Road warrior

Portsmouth-bound author Craig Johnson talks motorcycles and small towns

Craig Johnson loves small-town life. The creator of the Walt Longmire mystery series, Johnson is quick to talk up his home base: Ucross, Wyo., a tiny town with 25 residents and not much else. He likes the isolation, he says, and the connection to the land that living in the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains provides. Plus, it keeps him — and his characters — grounded.

Walt Longmire, the star of more than a dozen novels and a number of short stories, is the long-time sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County in Wyoming, the least-populated county in the least-populated state. But in the same way that Walt must often travel outside the county to crack a case, so too must Johnson hit the road to promote his books. And that’s how he began collecting ideas for “An Obvious Fact,” the latest Longmire novel.

Johnson has acquired a legion of devoted fans since “A Cold Dish,” the first Longmire mystery, was published in 2004. Even more fans jumped into Walt’s adventures in 2012, when “Longmire,” a TV series based on Johnson’s books, premiered on A&E.

While book tours brought Johnson to large cities, he says that fans in small communities throughout the West were asking him to make appearances. So, he embarked on what he calls his “outlaw” book tour, riding his motorcycle through the plains and winding mountain roads, stopping along the way at a string of independent book stores.

Those road trips brought Johnson together with bikers of all stripes, and it got Johnson thinking about what would happen if Walt had to deal with a town full of rowdy bikers — and, of course, a puzzling attempted murder. “An Obvious Fact” follows Walt and his friend Henry Standing Bear as they face off against rival biker gangs, federal agents, and an old flame from Henry’s past.

The Sound caught up with Johnson by phone at his ranch in Ucross, where he was preparing for his latest book tour, which will bring him to The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth next Wednesday, Sept. 14.

Cover of "An Obvious Fact" by Craig Johnson

You’re a motorcycle enthusiast. Was it just a matter of time before Walt squared off with a biker gang or started riding a motorcycle?

Personal interest always is the last thing that predicates what my books will be about. But it was something I had been witness to — there’s this little town in the northeastern corner of Wyoming (Hulett) with a population of 390 people that I happened to stumble in on one Wednesday, the day they were having their Ham and Jam motorcycle rally. … They have a sister city in South Dakota, Sturgis, which has a big motorcycle rally, and a lot of bikers come to Sturgis and then want to go to Devil’s Tower, and that takes them through the little town of Hulett, which has a population of 390 people, one police officer, and then half a million bikers.

And Walt has a completely different attitude to motorcycles than I do. I grew up with motorcycles and have four sitting in my shop right now. He hates them — he refers to them as “donor cycles” and he’s seen too many people wrapped up in them and get hurt on them while in law enforcement. Henry, on the other hand, really likes them, so it balances things out.

Did any of your own motorcycling adventures help inspire the book?

Absolutely. I had these little bookstores up in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming that said, “When is Viking/Penguin going to send you to Baker City, Oregon?” And I’d say, “Never, maybe they’ll send me to Spokane or Seattle, but not Baker City.” So what I did, I’d collect information on all these little independent bookstores, and I had this old BMW motorcycle, one of those dual-sport jobs that can go on road and off road and gets 80 miles to the gallon. And I thought that after I finished a book tour, I could get on the motorcycle and do a loop, about 5,000 miles, and hit all those bookstores. It had a huge effect. I’d roll into towns and have 300 people at a book event, and that’s kind of outrageous.

What’s the most memorable thing you’ve seen while on your own motorcycle?

One time coming back across Nevada, I was on Highway 50, the most desolate, isolated highway in America. It’d been a couple hours since I’d seen anything, the light was starting to change a little bit and all of a sudden, something darted up out of the ditch. I swerved … and slid to a stop, and laying there was a coyote. I’d hit it. And he kind of turned around and looked at me … and then trotted off. I said, “Well, that’s probably a message, though I don’t know what it is.” It’s not very often you hit a coyote. They’re generally pretty smart about staying off the road. That was kind of weird.

You’ve said before that you’re an outliner — you make plans for your books and for the series as a whole. Have there been any developments, characters, or books that have surprised you?

I don’t know how surprised I’ve been by it, but any time you’re writing a series of books, it kind of lives or dies by the evolution of the characters. They have to change, they have to grow. We’ve all read series of books that start out great, but you get eight books in and notice the characters aren’t evolving or changing in any way, and that’s not normal, that’s not human.

Author Craig Johnson lives in Ucross, Wyo., a town with a population of 25.

Author Craig Johnson lives in Ucross, Wyo., a town with a population of 25. photo by Chet Carlson

How has Walt Longmire changed as a character?

Well, Walt’s a grandfather now, which is a change from the guy we met in “The Cold Dish,” where he was a guy dealing with the death of his wife and clinical depression. But no matter how difficult the job is, he faces it with a sense of humor and humanity that’s different than the noir stuff you see in crime fiction nowadays — “Abandon all hope, ye who read here.” It’s difficult telling the bad guys from the good guys. One of the reasons I think the books are as popular as they are and one of the reasons why Warner Brothers picked it up as a TV series is because … a producer said, “We’ve had the anti-hero thing since the 1960s and it’s kind of run its course … maybe the American public is ready for a true-blue American cowboy, a guy who lives by a code.” He’s the kind of guy my grandfather used to say “covers the ground he stands on.” If you slide off the road on a Saturday night, he’s the guy you want to see.

How far ahead have you planned Walt’s adventures?

I’ve got an overarching design, which is a clear-cut idea where the books are going to finally end and what’s going to happen with the characters at the end. You have to have that when you go into a series … but I’m hoping that’ll be a good 20 or 30 years out, or even longer. The other aspect of it is that I’ve got piles of ideas. It’s kind of funny; when you start out, you worry, especially when you’re doing a series, because you’re not reinventing the wheel every single time, you don’t want to fall into the trap of formulaic books where you do the same things over again or the characters become predictable, or you become a victim of your own success.

Authors who do really interesting books, they do one big breakout book, and then they get pressured from their publisher or the reading public and everyone wants them to write that book over and over again, and I can’t think of anything worse as a