Craig Johnson plans presentation on bestselling crime series

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FARMINGTON — When Craig Johnson began to put together the pieces of a crime fiction novel in the 1990s, he knew he wanted to avoid the clichés of that genre in both setting and character.

In his mind, that meant avoiding an urban location, especially one populated by cosmopolitan, cynical police detectives clad in Armani suits who glare suspiciously at passersby from behind stylish sunglasses while zipping around crowded city streets in a dark sedan.

Johnson wanted his protagonist to have a more everyman, accessible feel, especially as the writer himself grew more accustomed to the wide-open surroundings of his adopted home in rural Wyoming. So he settled on crafting a central character who embodied the best attributes of the Western character, as Johnson saw them — honesty, compassion and integrity.

"When I was doing my ride-alongs with sheriffs, the thing I kept hearing them say that stuck with me was, 'My people, my people, my people,'" Johnson said during a telephone interview Friday, describing the origin of his fictional Sheriff Walt Longmire character whose exploits the writer has chronicled in a best-selling series that was adapted for television, becoming a popular and long-running series on A&E and Netflix. Johnson will discuss his novels in depth during a presentation on Thursday at the Farmington Public Library, 2101 Farmington Ave.

That personal connection between lawman and the people he or she strives to protect struck Johnson, especially when he considered the fact that county sheriffs are elected to their office. He believes that provides sheriffs with a sense of obligation to those people that other law enforcement officials may not necessarily feel.

"I believe they're connected to their communities through a communal style of law enforcement, if you will," he said.

Johnson's fictional Walt Longmire took shape slowly. The author stopped and started the first Longmire novel, "The Cold Dish," multiple times before he finally "ran out of excuses" and finished it in the early 2000s. His agent quickly connected him to Penguin Books USA, where Johnson found himself being offered a rare and marvelous opportunity for an unestablished author who was still struggling to make ends meet. Why not, his new publisher wondered, continue to develop the compelling Longmire character over a series of books, one that might develop a devoted and growing audience?

Johnson laughed at his own hard headedness and ignorance as he recalls how reluctant he was to embrace that idea initially. He argued that he didn't want to get boxed in creatively and compared the idea of crafting a series about the same characters to "working in a sausage factory."

His publisher paused, looked carefully at Johnson and said patiently, and perhaps more than a little condescendingly, "Why don't you go back to your ranch in Wyoming and think about this?"

Johnson realized the folly of his reservations and embraced the idea. It wasn't long after that that he won a short story writing contest presented by Cowboys & Indians magazine. As part of his award, got to have dinner with New Mexico's Tony Hillerman, author of a legendary series of crime novels about a pair of Navajo police officers.

Johnson took full advantage of his audience with Hillerman, whose writing he revered.

Read: Netflix grants 'Longmire' a sixth and final season

"I learned more in that four-hour dinner with Tony than anything I'd ever done," Johnson said.

The best advice Hillerman gave Johnson, he said, was a variation on an old sports cliché, one that was adapted for authors of crime fiction series.

"He said, 'You gotta play 'em up one at a time,'" Johnson said, explaining that Hillerman was advising him to avoid having his novels become formulaic by avoiding the temptation to look or plan too far ahead in the story arc. By treating each novel as a separate, stand-alone story, Hillerman advised, Johnson could avoid falling into the trap of repeating himself.

Johnson learned from what Hillerman taught him and said one of the "dirty little secrets" of his series is that many of his ideas are gleaned from a series of small-town newspaper clippings he keeps in a file.

"These are issues that real-life Western sheriffs have had to deal with," he said. "I don't ever want to write where Walt's on a cruise ship or a skateboard."

Johnson was the recipient of another enormous break in 2012 when Warner Horizon began adapting his novels for TV. Johnson had heard horror stories about how the work of other writers had been ruined by poorly conceived and executed films or TV series, but he said he got a good feeling from the producers of the "Longmire" series and has always been pleased with how they've adapted his work to the small screen.

In fact, he said, the only substantive disagreement he's ever had with them came early in the project when they told him they wanted to make his main characters of Walt and Henry approximately 10 years younger than they are in the novels, where they are immune to the aging process. Johnson reflexively argued against that position, but he stopped short when the producers explained their reasoning to him.

"They said, 'We'd like this series to run about 10 years, and we'd rather not have them on walkers by the time it's over,'" Johnson said, laughing. "I had a hard time arguing with that."

Johnson is by no means the only writer to ever explore the rich territory of the legendary Western lawman for fictional purposes. He credits the enduring appeal of those figures to this country's never-ending fascination with the cowboy, a masculine icon that he said has direct parallels to the medieval knight in European culture and the samurai in Japanese culture. The common thread among them is that they all spend much of their time on horseback, he said.

Read: 'Longmire' star Lou Diamond Phillips arrested in Texas on DWI charge

"These are always vertical personas on a horizontal landscape," he said.

But Johnson emphasizes character development and evolving relationships in his writing, something that he hopes separates his stories from those who have explored the well-worn genre before him.

"You always want your characters to evolve, develop and change over time," he said. "You can be trapped by your own success. There are people who want you to write the same book over and over again. But you've got to let your characters grow. If you don't do that, you've got a problem on your hands."

Johnson's presentation takes place at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Multipurpose Room at the library. His presentation will include a book signing, and there will be books for sale. Visit infoway.org or call 505-599-1270 for more information.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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