The 20th Annual ASU Writers Conference in Honor
of Elmer Kelton
Featured writer: Craig Johnson
It takes two things to get started as a writer, says novelist Craig Johnson. First, “you stumble across a story you think needs to be told.”
According to the best-selling author of Another Man’s Moccasins and Dry Bones, “I had this idea in my head about a sheriff in the least-populated county in the least-populated state in America: Wyoming. And what happens in the story line is there’s a young woman with fetal alcohol syndrome and she’s Northern Cheyenne. She’s taken into a basement and abused by these four young men from a nearby town and they get off with suspended sentences and then start turning up dead.”
Fans of Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels will recognize in this tagline the genesis of The Cold Dish, the first in the series of best-selling novels featuring Walt Longmire, sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming.
But it takes more than an idea, says Johnson, to make a successful writer. The other thing that “gets you going as a writer” is that you “run out of excuses.” Describing himself as a “blue-collar” author, Johnson says, “Never have I met a ditch digger who said, ‘I’m just not feeling the ditch today, the ditch muse is not with me, I have to put my shovel down now.’”
The combination of idea and effort has paid off big time for the West Virginia native, now most famous resident of Ucross, Wyoming, population 25. His 13 books in the Longmire series (12 novels and a short story collection) have won him numerous awards. Since The Cold Dish was a Dilys Award finalist, Longmire books have won a Western Writers of America Spur Award and “Best of the Year” honors from Independent Booksellers, Publishers Weekly, the Wyoming Historical Society, and Library Journal. The Cold Dish won France’s Le Prix du Polar Nouvel Observateur/BibliObs and Death Without Company received France’s prestigious Le Prix 813.
Many recent fans of Walt Longmire were introduced to the character through the successful A&E Longmire series, which began in 2012 and features Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Katie Sackhoff. The series was the highest rated show on A&E when it was canceled in 2014. Longmire was picked up by Netflix, with new episodes premiering in September 2015.
Johnson serves as creative consultant and often provides plot lines for episodes. He counts himself lucky to be involved with the show. “I just happened to fall in with a really wonderful group of people. The producers and directors, the actors, the crew, everybody, they’re just wonderful to work with.”
The admiration is apparently mutual. In his introduction to Wait for Signs, actor Lou Diamond Phillips (Henry Standing Bear in the TV series) writes, “Craig Johnson not only inherited the mantle of literary genius from Tony Hillerman, but was also bequeathed his grace, warmth, and generosity…He is a man of letters and a man of his word. A laureate with a lariat, if you will. In short, Craig is the spring that feeds the very deep well that is Walt Longmire.”
It seems certain that with Craig Johnson as proprietor, the 20th annual ASU Writers Conference in Honor of Elmer Kelton will be, like Absaroka County’s famous Red Pony Bar & Grill, a “continual soiree.”
According to Craig Johnson:
I agree with Wallace Stegner that the greatest fraud perpetrated on the reading public is the statement at the beginning of each novel that states that this is a work of fiction and that any similarity to persons living or dead… What a crock. I’m always looking for traits, turns of phrase, anything that might help me inform my characters; it’s all grist for the mill.
Since the advent of the antihero in the late 1960s, we’ve had this plethora of quasi-good-guy-bad-guys that are the heroes. It’s hyper-accelerated so much in the last 10 years, you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys anymore. Walt’s almost avant-garde these days: a good guy who has a code he lives by and does the right thing and cares about people has been missing for so long an awful lot of people don’t recognize him anymore.in The Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 2014
Writing is a solitary pursuit and I think you have to be partially at peace with yourself, but it’s the other part that’s usually producing the stuff worth reading.on craigallenjohnson.com
According to critics:
It’s the scenery—and the big guy standing in front of the scenery—that keeps us coming back to Craig Johnson’s lean and leathery mysteries.The New York Times Book Review
Johnson’s trademarks [are] great characters, witty banter, serious sleuthing, and a love of Wyoming bigger than a stack of derelict cars.The Boston Globe
Like the greatest crime novelists, Johnson is a student of human nature. Walt Longmire is strong but fallible, a man whose devil-may-care stoicism masks a heightened sensitivity to the horrors he’s witnessed.The Los Angeles Times
Stepping into Walt’s world is like slipping on a favorite pair of slippers, and it’s where those slippers lead that provides a thrill. Johnson pens a series that should become a ‘must’ read, so curl up, get comfortable, and enjoy the ride.The Denver Post