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Storyteller essentials: Q&A with John R. Erickson

To tell a good tale, you need to do more than just write

Storyteller essentials: Q&A with John R. Erickson

John R. Erickson (S.J. Dahlstrom)

Long before selling millions of copies of Hank the Cowdog books, author John R. Erickson collected hundreds of rejection slips. Here are some of his thoughts about writing.

You say young authors often spend time in a store full of costumes, trying on Hemingway, Tolstoy, Dickens, Twain, Faulkner, or other disguises. How did you find your authentic voice? Trial and error. I grew up in the Texas Panhandle. We simply didn’t know that writers could come from such a place. We never read anything by Texas authors, and I didn’t meet an author until I was a student at the University of Texas. So it was natural for me to suppose that if you wanted to be a writer you go to New York and start imitating their voice.

You aspired to Eastern literary affectation rather than traditional cowboy storytelling? Six years of college taught me to ignore my instincts, but a part of me yearned for joy and laughter—not much of that during the 1960s in university environments because everybody was depressed over something. War, race riots … we went to depressing movies, usually in black and white and often made in France or Sweden. There was a notion that if you weren’t depressed you weren’t very smart.

For 15 years you tried to write that way. And wasn’t able to do it. When I returned to the Panhandle, I was working around people who knew nothing of that tradition. They told stories that were usually funny. I thought to myself, “What a nice way to tell a story,” so I started imitating their storytelling. I had always wanted The Paris Review or Atlantic Monthly to discover me, but American Cowboy and Livestock Weekly did. They published my funny stories about working around livestock and doing battle with the weather. That beat sending depressing novels off to New York publishers and being turned down.

You wrote, “The presence of moral order permits us to seek justice. A well-crafted story should leave the reader satisfied that the internal accounting is balanced and that justice has been done. The character should get what they deserve.” That’s different from the worldview of novels New York Review of Books critics like to praise. After trying to be part of that crowd, what in your thinking or worldview enabled you to make that turn? That was the worldview I had growing up. That’s what I came back to after living in the cities where I had no compass. Probably a lot of it is unconscious Christianity. When we walk out of church after the Maundy Thursday service, we blow out all of the candles. We leave in darkness. In the secular world the story stops there. Where I grew up in Middle America, we were unconsciously infused with the story of Easter morning. That has a profound effect on how you view art.

By 1982 you had collected at least 1,000 rejection slips. What did you do with them? I pasted them on the wall of my office, which was the bedroom in the house we were living in. I filled that whole wall. That gave me reason to say, “I’m going to make another wall for my rejection slips and then you’ll really be sorry.” I had two walls and probably started on the third and couldn’t stand it anymore. I tore them down and threw them into the trash. I’m sorry I didn’t save them.

Was it helpful to be rejected so much? That’s the kind of question old men can ask and speculate about. It sure wasn’t fun at the time. It was like being in a dogfight every day or getting bucked off a horse every morning. It was painful, and several times I didn’t think I could stand any more of it; but somehow I did. I had a young man’s thick head and a good strong wife to encourage me.

Some kids in college who want to be writers scrutinize their own navels and write memoirs. How can they become writers rooted in something beyond themselves, not just their own angst? Being a mother or father is great preparation for being a writer because you see creation happening in front of your eyes and realize that you are a part of it but you’re not all of it. Having children is a great creator of humility. I get a lot of ideas and inspiration during church services. We sing in the choir, so we’re in front facing the congregation. It’s impossible for me to forget that I’m part of this community and that people in that sanctuary are reading my books and are affected by them one way or another. They’re people right in front of me, not abstract people 10,000 miles away. That makes it hard to think our art should satisfy our own lusts and desires and get the poison out of our system at the risk of poisoning other people.

Say a Christian graduates from college with a decent theological understanding and a desire to write novels, but not despairing ones: What career advice would you give? It was important for me to do something besides write—because if all you know to do is write, and all you ever do is write, then what do you have to write about? I used to go to writing conventions where I would meet professionals who wrote Westerns. They told me they wrote 12 hours a day and did nothing but write. I knew from their works that they didn’t know the first thing about what I was doing every day: working with horses as a ranch cowboy.

They were writing about horses but without experience of horses? Yeah, and maybe reading a book or two on horses, checking it out of the library. I also knew their mothers were probably ashamed of their work. They were not writing about the West, but about their own fantasies concerning what might have been going on in a fanciful place called the West.

Fantasies are popular these days. Some people are inclined to write fantasy because they don’t know anything else to write about. If you’ve never held a sick child at 2 o’clock in the morning, if you’ve never sweated over making a mortgage payment at the end of the month, or wondered how you were going to spread the family budget out to buy enough rice and beans to make it through the month, there’s an awful lot about the human experience on this earth that you don’t know. It might be important for somebody who wants to write about the human experience to know a little bit about it.

Which is better, a “Home of Hank the Cowdog” sign upon entering Perryton, Texas, or a glowing review in The New York Review of Books? I’m proud of the little sign outside the Perryton city limits. I’ve always wished for a bone tossed my way by The New York Review of Books, but it never came and I stopped caring about it. If it ever happened, I’d be stunned.

Listen to part of Marvin Olasky’s interview with John R. Erickson on The World and Everything in It.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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  • sanman101
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Fun and inspiring interview.  Thank you!