WORLD’s 2018 Books of the Year
John R. Erickson, author of 67 hugely popular Hank the Cowdog books, lives in the Texas Panhandle on a 9-square-mile ranch 7 miles from his nearest neighbor and 19 miles from the second closest. Here’s what a week last October with him and his wife of 46 years, Kris, was like.
ON MONDAY we saw an intense contrast between Erickson’s ruggedly beautiful ranch—“a lot of wildlife, water, native trees, a lot of solitude”—and life in a commercial world with little solitude.
We walked over to one tree that was “a little bitty guy” when Erickson bought the ranch in 1990 with a 30-year mortgage. He paid off the mortgage in 12 years, and the tree is now 75 feet high. Erickson spoke of his love for autumn and his excitement when the first “blue norther” arrives: That’s Texan for a fast-moving cold front that comes with a dark blue-black sky and a temperature drop of 20-30 degrees in a few minutes.
Winter, though, “is not as much fun as it used to be. Kris and I have to think about getting stuck, with nobody to pull us out. Walking in snow gets a little harder with age. Never thought about that when I was a young buck. Now I have to be pretty cautious.” Panhandle temperatures vary from 100 degrees Fahrenheit on some summer days to below zero during winter weeks, with 8-10 inches of snow that severe winds can blow into huge drifts.
That day Erickson was also thinking about the weather in Cannes, France. His son Mark, a lawyer, was at Cannes MiniCOM in France, a trade show where sellers and buyers from around the world make deals to produce films and video series. Hank the Cowdog has the numbers (9 million books sold) and awards recognition (Lamplighter, Audie, Oppenheimer, and Wrangler) to make producers drool. Hank books are popular even in China, where a Hank the Cowdog stage play pleases audiences, and in Iran. But the news from Cannes was bad: Flooding had led to cancellation of many of Mark’s appointments.
Meanwhile, we saw more of the ranch: six horses (three white, three other colors), three bulls, 50 cows, lots of calves popped out last spring—and all grass-fed. We learned some Erickson background: Grew up in the Panhandle and graduated from the University of Texas in 1966. Studied for two years at Harvard Divinity School. Began publishing short stories while working full time as a cowboy, farmhand, and ranch manager in Texas and Oklahoma. Worked on the range with dogs like Hank.
ON TUESDAY, not knowing whether the Cannes MiniCOM gambit would be productive, Erickson was uneasy. It wasn’t like when he was snowbound for nine days without electricity or propane gas: Then he had a firewood supply and his family did fine. Here he was dependent on others, and it brought back memories of the “desperate times” that he mentions in our interview: “I was trying to get advice from editors and agents in New York. … I was very serious about writing. I thought this was something I was supposed to do. I wasn’t sure I could survive with defeat.”
By 1982 Erickson was at rope’s end: Two children and another on the way, 8 inches of snow on the ground, snowed under by rejection slips. With $2,000 in borrowed money he started his own publishing company—named Maverick Books, appropriately—and debuted Hank the Cowdog in The Cattleman, a magazine for adults. Readers howled with happiness, and Erickson included two Hank stories in The Devil in Texas, a collection of short stories that was Maverick’s first publication. Living in the small Panhandle town of Perryton, Erickson sold copies at cattle auctions, rodeos, saddle shops, sometimes grocery and drug stores. Soon he was out of his financial hole.
Erickson learned something important in the process: “People in small towns don’t have exalted views of what they’re doing.” His new role model was “a tamale salesman who makes tamales and pushes his cart around. If they don’t taste good or make anybody sick he’s out of business.” He gave up his king-of-the-literary-world ambitions and became popular by writing about a dog that thought himself to be king of the world.
Still, he doesn’t feel he’s “bulletproof or has it made. … All it takes to wipe me out is to have the IRS come in and say I didn’t read a certain publication and I am in arrears.” He grimaced: “I do not lie. When I turn in expenses, they’re real expenses. I try to do everything to conform to the tax code, but it’s … so complicated that they make us all criminals.”
WEDNESDAY brought a drive 40 miles north to Perryton to see the Maverick Books warehouse. Since Erickson is 73, I offered up small talk: “Do you think about death?” He responded: “I think about it often. I’m in favor of it. If we didn’t face death, we’d all be useless. Makes us more efficient in the use of our time and appreciative of the time we have.” Then came a harder question: life after death? Erickson did not miss a beat: “I consider it a probability. I’m very comfortable with it, and going to a better place.”
We talked about books: Erickson reads widely and concludes, “This world is a pretty good place under normal conditions, but anyone who’s read Russian history knows what a bad place it can be.” We talked about Iran’s history: “Just numbing what the Mongols did to Persia … a pyramid of skulls 75 feet high. I’m glad I was spared living in those times and places. Makes me not want to mess up the American experience.”
Erickson’s warehouse is blue-carpeted square feet of pallet after pallet of Hank books and audiotapes, along with bubble packaging and foam peanut dispensers that come down through the ceiling. Shelves hold Hank posters, T-shirts, Hank stuffed animals, and Drover puppets. A map of the world shows where Hank is popular. The illustrator of all the books, Gerald Holmes, drew us some Hanks: “I had no idea of what kind of dog to draw—Hank just turned out [like] that, and I’m glad it wasn’t a specific breed. He still sometimes has three toes on one foot and four on the other.”
Later, the Ericksons headed to choir practice at their high-ceilinged church for an upcoming performance of Handel’s Messiah. Erickson likes height in churches: “The architecture causes our minds to soar. We think about things we don’t have to think about if we go to Disneyland: Why do we all have to die? What does it mean to be part of a community? Am I at liberty to be a liar and a cheat?”
THURSDAY was a day to visit “Hank’s house.” In 2000 Erickson, riding the range, spotted charred remains of a Plains Indian pit house in the cutback of a dry arroyo. Archaeologists he brought in eventually found pieces of pottery, a Washita arrowhead, tools, fragments of corn and plums. Hank’s house came into being about 700 years ago, and it helped its inhabitants survive Panhandle winters: They dug pits, made frames of wood logs and branches, and used the dirt dug out of the pit to make roofs.
We also visited the office, 200 yards from his home, where Erickson writes from 5 to 9:30 every morning: “It takes maybe 100 hours of solitude to produce 10 pages of a Hank book. I have to spend a lot of time alone.” Sometimes a dog keeps him company: “Animals contribute to whatever it is that makes me a writer. Animals give us a connection to the earth: They live in it, their paws walk in the dirt every day.” My wife and I lived during our ranch week in the Erickson guest house a mile away from their home, so we enjoyed Daisy the golden retriever and Dixie the blue heeler walking us home every night, which made the coyotes keep their distance.
What are other essentials? “I wouldn’t be where I am without my wife. She was in the trenches with me every step of the way.” An economics lesson lurks in that history: “Businesses fail because marriages fail. If you don’t take care of your marriage, if you go out on a book tour and you mess around in a restaurant or hotel and ruin your marriage, you ruin your business. It’s all related. You have to protect the sanctity of the place that produces your artistic vision, and for me that involves having harmonious relationships with my wife, my children, and the people in my community.”
The news from Cannes MiniCOM was not harmonious. Potential deal-makers thought the animated Hank sample was old-fashioned and not edgy enough: “In other words, exactly what we wanted,” Erickson said. So, back to the drawing board, literally and figuratively: “It’s tough, trying to figure out how to get quality entertainment to people who need it.”
ON FRIDAY Erickson and I played three games of chess—he’s good—and we talked about how he doesn’t ride anymore. One cautionary note came 10 years ago when his horse lost her footing while heading downhill toward a creek. She cartwheeled over and slammed Erickson’s right side into the ground. His ribs hurt badly and got worse as time went on, which left him with a quandary: Two days later he was supposed to do a Hank reading and singing in Abilene, a six-hour drive away, for families with severely handicapped children. Most lived in wheelchairs, some were blind, some could not speak.
Erickson almost punched in the number of the woman in charge to tell her he couldn’t make it—but then he reckoned his problem was insignificant compared to what those Abilene families had to live with every day. So he went and found smiling children and parents who “carry their grief well, but you know those mothers have cried themselves to sleep many times.” He put on his 13-pound banjo: It pressed on his ribs, which “hurt like crazy. I groaned and barked, and it was the worst musical program I ever did, and they didn’t care at all. They clapped and they sang. It was really a sweet occasion.”
Later, Erickson drove home and “was hurting pretty bad when I got back. I hadn’t gone to the doctor but thought maybe I should. … The doctor looked me over and said, ‘I’m not going to X-ray you because you don’t have anything shattered, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re bruised, cracked, or broken. You’ll be better in six weeks. Until then you’ll hurt.” That turned out to be right.
Erickson kept riding, but two years ago hurt his knee mounting a horse and needed surgery: “It’s embarrassing for me to reach a point where it’s hard to get in and out of the saddle, but it’s also an indication that the body doesn’t remain the same. If you stay too long in the saddle, you can get yourself hurt.” He wants to continue doing Hank programs, so he hasn’t ridden a horse since 2014 and doesn’t plan to again: “One part of wisdom is knowing when you’ve had enough.”
POSTSCRIPT: A month after our visit, Erickson stood in front of students at City School, a Christian K-8 in Austin. The children had read Hank books and showed their delight when Erickson began his program by singing “Chickens,” one of Hank’s meditations as he tries to justify fulfilling desires he knows are wrong: “Chickens. All I see are chickens. Just exactly what a sinner doesn’t need: So frustrating to see roasted birds parading. … On the other hand, there’s a kind of peace of mind that I’m digging. It’s the calm that soothes the conscience after eating. Digestion forms a link between what we do and think, ’cause nourishment is part of mental health.”
Erickson sang other songs, read segments of a new Hank book, and autographed copies. His humorous teaching was profound: The children recognized the battle within Hank and within themselves, for even the young have some understanding of what Paul writes in Chapter 7 of Romans: “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
The next day Erickson spoke and sang at a public middle school in Austin, but most of the kids were unfamiliar with Hank. The reception was not as enthusiastic, but it was a homecoming of sorts for Erickson: Nearly a half-century ago he lived half a mile away during a yearlong Harvard-sponsored attempt to improve racial relations. He remembered little houses, big fields, and neighbors who kept goats and chickens. Now the area is built up: “Nothing is the way it was.”