"EVERY CATTLE DRIVE STORY IS ABOUT A JOURNEY": AN INTERVIEW WITH LONGHORNS EAST'S JOHNNY D. BOGGS
Johnny D. Boggs is no stranger to cattle drive novels. With books like A Thousand Texas Longhorns and The Lonesome Chisolm Trail, his pen has moved his share of herds. In his latest, Longhorns East, he takes his cue from Tom Candy Ponting, a transplanted Englishman who oversaw a drive from Texas to New York in the early eighteen-fifties. Mr. Boggs gave us some entertaining and insightful answers about the book, the cattle drive novel, and being on actual drives.
SCOTT MONTGOMERY: How did you discover Tom Candy Ponting's story?
JOHNNY D. BOGGS: Ponting and his drive to New York City were mentioned in David Dary's Cowboy Culture and a couple of other nonfiction books about cattlemen and cattle drives. When my editor asked me for another novel about an actual cattle drive, I brought up Ponting. After I got the OK, I tracked down a copy of Ponting's autobiography, which he had published in the early 1900s but Branding Iron Press had republished in 1952. Then I dug up some old newspaper articles written about him while he was still living. S.M.: What part of the book would the readers be most surprised to find out is true?
J.D.B.: He did meet Jesse Chisholm, who took him to a council between Comanches and Creeks, he did look after a family with smallpox in Missouri, he and his partner carried their gold coins in those money belts. The crossing of the Hudson River is pretty much how Ponting described it. And some of the crazy characters they met on their travels to Texas came from Ponting's book. The wager, on the other hand, was my homage to Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. And Ponting was so honest and reliable, I had to give him one vice. S.M.: When doing a fictionalized take on a real event how do you balance the fiction with the real history?
J.D.B.: The main thing I strive for is to be true to the real characters and the time, place and history. Obviously, as a novelist, I embellish and create fictional characters and some fictional episodes. According to Ponting, he didn't have as many men on the drive as I gave him. He doesn't mention pigs on the Texas-to-New York venture, but he did combine pigs and cattle on other drives and the quote about what pigs eat is pretty much straight from his autobiography. And I added scenes that might not have happened to Ponting, but did happen on other trail drives during that era, or twisted some stories around to fit the narrative. S.M.: You are not shy to use a good dose of humor in your books, Other than simply making a book more entertaining, why else do you see it as an important ingredient in your writing?
J.D.B.: Well, practically every rancher and cowboy I've met have wicked senses of humor. Sometimes I just think: 'What a crazy way to make a living. Let's have some fun with this.' Besides, most people doing whatever they're doing in real life will find something to laugh at over the course of a day or two. It depends on the novel, but I generally strive for a balance -- not too dark, not too funny. My dad wasn't a writer, but he was a fantastic storyteller, and just about all of his stories were hilarious. And the late Larry Mahan told me many times that the world needs to laugh a lot more. S.M.: For you, what makes the cattle drive tale a durable story to turn to?
.D.B.: I approached Longhorns East as an 1850s road trip across America. But every trail-drive story is about a journey, literally and figuratively. Tom Ponting in Longhorns East, Nelson Story in A Thousand Texas Longhorns, and Matt Garth in Return to Red River all have different reasons for making their drives, and so do the characters in The Fall of Abilene, Summer of the Star, The Lonesome Chisholm Trail and other trail-drive novels I've written. The challenge is to make each story different. Change the trail's end, change the year, create new people. First and foremost, I want to make the characters believable -- not necessarily likable -- and keep out stereotypes and cliches. I've read lots of memoirs of trail drivers and ranchers. And I've worked on cattle drives -- no rancher, trust me, is going to hire me as a working cowhand -- and there is nothing romantic about it. It's hard, monotonous, exhausting, sometimes dangerous. When I finished my first drive, I had to get new lenses for my eyeglasses because they were scratched beyond repair just from the dust. And that was a four-day drive of roughly 100 cattle. Imagine doing that for three-four months with 2,000 head. S.M. : Which western author had the biggest influence on you?
J.D.B.: Come on, now. Just one? Dorothy M. Johnson, Jack Shaefer, Elmer Kelton, Max Evans. I found a copy of a short story collection by Johnson when I was in college and decided that's who I wanted to be when I grew up. Her stories were literate, beautifully written, believable and different. Schaefer never chose the wrong word -- his Monte Walsh is the best fictional work about a 19th Century working cowboy ever written. I knew Elmer and Max. Elmer was humble and gracious and would answer any question, and he had a knack for writing about Texas, his home state, and cattle country. And Max was wild and crazy and knew cowboys even better than Elmer, and Max saw something in my early writings and kept me going with his encouragement and faith.