Cowboy Statecrime capers: On tour with the author of Walt Longmire Mystery Series
Story and photos by Ron Feemster, a Wyofile report
During Lander, Wyoming’s summer season, sandwiched between Climbers’ Festival, Riverfest and Shakespeare in the Park, is a small event that local fans look forward to as though it were the July Fourth bacchanal: Craig Johnson’s reading at Main Street Books.
Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire Mystery Series, set in Wyoming’s fictional Absaroka County, makes a book-tour stop in Lander almost every summer. He reads from the latest novel and chats, in his folksy way, about the fictional county sheriff so likeable and realistic that he has received write-in votes in elections in Natrona County and Johnson County.
This year, when he stopped in on Friday, July 27, Johnson also talked at length about Longmire, the popular A&E television series based on the books, which is just entering its second season. Television is making his character famous, but for Johnson, the stories begin on paper.
“I write socially responsible crime fiction,” Johnson told the 30 people seated in the back of the bookstore. “It’s important that there is an issue that I’m dealing with.”
Like his earlier books, Serpent’s Tooth, the ninth volume in the Walt Longmire series, is based on a newspaper article. Johnson says the link to real events keeps his character and stories rooted in Wyoming.
“I don’t want Walt Longmire on a cruise ship or off fighting Al-Qaeda,” he said. Johnson, who wore a cowboy hat, a long-sleeved Western shirt, Wranglers and cowboy boots, looked equally grounded in Wyoming.
Johnson noticed a story in the Rapid City Journal about teenage boys who were banished from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs. Former church members told the Journal that the boys were expelled from FLDS compound in Custer County, S.D., so that older men would have less competition when they sought more and younger wives.
Without money, education or much experience with the outside world, the 13- and 14-year-old boys landed on the streets of Spearfish, Rapid City, and Gillette, barely able to fend for themselves.
“I wondered what would happen if one of those kids were to end up in Walt Longmire’s county,” Johnson said. “How would Walt deal with it, what would he do?”
The ninth book was off and running.
Lander is just one stop on Johnson’s two-month summer tour of the West. He spends most summers giving readings in bookstores and libraries. His tradition of reading in libraries for beer instead of an honorarium began in Meeteetse, Wyo., the smallest of the Park County branch libraries.
“I was happy to be allowed to read in a library at all,” Johnson said. “The only thing anyone had ever said to me in a library was ‘shut up.’”
When the librarian in Meeteetse wrote to apologize that they could not offer much of an honorarium, Johnson asked for a six-pack of Rainier beer, the brand that Walt Longmire drinks in the books and now on television.
Since then, the word has gotten around among librarians, although compensation has sometimes risen to an 18-pack. One librarian last summer mentioned that it was hard to get Rainier beer. When it turned out that even the distributors had trouble stocking the brand, Johnson called Rainier’s brewery in Washington State.
“We’re out of beer,” Johnson remembers Rainier headquarters telling him. It turned out that demand spiked just after Longmire began its first season on television. “They said it would take them about four days to get their production caught up,” Johnson said, noting that the experience taught him something about how long Rainier ages its beer.
After reading the introductory chapter of Serpent’s Tooth, Johnson settled in to take questions from his audience. Many wanted to know how much control Johnson had over the TV show. It turns out that he has more influence on the final scripts than most authors who sell a book into television or movie production.
The producers gave him the title Executive Creative Consultant. They send him the synopsis of each episode when it is in planning and the scripts when they are finished. He comments and sends them back. Once each season he spends a couple of weeks on set in Santa Fe, N.M.
He also watched all of the audition tapes for the crucial role of Walt Longmire. In the end, he favored Robert Taylor, the 50-year-old Australian actor who got the part.
“He moved like a Westerner,” Johnson said. Many small details struck home as Johnson and his wife, Judy, watched the tapes. Even the way he put his hands on his knees, elbows out, when he sat down. “And he took his hat off when he came indoors. None of the other actors did that.”
Libraries came up again when a gentleman asked about Walt’s World War II-era Remington Rand Colt sidearm.
“Walt’s office is in an old library,” Johnson said. The sheriff’s department took over a Carnegie Library when the Absaroka County library built a larger building. Noting that the television production companies have access to an amazing variety of weapons from every era in American history, Johnson said there were a lot of options. “Walt was an English major. Remington was one of the world’s largest manufacturers of typewriters. Why not have a typewriter company make his gun?”
Longmire Days, the biggest Longmire event of all, is coming up August 18 and 19 in Buffalo, the town that seems to be the model for Durant, Wyo., the fictional county seat of Absaroka County. Buffalo is down the road from Ucross, the hamlet where Johnson lives on a small ranch.
The entire cast of Longmire will be in town for the event. The festivities include a character look-alike contest, a street dance and a golf tournament. The Northern Cheyenne, whose southern Montana lands inspired the reservation in the books, will send a team to play softball against the TV series cast. “I know who I’m putting my money on,” Johnson said.
Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a visiting professor of journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Feemster at [email protected]
Photo cutline: Craig Johnson reads at Main Street Books in Lander.