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Author Craig Johnson's Westerns have worldwide appeal

| Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
American novelist Craig Johnson speaking about his books in Toulouse, France.
Guillaume Paumier
American novelist Craig Johnson speaking about his books in Toulouse, France.
'The Western Star' by Craig Johnson
'The Western Star' by Craig Johnson

When Warner Horizon Television was contemplating optioning Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire books for a television series, the writer was curious. Why, he asked producer Greer Shephard, was she interested in a fictional sheriff who patrols a remote county in Wyoming.

"She said, 'You know Craig, we've had this anti-hero thing going on since the 1960s,' " says Johnson, who appears Sept. 23 at the Carnegie Library of Oakmont in an event sponsored by Mystery Lovers Bookshop. "I kind of think everybody's waiting for a true-blue hero: a guy who has a code, a guy who's decent and kind, intelligent and tough. This could be the right thing.' And by golly, she kind of hit the nail on the head."

Now on Netflix, the "Longmire" series' sixth and final season will premier later this year. But Johnson, whose 13th book, "The Western Star" (Viking, $28), has just been published, is not finished writing the series that borrows elements from Westerns, mysteries, literary fiction, and comedies.

Johnson says he calls them Westerns most of the time because "the environs inform so much, they inform the story, they inform the characters, everything."

No matter how they are branded, the books are popular. The novels regularly make bestseller lists, and readers seem keen to follow the exploits of Longmire and his fellow peace officers in fictional Absaroka County.

Fans also are willing to travel to Wyoming, especially for Longmire Days, a celebration of the books and the television series. This year's event, which featured cast members including Robert Taylor (Longmire) and Katy Sackhoff (Victoria Moretti), was in July in Buffalo, Wyoming.

"One weekend a year the TV stars come and bring about 20,000 of their closest friends with them," Johnson says, laughing. "It's an unnatural disaster. All the restaurants and all the grocery stores run out of food. All the banks and ATM machines run out of money. Everybody wanders around with their cell phones in the blue circle of death because there's not enough bandwidth in the town of Buffalo to operate all the cell phones. But it's really kind of wonderful, really kind of fantastic, simply because the actors and actresses are so accessible and so friendly."

The area where Johnson lives is sparsely populated — his hometown of Ucross, Wyoming has 25 residents — but he still manages to find colorful stories and crimes. In "Western Star," there's an anecdote about a felon who was tricked into believing a copy machine was a Xerox 914 Lie Detector.

Turns out, it's a true story from 1972.

"That was a Montana sheriff who told me that story," Johnson says. "I have to give credit where credit is due. All of the really outrageous stories that are in my books come from these sheriffs. Generally when they're retired, they tell you better stories. … Some of them are so outrageous I can't use them."

Johnson enjoys traveling and meeting fans at book events. He's amazed that his book have been published in 14 countries and are particularly popular in France, where he credits Buffalo Bill Cody's roadshows for blazing a path for Walt Longmire.

But part of Johnson always longs to be back in Ucross, in the ranch that he built by himself, with his wife Judy and his best friend, Walt Longmire.

"One of the reasons why I enjoy writing the books is that Walt's good company," Johnson says. "He's well read, he's intelligent, he's funny, and he's decent and he's kind and he cares. I think there are a lot of people out there in law enforcement who embody that."

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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