Johnny D. Boggs dedicated “Taos Lightning,” his young adult novel about a 15-year-old boy competing in a 1,800-mile endurance horse race in 1886, to “the horses that have tossed me: Dolly, Jack, Chuck and Honey.”
Take Honey, for example. Six years ago, while working on a magazine story, Boggs, armed with a camera, was riding Honey in New Mexico’s Lincoln County, near where John Tunstall, the first man killed in the Lincoln County War, died in 1878.
Honey, as her name would suggest, had a rep as a sweet, gentle mare that had never hurt anyone. Maybe Tunstall’s ghost spooked her.
“She started to buck,” Boggs said during a phone interview from his home in Santa Fe County’s Eldorado community. “I stayed with her for two or three jumps, but then she started to roll over. I dived off. It was rocks, camera, ribs.” Fractured ribs for Boggs, as it turned out. He used that painful memory for a pivotal scene in “Taos Lightning.”
He’s rolling to his left. I’m shun of those stirrups and diving to my right. Air whooshes out of my lungs as I land hard on the woodpile …
“Horse wrecks make good Western stories,” Boggs said.
Must be so.
The Western Writers of America reported recently that “Taos Lightning” had earned Boggs a record eighth Spur Award, presented by the WWA for excellence in Western writing.
A man of statue
Founded in 1953 to promote the literature of the American West, WWA is a national organization of more than 650 men and women. WWA’s Spur Award competition is open to both members and non-members. During the Tucson Festival of Books earlier this month, WWA announced Spur winners in 18 categories. Boggs’ “Taos Lightning” was the winner for juvenile fiction.
Thomas D. Clagett, also of Santa Fe’s Eldorado community, was a finalist this year in the historical novel category for “Line of Glory,” which is about the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.
Spur winners and finalists will be honored June 19-22 in Tucson during WWA’s annual convention.
Boggs’ win makes him the all-time Spur champion, breaking a tie he had been locked in for a couple of years with the late Elmer Kelton of San Angelo, Texas, author of widely respected Western novels and Spur winners such as “The Day the Cowboys Quit” (1971) and “The Time it Never Rained” (1973).
Now, Kelton stands alone in second place among Spur winners, with seven. Tied for third place, with six Spurs each, are Paul Andrew Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico, and recently deceased novelist Richard S. Wheeler, a longtime Montana resident.
Despite his record collection of Spurs, Boggs, 57, does not consider himself to be in Kelton’s class.
“No one surpasses Elmer Kelton,” Boggs said. “For one thing, when Elmer started writing in the 1950s, not as many Spur (categories) were awarded as there are now.” From 1953 through 1968, Spurs were presented in six categories or less.
“You go to San Angelo, and there’s a statue of Elmer in the public library,” Boggs said. “There’s never going to be a statue of Johnny D. Boggs in a public library.”
Exploring the West
Boggs grew up on a farm near Timmonsville, S.C. He got his first taste of Western writing when a school assignment in seventh or eighth grade introduced him to Conrad Richter’s story “Smoke Over the Prairie,” about one man’s stubborn battle against the indomitable railroad.
“That was a very powerful story for me,” he said. “I guess the first Western novel I read was one of Louis L’Amour’s.”
Then he ordered copies of Kelton’s “Massacre at Goliad” and Jack Schaefer’s “Shane” and discovered the Western stories of Dorothy Johnson, who wrote “A Man Called Horse,” 1950, and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” 1953.
“That’s what really triggered what I wanted to write about – Dorothy Johnson, Schaefer, Elmer Kelton – the kind of literature I really wanted to write. Schaefer’s ‘Monte Walsh’ is just one of the most fabulous Western novels ever written. That’s real cowboy.
“What appealed to me about the West is that it wasn’t South Carolina. There were no swamps. The heroes never had to hang tobacco and the mosquitoes were not the size of ravens. The West was wide-open spaces.”
Bloomers and baseball
Boggs earned his way as a sportswriter and editor while learning how to write fiction that sells. He got a degree in journalism from the University of South Carolina and worked at the Dallas Times Herald from 1984 to 1991 and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from 1992-1998, becoming assistant sports editor for night operations at both papers before leaving newspaper work to move to Santa Fe and full-time fiction and freelance writing.
He lives in Eldorado with his wife, Lisa Smith, and 16-year-old son Jack, is editor of Roundup, the WWA magazine, and writes two to four books a year. He is just finishing up his 60th book, a novel titled “Buckskin, Bloomers & Me.”
“It’s about two guys on the run from murderers in 1906 who join a women’s baseball team, the Kansas City Bloomers,” said Boggs, himself an ardent baseball fan. If that plot reminds you of a 1959 Billy Wilder movie starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, it should.
“Yeah, it’s ‘Some Like it Hot’ as a Western,” Boggs said. “Women’s baseball was fairly popular, starting in the 1880s and 1890s.” He said that according to newspaper accounts at the time, it was not unusual for men to disguise themselves as women and play on these teams. Especially the pitchers and catchers.
Boggs has written many traditional Westerns, such as the Spur winners “Return to Red River” and “West Texas Kill.” But you can’t corral him as conventional. He won his first Spur in 2002 for “A Piano at Dead Man’s Crossing,” a short story in which the narrator is an upright piano.
“Part of what I got from that newspaper background is that it is kind of fun to do different things,” he said. “I never wanted to get pegged for just doing one thing.”
But after winning eight Spur Awards – and finishing as a Spur finalist a staggering 13 times – Boggs might have to get used to being pegged as a top hand in Western writing.
Statue or no statue.