So practiced a comic master has Craig Johnson become that listening to him you realize that he has achieved something only the best comedians manage to do: He sounds funny even when he is not.
In an appearance last month at Barnes & Noble, Mr. Johnson had an audience of 75 or so chuckling, giggling and laughing out loud at his running commentary on the writing life. His humor is genuine and a key to his success, but at times he was getting laughs the way Jack Benny and Bob Hope did late in their careers: just by being himself, riffing on a character – his own - that looms larger even than the highly successful characters he has created.
These are good times for Craig Johnson. The Wyoming writer’s most recent novel, “Any Other Name,” opened at No. 6 on the New York Times’ hardcover fiction list. “Longmire,” the TV series based on the lead character in his mystery novels, is the highest-rated scripted series on the A&E network and is showing in 200 countries, including every country in Africa.
“We could have worse emissaries than Walt Longmire,” he said.
Longmire Days, a three-day celebration of his work in Buffalo, Wyo., went off for the third straight year last weekend, drawing not only Mr. Johnson, who lives in nearby Ucross, but several cast members and some 10,000 visitors to town.
There are side benefits, too. He said that sheriffs from all over the country call him now to tell him stories that he might be able to use in his mysteries about Walt Longmire, the fictional Wyoming sheriff of fictional Absaroka County. Not all of the stories fit, he said: The ones from Florida always involve alligators.
He gets other perks, too. In a visit to Billings last year, he said that he once demanded a six-pack of Rainier beer as a speaking fee at a Wyoming library. Word got around, and Rainier started showing up everywhere he went.
“I haven’t bought beer in seven years,” he said.
He has seen “Longmire for Sheriff” bumper stickers, and he said that Walt Longmire got 13 write-in votes for sheriff in Johnson County. While doing research for a recent book, he stopped in a bar in Arvada, Wyo., for a beer and was told that crowds gathered there for “‘Longmire’ and longnecks on Monday nights” like they do for the Super Bowl. He was told, “The last show they used to come in to watch was ‘Gunsmoke.’”
One recent short novel, “Spirit of Steamboat,” became the topic for One Book Wyoming, he said, quickly adding, “One Book Wyoming does not mean we only have one book in Wyoming.”
All of that success has not compromised his characteristic cowboy look - blue jeans, a denim shirt, white cowboy hat and boots – or his self-deprecating demeanor.
His recent overseas book tour started in London – where, he said, his books have just been translated into English – and included a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. There, he told his granddaughter, the greatest writer in the English language once worked.
“Who’s No. 2?” she asked.
“James Patterson, I guess,” he said.
When he once fell asleep stretched out on the floor of a French airport, a police officer asked his wife, Judy, in heavily accented English, “Is this cowboy belong to you?”
Reasons for Mr. Johnson’s success are no mystery. Besides his unfailing sense of humor – comic repartee between characters is key to the series’ appeal – he also offers readers a range of ideas and themes. While most of the novels involve the sort of cases actual sheriffs might run into, he isn’t reluctant to break new ground.
Much of one of the novels, “Kindness Goes Unpunished,” takes place in Philadelphia. A second, “Another Man’s Moccasins,” evokes visions of Longmire’s service in the Vietnam War. A third, “Hell Is Empty,” sets the sheriff loose on a lonesome hunt in midwinter deep in the Cloud Peak Wilderness where references to Dante and supernatural visions drive him on.
“I’m kind of proud that I don’t write books that are just who-done-its,” he said.
He also creates indelible characters: a lovely but foul-mouthed deputy sheriff with whom the sheriff has occasional sexual encounters; an Indian with uncanny instincts and tracking skills; an office receptionist who keeps everyone in line; a long-suffering dog named Dog.
Most distinctive is Longmire himself, a widower and aging sheriff who shares Mr. Johnson’s sense of humor. Longmire also has a drive for justice that frequently gets him in over his head in ways that require intelligence and determination to get through.
Occasionally readers complain that Longmire seems too smart for a Wyoming sheriff, Mr. Johnson said, but the decision to make the sheriff thoughtful and educated came in an epiphany: “The people who read this book,” he thought, “they might have read other books, too.”
TV show a success
For all of the success of his books, the TV series probably has gained him the most notoriety. In his 2013 visit to Billings, he said that he was “executive creative consultant” for the show, a title that meant he knew where the Port-a-Potties were.
But in last month’s visit, he indicated that he retains some creative control over the show. His opinion is frequently sought, and he sees synopses of the scripts. He agrees with about half the changes the script writers make in his characters and ideas, if not with changes in the vehicle Longmire characteristically drives.
“You don’t know how hard Ford pickups fought to get rid of that old Ford Bronco,” he said.
He acknowledged that script writers have a much different job than novelists. His first novel, “Cold Dish,” weighed in a 650 pages before editors got hold of it, and his novels typically come in at 400 pages before they are trimmed to 300 or so for hardback editions.
The TV show runs only 42 minutes, and has to be fraught with dramatic conflict, he said.
Mr. Johnson sees no shortcomings in Robert Taylor, the Australian actor who plays Longmire in the TV series. The writer told the Wyoming Office of Tourism last year, “Robert is as down-to-earth as it gets. He is one in a million. He is Walt Longmire. Plus, he really likes cold beer.”
Mr. Taylor was happy about the part, too. “It’s a great role. I love the setting. I love the country. I like the people and the ethos,” he told the Office of Tourism, and he continued with a smile: “There’s free food. I get to wear a hat and carry a pistol. It’s pretty good.”
In that same story, Mr. Johnson said he had this initial reaction when his literary creation came to life on national television: “It’s kind of like having a house plant for seven or eight years and then waking up one morning coming down the stairs and having it start talking to you.”
But Mr. Johnson remains foremost a writer. He came from a family of readers, he said, with paperbacks piled up on the dashboard of the pickup and a bookshelf in the tack shed.
Despite that, he thought initially that his first book might be the only book he had in him. Now he has plenty of writing on his plate.
A book of short stories drawn largely from stories he sends out at midnight every Christmas Eve is due out in October. He is working on another novel and has written e-books. As part of One Book Wyoming, he will visit 73 Wyoming libraries this year.
As a writer, he suffers, he said, from “Vivaldi syndrome,” setting each novel in a different season, so his main character has aged only 2½ years in the first 10 novels in the series.
At some point, the writer will become older than his character, Mr. Johnson said, which might account for the dark edge he found in his last novel, “Any Other Name.” But the man who does recorded versions of his novels told him it was the funniest book he had ever written.
“Evidently, I don’t know what kind of books I write,” Mr. Johnson said.
But he certainly knows how to write books that people want to read.