Author of One Book One Valley read talks about his writing and his ranch
Editor’s note: Craig Johnson was slated to speak at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards on Wednesday but the event was cancelled because of of a family emergency. His visit will be rescheduled.
I could feel the words involuntarily slipping out of my mouth even as I tried to stop them: “Can I speak with Walt?”
Laughter resonated on the other end of the phone line as I burst out laughing myself. On a phone interview with Craig Johnson, author of Eagle County’s current One Book One Valley read, “The Cold Dish,” I had inadvertently asked to speak with Johnson’s main character, a dry-witted veteran sheriff Walt Longmire who keeps the peace in a fictional Wyoming County.
“He wishes he were Walt,” chuckled Johnson’s wife as she handed the phone off to him.
My slip was in reality far closer to the truth than I meant for it to be. Like the Sheriff Walt Longmire, Johnson is a cowboy-hat clad man from Wyoming who lives in a sparsely populated, rugged county near the mountains, once worked in law enforcement and has no shortage of colorful people in his life (which incidentally give him inspiration for his characters.)
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“The Cold Dish” is the first book in the Walt Longmire mystery novels, introducing the sheriff to readers as he tries to solve a series of murders. The book opens with a body found in a field in the northern reaches of the county. Turns out, it’s the body of a young man who was convicted along with three friends of assaulting a girl from the nearby Indian reservation a few years earlier. Soon, it becomes apparent that someone is dispatching these young men one by one, and it’s Walt’s job to find out whodunnit.
The Vail Daily caught up with Johnson after a recent book tour in France to talk about his writing, his ranch and why the French love cowboys.
Vail Daily: You have some very unique characters in your series, from Walt to his best friend Henry Standing Bear. Where did you get the ideas for the characters?
Craig Johnson: The biggest lie in a book is the disclaimer where it says ‘No characters in this book are based on real people.’ Most of the time when you’re writing you’re drawing from real life. A lot of people in my book are based on real people in Wyoming. It becomes difficult when you come from a state of half a million people, because everyone has an idea of who they think was the basis for the character.
It’s even harder with the Indian characters because when about 5,000 people live on the reservation, every time I use one of them in a book, everyone knows exactly who I’m talking about.
VD: How about the plot and mysteries themselves? Where do you get the ideas for those?
CJ: Most stories come from small town newspapers that I come across when I travel around the country. I have a folder full of clippings of articles. The good thing about that is that it keeps the books grounded in reality.
VD: We hear you just returned from a book trip to France, which is not the first place you’d imagine a Western mystery novel being a hit. Tell us about how that went.
CJ: The books are actually bestsellers there. If they had said, “Your book is going to be a big hit in a foreign country,” France wouldn’t have been my first guess.
There is truth to what they say about the French loving the cowboy stuff. I think Buffalo Bill gets a lot of the credit for the romantic appeal that cowboys have around the world. At one point in time, the world was inundated with American media, which included Westerns. I think it also has to do with the fact that these books are set in contemporary times. They know the stereotypes of the Old West, and now they are interested in the modern West.
VD: You have a lot of Native American characters in your book. How do Native Americans respond to your portrayal of them, and is that difficult to write about their culture?
CJ: The books are very popular up on the reservation, because of the Indian characters — I call them Indian because that’s what they call themselves. If you say Native American, they just laugh and ask, “Well, what are you?”
I have a lot of Indian friends and I think it’s important to give them an accurate portrayal. In movies and books they’re always portrayed as having a total lack of humor. That’s not the Indians I know — they all have about 17 layers of irony that will go right over your head if you don’t know it. They’ve had to have a sense of humor with dealing with us for hundreds of years!
VD: Tell us about where you live — Ucross: Population 25.
CJ: It’s at the confluence of Clear and Piney creeks, next to the Bighorn Mountains. Ucross is a town of not quite 25 — it’s actually a little less now, and we think no one wants to spend money on a new sign. I live on a ranch that I built myself. It’s a really beautiful little spot, and for me it provides a focus that I think is important to the writing.
VD: How did you become a writer?
CJ: I’ve done about everything you can think of before I started writing. My dad said it best. He said, “You come with a long line of bullshitters and you’re the first one smart enough to write it down.”
You become a writer because you run out of excuses. You can excuse yourself to the grave, and then you run into a story you think is important enough to tell and you just do it.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.