Growing up, Craig Johnson had the kind of romantic aspirations we all do. He wanted to be a cowboy. And he wanted to be a writer.
Most of us end up forfeiting these types of daydreams to life's harsher demands. Johnson held onto his. Both of them. Even found a way to make them sustain each other.
On Friday, he'll be in West Chester to promote the release of his seventh Walt Longmire mystery, Hell Is Empty, in paperback, and the release of the eighth, As the Crow Flies, in hardcover. (Walt is the sagacious and capacious sheriff of Wyoming's rugged Absaroka County.)
Most authors hit the road for a single title. Johnson is touring behind the rare twin bill.
"It took double duty for them to lure me off my ranch," he says, laughing. Johnson, 51, resides on a horse ranch outside Ucross, Wyo. (pop. 25).
Actually, he doesn't need any encouragement to visit Philadelphia, where he met his wife, Judy, at Temple University. And not as long as his granddaughter Lola, 5, is working her magic here.
So when Johnson wants to escape the hustle and bustle of Ucross, this is generally where he seeks refuge. "I really enjoy it when I get to come back to Philadelphia," he says on the phone before an appearance in San Francisco. "We go to a Phillies game; we try to take in restaurants and bookstores. I'll go down Broad Street and just wander around."
The city also serves as a steady background presence in the Longmire series. Walt's deputy, Victoria Moretti, is a South Philly transplant from a large family of Philadelphia cops. His daughter Cady studied law here. And in Kindness Goes Unpunished, the third book in the series, Walt and his American Indian ally, Henry Standing Bear, travel to the city.
Johnson also tries to fit in a European junket as often as possible, which is easy to write off because his books are wildly popular in France. The trips, he says "are a payback to my wife for all those library events in Lusk [Wyo.] and Scotts Bluff [Neb.]"
It's a pretty good life, one Johnson has put together with foresight and application.
After graduating from Marshall University in his native West Virginia, he lived the life of a vagabond, mostly in the Rocky Mountain states. "I traveled around doing every kind of job to keep life and limb together," he says. "I worked construction, but mostly cowboying. That was my Jack Kerouac era, living from week to week on whatever I could, counting the Velveeta slices in the refrigerator. "
"Or maybe that's the massive rationalization I give myself for my wasted youth," he says, laughing.
While delivering horses out of Montana, he became enchanted with the region in the eastern foothills of the Bighorn Mountains in northern Wyoming and determined to build his ranch there one day.
First, it was time to put the capstone on his education so he could give artistic shape to all that experience he had been acquiring. He enrolled in a postgraduate playwriting program at Temple because he knew that crafting dialogue would be essential to the novels he wanted to write.
He was introduced to a woman from Haverford by mutual friends. "It was like one of those movies from the '60s where the woman watches the guy date every wrong woman on the face of the Earth," he says. "Then he turns around and realizes, 'There you are!'?"
"The big trick was how do you get a girl from Philadelphia to move to Ucross," he says. "There's no Wawa down the street. I was able to bamboozle her into living on the high plains of northern Wyoming."
Since Johnson won't go to Hollywood, Hollywood is about to come to him. The mystery series has been adapted into a promising TV series, Longmire, which debuts on A&E June 3 at 10 p.m.
It features veteran Australian actor Robert Taylor in the title role.
"When we started casting the hero," says the series' executive producer, John Coveny, "we wanted an amalgam of Steve McQueen, Harrison Ford, and Clint Eastwood. When you see Robert on camera, you really get all those guys. He feels like a hero you've been waiting for when you see him walk on screen."
Indeed, Taylor may be the most iconic (and laconic) TV lawman since Matt Dillon.
Johnson is also pleased with the casting of Katie (Battlestar Galactica) Sackhoff as Walt's Philly-hardened deputy, Victoria.
"When I saw Katie, she looked like her nose might have been broken," he says. "There's no way you do five years of street duty in Philadelphia without having a drunk on South Street swing around and hit you with an elbow.
"The biggest trick is teaching Katie to say 'prolly.'?"
The Johnsons won't need to get a satellite dish to watch Longmire. They bought one long ago, so Judy could devotedly follow the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, and Sixers. Which explains the unusual problem they have with noise pollution in Ucross.
"You ever want to know where Victoria's colorful language comes from [in the books], just come near our ranch when any of the Philly teams aren't doing what my wife thinks they should be doing," Johnson says. "You'll hear things you wouldn't believe."
He's prolly right.