Before the fame. Before the New York Times best sellers list. Before the TV show and the accolades and the adoring fanbase, Craig Johnson fell in love with Oregon.
With one specific part of Oregon, to be specific: The state's many independent bookstores.
Johnson, author of the wildly popular "Longmire" series of mystery novels, is heading to Beaverton. He'll be here at 7 p.m., Monday, Sept. 10, at Powell's at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 S.W. Cedar Hills Blvd., speaking to fans and reading from his new book, "Depth of Winter." This book, like his others — all major bestsellers — features Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire.
It's hardly Johnson's first visit to Oregon, and likely not his last. "I love coming out there, always," he said.
His love affair with Oregon's independent bookstores began in 2005 with the release of his first novel, "Cold Dish." His publisher, Penguin Books, knew they had a bona fide star on their hands and scheduled him for multi-state book tours. But, like all such tours, the stops would be in major cities.
"Oregon's just tops for (small town) bookstores," Johnson said. So to promote the book on his own, he hauled out his 1986 motorcycle and rode to — and through — Oregon, stopping at indie bookshops along the way. That includes Sunriver Books & Music in Sunriver, Ore., where Johnson is a regular.
"It was fantastic! It was just a blast," he said.
Today, his visits to indie bookstores throughout Oregon often draw upward of 200 people. "That's just humbling, as an author," he said. "I remember when two or three people showed up!"
"Cold Dish" begat "Death Without Company" in 2006 and about 19 more novels, culminating in the September release of "Depth of Winter." Along the way, the A&E Network picked up the "Longmire" TV series, which now can be seen on Netflix.
"Depth of Winter" reintroduces readers to an international hitman first introduced in another novel, "Serpent's Tooth." The setting isn't Longmire's usual haunt, Absaroka County, Wyoming, but the middle of Mexico.
Johnson said he likes taking Longmire out of Absaroka County occasionally to avoid "the Cabot Cove Syndrome." (Anyone visiting Jessica Fletcher's home town of Cabot Cover, in the TV series "Murder She Wrote," was pretty much assured a visit to jail or the morgue before the first ad break).
From the very beginning, Johnson said, setting his mystery series in "the least populous county in the least populous state in the nation" was a challenge. So, too, was creating a heroic character who was nearing retirement. And even writing a modern-day Western.
"Everyone's free with advice, and some people listen to all that advice and never get sold," he said, laughing. "Walt's just a little bit different. I describe him as 'over.' He's over-weight, over-age and over-depressed. But he gets up every day and tries to do the job."
That's part of what has made Walt Longmire and the series so popular to readers in the West.
But — surprisingly — the Longmire series also is popular in France, where Johnson has won kudos and fans. That thought cracks Johnson up. "If I'd have been asked to guess where my books would be popular... oh man! Australia, maybe? Or South Africa? But France...?"
The reason for "la popularité," he thinks, is that the Longmire series isn't stuck in the cliches of the romantic West. "I think readers respect the complexity of the characters. It's not just bang-bang shoot-em-ups. That's not what I write."
His visit to Powell's at Cedar Hills Crossing will include readings from his work and an opportunity for the audience to interact with the author.
And Johnson wouldn't have it any other way.
Powell's offers reader-friendly events at the Cedar Hills Crossing location in Beaverton, along with the flagship City of Books in Portland and Powell's Books on Hawthorn. For a list of events, go to the bookstores' website.