Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Saddlebums Interview: Johnny D. Boggs

Two-time Spur Award winner Johnny D. Boggs could be considered the quintessential man of the West. One of the most talented contemporary Western writers, Boggs is also a prolific chronicler, often contributing historical articles and features to publications such as True West and Wild West.

A former sports journalist and editor, Boggs won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for his novel Camp Ford in 2006 and for his short story “A Piano at Dead Man’s Crossing” (featured in the anthology American West: Twenty New Stories from the Western Writers of America) in 2002. He was a Spur finalist for his novels Ten and Me in 2000 and The Hart Brand in 2007 and he also won the Western Heritage Wrangler Award in 2004 for his novel Spark on the Prairie.

What led you to start writing Westerns?

I grew up on the tail end of the Westerns TV heyday, so series like Gunsmoke and The Virginian fueled my interest. I’d always been an avid reader, and once I discovered writers like Dorothy M. Johnson, Jack Schaefer and Will Henry, my mind was pretty much made up to write Westerns.

Can you tell us more about your Spur Award-winning novel Camp Ford? Would you consider it your best fiction work so far?

Camp Ford is best described as a Civil War-Baseball-Western, about a baseball game between Union prisoners of war and their Confederate guards at a P.O.W. camp in Texas. The idea began fermenting while watching a big-league game in Kansas City, and, like most of my projects, it turned into some kind of obsession and I had to write the story.

‘Bests’ are always open to the interpretation of the reader. At least a couple of reviewers have called Walk Proud, Stand Tall my best novel, but Camp Ford is probably my favorite one. It was a challenge to write, a lot of fun to research, and personal. I still think my best piece of fiction is a short story that also won a Spur, "A Piano at Dead Man’s Crossing."

Writing, however, is like most other jobs. You should get better the more you work at, so I hope my best piece of fiction is still to come.

You have written – and continue to write – nonfiction about different aspects of American culture and the West in particular. Where does this interest in the West stem from? (On a completely unprofessional note, let me tell you how much I enjoyed your recent True West article about country music. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment about Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” being a key moment for country music going downhill).

I’ve always been interested in the West, the physical place, the spiritual place, the history, the people, the land, everything about it. I think it all goes back to growing up in the South, surrounded by forests, swamps and tobacco fields, and dreaming of those wide-open spaces and rugged mountains that I saw on TV or in John Ford’s Westerns, or pictured in my mind reading Louis L’Amour or A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

I know I’m quite lucky. Many writers I know have to write about just about everything to pay the bills. I get to write, in both fiction and magazine nonfiction, about what I love. So I’m blessed.

Thanks for the kind words about the True West piece!

"I’ve never tried to be politically correct, but historically correct."

Has your experience as a journalist had any influence in your development as a fiction writer?

Definitely. All those years in daily newspapers taught me the importance of deadlines and the fact that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, or there had better not be. You also learn the value of words, and the economy of words. I also have a strong discipline – not exactly sure where that came from – so switching from working on the chapter of a novel to writing a travel story for True West isn’t hard. You’re supposed to be a ‘trained observer’ as a journalist, so I’m always picking up things on magazine projects that I can file away for future use in a novel or short story.

The study of the historical West has undergone drastic changes in recent decades as academia has attempted to demystify supposedly entrenched preconceptions about this period in American history. This has resulted in both innovative research on the positive side as well as in demonizing from some academics that see the expansion to the West as a particularly bleak episode in the history of this country. Would you agree with this assessment and, if so, do you think these new perceptions and attitudes have influenced modern-day Western fiction?

Sure, I’d agree with that. History is always changing. Most people probably find that hard to believe, but it’s true. Historians uncover new information, or they put historical events in a different perspective. Custer goes from hero to villain and back and forth again. I still think one of the most important pieces of nonfiction to come around in years is Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. That certainly led to more histories told from a sympathetic view of the Indian Wars. More recently, Hampton SidesBlood and Thunder is a great narrative account of our westward expansion in which Kit Carson isn’t really glorified or vilified, but shown as a rather complex man in really complex times.

I like good writing and great research. I tend to favor a journalistic approach in covering all angles. I really have enjoyed what we might call revisionist histories, but at the same time I might toss away other revisionist accounts.

Certainly, you can see some influence of this in some fiction, but it really varies from writer to writer, publisher to publisher. I’ve never tried to be politically correct, but historically correct. And often I try to tell my stories from different viewpoints, showing what a Comanche warrior trying to protect his family thinks of buffalo hunters or what a Texas homesteader would think of Comanches after a bloody raid.

I’ve often said that I don’t write that often about good guys and bad guys. I write about people with strong feelings about what is good and bad, right and wrong, and often the people differ – strongly – about what’s good and bad, right and wrong.

What role does research play in your writing?

Research is half the battle, maybe even more. I’ll spend hours reading histories, tracking down bits and pieces, studying maps, visiting locations, wooing librarians and archivists for help.

Readers of historical fiction and Western fiction know their stuff a lot these days, and if you make a mistake, they’ll let you hear about it. The shelves on my bookcases are overflowing, and I keep adding books.

At some point, however, your imagination has to take over, and you have to make choices about what piece of history is important and what details are going to bog down the story. That’s the big challenge in writing historical fiction.

"For the past few decades, Westerns have been branded an ugly stepchild of the genres. And, honestly, I’ve read a lot of Westerns that I haven’t liked at all (...) Westerns are a genre, but the great ones (...) go beyond that. Westerns can be, and often are, great literature. And the future’s always bright for great literature."

What are your thoughts about the present state of the Western genre and what do you think the future holds for the Western story?

It depends on what you call Western. I’ve never been a big fan of literary rules, boundaries and fences. Some publishers think a Western has to be set west of the Mississippi River between 1865 and 1900, but today we’re seeing Westerns set before European contact. And certainly I think the contemporary mysteries by Tony Hillerman and C.J. Box are Westerns. They’re about men with hats and guns bringing law and order to the West; the heroes just happen to be Navajo policemen in Tony’s case and a Wyoming game warden in Chuck’s. Those novels seem to do pretty well.

The traditional Western story has a loyal reader – writers like Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey and Max Brand still sell a lot of books – but I’m hoping we can reach out to others. The biggest thing we have to do is hook young readers, get them interested in, well, first and foremost, reading! Then get them interested in our Western heritage and our history, and keep them reading into adulthood.

We do this, I think, by giving them strong stories they can relate to. Great writing. Wonderful characters. We transport them to another time, educate them while entertaining them.

I think you’ll see more crossover types of Westerns. I mean, Camp Ford is probably more a baseball novel than anything else, and I’ve written two novels (The Despoilers and Ghost Legion) set in the Backcountry of the Carolinas during the American Revolution. That’s not what most people would consider the West, but in 1780 that was definitely the frontier. Historical-Western crossovers, Western-mystery crossovers, and I’m reading Emma Bull’s Territory, which blends fantasy elements into a Western (Tombstone, Arizona) setting.

Another factor for Western fiction could be the success this fall of movies like 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the TV miniseries Comanche Moon.

For the past few decades, Westerns have been branded an ugly stepchild of the genres. And, honestly, I’ve read a lot of Westerns that I haven’t liked at all. Too predictable. Poorly written. Cardboard characters. Clichés. No sense of history and no sense of geography. Westerns are a genre, but the great ones – Monte Walsh, Lonesome Dove, The Big Sky, Warlock, The Time it Never Rained, From Where the Sun Now Stands, Welcome to Hard Times – go beyond that. Westerns can be, and often are, great literature. And the future’s always bright for great literature.

Most writers are voracious readers and you are probably not the exception. What do you read for pleasure?

I read a lot. Tons of nonfiction for research. Fiction, both for pleasure and to hone my craft. Look what this writer did. Why did this writer do that? I’m still a big fan of Will Henry/Clay Fisher, John Jakes. I like Elmore Leonard a lot, both his early Westerns and his crime novels. Sherman Alexie to Alice Sebold, Robert Frost to Johnny Cash. I always have a book nearby.

Do you have any writing influences? How about influences in the Western genre?

Mark Twain remains my favorite writer, probably my biggest influence. Alexandre Dumas probably was the first writer to take me out of that South Carolina bedroom and show me another world. I think you can probably see the influences of Charles Dickens and Jack London in my fiction. In the Western genre, I’ve already lauded Dorothy M. Johnson, Jack Shaefer and others. Elmer Kelton has always been an influence. So has Fred Grove. Jane Candia Coleman and Tim Champlin probably don’t get the praise they deserve, and my mother’s a big fan of Cotton Smith. Mike Blakely and David Marion Wilkinson are great friends and great Western writers, and I love ol’ Max Evans, who has been my mentor, even though he doesn’t know it. Red Shuttleworth’s Western poetry never fails to inspire.

"The biggest hurdle to convincing booksellers that the Western isn’t dead is seeing shelves full of dead authors. But Louis L’Amour, Max Brand and Zane Grey sell a lot of books (...) So do Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie, but nobody’s calling the Mystery dead. I don’t know how we get past that."

Are there any Western writers you would like to see back in print?

Ah. Now there’s where we come to the double-edged sword. The biggest hurdle to convincing booksellers that the Western isn’t dead is seeing shelves full of dead authors. But Louis L’Amour, Max Brand and Zane Grey sell a lot of books, and other dead authors like William J. Johnstone and Ralph Compton have become brand names with others writing under those names. And they sell. So do Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie, but nobody’s calling the Mystery dead. I don’t know how we get past that.

On the other hand, I’ll read a lot of Will Henry/Clay Fisher titles. And Five Star and Leisure Books have done a great job reissuing the works of Les Savage, Jr., which is great for his legacy. He ran into hurdles when he was writing in the 1950s because editors and publishers forced him to follow their guidelines, but now his books are appearing, long after his death, the way he wanted them to appear. So I’m glad to see that. And enjoy reading his novels.

Are you writing anything right now? Can you tell us more about any other projects you are currently involved with?

We launched Northfield, an historical novel about the James-Younger Gang’s bank-robbery debacle in Northfield, Minnesota, this summer. A young-adult novel titled Doubtful Cañon comes out from Five Star in December. I just finished a period mystery set in the 1880s titled Killstraight, about a Comanche tribal policeman who returns to the reservation after years of boarding school. That’ll be out next summer, and I’ve just started a coming-of-age story set in New Mexico Territory at the outbreak of the Civil War. That one’s called Soldier’s Farewell. And I’m supposed to contribute an original short story to an anthology for Pinnacle Books. Plus tons of magazine work. I’ve no complaints being busy.

What is the greatest satisfaction of your writing career? Is there anything else you still feel you need to accomplish?

The greatest satisfaction is finishing a novel. And then starting another one. I think most writers would say the same thing. That’s the best and worst thing about writing. You always start with a blank page.

And I have plenty I want to accomplish. There’s a list of ideas and titles on my computer, and the list keeps growing. I know I’ll never get to every idea. The biggest challenge is picking what to write next. I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s greatly satisfying.

6 comments:

Carolina Christine said...

Johnny Boggs is the best Western writer working. Thanks for a great interview and insights into his writing and work.

Ben Boulden said...

Excellent interview! I absolutely agree with Mr. Boggs when he discusses exactly what a western is: "It depends on what you call Western. I’ve never been a big fan of literary rules, boundaries and fences. Some publishers think a Western has to be set west of the Mississippi River between 1865 and 1900, but today we’re seeing Westerns set before European contact. And certainly I think the contemporary mysteries by Tony Hillerman and C.J. Box are Westerns."

I think for the genre to grow and expand we need to look at new defintions of the western--don't mistake this as disregard for the traditional western, but rather as an expansion on the traditional western.

We need to pull new readers into the genre with innovative and new story-telling, and I think mixing genres, and basically dumping the label the traditional western has as a two gun mentality--good guy kills bad guy--is not typical of some of the best western stories out there. We just need people to know there is diversity in the genre, and expanding the definition of what a western is, is the first step in that direction.

-Ben

Jim B. said...

Johnny D. Boggs is one of my favorite authors. Thanks for an excellent interview and a consistently good site.

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Anonymous said...

I never read anything of Johnny
D. Boggs. I have been Websurfing
a lot of interviews of Western writers. In fact I have been reading Western's, Mysteries, Sci-
Fi and even so-called "Main-Stream
literature. I am dying to read "The
Killing Shot. Because Mr.Boggs base
ed it on"White Heat" one of my favo
rite filmnour movies. Good Luck,
Johnny Boggs,I will start looking
for your books, the next time I visit the library or a good book store.