Sixty-two books. Eight Western Writers of America Spur Awards. One mortgage. That’s Santa Fe author Johnny D. Boggs by the numbers.
Boggs is about to add to his total. He’s currently working on five separate book projects: three on film history and two Western novels.
A Thousand Texas Longhorns, available in October from Pinnacle Books, is one of Boggs’ grandest works to date. It’s a sprawling trail saga about the 1866 Nelson Story cattle drive that also inspired Larry McMurtry’s 1985 classic Lonesome Dove. “The more I researched Nelson Story, the more I realized he was completely unlikable,” says Boggs who doesn’t blame McMurtry for turning Story into a more pleasant fictionalized character. In his version of the Story tale, Boggs hewed to the research.
“Authenticity is a matter of doing one’s homework, and Johnny is a passionate researcher,” says fellow mystery and Western writer Loren D. Estleman. “He’s a storyteller in the best sense of the term.”
Publisher’s Weekly summed up Boggs’ approach to Westerns in their review of his 2009 novel Hard Winter: A Western Story. “Add a train derailment, feuds, a missing woman, and a hard-case gunman wearing a lawman’s badge, and Boggs has produced a tender and suspenseful Western that doesn’t need to rely on gun smoke.”
The review doesn’t mention grizzlies, but there’s one of those too. “You know what they say about a bear? The smaller the ears, the bigger the bear. Well, that was one mighty big bear, looked more like a buffalo with that hump of muscle atop his shoulders, and its brown fur matted and shaggy. Fierce teeth and giant claws. Stood close to eight feet tall on its hind legs,” Boggs writes in Hard Winter.
Boggs was raised on a farm and picked up his interest in Westerns watching episodes of Gunsmoke while growing up in South Carolina. He “would watch anything on TV that had someone on a horse and wearing a hat,” Boggs says. He also was influenced by Western authors Dorothy M. Johnson (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and Jack Schaefer (Shane), and mystery writers like Raymond Chandler.
After graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of South Carolina, he took a job with the Dallas Times Herald covering sports. He moved up the ranks at the paper and became an assistant sports editor. After the Times Herald shuttered, Boggs moved over to the sports desk at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Meanwhile, Boggs wrote short stories for literary magazines and experimented with genres. “I made the mistake of sending the first Southern one to my parents and soon realized if I wanted to be invited home for the holidays, I’d be better off sticking to writing about the West,” Boggs says.
“People would ask me if I wanted to try to write a novel, and I said I couldn’t hold a train of thought long enough to do that, but eventually I did,” Boggs says. “Took me about three years to write and three-and-a-half years to sell.”
Boggs found a publisher in New York for his next book. “They wanted short, short, short novels. Forty thousand words is about what I turned in. They were potboilers. They had strict guidelines. No profanity. No extreme violence. No sex. And, they wanted happy endings,” says Boggs. At the Telegram, Boggs’ boss asked who would want to read such puritanical work. “My mom,” Boggs told him.
“Writing these tight potboilers did help me learn about plotting, character development, and moving the story forward,” he says. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block if you want to keep your job. You’ve got to tell the story tightly, accurately, and with few words as possible.”
Off the strength of the potboilers, Boggs left his position at the Telegram to focus on novels. He also moved to Santa Fe and supplemented his books with freelance magazine assignments. “What drives me is the abject fear of not being able to do this for a living,” he says.
Deadlines drive him too. “The only time I know it’s finished is when the editors are saying, ‘We really need this.’ I do try — I’m not always successful — but I try to hit the deadline,” he says.
When Boggs starts a novel, typically he thinks in terms of point of view. “That’s where it starts out. ‘What is the story?’ and then, after that it goes, ‘OK. How am I gonna tell the story?’ and it comes to first person, third person, I’ve done a few multi-first persons,” he says. “First person is always dangerous, because there has to be a reason to tell the story in the first person.”
Boggs, though, likes to keep the momentum going. “Everything,” he says, “has to move the plot and the characters.”
He often outlines his stories but allowed himself a little more freedom while working one of his young adult novels, Doubtful Cañon. “I had a general idea of where I wanted to go with it, but I wasn’t exactly sure how I was gonna end or what was gonna happen on the journey,” Boggs says. The journey, as it turned out, took Boggs to another Spur Award.
The Spur Award is the top prize given annually by the Western Writers of America. Founded in 1953, Western Writers promotes Western literature and distributes Spur Awards in more than a dozen categories.
In addition to his fiction writing, Boggs has written a handful of film studies and has three more in the works. One is about movies that depict the newspaper industry. Another details historical accuracy in a handful of films. The final book tackles Westerns in cinema.
Estleman, a productive author in his own right, tried to explain Boggs’ output. “No one can explain the secret of prolific output. It’s a matter of metabolism. It took Margaret Mitchell 10 years to write Gone With the Wind; Johnny D. Boggs could conceivably write 10 books in one year. Does that mean Gone With the Wind is 100 times better than, say, West Texas Kill because of the time it took her to finish it? Certainly not, based on so rigid a science as math. Johnny has published much because he can; he’s a professional who works at his craft. And it’s just a hunch, but I suspect that if you were to total the hours he spends on one project, they would closely match those Mitchell invested in her magnum opus, spread out over 120 months.”
Boggs has a simpler accounting for his motivation and methodology. “It’s called a mortgage,” he says. ◀