"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." Craig Johnson
Just do it! Author Craig Johnson steps out of his comfort zone to create, write and explore the West.
Craig Johnson is the New York Times bestselling author of the Longmire mysteries, the basis for the hit Netflix original series Longmire.
He is the recipient of the Western Writers of America Spur Award for fiction, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award for fiction, the Nouvel Observateur Prix du Roman Noir, and the Prix SNCF du Polar.
His novella Spirit of Steamboat was the first One Book Wyoming selection. He lives in Ucross, Wyoming, population 25.
Emy diGrappa (00:02):
Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences and use stories to explore culture, history, and contemporary issues. You can find us on thinkwy.org.
Craig Johnson (00:17):
As we would always go out on the front porch, um, after dinner and, and tell stories, talk.
Emy diGrappa (00:27):
Hello, I am Emy diGrappa, and this is What's Your Why. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guest the question why. We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn. What better place to explore the human landscape than from a state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities, serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why.
Today, we are talking to New York Times best-selling author Craig Johnson from Ucross, Wyoming. Welcome, Craig.
Craig Johnson (01:15):
Good to be here.
Emy diGrappa (01:16):
And Craig, let's note that Ucross, Wyoming is population 25, right?
Craig Johnson (01:21):
I am proud of the fact that I come from a town of 25, yes. Like it's a... Most of the time, whenever I'm touring, the first thing people ask is is are there really only 25 people in Ucross, and the thing I have to tell them is, honestly, there are only 19 people in Ucross. We're just, we're, we're kind of still inflated from the last census, but it costs a lot of money to change those signs, you know, so we just leave it alone, so.
Emy diGrappa (01:41):
And then when you're traveling a lot, it's population 18, right?
Craig Johnson (01:44):
It is. It drops down.
Emy diGrappa (01:44):
Craig Johnson (01:46):
You know, and my wife goes with me all over the place. So we just finished up like a 52-event tour, um, so I've been on the road for about six weeks now like that, but she, she tries to go with me on the majority of the tour.
Emy diGrappa (01:55):
Craig Johnson (01:55):
Emy diGrappa (01:56):
That, that's ambitious of her. Our focus today is to talk to you about your personal journey as an accomplished writer and author and how you-
Craig Johnson (02:05):
Now, that's making the assumption that I am an accomplished author and writer, so as long as we're going to go from that point, okay.
Emy diGrappa (02:11):
Well, if you're a New York, New York Times best-selling author, I, I think we could say that.
Craig Johnson (02:14):
Oh, that doesn't mean anything.
Emy diGrappa (02:15):
You know, okay, then we won't say that.
Craig Johnson (02:15):
Emy diGrappa (02:19):
But tell us how you got into writing.
Craig Johnson (02:20):
I didn't from a, you know, a wealthy background. We didn't even have a television. And one of the things we would always do is we would always go out on the front porch, um, after dinner and, and tell stories, talk. For me, I think was just a question of going from telling stories to writing stories. My education was actually in writing, but I didn't let that get in the way of becoming a writer. And then, in all actuality, there are only two honest answers to the question, "How did you become a writer?" And the first one is is that you run out of excuses. I built my own ranch. I mean, I poured the concrete, stacked the logs, built it all myself, got it all up and going like that, and then thought, "Okay, well, you know, you've always wanted to be a writer, now would be the time to sit and actually write," because I'm firmly of the belief that everybody has a writer inside them. The problem is they generally have an editor inside them, too, who strangles the writer to death before they get anything down on paper. Um, and so I was able to wrestle that inner editor, you know, to a standstill to actually get started on my first novel.
And the other way you become a novelist is by coming up with a story, a story that you think, you know, needs to be told and that maybe hasn't been told before. And what I came up with is there was a, uh, a young woman, a product of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, up on the northern Cheyenne reservation who's taken into a basement and abused by the four young men from an adjacent town. Um, after two years, they basically get away with suspended sentences and then start turning up dead, shot with a 45-70 Sharps buffalo rifle one by one. It's the worst nightmare of the sheriff of the least populated county in the least populated state in America, and that was The Cold Dish, the very first Walt Longmire novel.
Emy diGrappa (03:52):
You're first novel was Longmire?
Craig Johnson (03:53):
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. That was it.
Emy diGrappa (03:54):
So you jumped off the cliff.
Craig Johnson (03:57):
I did. I really did. Like, and the books are written in first person. The way I write the books is almost as if you were to be sitting in a, on a stool, you know, at the Busy Bee Café in Durant, Wyoming in the 24th county, Absaroka County, which does not exist. Don't look for it on a map. But you'd be sitting there at a stool, and all of a sudden, the sheriff comes in and sits down at the stool next to you and says, "Let me tell you about what happened to me last month." And from that point in time, I don't want you to even remember that you're reading a book. I want you to fall into that world and be a part of it.
I- it appears as though i- it's kind of struck a cord, you know, because Walt is a little bit different from a lot of the protagonists that you tend to meet, um, not only in crime fiction but also in westerns, you know, because generally, they, they tend to be the six-foot-two of twisted steel and sex appeal. Every woman wanted him. Every man feared him. He could kill anyone with a number two Ticonderoga pencil in 3.2 seconds. And I hate that guy more than anybody else in literature or cinema, and so for me, I was looking for a different kind of guy to tell the story. I was looking for somebody who like us, you know? And I'd tend to refer to Walt as over. Um, he's over-weight. He's over-age. He's overly depressed, you know, but he still gets up in the morning and tries to do the job. And, you know, to me, that's a true hero, you know, that's dealing with all the problems that everybody deals with. And, so, he's that sadder but wiser sheriff that, uh, to me is, uh, a little bit more fun to hang out in the head off, you know, for 400 pages than maybe that James Bond kind of character.
Emy diGrappa (05:16):
How many Longmire books have you written so far now?
Craig Johnson (05:18):
I've written 11 Walt Longmire books, and then also there's a collection of short stories called Wait For Signs, um, that came out last year. And then there was a little novella called Spirit of Steamboat that was actually the first One Book Wyoming, um, state read for the state of Wyoming, which was very exciting for me to have that happen. I, I traveled around all over the, the state last year and went to 63 libraries, um, in one summer, including Jackson. I was actually over here like that and, uh, it was funny because, you know, whenever the state librarians got me started with the idea, they said, "You know, well, we're going to send you, you know, like to Jackson and Casper and Cheyenne and Gillette and all the big towns." And I said, "You know, I don't think it's fair that a guy from a town of 25 should only go to the larger towns in Wyoming." I said, "You know, why don't we do it this way. Whoever, whichever, you know, libraries request me, I'll go to them." Like that, well, 63 libraries requested me, and so that's how many libraries I went to in one summer.
Emy diGrappa (06:11):
Wow, that is wonderful. And then after you wrote your first book-
Craig Johnson (06:16):
Emy diGrappa (06:17):
... Longmire, why would someone pick that up and think that would be a success?
Craig Johnson (06:20):
Uh, you know, I think that every day like that. Why would someone pick that up and try and make it a success? But that's kind of your job as a writer, though, a little bit, you know, to the extent that it's, it's like being a cop. When everybody's running in one direction, you need to run in the other. I- if you get this urge to write, you know, zombie-vampire YA, you know, young adult literature, maybe you should drop that idea and do something different because that, that train already left the station. So I think, you know, the job of an author is to try and think of something new, some new message, some new characters, some new design, like that in which to encapsulate your writing like that. And, so, that's kind of what I did, you know, when I came up with that first novel.
And then, of course, the first process in getting published is you have to have, have an agent. There's just, there's no way that any of the big publishers will ever accept unsolicited manuscripts anymore. They just, you know, over the [transom 00:07:06], they just don't do it any more simply because there are so many people attempting to try and, and get, uh, get published like that. So it makes it a little bit difficult to, you know, introduce yourself in that fashion like that, and especially, you know, when you're from Ucross, Wyoming to try and introduce yourself like that. But, uh, I was bold and actually went to New York. You know, I rode a bunch of, uh, made a bunch of phone calls like that to a lot of these offices in New York of these agents that I was interested in like that and told 'em I'm going to be in New York at least three days and I'd like to stop by and drop this manuscript off, which was a little bit more of an undertaking than perhaps it might seem because I think I made the biggest mistake that I think a lot of beginning authors make in the sense that I thought if I ever get this book published, nobody's ever going to publish anything else, so I'm putting everything in this book.
So the first draft of The Cold Dish was something like 650 pages long. It was kind of like War and Peace in Absaroka County. And, so, they, they literally had to open the door a full six inches, you know, to let me slide it through the door before they slammed the door in my face and said, "We'll get in touch with you, kid." And I'm still waiting to hear from a lot of them like that, but there was one agent who gave me 10 minutes. She said I can give you 10 minutes, but that's all I can give you. And I thought, "Well, that's 10 minutes more than anybody else has given me in the last three days, so I'll jump on that like a dog on a bone." And I went in, sit down, and talked with her like that, and she said, "You know, well, tell me a little about the book. Tell me a little about yourself." And this 10 minutes turned into about 45 minutes. And when I got ready to leave, she said, "You know what? I've got to go to the Frankfort Book Festival, so I'm not going to get a chance to read this right off, but I will read it and I will give you a response," you know, which was more than anybody else was really willing to commit to.
I thought that was great, and I got home, and by the time I got home, there was a, a message on the answering machine at the ranch and it was the agent that I have now, and she said, "Don't give this to anybody else. I want it." And so she picked it up, and the first thing she said was, "You need to knock about 250 pages out of this thing," which I did. And then she handed it over to Kathryn Court, um, over at Viking-Penquin, and Viking-Penquin picked it up and said, "We'd really like some more of these." And I said, "Well, I'm happy to do some more books for you guys." And they said, "No, I don't think you understand. We would like some more of these. We think these characters, these relationships, this place, it has something to say about the contemporary American West and, and we just, uh, would like some more novels out of this."
You know, and that's when I with the knowledge of not even having had one book published started arguing with the president of Penquin USA, Kathryn Court, and saying, "I don't think that's a good idea, but I've got some other ideas I want to bounce off of you." And she said, "Why don't you go back to your ranch and think about this?" And I did and, uh, every day, the emails come in and the cards and letters and Warner Brothers with the television show and all that and, and New York Times best-sellers list for the last five years running like that. They were right, and I was wrong, so.
Emy diGrappa (09:42):
So that's kind of how it evolved into the television show series?
Craig Johnson (09:45):
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yep. That's how it all kind of happened.
Emy diGrappa (09:47):
So the publisher actually introduced it to, to television.
Craig Johnson (09:51):
No. Actually, no. Uh, Warner Brothers got in touch with me and, uh, and said that they were thinking about doing a television show based off of the books. I'd been doing a little courting dance with Hollywood, you know, for a couple of years. A number of director and actors and all these people had been in touch with me about doing a, a feature film based off of The Cold Dish. And, so, I'd kind of got my head wrapped around the idea that maybe someday it might, uh, miracle of miracles, you know, be a feature film. But a good friend of mine, Donna Dubrow, who's a producer out in Los Angeles, like she said, "You know, be careful about optioning your work because an awful lot of the time what happens is it ends up in a manila envelope in some producer's desk and never again sees the light of day."
And I really wasn't interested in the money part of it. I just wanted to maybe give some more visibility to the books. I'm a cowboy writer in a town of 25, and that's not going to change. So for me, it's always going to be about the visibility for the books. And she said, "See if you can get a package deal from one of the, the studios because what'll happen then is they'll have the producers and the writers and the directors and everybody all in place and then also provide the monetary funding to get a pilot actually done." And, so, I did like that, and that was when Warner Brothers came out and said, "You know, we'd like to do a TV show." And that was how Longmire got started.
Emy diGrappa (11:02):
How does that change your writing because really they, they have to create a script based on the book?
Craig Johnson (11:08):
Oh, yeah. Yeah, they do like that. Well, you know, it's according to how, you know, how involved you are with the process, and I've, I've been very, very fortunate in the people that I work with, um, Greer Shepherd, you know, Hunt Baldwin, John Coveny, and knew these people that were the producers of the show really loved the books, really loved the characters, really loved, you know, the [inaudible 00:11:25], you know, of this least populated county in the least populated state in America. It was really kind of anti-CSI was what it turned out to be. And another thing is is that, you know, I remember Greer talking about it, and she said, "You know, we've kind of gone through this anti-hero thing since the 1960s and it's done nothing but hyper accelerate here in the last couple of decades to the point where you can't really tell the good guys from the bad guys, so I think the, the viewership is really kind of looking for some guy who's got a code, you know, some guy that's a good guy. He's decent. He's kind, and he cares, you know, and, and he's capable." And, uh, boy, she was right. It, it turned out that the TV show was the highest rated scripted drama the cable network had ever had.
Then we've got a new season coming up, the fourth season of Longmire coming out on Netflix. Um, I believe the ballpark is end of August, beginning of September, so we're all pretty well excited about that.
Emy diGrappa (12:15):
Oh, my gosh. I'm looking forward to that.
Craig Johnson (12:15):
Emy diGrappa (12:18):
So you still own your ranch?
Craig Johnson (12:18):
Emy diGrappa (12:20):
So how do you weave together the hard work of running a ranch with writing books?
Craig Johnson (12:24):
Well, I kind of had to give up the cow part. Okay, it used to be a cow-calf operation like that, but that kind of went south, you know, whenever the books took off 'cause, you know, I think it was last year, I was on the road for about 200 days out of the year-
Emy diGrappa (12:34):
Craig Johnson (12:34):
... which is kind of brutal like that. I mean, I wake up in the morning and, you know, I have to remind myself of where I am an awful lot of the time like that. But I've still got the horses. You know, the horses are still at the ranch like that, and that's an important part for me because I love the riding part. Along with the riding part, you know, for me the, the first think I do in the morning like that is go down and square everything all away like at the barn, feed the horse and everything. And they're my writing partners. I discuss with them what it is I'm going to be working on that day, and they're perfect writing partners because they listen very intently, but they do not offer any advice, so it's, uh, kind of a nice relationship to have.
But, I mean, I'm not the first author to discover that. You know, I noticed that the magazine that you had there on the humanities, like it had, uh, Wendell Berry on the front cover. And I think that there's a strong tradition of authors who have a rural lifestyle like that, that balances, you know, a very physical lifestyle of being in the country and ranching and farming and then also the intellectual lifestyle of going inside and actually, you know, sitting down and writing. I don't think that's unique. I think it, it goes all the way back to the founding fathers of the country, for gosh sake, like that, and it's a nice balance to have because I think if I had to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day, I think I might just go crazy. But then again, ask me on days when I'm fighting with the irrigation system or the stock or the fence or whatever, and I come in, you know, all pissed off like that, and my wife looks at me and says, "Go ride," because she knows that that will make it all better. So it's a pretty good balance, I have to admit.
Emy diGrappa (13:56):
That is excellent. Is there any advice you'd like to share with an aspiring writer?
Craig Johnson (14:02):
Well, it's going to sound hokey but, you know, you've really got to follow your heart. It's got to something that really comes from deep inside and something that you're really going to feel strongly about continuing on. I mean, building my ranch was probably one of the best preparations that I had as far as becoming a novelist 'cause, I mean, I stacked logs from dawn until dusk, you know. And here in Wyoming in the summertime, dawn 'til dusk is like 5:30 AM until 10:00 at night. And I would turn around and look, and it didn't look like I'd done a damn thing, like all day. And, so, you know, I kept thinking, "You know, this, this is probably good for me to learn a little bit of patience as far as that's concerned," but, you know, you've really got to have that jet fuel within you, a passion within you to write about something that you really feel is something you believe in, a message that you're trying to get across that's strong and that, well, that you can... You know, they'll go the distance, I guess.
And, and, and to use another horse analogy like that and the things that you do as a writer is kind of judge your stories almost the same way that you would judge a horse. You know, I mean, there are going to be, you know, your short-track horses, you know, good Quarter horses that are good for short distance, you know, get lots of good short story or novella or something, and then you come across some of those ideas that are Thoroughbred ideas, the ones that'll really go the distance. And, uh, you know, you've got to stumble across one of those Thoroughbreds, and once you do, boy, jump on and hang on tight.
Emy diGrappa (15:17):
Craig Johnson (15:18):
Emy diGrappa (15:19):
Thank you so much.
Craig Johnson (15:20):
Emy diGrappa (15:20):
Thank you for being here with us.
Craig Johnson (15:22):
My pleasure. My pleasure. It's not too many opportunities I get to talk about the actual process or, so this has been wonderful for me.
Emy diGrappa (15:27):
I think the process is important.
Craig Johnson (15:28):
Emy diGrappa (15:29):
It's all about the humanities.
Craig Johnson (15:30):
I do too. I agree.
Emy diGrappa (15:31):
Thank you. Thank you so much, Craig.
Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why?, a production of Think Wy, Wyoming Humanities. This has been executive producer, Emy diGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information, go to thinkwy.org.