Johnny, how does it feel to be considered “among the best Western writers at work today” and “the best living fiction writer?” Has it been a struggle to reach the top?
I’m pretty sure you can find people who’ll call me “among the worst western writers at work today.” And as a friend of mine remarked after the True West [magazine] “best living fiction writer” honor: “It beats being called ‘best dead fiction writer.’”
It certainly was a struggle. About a dozen years ago, I was writing “on spec,” couldn’t find an agent willing to take a chance on me, was being rejected left and right by publishers everywhere, and feared I’d spend the rest of my career writing potboilers. More so, I was worried that I’d have to get a real job.
It’s still a struggle. I imagine it always will be. What drives me is fear. Fear that I’ll have to take that “real job,” and miss the opportunity to coach my son’s Little League team, to watch him grow up, to spend time with my wife and family, and to do what I think I was born to do.
Have your writing awards helped your writing career and which award means the most to you?
The awards certainly helped open some doors, and they’ve probably given me a bit of freedom, letting me write fiction that doesn’t always fall under that “traditional Western” umbrella. Not that there’s anything wrong with traditional Westerns. I don’t know if I could single out any one award, though. That’s like picking your favorite kid, or the best Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher movie.
I remember an email I got from a man who had read one of my novels. Turns out, he knew my dad, and told me this incredible, heartwarming story about Daddy and his father -- which I’d never heard. Another time, a woman who had read one of my novels said, “I thought I was being entertained. Turns out I was being educated.” You can’t hang them on your office wall, but those mean more to me than any award.
Which novel was the most difficult to write and which do you consider your best? Why?
None was easy, but I’d say Northfield was the most difficult. Most writers, I imagine, can get back into the groove, so to speak, find the right tone and voice, by rereading the previous chapter or two of the book they’re writing. But every chapter in Northfield was told from a different first-person point of view, and that person was a historical figure. So from structure, to viewpoint, to trying to keep everything as historically accurate as possible, that had to be the hardest book I’ve ever written.
And it’s probably the best. That said, a couple critics raved about Walk Proud, Stand Tall, and my mother and older sister still say Doubtful Cañon’s my best. My favorite is Camp Ford, a Civil War baseball novel. It might not be the best, but it was the most fun -- if I can call it fun -- I had researching and writing.
I always remember something John Jakes once told me: “Books are like children. You love them all, but some of them don’t quite turn out the way you’d hoped.”
Camp Ford and Northfield turned out better than I ever imagined.
Growing up in South Carolina must have influenced you in writing about the Civil War. When and why did you decide to write Westerns?
My ancestors settled in South Carolina before the Revolutionary War. I had ancestors fighting on both sides of the Civil War. My great-great-grandfather was Cherokee. I’ve always loved history. All of that plays a part in my fiction. I’ve published a few contemporary Southern short stories, and have toyed with the idea for a Southern-set mystery, but I love the West. I was playing cowboy as far back as I can remember, creating my own characters, making up my own stories. Watching "Gunsmoke" with my dad became a ritual. My senior year in high school, I played hooky to watch "Fort Apache", and I was writing Western stories as early as junior high school. After I earned a journalism degree in college, I applied at practically every daily newspaper out West, and got lucky. My first job was at the Dallas Times Herald. The American West was ingrained in me, so it became natural that I’d write about it.
How did your novel, The Killing Shot, come about?
That was my editor’s idea. Gary Goldstein’s a big fan of James Cagney. So am I, and I spend far too much time watching those great film noirs from the 1940s and ’50s. So when Gary asked if I might be able to re-imagine and re-invent Cagney’s 1949 crime classic "White Heat" as a Western, I was intrigued. It was a challenge, and I appreciate a good challenge.
What’s your writing schedule like?
I write for a living. There’s no trust fund, no retirement, no inheritance, no steady paycheck. And my wife’s a realtor, so her income can be inconsistent. Writing is a job. I’m up in the morning, and as soon as my 8-year-old’s off to school, I’m in the office.
Deadlines dictate what I’m working on. Since I do a lot of magazine work, I might be interviewing someone in the morning, writing another magazine piece later, and working on a novel-in-progress that afternoon. But I’m writing, editing, researching or interviewing. At least seven hours a day -- often a lot more -- and at least five days a week.
I like the magazine work, and not just because it means there’s a check coming. I can move from writing about Italian wines to checking the facts for Boys’ Life magazine’s “Heads Up!” department, to profiling a retablo artist, then writing a travel story before moving on to an historical novel. That keeps my mind working and, I hope, my writing fresh.
How have Western novels evolved since you began writing them?
Most importantly, we have managed to tear down some fences. The West didn’t begin in 1865 and didn’t end in 1900, and it wasn’t always west of the Mississippi River. Western fiction doesn’t have to be about gunfighters and ranchers and cavalry and Indians. Two of my novels (The Despoilers, Ghost Legion) are set in the South Carolina backcountry during the Revolutionary War, and one that’s coming out next summer (South by Southwest) is about a escaped Union POW and runaway slave making their way from South Carolina to Texas during the closing months of the Civil War.
I’m quite happy to see readers, editors and reviewers noting the Western themes in novels like Aryn Kyle’s The God of Animals and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, not to mention those great contemporary mysteries by writers like C.J. Box and the late Tony Hillerman. Those are indeed Westerns. When it comes to Western literature, or any genre, really, I don’t like boundaries and I don’t like rules.
Who most influenced your own writing? And why?
Anybody you read and like influences your writing. Mark Twain’s still my favorite writer, followed by Jack London, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, Raymond Chandler, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edna Ferber. I love the prose of crime novelists Elmore Leonard and William P. McGivern. I’ve always admired Tim O’Brien, Russell Banks, Emma Bull, John Jakes, T.R. Pearson, David Morrell, Pat Conroy, Isaac Asimov, Edward Abbey, Tom Piccirilli, and too many more. Among Western writers, I’d have to say Dorothy M. Johnson, Jack Schaefer, Will Henry, Elmer Kelton, Fred Grove and A.B. Guthrie Jr. were my biggest influences. They showed me just how literary Western fiction can be. And Max Evans. I love that old mongrel! Among the newer breed of Western writers: David Wilkinson, Lucia St. Clair Robson, Mike Blakely, Jane Candia Coleman, Tim Champlin, Max McCoy, Elizabeth Crook and Michael Zimmer. Obviously, I read a lot.
Yet the biggest influence was Alexandre Dumas. I was 12 years old when I read The Three Musketeers one summer, and that’s probably when I truly understood just how far great literature could take me away from those tobacco rows.
Who do you write for?
Me. I know I can be hard to pin down -- a baseball novel, a comedy about Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody as actors, Revolutionary War novels, murder mysteries set in the West, Civil War tales, young adult adventures -- which undoubtedly frustrates my agent and editors to no end. I can hear them pleading, “Please, Johnny, for God’s sake, put a cowboy in your next book!” And, yes, I know I have to write something that publishers think they can sell. But, bottom line: I have to write a novel or short story that appeals to me, that challenges me.
Advice to fledgling Western writers?
Read, read, read, read. Research, research, research, research. Write, write, write, write. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Repeat the process. Then rewrite it again.
Thank you, Johnny, for taking part in this series.
Johnny's website: www.JohnnyDBoggs.com.
We keep talking about starting up a blog. I’ve been telling myself for years that I don’t have time to blog, that I write for a living, but you can’t overlook how technology and marketing keep changing. So I expect I’ll be blogging by sometime in 2011.
I’m on facebook -- friend me if you want -- and imagine I’ll try to figure out how to use it more for marketing and publicity, too.