Johnny Boggs Interview

Greasy Grass: A Story of the Little Bighorn
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Santa Fe–based author, Johnny D. Boggs, has written over sixty books plus numerous short stories. He has won six Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, a Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, and has been called by Booklist magazine “among the best western writers at work today.” He also writes for numerous magazines, including True West, Wild West, Boys’ Life and Western Art & Architecture.
Website: johnnydboggs.com
Books page: Click here.
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In a presentation that you gave, you said that you’re addicted to writing. Can you tell us a little more about what that means?

I can’t say I actually enjoy writing. There are probably dozens, maybe hundreds of things I’d rather be doing. But I can’t think of anything I HAVE to be doing other than write. It’s probably a tougher addiction to try to kick that cigarettes, but I don’t want to kick this writing habit.

 Why are you so drawn to write about the West?

I’ve done a few short stories that are contemporary Southern, and probably some of my novels aren’t what most readers or editors might call Westerns (Civil War, Revolutionary War, baseball, etc.), but I’ve always liked the freedom of the genre, and the history of the American West. And now I’m pretty well established as a “Western” writer,” so it would likely be a struggle for me to get published in something more mainstream. I grew up on Gunsmoke, and, growing up in South Carolina, just loved how a Western, be it a Will Henry novel or a James Stewart movie, or a TV show, could take me far, far away from those swamps and tobacco fields. And once I started reading histories of the American West, I just got in deeper and deeper and was completely and totally hooked.

 What is the most common underlying feeling that you think comes through in your novels about the old West and the people who lived there?

People are people. Really, there isn’t much difference in a person from the 1880s and the 21st Century. I think we all want the same thing. And usually I try to steer away from the Good Guy Vs. Bad Guy story. It’s probably from my journalism background that I try to tell both sides of all stories, and often it wasn’t good against evil, but people with strong opinions on what was right and what was wrong. Too often, those beliefs clashed.

 When you’re writing a novel, do your characters take on a life of their own? Are you ever surprised by the characters in your novels?

In long fiction, usually the characters are in control, and stay in MY control. I’ve said it often, that if you find the motivation of your character — taking the same approach as an actor would — you understand the character, and that makes the writing easier. But some of the minor players grow to life, and they often surprise me. I also usually write from a loose outline, so I have a pretty good idea where my story and my characters are going, especially since I often write historical fiction and the history dictates what will happen. Yet sometimes, something happens. In one of my Killstraight Western mysteries, I was about two chapters from the end when I realized that the person I thought had committed the murder wasn’t guilty. I had to do some revisions to bring the real culprit to justice.

 What do you think readers want to experience in books about the West or in books in general?

One of the best compliments I ever got came from a woman who told me: “I thought I was being entertained, but then realized I was being educated.” I hope they get a bit of a history lesson, learn how life was, or might have been, during the period I’m writing about. I strive hard for historical accuracy, although I always say, “Don’t quote me in your term paper.” I’m a novelist. I lie. I steal. I make things up. But I do hope my readers are entertained. If not, I’m not doing my job.

Who is an author who inspires you and why?

Well, my favorite writers are Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and Alexandre Dumas. My favorite novel is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Stevenson and Dumas wrote great adventures, Dickens could bring that past to life. Twain and London were masters, and I’ll reread Twain all the time, just to try to figure out how he could do it. Steinbeck had the vast range, could be hilarious, then dark, and always seemed willing to push the edge, break out of the mold, try different styles of writing. I’m a big fan of Russell Banks. He just never seems to repeat himself. But I really love just digging into a William P. McGivern or Raymond Chandler mystery. And I love how nonfiction writers like Hampton Sides, Michael Wallis and Jeff Guinn can take old stories and make them fresh, alive, vivid.

What has writing taught you about yourself?

Someone once found what she thought was a common theme in my works. The hero is always trying to find his or her identity, her place in the world, or, in short, who he or she is. I never thought about it until she said that, and then it struck me that maybe she’s right. We’re always looking for our place in the world, and that place, and who we are, sometimes changes as we grow and learn. And I’m hoping that I always continue to grow and learn. As a writer. As a husband and father. As a human being.

Do you think we should encourage children and young people to write? If so, why?

Absolutely. I know that children today have a lot more distractions, and a lot to do, but I just believe that people who read have a better understanding of the world in which they leave. And they need to know how to write. They don’t have to become professional writers, but people who can string words together in the written form and make those words make sense — with clarity and accuracy — have a much better chance of moving up in the world, and, I hope, making the world a better place for us all.

 What encouraging advice can you offer new writers?

Write. Write. Write. Read. Read. Read. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Develop a thick skin, but don’t ever get completely discouraged. A little bit of discouragement is OK. It’s unrealistic to think that you can do this without being discouraged, disgruntled, discombobulated. But shake it off. There’s always another sentence to write.