Western Writers of America (WWA) has chosen Santa Fe–based Johnny D. Boggs as the 2020 recipient of its Owen Wister Award for lifetime contributions to Western literature. His dozens of published books and hundreds of articles, essays, columns and short stories certainly establish his claim on the award, and no one can argue with his status as the most recognized Western writer among his peers. WWA has bestowed on Boggs eight Spur Awards and named him a finalist 14 times for his novels and short stories. He also boasts a Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City as well as recognition from several other organizations and institutions. Boggs, who was raised in South Carolina and worked as a sportswriter in Texas before turning freelancer, publishes three to four books a year (novels and nonfiction), is a Wild West special contributor and edits the WWA journal, Roundup. His new novel Buckskin, Bloomers and Meblends a historical story of women’s baseball in the early 20th century with the coming-of-age story of a teenage boy. He centers another novel, The Raven’s Honor, on iconic Texas leader Sam Houston and analyses the best in Western film in the nonfiction reference book The American West on Film.
Why do film, baseball and outlaws recur as themes in your writing?
Television and film drew me out West. I’m not where I am today without Gunsmoke and The Dakotas, Rio Bravo and Ride the High Country. What they showed me—and took me to—was vastly different than the swamps, tobacco fields and pine forests I knew. Film courses in college fueled my thirst for knowing more about filmmaking. My hometown was a baseball town, and as a sportswriter I covered plenty of baseball games—high school, American Legion, college and minor leagues. Even if I am the worst ballplayer to come out of Florence County, I turned into a pretty good kids’ coach and umpire. There are some great stories to be found on baseball fields. Outlaws? Well, that’s mostly the James-Younger Gang and the Kansas-Missouri border wars, and that’s probably because those are as much Southern stories as they are Western stories. I don’t like “the boys,” but they fascinate me.
How do settle on a topic to write about?
It has to be a subject I’m in the mood to tackle, something that I want to delve into, and I have to figure out how I can stamp it as my own. Or, this being a business, it’s when an editor says I’ll get paid to write about a particular subject.
Is it easier to conceive a plot or create characters?
Nothing’s easy in this line of work, but the characters interest me. My late literary agent told me early on he wanted character-driven fiction, not plot-driven. I don’t think I know how to write a plot-driven story. Through their decisions, right or wrong, characters drive the plot. Without characters there’s no story. So, my focus is always on the character. People tuned into Gunsmoke for 20 years because of the characters. John Wayne is an unlikable SOB in The Searchers, but he’s mesmerizing. And while the original 3:10 to Yuma (the remake has the mentality of a video game) is basically about two men sitting in a hotel room talking, you can’t stop watching, because those characters—and the choices they’ll have to make—are utterly compelling.
In your historical fiction, how much is historical?
It depends on the novel and the character and what I’m trying to create, but I try to stay relatively true to what we know about the historical people. I’ll often use their actual words, or something close to their actual words, in dialogue and stay as close to the historical record as possible. So, for example, Billy the Kid isn’t going to be a hero saving the girl from Dracula, and Jesse James isn’t going to be Tyrone Power fighting for the common man. In The Raven’s Honor, about the last years of Sam Houston’s life, I wasn’t thinking about Sam; I was writing about my father. Both Sam and Daddy had their own demons and their own honor—and strong wives who weren’t afraid to stand up to them. But, as I always say, “Don’t quote me in your term paper.”
How do you write for young people vs. adult readers?
Just because your hero is a kid doesn’t make it YA [young adult] fiction. That’s a mistake many writers make. There are rules. You generally want to make your central figure about two or three years older than your reading audience. Boys want to read about boys, whereas girls will read anything. Another common mistake is writing “down” to kids. Kids are smart, and those today grew up in a post-9/11 world. You want to put your hero in a situation that he or she doesn’t really want to be in but has to get through it…or else. While J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins changed what children’s and young adult fiction can and should be, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet still resonates. When I started writing YA Westerns, my agent told me it was a terrible mistake, but I said if we don’t get our kids interested in the American West, we won’t have readers 20 or 30 years from now. He eventually told me I was right—and he’s never, ever said that.
Which writers have influenced your writing?
When I was 12 Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers showed me how literature could take you out of humid South Carolina and into 1600s France. Mark Twain, Jack London, Charles Dickens and Raymond Chandler are my favorite writers. Dorothy M. Johnson, Jack Schaefer and A.B. Guthrie Jr. were the Western writers who captured me with their prose, that sense of place and their strong, believable characters. Max Evans and the late Claire Huffaker, Fred Grove and Elmer Kelton did the same. In nonfiction, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee moved me like it did millions of readers. I’ve always admired Michael Wallis’ and Hampton Sides’ ability to make an often-told story seem fresh and vibrant. Jim Donovan…Bob Utley…There are far too many to list. And I can’t omit Jeff Guinn. We both came out of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Jeff was in features, and I was assistant sports editor. At a Spur Awards banquet a few years back Jeff said, “Think about it, Johnny. Maybe 300 journalists were working at the paper when we were there, every one of them dreaming of writing books or novels full time. And who wound up doing it? You and me – the two biggest slackers in the newsroom.” If you read Jeff’s The Last Gunfight or his Bonnie and Clyde biography, you know why he’s up there with the best.
What type of character do you enjoy creating?
Complicated. Confused. Trying to figure out his or her place, who he or she is. Someone on a journey, physically and mentally. And not the narrow-hipped, broad-shouldered, 6-foot-2 super hero who can take a .45-caliber slug through the shoulder and not flinch and never misses a shot or makes a dumbass decision.
Why so few books about cowboys?
Hey, I write about cowboys—Return to Red River, The Lonesome Chisholm Trail, Hard Winter, Summer of the Star, while A Thousand Texas Longhorns, about Nelson Story’s 1866 cattle drive from Texas to Montana, is due out in December 2020 from Kensington’s Pinnacle imprint. But, yeah, I probably write more about ne’er-do-wells.
Why not more nonfiction?
Actually, the three contracts I have right now are all nonfiction: Sports on Film and books on movies about American newspaper journalism and the making and legacy of Red River. And I’ve been talking with a publisher about a biography of a Western figure. That said, I’m talking to editors about novels, too, but the Western nonfiction market is strong right now, especially in film, and I write for a living.
What’s your favorite aspect of writing?
I like the research. Whether it’s hiking to a mountain stream, poring over microfilm in a library, searching for information on Newspapers.com or NewspaperArchive.com, or interviewing Mickey Kuhn about his work on Red River. The writing? Not so much. I’m always looking for an excuse not to write. The writing is hard. The research is fun. Short fiction is the hardest form of prose to write, so I guess I find it the most rewarding when I finish something that’s halfway decent. And my first Spur was for a short story, “A Piano at Dead Man’s Crossing.”
Years ago screenwriter Burt Kennedy told me, ‘Always make your villain stronger than your hero. That way, when the hero defeats the villain at the end, it’s a bigger accomplishment’
What challenges did you face writing The American West on Film?
That was one of the first books in ABC-CLIO’s new Hollywood History series, so I was sort of a guinea pig. It’s one thing to compare Hollywood history to actual history in a film based on real people or real events, like Young Guns or Tombstone, but trying to find a historical focus on purely fictional films like High Noon or The Ox-Bow Incident strained the mind.
The hardest part was picking the movies. My editor and I went through multiple rounds trying to figure that out. It proved even harder with the book I’m working on now, Sports on Film. And I asked my wife, Lisa, and son, Jack, often if they’d like to watch a movie with me. Nine times out of 10 they had something better to do, while I had to sit through those movies at least twice. The good part about The American West on Film was that, compared to the Jesse James and Billy the Kid movie books, I got to watch mostly good films.
How difficult was it to write Return to Red River, given that the characters weren’t from your own imagination?
You have to be faithful to the original author’s vision and his interpretations of the characters he created. Borden Chase was writing in the 1940s, and visions of the West have changed substantially in the 21st century. Chase was also writing escapism literature, and I’m more grounded in historical fiction. Finally, I went into the project knowing that while many people know the movie Red River, few today are familiar with Chase’s original novel. As in most films, there are significant differences between the novel and the movie, including the fates of more than one character. I read Chase’s novel several times while writing Return to Red River but purposely did not look at the movie. That was hard, too, because Red River is among my favorites.
Which Western films feature the best characters?
Years ago screenwriter Burt Kennedy told me, “Always make your villain stronger than your hero. That way, when the hero defeats the villain at the end, it’s a bigger accomplishment.” So I’m drawn to those Westerns Burt wrote for actor Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher, particularly Seven Men From Now, Comanche Station, The Tall T and Ride Lonesome. You can see the mutual respect the hero and bad guy have for each other, and you can also see that, except for fate or luck, those roles could’ve been reversed. I’m not a huge fan of the original The Magnificent Seven, but it amazes me how in just one or two scenes you learn everything you need to know about those seven gunmen.
Which boast the best plots?
I like a plot when you can’t figure out where it’s headed—for example, Bite the Bullet, Blood on the Moon, Ulzana’s Raid or spaghettis like A Bullet for the General and The Great Silence. And I like Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur because you’re emotionally and physically exhausted—just like the Jimmy Stewart character—at the end. I also like plots taken from non-Western sources: King of Texas, from King Lear; The Claim, from a Thomas Hardy novel; Colorado Territory, a remake of the crime movie High Sierra. Even Reprisal!, a crappy Guy Madison “B” from 1956, is intriguing, only because it’s based on a novel about a Georgia lynching. Those films show just how adaptable the Western truly is. I’d like to see a Western version of The Big Sleep. Maybe that screenwriter could figure out the plot.
Are you game for exploring a new genre?
I’ve toyed with the idea of a contemporary mystery, or a Western-set contemporary thriller, and I’ve thought returning to those Southern roots. But I’ve been making a living writing about the West full time for 21 years and living here for 36 years. That’s longer than I lived and wrote in the South. This is home.
The three nonfiction movie books, and we’ll see what happens with that biography project. I still have that list of ideas for novels and nonfiction projects, and that list keeps growing. There’s magazine work, and I hope a novel down the pike. Hey, I have a son entering college so… WW