The storytelling skills of Johnny D. Boggs have earned him not only an audience of loyal readers, but respect among his peers.
A six-time Spur Award winner from Western Writers of America, Boggs has also been honored with the Western Heritage Wrangler Award.
A native of South Caroline, Boggs, along with his wife and son, make their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Born in 1962, Johnny started writing in third grade and sold the stories he created to his classmates for a nickel or dime. Looking back, he jokes, “My royalties were a lot higher then.”
Inspired by writers Jack Schaefer and Dorothy M. Johnson, he has made it his mission to create “richly drawn, literate” stories with multi-dimensional characters who give readers a sense of the spirit of the West.
Johnny admits he is still mesmerized by several heavyweight writers of the past and present. But, anyone who has read Boggs, will agree, I’m sure, he has mesmerized a few folks himself.
1. In a couple of sentences, tell us about SUMMER OF THE STAR, and then tell us what inspired the story.
SUMMER OF THE STAR is about an old cowhand, Mad Carter MacRae, who looks back on one of his first times up the Chisholm Trail, and the summer he spent in Ellsworth, Kansas, in 1873.
It’s a coming-of-age story set during that bloody summer. I guess you’d call it part Young Adult novel, part historical novel, part traditional Western.
I wanted to do a cattle drive novel that begins when the herd reaches the end of trail in some Kansas town. In 2002, I went to Ellsworth, Kansas, for a book signing, and researched the summer of 1873, Ellsworth’s pivotal and violent cowtown season.
The resident town historian, Jim Gray, walked me through town, and gave me a feel for what Ellsworth was like back then. It just took me a decade to get around to writing the novel.
2. I’ve read what really triggered your desire to write was reading the works of Jack Schaefer and Dorothy M. Johnson. What was it specifically about those two that provided such motivation?
I grew up in South Carolina, but my heart belonged to the West. I guess you can thank, or blame, Matt Dillon and The Virginian and John Wayne for that. By the time I was in high school, I wanted to be a writer, and I mostly wanted to write Westerns.
Most of the Western novels I could find in the 1970s were Louis L’Amours, and I’m not taking anything away from Louis, but those weren’t the kind of stories I wanted to write.
Then I bought and read Jack Schaefer’s SHANE. And then I discovered a copy of Dorothy M. Johnson’s THE HANGING TREE. And eventually I found a collection of Schaefer’s short stories.
Those weren’t shoot-em-ups, they were richly drawn, literate, wonderful stories, with characters who seemed real—not one-dimensional heroes. They wrote with a love of language, and a love of the West.
At that time, I focused on writing short stories—saying I couldn’t keep a train of thought long enough to tackle a novel—so I studied Johnson and Schaefer, eventually finding my own voice. But I think you can still catch their influence in what I write today.
Of course, now I realize that it’s much more difficult to write a short story than a novel. Johnson and Schaefer—and A.B. Guthrie Jr., Fred Grove, Elmer Kelton, Elmore Leonard, and other writers, like Raymond Chandler, David Morrell, Issac Asimov, Russell Banks, Sherman Alexie, William P. McGivern—still mesmerize me with their prose.
3. In addition to Schaefer and Johnson who would be the third writer you’d like to invite to dinner and what one – and different – question would you ask each one?
Mark Twain: He’s still my favorite. “I have this idea for a steamboat novel, so would you tell me everything I need to know that wasn’t in LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI?”
Schaefer: “How did you conceive and bring together MONTE WALSH?” SHANE gets the most attention, but I think MONTE WALSH is his masterpiece.
Johnson: “Will you show me how to write?”
4. Could you say something of your work habits? Do you outline or use charts? Or do you bounce from one section to another, or move from the beginning through to the end?
It’s a job. No inheritance, no retirement, no remittance money, and my wife’s a Realtor. So I’m usually in my home office in the morning either researching, writing, revising, interviewing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.
And I’m there until whenever, Monday through Friday. Saturdays depend on how far behind I am, but I try not to do too much work on Sunday.
For novels, usually I rely on an outline. But it’s a loose outline. I let the feel direct me, and find myself going back and tinkering or chunking parts of the outline.
I’ve never figured out a way to write books simultaneously, so I’m writing one book, beginning to end (although a couple of times I’ve written the ending before I got there), but at night I’m often reading for research for the next novel.
Usually, if I’m working on a novel (and not a magazine story), I’ll reread and rework what I wrote the day before, then move to the next chapter or page or sentence. And I revise a lot. A whole lot.
5. E. M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Is this a good thing or bad, and what has it happened to you?
What I’ve found is that some minor characters build up their roles, not that they’re upstaging the major characters, but sometimes they get bigger parts that I had imagined. Perry Hopkins in SUMMER OF THE STAR, for instance.
Since I write historical novels, or novels grounded solidly in history, I pretty much know where the story’s going. And the characters better know that, too. But that’s why I use the loose outline. If you write from a rigid outline, you run the risk of writing a story that becomes predictable, and if the reader finds it predictable, you’re in trouble.
On the other hand, I’ve read books that go off on these wild tangents that have nothing to do with the plot or story. So there’s a fine line. One thing I try to do, though, is to make the dialogue spontaneous … not forced or staged.
I did a novel called KILLSTRAIGHT, a period mystery set on the Comanche reservation in the 1880s, and when I got maybe two chapters from the end, my hero informed me that the person I had committing the crime didn’t do it.
So I had to go back and convict the right killer. That’s about as close I’ve come to have a character speak to me. When I turn of my Mac, the people I’m writing about don’t follow me out of the office.
6. You mentioned in your bio that the American West “isn’t as much of a physical place as it is spiritual.” Elaborate on that a little.
I think the West is more of a way you feel, a spirit. Besides, I don’t like boundaries, and I don’t like fences. EAST OF THE BORDER is a novel I wrote about the 1873-74 theatrical careers of Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok and Texas Jack Omohundro. Most of that is set in the Northeast.
And I’ve written two novels set in the South Carolina Backcountry during the American Revolution and have another on tap, THE CANE CREEK REGULATORS, set in the Carolina Backcountry before the Revolution. But that was the frontier, just as James Fenimore Cooper wrote about upstate New York.
To me, those are Westerns. So are Tony Hillerman’s, and Craig Johnson’s and Michael McGarrity’s and C.J. Box’s contemporary mysteries.
I argue that THE GRAPES OF WRATH is a Western. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN? Absolutely. Anyway, I just don’t believe the West begins in 1865 and ends in 1890, and I don’t believe Westerns have to be set west of the Mississippi River. Although trying to convince publishers of that can be a thankless, pointless effort.
7. What else do you want readers to know? Likes, dislikes, interests and hobbies; your favorite ways to unwind.
I like movies. I’ve even written about Western film: JESSE JAMES AND THE MOVIES and the forthcoming BILLY THE KID ON FILM, 1911-2012.
Of course, one of these days I’d like to be able to write about really good movies. I like film noirs. I like Busby Berkeley’s musicals. I like theater, INHERIT THE WIND, BURIED CHILD, THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, Shakespeare. Best play I ever saw? George C. Scott’s one-man CLARENCE DARROW.
I love baseball. That’s why I wrote CAMP FORD, my Civil War-Baseball-Western.
My 11-year-old son and I just finished an epic summer boys trip, 12 games (seven majors, five minors) in 10 cities over 14 days, including a stop at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, two walk-off wins, one extra-inning game and one twi-night doubleheader.
Naturally, I managed to fit in research for some magazine articles and novels during the trip.
And, of course, I’d never be able to do what I do without the support of my family.
Learn more about Johnny and his books at his Website.