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What's in a Story? An Interview with John Erickson

August 31–September 4, 2015   |   Vol. 124, Programs 31–35

John Erickson always wanted to be a great author. And he ended up writing a great series of books—about a Texas cowdog! To hear how his stories started, and how you can help your children start telling their own stories, stay tuned for today’s Home School Heartbeat.

“It’s important to live before you write. It’s not reasonable to expect our kids to be writing good or great novels when they’re 12 years old.”—John Erickson

This Week’s Offer

If you enjoyed today’s program, then you might like Erickson’s book Story Craft, which offers a glimpse into the experiences of a writer and the world behind his characters. Follow the link to learn more.

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John Erickson always wanted to be a great author. And he ended up writing a great series of books—about a Texas cowdog! Hear how his stories started— and how you can help your kids can start telling stories of their own. That’s next on Home School Heartbeat.

Mike Farris: This week, we’re really thrilled to have John Erickson on the program with us. He’s the author of the Hank the Cowdog series. He joins me now—John, welcome to the program!

John Erickson: Hi, Mike. We’re a homeschool family and admire your program.

Mike: Well, thank you very much. John, one of your most recent books is a nonfiction work called Story Craft, in which you talk about your vocation as “writing good stories for people who need good stories.” Your Hank the Cowdog stories are certainly really popular—but what do you mean by good stories?

John: Mike, I view writing more as a craft than as art. Craft uses structure to achieve function. If it succeeds, it might also be art. A good coat fits, a good meal nourishes, a good house sheds water. A good story should make us laugh or cry, it should impart wisdom, coherence, and hope. It should reveal the beauty of God’s creation, and find justice in human experience. I think it’s a reasonable expectation for art to make people better than they were before they encountered it. If it doesn’ t, then what’s the point?

Mike: That is an excellent description, John! I’m really glad to have shared that with our listeners.

Mike: Would you tell our listeners where you got your best instruction on writing?

John : You know, I was in college for six years at the University of Texas and Harvard Divinity School, and I took several courses in writing, but I think that my best instruction came from a woman who never went to college and had never written anything longer than a letter in her life, and that was my mother.

When I was five years old, I stayed home from kindergarten and I just hung out with my mother for a year. And she was a storyteller. She had a sweet, earthy sense of humor, and she also read Bible stories to me. And my mother told me, she said, ”John, God has given you a talent, too, and you should always guard it and use it wisely.”

And when I—35 years later—when I was getting rejection slips from New York publishers, that’s what kept me going. It was nothing I heard in a college classroom. My mother was the best teacher I ever had. She’s the one who gave me a sense of vocation.

Mike: John, that is great encouragement for parents who are listening, who are willing to invest that kind of time with their own children, and to tell them their own stories.

Mike: You didn’t set out to start to write folksy stories about a dog. Would you tell our listeners how you ended up finding the stories that you now write?

John: You know, when I started writing, I was a college student. And the only model I knew about was kind of an intellectual approach, a literary approach. And I tried that for a number of years. And I was just a failure at being a sophisticated, literary-type person.

So I started writing stories about where I was and what I was doing. I was working as a ranch cowboy, and I started imitating the storytelling techniques that my mother had used when I was a little boy and that ranch people still use to this day, because they had an oral tradition of storytelling. And that is when I wrote the first Hank the Cowdog story, and that’s when my writing started to shine.

Mike: So what would you say to aspiring young writers when they ask you where do they look for stories?

John : I would say, write what you know and love, leave the reader better than he was before, and don’t write anything that would shame your mother.

Mike: John, when you talk to students, what advice do you give them on learning to write well?

John: One of the first things we have to do is master the mechanics of our language: the grammar. I offer “Jesus wept” as an example of a great sentence, because there’s no ambiguity about it. There’s no dishonesty. We also have to encourage kids to revise. I revise my Hank books probably twenty times before they’re ever published.

I’d also say that it’s important to live before you write. It’s not reasonable to expect our kids to be writing good or great novels when they’re 12 years old. They need to experience a lot about life. And that includes cooking meals, raising children, attending funerals and weddings.

I prepare myself by spending a lot of time by myself contemplating, thinking about my role in the universe, and what I can do to enhance God’s plan. Those are all things that a writer has to do that we don’t think about.

Mike: John, your Hank the Cowdog stories are a lot of fun to read, but they also contain a lot of truth. Do you think authors and stories actually make a difference in the lives of their readers?

John: I think people are a lot of times shaped by great books. I was shaped by the King James Bible. It’s branded all over my soul. And also, in the fourth grade, my teacher read Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer aloud to us, and that had a profound effect on me. I’ve got the marks of Mark Twain all over the Hank the Cowdog stories.

Christians are people of the Book. And as Gene Edward Veith, one of my favorite writers has said, “Christians must read.” And that means we seek out good stories. Good stories should bring pleasure but also affirm structure and meaning in human events. A good story should reveal beauty and justice in human experience, and those are deeply Christian concepts. They’re not secular. You won’t find them in Charles Darwin or Friedrich Nietzsche.

Mike: John, we really appreciate your insights and for joining me this week! It’s been wonderful to talk about writing, and I hope our listeners will be inspired to read some of your wonderful books! I’m Mike Farris.

John EricksonJohn Erickson

John Erickson, a former cowboy and ranch manager, is gifted with a storyteller’s knack for spinning a yarn. Through the eyes of Hank the cowdog, a smelly, smart-aleck Head of Ranch Security, Erickson gives readers a glimpse of daily life on a ranch in the West Texas Panhandle. A series of books and tapes, Hank the Cowdog is in school libraries across the country, has sold more than 6 million copies, is a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and is the winner of the 1993 Audie for Outstanding Children’s Series from the Audio Publisher’s Association.

Erickson graduated from the University of Texas in 1966 and studied for two years at Harvard Divinity School. He began to publish short stories in 1967 while working full-time as a cowboy, farmhand, and ranch manager in Texas and Oklahoma. Hank and his sidekick Drover are dogs Erickson worked with on the range. In 1982, however, Erickson was at his rope’s end. “I was working out in the cold; there was 8 inches of snow on the ground,” he says, “I had just gotten a couple of rejection slips from New York publishers, and I had a wife with two kids and another one on the way.” So, with $2,000 in borrowed money, Erickson started his own publishing company, appropriately named Maverick Books.

Erickson was born in Midland, Texas. By the age of 3, he had moved with his family to Perryton, Texas, where he lives today with his wife, their youngest son, and a dog named Sophie, on their very own ranch. To learn more about John Erickson, visit his website.

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