‘Longmire’ brings modern West to life

The “Longmire” TV series combines a mystery within a western setting. Readers get an understanding of the Cheyenne nation, the Wyoming setting and how a small town sheriff keeps his town safe. Sheriff Walt Longmire will remind readers of Matt Dillon with his quiet demeanor, Jesse Stone, with his determination to seek justice, and Harry Bosch with his need to be a detective for the disenfranchised. The fifth season will start Sept. 23 on Netflix.

The TV shows are based on the novels. “An Obvious Fact,” the 12th book in the series was published Sept. 13. It allows readers to jump on the motorcycle with the characters as they go on a wild ride in Hulett County, Wyoming, having to face biker gangs, neo-Nazis, gunrunners, a mega millionaire and undercover ATF agents.

Below is an interview with the creator, author and TV executive producer Craig Johnson.

Elise Cooper: Did you get the idea for the story from Sheriff Matt Dillon?

Craig Johnson: I did not draw on any fictional characters, but based him on a lot of actual sheriffs. I did a lot of ride alongs and started assembling the idea of Walt. The majority of my ideas come from Wyoming small town newspaper articles. This keeps my plots and his character grounded in reality with issues that Wyoming sheriffs actually handle.

EC: How was the actor who played Sheriff Walt Longmire cast?

CJ: I was sent DVDs with auditions of all the actors who wanted to play him. After going through them the last one was the winner. Because his name is Robert Taylor I thought about that famous actor from the ’50s. We needed someone who was in their 50s or 60s, had a graveling voice, a big guy, and with wear and tear in his face, especially since western sheriffs work most of the time outdoors.

What sealed the deal was that in the audition scene as he was notifying a wife of her husband’s death he took off his hat. I thought how he was brought up right and that we did not have to teach him basic civility. Of course, it did not hurt that at the same time my wife saw the tape and said, “Oh my! He is a TV version of you except taller, better looking, and has a great voice.”

EC: One of the supporting characters is Henry Standing Bear, a Cheyenne Indian. Is this character based upon anyone?

CJ: The Cheyennes are my neighbors, friends and practically family members. A good friend, Marcus Red Thunder is who Henry is partially based upon. The more time I spend with him the more I am aware of the mystic natural world that Henry speaks about. There are so many people on the reservation who are characters in my books.

One of my favorite quotes, “The greatest piece of fiction is the disclaimer of every book that says nobody in this book is based on anyone alive or dead.” There are a lot people who claim to be in my books that I never met. I take that as a compliment. Fortunately for the books and TV show they are extremely popular on the reservation.

EC: How involved are you with the TV scripts?

CJ: It’s like having a houseplant in your home for seven years and then coming downstairs one morning and having it start talking to you. I was writing these novels for seven years before Hollywood found me. We have separate but equal trajectories for the characters and stories that are suited for the different mediums. I’m an executive creative consultant on the show and they send me the scripts, which I go through. Sometimes we agree on things and sometimes we don’t.

EC: The actor who plays the Cheyenne Indian Henry Standing Bear, Lou Diamond Phillips, nailed down his mannerisms and speech patterns. Do you agree?

CJ: Yes he does a fantastic interpretation. Before he auditioned he actually read three of the books. He does a great job of that B movie speech where he never uses contractions. He speaks that way because Henry is very precise in what he does so his speech patterns are accordingly. Sometimes he uses that type of language to piss off white people who are arrogant.

EC: Why doesn’t Walt use gloves when he is examining evidence?

CJ: He does in the books. I think in the TV show they wanted to show the differences between his deputy, Victoria (Vic), and Walt. She graduated from the Philadelphia Police Academy and has brothers in the Philadelphia Police Department as well as her father who is chief of detectives. Her training is all about forensics and ballistics — a lot more advanced that Walts’. Yet, he relies more on the social implications and his understanding about where he grew up and lives. This is also why he does not use a cell phone; feeling technology is not the end all.

EC: What about the relationship between Walt and his deputy Victoria (Vic)?

CJ: The advice I received from some authors is that there can be sexual tension but nothing should happen for about 17 books. My immediate response, “What kind of women are you dating that would wait 17 years for something to happen?”

In the third book, Walt and Vic were in Philadelphia and something happened between them. This complicated their lives. I had them have the opposite gender response. Walt felt, “That was a big mistake,” while Vic’s response, “It was just sex. Why are you being so weird?”

EC: Is it filmed in Wyoming?

CJ: No, in New Mexico, around Santa Fe. They start filming in February. Because of the weather it would be impossible to film in Wyoming. The other reason is that New Mexico has a very good film commission while Wyoming has a staff of one and no sound stages or crews. I would bet that for the past 20 years every Western you have seen, if not filmed entirely in New Mexico, is partially filmed there.

EC: There is a major Western theme to your books and the TV show. Agree?

CJ: I consider myself a cowboy author who writes mysterious Westerns. I live Westerns. I built my ranch completely on my own in Northern Wyoming. After I was done I sat down and started to write. The western environment has a tremendous affect on my life, which is evident in the books.

EC: Motorcycles seem to play a large role in this book plot?

CJ: In the contemporary American West the new horse is the motorcycle. The one you see on the cover of the book is mine. We have the largest motorcycle rally in the world in the little town of Sturgis. I had all these small, independent book stores that wanted me to come and do events at their stores, so I began doing the Great Northwest Outlaw Motorcycle Tour on my own that takes place in Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Utah.

EC: Do you have any experiences with motorcycles?

CJ: When I was a child I started racing motorcycles. My dad, a mechanical engineer, bought a 1941 841 Indian motorcycle in parts. This motorcycle was built for the U.S. military’s use in North Africa during World War II.

But my dad did not know it was not the vehicle of choice because sometimes the clutch becomes accidentally engaged and it slips into first gear. After putting it together, my father experienced these malfunctions when he test drove it, as he went flying off the motorcycle and he flipped up backwards. While my mother watched in horror my brother and I could not wait to try it.

Knowing this, she went on this radio show where you can call in and sell items. Our phone actually rang with a buyer who said, “Put it back in the garage, its mine.” My dad happened to be listening to the radio at work.

EC: What do you want the reader to get out of the book?

CJ: I have messages I try to get across. A large theme is reflected in this book quote, “You spend most of the time in life running after things that aren’t that important, and the pursuit becomes more desirable than the prize.” It is based on the Oscar Wilde quote, “There are two major tragedies in life: not getting what it is you want in your life and the other is getting it.” Once we achieve what we want it turns out very differently than what we thought.

EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?

CJ: The premise of the book, “Western Star,” is the Sheriffs’ Association annual meeting on a steam locomotive that went across the state of Wyoming. There was this picture up of Walt and 24 other sheriffs standing in front of this train wearing cowboy hats, gun belts and in a western pose. Someone says to Walt, “There were 25 armed sheriffs on one train,” and he replied “When we started.”



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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.