Maybe the spark was something that would seem inconsequential to others.
That’s the way it was for the New Mexico authors and songwriters who are being honored this week during the Western Writers of America convention in Kansas City, Mo. Johnny D. Boggs, Paul Hutton and Jim Jones won Spur Awards, presented by the WWA for excellence in writing about the West, and Doug Figgs is being recognized as a Spur finalist.
For each of these men, the love of the West that led to their success as Western writers was instilled when they were young.
In the case of Santa Fe author Boggs, the spark might have been the day he played hooky to watch director John Ford’s great Western movie “Fort Apache” on TV.
A turning point for Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico, occurred when, at the age of 12, he read Oliver La Farge’s “Cochise of Arizona,” a book about the great Chiricahua Apache chief. Unable to afford a gift for his 12th birthday, Hutton’s mom checked the book out of the Kokomo, Ind., library and wrapped it in a ribbon. He read it several times before it had to be returned.
Albuquerque’s Jones, a writer and singer of Western songs and an author of Western novels, remembers back to a time when he was 4 years old and heard his father singing the theme song to “High Noon,” another classic Western movie.
As a young man, Figgs of Lemitar was a fan of Southern rock groups such as the Marshall Tucker Band, the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But he couldn’t avoid becoming a writer and singer of cowboy songs because he grew up working with horses in cowboy towns in California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.
Boggs notched up a record-tying seventh Spur Award for his mass market paperback novel “Return to Red River.”
Hutton earned his sixth Spur for the historical nonfiction book “The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History.”
Jones took his second Spur for “Halfway Down the Devil’s Road,” a song he wrote with Texas singer-songwriter Allan Chapman, and Figgs, a former Spur winner, earned Spur finalist honors this year for “Tularosa Rose,” a song he penned with Les Buffham, a California storyteller, poet and songwriter.
WWA, founded in 1953, is a national organization of more than 600 men and women who write fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, teleplays, poems, songs and children’s books about the West. The organization’s Spur Awards Banquet is Saturday evening at the Kansas City Marriott Country Club Plaza.
Boggs and the late and much-revered Elmer Kelton of San Angelo, Texas, are the only people to have won seven Spurs, although Boggs will swiftly protest that he is in the minor leagues compared to Kelton, the author of highly regarded novels such as “The Day the Cowboys Quit” and “The Time It Never Rained,” both Spur winners.
And no one will argue that the odds of winning a Spur are better these days than they once were. When Kelton won his first Spur in 1957, the award was presented in only five categories. Now, there are 18 Spur categories. Even so, winning six or seven Spurs is nothing to kick dust at.
Boggs’ latest Spur winner is a sequel to the 1948 Borden Chase novel “Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,” which was adapted into director Howard Hawks’ movie “Red River,” starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift.
“‘Red River’ is one of my favorite movies. I’m a huge Howard Hawks fan,” Boggs, 55, said during a phone interview from his home in Santa Fe’s Eldorado community. “But I did not look at the movie on purpose while writing my novel because my book is a sequel to (Chase’s) novel and not the movie. There are vast differences between the Chase novel and the movie.”
Boggs’ publisher came up with the idea to write the sequel. Boggs did re-read Chase’s book.
“I had to go back and read the book just to get the characters’ names,” he said. “(Chase) is vague as to where the ranch is. I put it in West Texas, near the Rio Grande, a place that would make sense.”
Boggs’ book is set in the 1880s, 20 years later than the events described by Chase in his novel. But Boggs’ theme – a make-or-break cattle drive – is the same that provided the plot for Chase’s book.
“As a writer, the challenge is that you want to be true to Borden Chase’s vision and his characters, but you want to put your own spin on it,” he said.
Boggs grew up on a farm near Timmonsville, S.C. He was introduced to the West by TV and the movies. Besides skipping school to see “Fort Apache,” he remembers watching “Gunsmoke” on TV with his dad. He attributes the short stories of Jack Schaefer, best known as the author of the novel “Shane,” and Dorothy Johnson, whose work would be adapted into movies such as “A Man Called Horse” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” with inspiring him to write Western fiction.
After earning a journalism degree from the University of South Carolina, Boggs worked at the Dallas Times Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before leaving the newspaper business in 1998 and moving to Santa Fe to make his living as a freelance writer. These days, he writes two to four books a year and has turned out about 60 altogether.
Six of his seven Spurs have been awarded for novels, but the first, in 2002, was for the short story “A Piano at Dead Man’s Crossing,” a daring piece of writing that features an upright piano as the narrator. The story marked a transition in Boggs’ career.
“I think that’s when editors started realizing I could write more than shoot ’em ups,” he said. “And it made me think I can do something different, make stories other than your hero in the white hat.”