Ten years ago, when Craig Johnson sat down to start putting together what would become “The Cold Dish,” the first of his acclaimed Longmire murder-mystery series, he was more or less out of options.
“I ran out of excuses,” he said. “That’s No. 1. I’m of the belief that everybody has a writer in them, but they also have an editor that strangles the writer to death before the writer gets anything down on paper. I think you’ve got to fight that to a standstill and say ‘OK, I’ve trained my whole life for this. I’ve worked for this, and it’s time to sit down and do this.’”
“The Cold Dish” was Johnson’s big break, and the rest is history. Since then, the series – which is about a tough-as-nails sheriff named Walt Longmire who upholds the law in fictional Absaroka County, Wyo. – is a mainstay on the New York Times best-seller list. The series is nine books strong; a new short story is due out on Oct. 17. The series has been translated into numerous languages, and Johnson’s contemporary Western stories are read the world over. In 2012, “Longmire” debuted on A&E as a 42-minute crime drama, and it became the highest-rated scripted show in the history of the network.
It’s made Johnson a popular figure not only in the West, but also all over the world. He estimates that he spends about five months a year on the road signing and promoting his books and serving as an executive creative consultant on the TV show. He has nearly 3,500 friends on Facebook and nearly 1,700 followers on Twitter.
Since the TV show debuted, his celebrity has risen. But one thing you should know about Craig Johnson is this – no matter how many viewers his show has or how many people buy his books, he’s the same guy who built his ranch in Ucross with his own hands, who physically moved the logs to build his cabin. He’ll always be the smiling guy in the cowboy hat, no matter how many people decorate their cars with “Longmire for Sheriff” stickers.
Despite going Hollywood, Craig Johnson is still pure Wyoming.
“The names have been changed
to protect the guilty”
When Johnson sat down to start working on “The Cold Dish,” his biggest challenge was to find a story that was strong enough to play out over an entire novel. To find one, Johnson simply drew on what he knew – that is, Johnson County and Buffalo.
The locations where his Longmire stories play out in both print and television are fictional, but Durant and Absaroka County are Buffalo and Johnson County. Johnson said the area was the perfect setting for Longmire and his crew.
“This little town just gets better and better every year, so for me it was an opportunity to take advantage of the town that I live the closest to,” he said. “Trying to base the story in Ucross wouldn’t work. Maybe a short story, but not a novel. With Buffalo, I had everything I needed to work with.
“It just seemed so perfect, with a few small adjustments. I wanted it to be in Johnson County, so it had to be Buffalo. It’s so picturesque. It’s right there at the base of the Big Horns. The architecture is so cool.”
Though Johnson perfectly describes Buffalo’s Main Street and areas of Johnson County in his novels, there had to be some changes for the sake of the story. He said there had to be some room for him to build a story, and he didn’t want to be hampered by existing history or boundaries.
“Well, first off, I’m not writing documentaries,” he said. “I don’t want to argue with everybody about every finite point that comes along. When you’re doing a novel, you need to be allowed to have an amount of literary freedom and license to develop the story and tell the stories that you want to tell. For me, I just thought there were a couple of things I wanted to do, especially in ‘The Cold Dish.’ The first thing was that I wanted more Indian interaction with the town, so I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to shift Johnson County up more towards the Montana border and I want to kind of pull the Northern Cheyenne Reservation down a little bit toward the border so we have a lot more interaction between the Indians and the mainstream white society.’ That’s a lot of what ‘The Cold Dish’ is about.”
It might be hard to imagine in a town of 4,000, but Buffalo was too big to be Durant. Johnson said he envisioned Durant as a smaller place where there is no city police force, just a county sheriff.
“Buffalo is big,” Johnson said. “It’s a pretty-good-sized little town. It has a police department.
I thought I had to scale Durant back down to the size of where Walt and his sheriff’s department would be the only law enforcement in Absaroka County. In terms of population, the actual population of Durant would actually be smaller than Lusk (population:1,557) in comparison with Buffalo.”
But Johnson wanted to tell “a story that is going to be exemplary of the contemporary American West, especially our part of Wyoming.” Buffalo was perfect for that, but as Johnson said, “The names were changed to protect the guilty.”
Beer with Lou Diamond Phillips
Johnson’s novels had gained their share of acclaim before the TV show debuted, including a slew of awards from the Mountain and Plains Independent Booksellers, the Western Writers of America and Publisher’s Weekly, but the TV show took things to the next level.
He got his big break when an agent from Creative Artists Agency walked into his literary agent’s office in New York City. The CAA is an agency that puts promising stories and characters with producers and studios, and the CAA agent asked whether Johnson’s agent had any strong characters. Johnson’s agent gave her a copy of “The Cold Dish” and refused to give her anything else until she read it.
“I’m not changing agents anytime soon, I can tell you that much,” Johnson said.
Having their work turned into a TV show or movie is a dream for any writer, but Johnson was able to resist at first.
“I didn’t want it to be ‘optioned,’” he said. “I wanted to retain rights and make sure something happened.
“As soon as they write you a check, you’re out of the picture at that point. They have control over everything that you wrote. That’s a little worrisome for me, so I was holding out for what they call a package deal.”
A package deal would allow Johnson to be hands on with the development of the product. It took some time, and he turned down several offers from what he called ‘big-name actors and producers’ until he got his chance. Finally, an offer for a package deal came from Warner Brothers.
“One of the studios, basically, would come forward and put together directors, producers, and everybody and also put in the financial backing of the studio to get the thing done,” he said. “That’s usually difficult. Hollywood is a lot like any other business – the tie-up is usually in the money.
“I knew they would work a little bit harder if their money was involved in it.”
Before Johnson signed anything, he was able to meet with some of the show’s executive producers, like Greer Sheppard, who was known for his work on “The Closer” and “Nip/Tuck.”
“These producers, they tend to have the attention span of a gerbil with a thyroid problem,” he said of producers as the whole. “They want to do this project, and they want to do that project. Pretty soon, you’ll be the 37th project on their to-do list. With a package deal, it would work out a lot better, and I’d get to meet the people and kind of gauge their interest and knowledge, not only of the books but of Wyoming and sheriffing and the Northern Cheyenne and all of these things. It turned out to be a pretty miraculous group to work with.
"I got to meet them before I signed on the dotted line."
Working with the production team was a sticking point for Johnson. He now holds the title of executive creative consultant for the TV show.
“That means I know where the porta-potties are,” he said.
“For them, it was easier than to hire a bunch of people to tell them about all of the different aspects of the books that they were going to try and develop into story lines and characters. They had a guy who had been writing this for seven years and had done all of that research and done all of that stuff and actually lived here. I think that made it easier for them to put me on the payroll.
“I’ve certainly enjoyed it. It keeps me more involved with the whole process. I’ve actually become friends with all of the production people, all of the producers and all of the directors and all of the cast members.”
And that, he said, is one of his favorite things about the TV show.
“It’s great,” he said. “How many times do you get the chance to go out and have a beer with Lou Diamond Phillips?”
Coming full circle
Buffalo, or Durant, as it will be know this weekend, will get an inside look at the world of Longmire this weekend. Johnson and most of the show’s major stars will be in town for Longmire Days, a multiday event centered on the world Johnson created.
“This is a dream come true,” he said.
“What has really been great is to see it come full circle and to see it come back to Buffalo. You have the books making it on the New York Times best-seller list a few years in a row, the TV show is the highest-rated scripted drama in A&E’s history. But, they do film it down in New Mexico. That’s all I would hear from the actors that hadn’t been to Wyoming. Some of them had, but some of them hadn’t. They would ask how Wyoming is compared to New Mexico. I would try and explain, but it’s like describing the indescribable. I was like, ‘You’ve got to come to Wyoming. That’s what you’ve got to do.’”
And this weekend, they will. Johnson – and his stories – made it happen. As the actors worked on the series, their interest in the area grew. Most of them got into the books, so when the opportunity arose for them to come see the real Absaroka County, Johnson’s two worlds – his real one, where he lives on a ranch in Ucross, and his literary one, which he has shared with the world through his books – will come together.
“They were all dying to come to Wyoming, so when the Buffalo Chamber and the Department of Tourism got together to talk about Longmire Days, we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we really try and do something,” he said.
“I think they were more excited about that when we were finishing up the season than anything else they’re doing. It’s wonderful to see that kind of enthusiasm and that kind of support for our little corner of Wyoming, which I have to admit, I think it’s the best part of Wyoming.”
Through his work, Craig Johnson has managed to combine the literary world with Hollywood and mix it all together with rural Wyoming life. He has created a cocktail that somehow works perfectly and it has taken him all over the world, and this weekend it will bring the world to his front-porch on the ranch he built in Ucross.
With his whirlwind book-signing tours, “Longmire” shooting schedule and, of course, beers with Lou Diamond Phillips, it would seemingly be easy for Johnson to start living the high life like so many other people in the entertainment industry, but he hasn’t.
“My life is pretty much the same as it was 25 years ago,” he said. “I built my ranch – I poured my concrete, I stacked the logs. I did all this stuff, and I still do all of that kind of work today. It’s kind of a good balance to have between the cerebral world of writing books and the physical labor of having a ranch. For me, that’s one of the joys of it.”
Through it all, he’s still the same guy who lives on the northernmost end of Johnson County, and he’s still pure Wyoming.
And for Craig Johnson, that’s living the dream.