood leaves me. To be honest, I don't have any great want or need to move to L.A. or anything like that. I like my life, and I really love writing the books. If someone had asked me if I would have had as much fun writing the eighth or ninth book in the series as I did the first one, I wouldn't have thought that was possible, but it is. I'm having more fun now, because I feel like I've written enough to think I kind of know what I'm doing. At least, I hope so.

CNN: Walt has changed a great deal over the course of eight books. Have you changed your approach to writing them?

Johnson: One of the things that's very important to me in the books is the characters have to change. They have to have things happen to them. You can't keep them in a stasis and try and write formulaic books. I think some of the best stories I've ever heard in my life have been when I've been sitting on a porch sitting in a rocking chair snapping green beans or out on a hunting camp looking over a fire at a guy who starts out, "let me tell you what happened to me last month." I really love that old-fashioned style of storytelling. There may have been a time with crime fiction when just writing a whodunnit was enough. A lot of readers come to crime fiction with the same expectations they have for literary fiction. They want fully developed characters, they want an arc of storyline, they want social commentary, they want humor, they want history, and they want to know who did it by the time they get to the end. So that kind of raises the bar up to a level where it makes the books much more worth writing, to be honest with you. If I was just trying to find clever ways of killing people that would get really boring really quick. I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing.

CNN: I think one of the things your readers really appreciate is your realistic portrayal of life on the "rez."

Johnson: My ranch is up on the Wyoming/Montana border at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. Due north is the Northern Cheyenne reservation, slightly to the west is the Crow reservation, down to the southwest we have the Arapaho and the Shoshone, and then due east and a little to the south we've got the Lakota. So we're surrounded by these sovereign nations. For me, that's part of where I live, and to leave that out would be, excuse the term, criminal. I think whenever you're writing about a place or a people, if it's something you care deeply about, then the one thing you owe them is honesty. That means you can't just sugarcoat it. You have to be as honest as you can about the people, about the place, about everything. Whether it's the rampant alcoholism or unemployment or educational problems.

CNN: Many of your readers believe Walt is real. Some think you and Walt are really the same person. How much do you share in common with your lead character?

Johnson: The best quote about that is from my wife. She says, "Walt is who Craig would like to be in 10 years ,but he's off to an incredibly slow start." Walt's a much better person than I'll ever be, but he has his faults, too. I tend to refer to Walt as over. He's overweight, he's overage, he's overly depressed, but he still goes out and gets the job done. If there's one thing I underestimated when I was putting him together, it's the empathy, the sympathy that people have heaped upon this guy and how much they would care. He's not perfect. He's damaged goods. It's very flattering that people are that concerned about the characters. And it's true, women give me love notes to give to Walt. I get a lot of veterans and a lot of law enforcement people that give me challenge coins and say, "if you could pass that on to Walt, I would really appreciate it." People think this guy's real. My gosh, I think that's the highest praise a writer could ever possibly get.

Read an excerpt from Johnson's new novel on his website.