Library Events, Longmire, and Craig Johnson
I had the pleasure of attending a local library event where Craig Johnson was the invited keynote speaker. I’d heard him speak before, and he’s got a great sense of humor, so I knew his talk would be entertaining. His talk was paired with an “Author Showcase” where 30+ authors, writing in a multitude of genres, were given tables to display their wares. I was fortunate to be accepted.
I’ve done this event before. The structure of this year’s event was different from its predecessors. Previously, there were several “writing-related” panels, separated by breaks where attendees were encouraged to wander the room and look at the authors’ wares. The final presentation was the keynote address, and attendance jumped as “normal readers” came for just that, but there were people at the venue throughout the schedule.
My experience this year. YMMV. This was an event focused on a well-known author. It’s not a craft workshop by any means. The majority of attendees are coming to hear Johnson speak, not buy books. Overall, most people who come to library events aren’t coming to buy books, unless, of course, you’re the keynote speaker, in which case you’ll probably sell a lot of books. Johnson also had a table full of Longmire-related merchandise.
This year, there were no panels. The authors were invited to show up about 2 hours early to set up, have lunch, and a chance to interact with Johnson. The doors were scheduled to open to the public an hour before Johnson was scheduled to speak, during which time attendees were free to roam the showcase tables. Very few did. They were there to listen to Craig Johnson, evidenced by the fact that when the library decided to open doors to the public ahead of their announced time, the ‘early birds’ filed in and found seats even though they had almost two hours to wait. Very few wandered the outskirts of the room where the authors had their tables. At the advertised “doors open at” time, a lot more people filed in and headed straight to Johnson’s table.
Johnson began his talk by saying he comes from a small town of 25 people. He was a rancher, and he still is. He spoke of wanting to become a writer. At the time, noir was the big thing, but he didn’t want that, so he came up with the idea of a small town sheriff. He wrote and rewrote the first few chapters of his manuscript. It was bad, and he knew it. He realized if he was going to write about a small town sheriff, he needed to know more about what the job entailed, so he visited the local sheriff who was willing to speak with him. They chatted for a short while, and Johnson was convinced he now had the answers and was going to write the book and become famous. So much so, that he remodeled his house, updated his ranch structures, and worked on renovating a store for his wife.
When he opened his bottom desk drawer one day (looking for something else, of course), and saw the manuscript, he realized ten years had passed. He happened to run into the sheriff at the gas station one day shortly thereafter and re-introduced himself as the man who’d come to the sheriff for advice for a book. The sheriff’s response was, “This book’s going kind of slow.”
Johnson went home and reworked the first chapter and, late one night, went against his instincts and sent it to the sheriff. Early the next morning, in the ‘quiet time’ while Johnson was on his front porch having his coffee, the sheriff sped down the ranch road and skidded to a stop, got out of his vehicle, and said, “I know who did it!”
He was wrong. In fact, Johnson sent him chapters as he wrote them, and the sheriff was wrong every time.
Johnson went on to talk about the Longmire series. When the producers wanted his input for casting Walt Longmire, Johnson had no idea. All the actors he though would be good for the part were long dead; he wasn’t up to speed on the younger ones. There were two issues to consider: whether to go with a popular actor or an unknown. The popular cowboy-hat-wearing actors, according to Johnson, were a small handful, and people would associate them with previous roles. However, Walt Longmire was supposed to be in his 50s, and unknown actors in that age range were probably unknown because they weren’t very good. The studio sent Johnson a box of CDs with all the auditions for the role, and he begrudgingly, but dutifully watched them. The audition scene was a ‘death notification’ which is one of the most dreaded jobs for law enforcement.
As Johnson told it, he got to the last CD, not having been impressed yet. He saw the actor’s name: Robert Taylor, and his first thought was “They took my advice.” Only the over-30s in the audience got that joke. At any rate, in the audition, when Taylor went to deliver the death notification, he removed his hat and put it over his heart. That gesture—and a comment by Johnson’s wife as she was watching (Oh, my!—and not for the gesture) got Taylor the job.
A member of the audience asked how Johnson and the writers got along. Johnson declined to be in the writer’s room, but asked the scripts be sent to him, and they’d discuss points Johnson disagreed with, usually explaining their rationale. One in particular, was that they wanted to make the main characters 10 years younger. Johnson objected, but their explanation was, “We want this to be a long-running series and can’t have the major players using walkers.”
Johnson spoke of his first invitation to a library event, where the librarian said they were a very small county and didn’t have much to offer in the way of an honorarium. Johnson (after looking up what an honorarium was), said he didn’t like to negotiate, so he’d ask for the same he asked of all libraries. A six-pack of Rainier beer.
Years later, he was invited to another event where the librarian handed him his honorarium, which, due to the rules against alcohol in the building, was wrapped in brown paper, taped, and tied with string. Johnson commented that it looked more like heroin than beer. At any rate, the librarian said it had been hard to procure the beer, and Johnson said he understood that most bars didn’t serve the “cheap stuff.” She said, no, that wasn’t it. Everyone was out of stock, including the brewery. Johnson called the brewery the next day, and was told that yes, the librarian was right. They had run out. Why the shortage? This was two weeks after Longmire hit the screens, and everyone was drinking Walt’s favorite brew.
Other “issues” for being an author with a popular television series as related by Johnson. He was paying for lunch at a café on a road trip. He was wearing one of his ball caps that said “Sheriff, Absaroka County, Wyoming” and the clerk questioned it. Johnson said he wasn’t really the sheriff, and it wasn’t a real county. She came back with “It is, too. That’s Walt Longmire’s County.” He introduced himself and she said, “Huh?” He said he wrote the books the series was based on. She said, “There are books?”
One of the best takeaways for me was in response to a question about the differences in books versus the visual media. He said books have one big advantage—the author sets up words like dominoes, and the first sentences tips the first tile, and they tumble along, propelled by the reader’s imagination.
Other takeaways from the event, on the extremely rare chance someone would invite me to give this kind of a talk:
- Open with a VERY short background sentence or two.
- Talk a little bit about how you began writing. Make it a story, not a recitation of events.
- Talk a little bit about the life of a writer and experiences you’ve had. Johnson spoke of being able to donate generously to his favorite charity.
- Read a little bit of one of your works. In this presentation, Johnson spoke of going to a high school girls’ basketball game with the father of one of the players. What he saw there led to a scene in one of his books, and he followed that story by reading it.
**Note: The library will be offering the recording of his presentation in its entirety, and once I have the link, I’ll post it here at TKZ. I admit my note-taking skills have degenerated along with my memory, so you’ll not only be able to see what I left out due to space constraints, but also my mistakes.
All right, TKZers. If you were invited to give a non-craft presentation to readers (or viewers), what would you talk about?
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Not accepting the assignment could cost him his job. Accepting it could cost him his life.
Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”