Western Writers of America, in the role of past president, and has helped lead the organization for many years. He is also the new editor of the WWA journal, Roundup.Johnny D. Boggs does what a writer does—he writes and writes and writes. Along with his novels and nonfiction books the South Carolina native has written hundreds of articles for more than 50 newspapers and magazines. He is a frequent contributor to Wild West, as well as New Mexico Magazine, Persimmon Hill, Western & English Today, Western Art & Architecture, True West and Boys’ Life. He is a former copy editor for The Dallas Times Herald and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. But he does more than just write. Boggs is completing his final year as a board member of the
Boggs has earned four WWA Spur Awards (including one for his Civil War/baseball novel Camp Ford and another for his short story “A Piano at Dead Man’s Crossing”), as well as a Western Heritage Wrangler Award for his novel Spark on the Prairie: The Trial of the Kiowa Chiefs. Coaching his son Jack in Little League and assisting with Jack’s Boy Scout troop have inspired Boggs to write for young adult readers. Two of his Spurs are for juvenile fiction—Doubtful Cañon and Hard Winter—and his latest book for young adults is South by Southwest, the story of Zeb Hogan, a teenager who escapes from a prisoner of war camp in Florence, S.C., and runaway slave Ebenezer Chase, who wants to find his wife and daughter and exact vengeance on a traitor to the Union. Boggs’ novels Killstraight, Northfield, The Hart Brand and Ten and Me and his short story “The Cody War” were Spur finalists. His love of Western movies led him to write Jesse James and the Movies, and he’s working on Billy the Kid and the Movies. Boggs, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., with wife Lisa and Jack, shares more about his work.
‘I get to do what I want to do and, for the most part, write what I want to write. So while I might sometimes wonder how I’ll pay this bill, I’m definitely successful’
What drew you west from South Carolina to Texas and now New Mexico?
Right out of college, I got a job as a sports reporter at The Dallas Times Herald. Of course, most of the newspapers I applied to were out West, so I was just following Horace Greeley’s advice to go west, and Texas called. New Mexico was a fluke. After almost 15 years in newspapers in Dallas and Fort Worth, I was burned out and sick of Texas weather and Dallas traffic and crime. I cracked a joke to my wife that we should move to Santa Fe. Lucky for us, she didn’t take it as a joke, and a couple of months later we were on our way to Santa Fe. We’ve been here more than 13 years.
How did you get hooked on Western movies?
It started out by watching television. I grew up at the tail end of the Western TV craze, watching Gunsmoke on Mondays with my dad, and movies just morphed out of that. There was a TV station in Charleston we could pick up if the antenna wanted to be helpful and the wind was blowing just right, and it showed a lot of Westerns, even had a “John Wayne Theater” on Saturday afternoons. The films probably made an impression because the West—at least, Hollywood’s West
—seemed a long way from the swamps and tobacco fields where I grew up. And it is true, in my senior year in high school I did play hooky to watch Fort Apache. Then in college I took a number of film and theater courses, which fueled a passion for film history. That said, give me a choice between an Anthony Mann–directed Western or an Anthony Mann–directed film noir, and I’d have to flip a coin, maybe two or three times, before picking one to watch.
How do you compare the Westerns of yesteryear to today’s fare?
Films are usually a product of their generation. That might be why some of the lower-budget films from the 1950s appeal to me, as filmmakers worked modern themes such as paranoia, the Cold War and McCarthyism into their Western plots. Thomas Ince was making what we today would call “revisionist” Westerns in the early 1900s, and a number of William Hart silent movies hold up well. Lillian Gish’s performance in 1928’s The Wind and John Ford’s direction of 1925’s The Iron Horse still amaze me. But I think Westerns had a hard time finding their way once sound entered the scene, and I don’t think you find many good ones from the 1930s until after World War II. The golden age is probably 1947–62, and then they start fading into mediocrity. Westerns find some new life with the Italian spaghettis—I think Sergio Corbucci might even be a better director than Sergio Leone—and a handful of good American-made revisionist Westerns in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since then it has been hard to find good Westerns. Other than Gunsmoke and the seldom-seen, short-lived The Westerner, I’m not a big fan of TV Westerns. Gunsmoke was adult and had a great ensemble cast. The Westerner was Sam Peckinpah—enough said. But I still have a soft spot for The Virginian—you’d find cowboys actually working cattle sometimes in that one. And Maverick was great because it often poked fun of the genre. The 1959 episode “Gun-Shy,” which spoofed Gunsmoke, is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on TV.
I liked the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, didn’t care much at all for the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, hated September Dawn and thought Appaloosa just kinda sat there. I’m waiting to see if AMC’s Hell on Wheels finds its groove. Everybody seems to want to copy HBO’s Deadwood.
Which came first, your research on Jesse James or your interest in him through the movies?
I was always intrigued more by Frank James and Cole Younger than Jesse. And since it’s hard to find a really great movie about Jesse James—and, trust me, I’ve seen more than I wanted to—the research came first, mainly for the novels Arm of the Bandit and Northfield. The latter novel led to me being asked to speak at a national James-Younger Gang convention, so, not wanting to get into anything controversial, I decided to speak about Jesse in the movies. That, in turn, led to a magazine article, and that got me curious and eventually obsessed. So that led to my book Jesse James and the Movies.
And next comes Billy the Kid?
That’s right. Billy the Kid and the Movies. One of these days maybe I’ll write about a Western historical figure Hollywood actually made some good movies about.
What makes it hard for filmmakers to make a good movie about Jesse James or Billy the Kid?
Jesse James had a career that, if you don’t count the Civil War, lasted 16 years, and it’s hard to boil that down into a two-hour movie. The Lincoln County War, and therefore the story of Billy the Kid, gets really complicated, which again is hard to condense. It’s a lot easier for a screenwriter and director to turn a 30-second gunfight (à la OK Corral) into a good movie.
You argue that filmmakers aren’t supposed to be making accurate histories?
Not unless they are making a documentary. Films are supposed to entertain. Now, in the Jesse and Billy movie books, I compare Hollywood’s version of history to the real stories, but when I watch a movie, I want to be entertained. My Darling Clementine, which got the year of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral wrong, entertains. I have to admit that Chisum is a guilty pleasure. I even like They Died With Their Boots On. Son of the Morning Star and Gods and Generals got the history right but failed at entertainment.
You do a lot of research for your novels, so why not just write nonfiction books?
Facts can be confining. In fiction, my imagination can take over, although, yes, I try to make my novels fairly truthful. But I always say, “Don’t quote me in your term paper.” I also think I’m better at fiction than nonfiction.
Which of your books is your favorite?
Camp Ford. It combined some of my favorite things: the Civil War, the West and baseball. The only things missing were hamburgers and huevos rancheros. Researching baseball was a blast, and I was pleased because none of my publishers knew how to market it. Was it a baseball novel? A Western? What? I call it literature’s first Civil War-Historical-Prisoner-of-War-Camp-Escape-Baseball-Western.
Which was the most difficult to write?
Northfield. Putting 23 first-person viewpoints into a narrative was brutal. I told myself I’d never do it again. Now I’m probably going to do it again with a novel about the Little Big Horn. I’m a glutton for punishment.
Who most influenced your own writing?
Mark Twain is my favorite writer. I admire A.B. Guthrie Jr., Elmer Kelton, Fred Grove, Elmore Leonard, Hampton Sides, J.K. Rowling, William P. McGivern, Russell Banks, David Morrell, Tony Hillerman, Richard Peck, Lucia St. Clair Robson, Douglas C. Jones, Charles Dickens, Jack London, Emma Bull, Gary Paulsen and Alexandre Dumas. But Dorothy M. Johnson and Jack Schaefer—especially in their short stories—struck me the hardest: literary fiction masters who just happened to write about the West.
What trends do you see in Western fiction?
Trends keep changing. There’s a current move for crossover genres, which I like. All right, I’m not that curious about Wyatt Earp hunting vampires or the Lone Ranger chasing after werewolves. But mysteries set in the West, I like that. And I especially like what they call crossover YAs, books for young adults that appeal to older adults. I’ve always lobbied hard that to keep readers interested in the West, we must start earlier, and it’s important to give pre-teens and teenagers—especially boys—something they can read and enjoy.
How is the rapidly changing marketplace influencing what you are writing?
I follow the advice my friend David Morrell gives: "Don’t chase the market." And I’m not about to argue with Rambo’s daddy. I write what I want to write. Period.
How about other writers? Do you see any shifts in the types of stories being told or in the manner of telling?
I’m a big fan of experimentation. Nonlinear narratives, multi-narratives and the crossover markets I mentioned earlier. Emma Bull took a wonderful idea in Territory by making Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday warlocks. Tony Hillerman wrote about men with hats, badges and guns bringing law and order to the West; it just happened that his heroes were Navajo cops in contemporary times. What I don’t like, and I get this a lot, is publishers saying that a Western has to be set between 1865 and 1890, has to be set west of the Mississippi River, and it would be great if you could kill somebody in the first chapter and keep the blood spilling. I don’t like fences. Publishing is changing, and I’m hoping we can continue to tear down a lot of those fences that editors, especially Western fiction editors, want to keep stringing up.
What possessed you to edit Roundup?
Insanity. The person I thought would never leave, left. And I always have found it hard to say “no,” especially to people I like, trust and admire. [Interviewer Candy Moulton recently left her job as Roundup editor to become executive director of WWA.]
How do you measure your success?
I get to do what I want to do and, for the most part, write what I want to write. So while I might sometimes wonder how I’ll pay this bill, I’m definitely successful.