Monday, April 25, 2011

The Monday Interview -- Johnny D. Boggs

Fueled by a lifelong passion for American history and a more recent desire to make mortgage payments, Spur Award-winning author Johnny D. Boggs has written more than 20 nonfiction books and novels, plus thousands of newspaper and magazine articles. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife and son.

Tell us about your new novel?

WEST TEXAS KILL is about a rogue Texas Ranger captain in the 1880s who decides to take over his territory for his own personal gain. The only person who can stop him is a Ranger sergeant, but he has his hands full trying to bring in a black man charged with murder. They have to work together, if they don't kill each other first. And I have a Young Adult novel, SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST, due out this summer. It follows an escaped Union POW and a runaway slave as they make their way from South Carolina to Texas during the waning days of the Civil War.

How is this novel different than your previous novels?

WEST TEXAS KILL fairly tongue-in-cheek, which I've done pretty often, but I wanted to combine the elements of a solid thriller with interesting characters (I hope). I studied a lot of David Morrell because I don't think you'll find a better writer of thrillers who makes his characters far from one-dimensional. And David's a super nice guy, too. I also decided to keep the action moving like a runaway freight train, in the style of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, giving the readers little time to catch their breath (or consider the holes in the plot)! And since Texas Rangers are usually portrayed -- and rightfully so -- as Roy Rogers-white-hat-wearing, John Wayne-tough, Joel McCrea-super-honest and Randolph Scott-ultra-brave lawmen, I thought it would be fun to turn a bunch of Rangers into ruthless bad guys. I don't think they'll want me to do any signings in Waco at the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame, though a Ranger does save the day. SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST pretty much follows Interstate 20, which I've traveled countless times, and I wanted to show the destruction of the Civil War in the war-torn South through the eyes of two teen-agers. I'm a big proponent of getting kids hooked on reading and hooked on American history, so I try to do a Young Adult novel in addition to novels aimed at more mature audiences.

Do you feel like you have to defend yourself for writing "genre fiction"?

Loren Estleman sent me a letter a month or so back after reading an interview in which I said William P. McGivern is one of my favorite writers. To paraphrase Loren, McGivern could write rings around seven of the ten writers on the New York Times best-seller list. I'd probably agree. McGivern was a genre writer, but his prose in crime novels like THE BIG HEAT, ROGUE COP and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW is practically perfect. I read him all the time.

Raymond Chandler wrote mysteries, but his novels are great American literature. Science fiction is considered a genre, but Walter Miller's A CANTICLE FOR LEBOWITZ is one of the best novels I've ever read. Jane Austen wrote what we'd define today as romance. Larry McMurtry's LONESOME DOVE and Bud Guthrie's THE WAY WEST are Westerns, and they also happened to win Pulitzer Prizes.

I'm ranting, and not answering your question. No, I don't defend myself. I write what I want to write, and I know my agent and editors often wish I'd write something they could peg in a genre. I can be all over the board: Western, historical, Revolutionary War, Civil War, mystery, Young Adult, sports, comedy, blending themes and turning the Western genre on its ear. But I have little use for people who thumb their noses at any genre. Literary snobs. That said, if you looked at my list of favorite novels, you'd find a lot of classics -- Twain, Dumas, Dickens, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Conrad, Stevenson, Scott. On the other hand, I think F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY sucks.

Why do you write westerns?

It probably started watching GUNSMOKE with my dad on Monday nights as a kid. And John Wayne movies. I played hooky once during my senior year in high school to catch FORT APACHE. By then I was reading Westerns -- Louis L'Amour, Elmer Kelton, Will Henry -- and when I started reading Western histories and biographies -- I had always been interested in history -- I realized that the American West was far more complicated, and far more interesting than GUNSMOKE, which was truly a great series, and L'Amour could ever really show.

I write what interests me. What intrigues me. What fascinates me. What challenges me. The West, or a better term might be the American frontier since some of my Westerns are set in the Revolutionary-era Southeast, interests, intrigues and fascinates me, and challenges me as a writer. Most of my fiction, though not all, is solidly grounded in history, but I always tell people, "Don't quote me in your term paper."

What are the difficulties and pleasures of writing?

There's no pleasure in writing. It's an addiction, a disease. I'm an addict. Without writing, I'd be climbing the walls. Difficulties? Try writing for a living! I have no retirement, no trust fund, no inheritance. If I don't produce, my family's in deep do-do. The pleasure comes in that I set my own hours, can watch my son grow up and take him on research trips in the summer, and spend time with my wife and not be bound by a 9-to-5 job and asshole boss. But here's the real pleasure: A few months back I got an email from a fifth-grade teacher in Tampa, Florida. Her students had read a short story that Boys' Life published. It wasn't a Western, but dealt with integration, racism and high school football in the 1960s South. Each of her students wrote me telling me how much they enjoyed the story, how much it resonated with them, how they wish I'd expand it into a novel. You can't hang that on your wall, but something like that means more to me than any Spur or Wrangler award or multi-book contract.

When did you know you were a writer?

Third grade. The assignment was "Write a Tale." I.e., make something up. I have no idea what I wrote, but I remember that feeling, and I knew right then that I had to be a writer.

What’s a work day like for you?

Typically, I'm in the office at my desk no later than 8:30 a.m., and am working till I pick my son up from school that afternoon. At least five days a week, and often I do some Saturday work. Since I write for many magazines, the work day will depend on the deadlines. I might be interviewing someone about Malbec wines in the morning, proofreading a travel story before lunch, then spending the afternoon working on a novel, or researching something. I like the variety. It keeps my mind active and my writing, I hope, fresh. That's another reason that I try to make the novel I'm writing completely different in tone, style, setting, plot from the one I just finished. I never want to be pegged as a such-and-such writer.

What’s a day off like for you?

I love to cook. I coach Little League baseball, am den leader for my son's Cub Scout group. Chores around the house. Church (not as often as I should). Reading a book (though I'm usually reading for research or analyzing a fiction writer's technique), or watching a film noir or some old movie. Once a month, I get together with a few other writers in Santa Fe for Movie Night. We watch a couple of old Westerns, eat, drink, and discuss the films. Last time it was Ride, Vaquero! with Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel and Anthony Quinn, followed by The Man Behind the Gun with Randolph Scott. Neither was good, but sometimes we discover overlooked or underrated gems like Tomahawk, Silver Lode and Fort Massacre.

If you could be anything other than writer, what would it be?

Actor. I took a number of theater classes in college, and fell in love with acting, but, wisely or stupidly, I'm not sure, decided that I had to be a writer. Still, I use some of that training in my fiction. It sounds like a cliche -- find your motivation -- but it works. Once I nail the character's motivation, writing comes a lot easier.

Any advice for new writers, especially those considering self-publishing instead of taking the traditional route to publishing?

E-books have certainly changed publishing and the way some people look at self-published books. I won't dismiss self-published writers. I figure if they're willing to pay to publish, they have a lot more faith in their work than I have in mine. But they better have a really strong copy editor go through that book first, and they had better have a marketing and business plan or they'll wind up with a garage full of books. For any writer, my advice is read, read, read, research, research, research, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and do it again and again and again. You'll often hear people say: Write what you know. I don't buy that. If I wrote what I knew, I'd have a very short career. Write what interests you, but do your homework. And proofread that manuscript, and have your significant other read it, before you send it in.

How do you define success?

Let's see. If a baseball player who gets three hits in ten at-bats is considered a star, then if three of ten stories, articles or books turn out halfway decent ...? Nah. It's not money. It's not awards. It's not seeing a line at a book-signing. I'm doing what I want to be doing, what I think I was born to do. That's success for me.

What’s next for you?

I have a novel due in June. It's Book 3 in my Killstraight mystery series, about a young Comanche detective on the reservation in the 1880s. And another novel due in December, a Civil War story about two teen-agers, one Union and the other Confederate, at the battles of Shiloh and Corinth. I have a nonfiction book, JESSE JAMES AND THE MOVIES, coming out this fall, and as a follow-up I'm writing about BILLY THE KID AND THE MOVIES. That manuscript's due next spring. Talk about mediocre and lousy movies! And I have a pitch in for another novel, and am waiting to hear back on that one. I'm busy. And I have plenty of magazine assignments, so I'd better get back to work.


David Cranmer said...

Great interview. Thank you, both.

And I'm looking forward to reading WEST TEXAS KILL.

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Another fine interview, gents. Johnny Boggs is one of my favorite writers (and I'm pleased to say I've gotten to know him via WWA). A new book by Mr. Boggs is always cause for a visit to the bookstore.

Ron Scheer said...

Enjoyed this interview. I read NORTHFIELD a short while ago and really appreciated the care that went into making a story I knew well seem fresh again. Appreciated mention of A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ which still circulates in memory more than 50 years after reading it.