Craig Johnson is an American author best-known for his mystery novels, particularly the Sheriff Walt Longmire series set in northern Wyoming.
Since the series’ debut in 2004, Johnson has written 18 novels, two novellas, and numerous short stories featuring Longmire. His work has been featured on The New York Times Best Seller list, and the series was adapted for television by Warner Horizon in 2012.
Hi Craig, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Your Sheriff Walt Longmire series has been a huge hit with readers and even inspired a television adaptation. What first inspired you to write about this character and set the stories in northern Wyoming?
When I first started writing the novels more than twenty years ago, the predominant form in crime fiction was noir, a lot of alcoholics, divorced, urban detectives burying bodies in their backyards, and that just wasn’t the kind of people I’d come in contact with in law enforcement. So, I thought what if you had a protagonist who was the sheriff of the least populated county in the least populated state in the United States—that would certainly be something different.
Walt Longmire is in no way perfect, but I gave him a doggedness and a humor and intelligence that hopefully make him good company along with the iconoclastic aspects of another genre, the Western. Walt’s what I call decent, he’s not perfect, but he cares about people and does his best. I think, especially in troubling times, people tend to be attracted to that kind of character – it’s reassuring.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that you didn’t start writing seriously until your 40s. What prompted you to start writing, and do you have any advice for aspiring writers who may be starting later in life?
Oh, I was writing long before that, but I hadn’t had anything published. The big thing is having something to say, to have a message, and that takes a certain amount of time to cultivate. Finding a voice is another, a unique story-telling ability that will grip the reader and tell the story. The most important piece of advice I can give anybody is don’t quit—the only way you can be assured that nothing is going to happen is by quitting.
With 18 novels and counting in the Longmire series, how do you keep the stories fresh and interesting for both yourself and your readers? Do you have any particular techniques or strategies for staying inspired?
I think to be a successful artist you have to always be reinventing yourself, just like the characters. We’ve all read those series that start gangbusters but then after about five or six books begin repeating plots and the characters never really change or evolve. There’s always going to be a segment of your readership that aren’t going to want you to change anything and continue writing the same book that they are comfortable with, but I think that’s a form of artistic death. That kind of static existence isn’t natural in art or in life, and worse yet, it’s boring. I think you’ve got to be constantly reaching, otherwise you might as well be working in a sausage factory.
Your novels have been adapted for television in the series Longmire, which aired on A&E and later on Netflix. What was it like to see your characters and stories brought to life on the screen? Did you have any involvement in the adaptation process?
The only way I can describe it is that it’s like having a houseplant in your home and coming down one morning having it start talking to you—wonderful, but strange. Books and TV are very different mediums, and I went into it with my eyes open. At the very beginning, the producers told me that my novels didn’t break down into forty-two-minute teleplays very easily—and I told them, “Thank God, if they did you shouldn’t be reading them.”
That having been said, they were very welcoming and had me involved in a lot of things most writers tell me that Hollywood generally doesn’t do, such as sending me the DVDs of the auditions and quizzing me on the hardware and environs of the characters.
They even offered me a spot in the writing room, which I turned down, not so much for me but for the poor television screenwriters—who wants the six-hundred-pound gorilla who wrote the novels in the room? Besides, I like my little town of 26 in northern Wyoming; if I had to be on that I-405 in Los Angeles every day, I think I’d just take a left and drive into the ocean.
In addition to the Longmire series, you’ve also written short stories and even contributed to anthologies. Do you enjoy working in different formats, and how do you approach writing a short story differently than a full-length novel?
I think as a writer, if you’re lucky, you’re always going to be barraged by ideas and not all those ideas are going to be four-hundred-page novel ideas, some of them might be two-hundred-page novella ideas or twelve-page short stories. I think it’s important to be open to those stories even if they don’t fit the mold, it stretches you and hopefully makes you a better writer. Short stories are like poetry or song lyrics, you don’t have a lot of words to waste, and I think that’s an important lesson for any writer to learn.
You live on a ranch in the small town of Ucross, Wyoming with a population of just 26 people. How does your rural lifestyle influence your writing, if at all?
Focus, it provides a focus in my writing and in my life. I love tours and traveling, and I can write on planes and in train stations, but I always enjoy coming home because that’s where the best writing happens. Besides being a writer, I’m a rancher and that keeps me in touch with the natural world which is always a wonder and inspiration to me.
I’d love to hear more about your creative process. What does a typical day of writing look like for you, and do you have any particular routines or rituals that help you get in the writing zone?
Well, like I said, I’m a rancher, and the old saying is that the animals always come first. It can be challenging sometimes, but the balance between the cerebral world of writing and physical world of ranching provides me with a balance. I usually start writing early so that my energies are at their best at that time. I think it’s important for a writer to know themselves and knowing when you can tap into those energies does half the work for you. If you do your best work after midnight—then write then.
If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?
That’s tough, but I can split it between two – Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck. Both of them because of their deep understanding of human nature and their ability to work in a large canvas – they didn’t back away from the social troubles of their times or reveal the evils that sometimes surround us. They’re both smart, funny, self-deprecating, and always surprising.
I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?
For me, it’s research, and I’m reading about the Japanese internments of WWII, a saddening and mostly forgotten or hidden portion of American History. The Heart Mountain Internment Camp is right over the Bighorn Mountains from me, and there are a number of marvelous books on the subject, Mike Mackey’s trio of books on the subject, Heart Mountain, A Matter Of Conscience, and Remembering Heart Mountain along with Free To Die For Their Country, Years of Infamy and especially Only What We Could Carry by Patricia Wakida.
What does your current writing workspace look like?
You know, I thought I was going to say neat and orderly, but then I went up in my loft and looked at my writing desk and that simply wouldn’t be true. I mean, it’s not dirty, but there are books piled everywhere, notes, legal ledgers. And then there are the usual totems and artifacts that remind me there is magic in what I’m doing and help me feel comfortable during the process.
I was climbing one time on Mount Rainier with Lou Whittaker, the brother of Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Everest, and we were stuck in a hut during a blizzard at Camp Muir at a little over ten-thousand feet when he suddenly pulled out a pair of fuzzy slippers and pulled them on. Seeing the look on my face, he leaned forward and said, “You have to make the mountain your home, Craig.”
I think it’s the same with wherever you write, you have to make it your home.
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