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Life and living in a small Wyoming town

WANT TO GO?

"How Many People Can You Kill in a Town of 25?"

Craig Johnson at the West Virginia Book Festival

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Saturday

WHERE: Charleston Civic Center

COST: Free

INFO: 304-343-4646 or www.wvbookfestival.org

 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At some point, Craig Johnson must have heard the words, "Go west, young man," because for years that's all the New York Times best-selling author thought about.

The novelist, best known for his Sheriff Walt Longmire books, said, "Most of my family is out in Wayne County and Cabell. My grandfather was a blacksmith, so at a very early age I got involved with horses, knew all about horses, and my eyes were always pointed west.

"I always wanted to see what was out that way."

Johnson, who's in town Saturday for the West Virginia Book Festival, couldn't resist the sirens' call. After the Huntington native graduated from Marshall University, he put on his cowboy hat and boots, packed a backpack, stuffed about a thousand dollars cash in his pocket and hit the rode with his thumb stuck out.

"I hitchhiked west," he said. "I just traveled around."

He took jobs in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. Then, he headed back east, where he studied playwriting at Temple University in Philadelphia and got a doctorate. He worked as a police officer in New York for two years before returning to Wyoming, where he started a ranch.

"I built the ranch myself," he said, proudly. "I poured the concrete and stacked the logs and did it all myself."

The 51-year-old said he'd always wanted to write, but he didn't really get started until he was in his 40s.

"I ran out of excuses," he laughed -- not that he necessarily regretted waiting until later in life.

Life had to happen before he was ready to write.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes a lot of writing students make is that they get these magnificent degrees in writing, and they don't have any life experience to write about," he said. "I don't know about you, but if I read another novel about a novelist trying to write another novel about a novelist trying to write a novel, I'm going to bang my head against a wall."

Johnson said he was following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck: writers who had lives and saw things worth writing about.

"It took a while to find a story I thought was important enough that I had to tell it," he said. "It's the sort of excuse from every writer: they're waiting for the story only they can tell."

But he might have a point. Johnson's Longmire books are about a middle-aged county sheriff solving crimes in rural Wyoming near an Indian reservation.

"To me, it wasn't really that much of a stretch, to be honest with you," he said. "I live in a town of 25 people."

His ranch is also located near the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana.

Since his first book, "The Cold Dish," Johnson has published seven other novels, all part of the Longmire series. His latest, "As The Crow Flies" is in stores now. He also has "Divorce Horse," which is only available electronically through iBooks, Kindle and Nook. 

Johnson's next book, "The Serpent's Tooth," should be out next year, and he's already working beyond that.

This summer, his books came to life as the basis for an A&E television series, "Longmire." The show was the network's highest-rated scripted drama and has been renewed for a second season, to debut in 2013.

"They were looking for something with really strong characters," he said. "They didn't say Westerns, just books with very strong characters."

But it helped that what he was doing was different. "It's kind of the anti-'CSI,'" Johnson said. 

Johnson said the first book was the hardest for him, though each new installment brings with it a familiar set of worries and fears.

With writing a series, he said, there's a danger of getting too comfortable, of playing it too safe or in trying to repeat something that worked one time that maybe landed the author on a book list somewhere.

"I think you need to be hungry. I think you need to be out there trying new stuff and not getting comfortable or settling in."

For his part, Johnson said he thinks he does a pretty good job of doing that.

"I'm a blue-collar writer," he said. "I get up and get the ranch squared away before I start writing. The first thing I do in the morning is shovel out the barn."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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