"The writing technique I developed for the Hank stories was an imitation of the oral-tradition storytelling I learned from my mother and the ranch people I encountered during my cowboy years. It is Texas down to the bone and specifically West Texas."
Lone Star Literary Life: Mr. Erickson, you’ve been writing the Hank the Cowdog series for thirty-seven years, selling something like ten million copies; there’s even a statue of Hank in San Angelo. The new book, Finding Hank: The Most-Often Asked Questions About Hank the Cowdog (Maverick Books), which publishes in November, is not part of the series. Your website describes Finding Hank as a kind of behind-the-scenes look. Please tell us about your new book.
John R. Erickson: I have been doing school performances for thirty-five years, and at the end of each program, I leave time for questions. I also receive a lot of fan mail and get a lot of questions there too. My readers are curious about the Hank stories. Where do they come from? How do I write them? What is it like being a writer?
I’m not able to give those questions a long, thoughtful answer, so it occurred to me I should do it in book form. We decided to make it a kind of Hank reference book with a table of contents, an index, and a lot of photographs and illustrations. If readers are curious about a certain character or subject, they can use the index and go to specific pages. Or they can read it straight through as a kind of biography of me and the dog.
LSLL: How long have you been thinking about and writing Finding Hank? Why did you decide now was the right time to publish it?
JRE: I wrote most of the text in 2016 and showed it to Gary Rinker, my business partner, and Nikki Earley, who works for Maverick Books as editor, book designer, website manager, and many other things. She loved the idea and began colorizing Gerald Holmes’s illustrations and gathering photographs. The process was interrupted, shall we say, by the wildfire of 2017 when we lost our home, my office, and most of our old photographs. That set us back for a while, but Nikki kept working on it and came up with a beautiful book design. We think it’s a book that Hank fans and families will enjoy and want to share.
LSLL: You were a working cowboy for many years, and Hank began as a self-publishing venture in your garage in 1982. For readers who may not have heard this story, please tell us about your original inspiration for the series. How have you and Hank changed in the intervening years?
JRE: There wasn’t much “inspiration” behind the first Hank story. It was one of hundreds of articles and stories I wrote between 1976 and 1982 about my work on ranches. I had failed to interest publishers in several novels I had written, so I began writing short, funny pieces for livestock publications. Hank made his first appearance in The Cattleman magazine, of all places, and the audience wasn’t children, but adult males involved in ranching. I didn’t recognize that there was magic in those characters, but when I read that story aloud to audiences in the Panhandle, they told me to “do more with that dog!”
I think the main characters in the series emerged fully formed in the first book but have acquired depth over the course of seventy-three episodes, as you would expect. The cast of characters has certainly grown. There were fourteen characters in the first book. I’m told there are now 153 characters in the whole series.
I think my writing has gotten better over the years—tighter, leaner, and more subtle—but I’m not sure readers notice or care. The early books continue to sell as well as the new ones, which is fine with me. I’m in the business of selling books, not chasing the Nobel Prize For Literature.
LSLL: We were so sorry to hear about the passing of Gerald Holmes, your illustrator and partner in collaboration. You penned a lovely tribute to him on the Hank website. Would you talk a little about meeting Mr. Holmes, the manner in which y’all worked together, and what it was like to work so closely with him for so many years?
JRE: We met one evening in 1976 at the ranch home of a mutual friend, cowboy/photographer Bill Ellzey, on Wolf Creek south of Perryton. Holmes worked at a feedlot, and I was working on a ranch in Oklahoma, and we were both as poor as sparrows in winter. He showed me some of his sketches of ranch life, and I liked them a lot. They reminded me of the work of Ace Reid.
With pen and ink, Gerald did what I hoped to do with the written word: deliver the blessing of innocent laughter. He began illustrating my magazine articles in 1978, and we worked together for forty-one years. I didn’t tell him what to draw, and he didn’t tell me what to write. We never quarreled, and he never missed a deadline.
As I wrote in my tribute, “He illuminated the imaginations of millions of children and there is no way to calculate how many of them drew their first picture, imitating Gerald’s Hank or Drover.”
LSLL: Let’s talk process for a bit. I read that you discovered a talent for writing when you began writing poetry in a high school English class. How do you know that you’ve just experienced new inspiration for your next work? How long does it take you to write a new Hank book? And do you still write poetry?
JRE: I’m often asked about “inspiration,” and it’s a question I discuss in Finding Hank. I don’t think of writing in terms of inspiration. I’m a professional writer with professional habits. I write four hours a day, every day, seven days a week. I write two Hank books every year, and when it’s time to start a new one, I write the first sentence and go from there. It doesn’t matter if I’m inspired or not. The discipline pushes me through the hard parts.
I wrote the second book in two weeks, which seems a bit incredible, but most of them take four to six weeks. Hank books are very intuitive, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about them or sweating over them.
I still write poetry but mostly in the form of songs that appear in the audio versions of the Hank stories. From the beginning, I have recorded them as audio books, and in that medium, I’m able to incorporate my love of music. Most of the songs are funny, but some are intended to be serious and beautiful, both as music and as poetry. Believe it or not, I have several songs that were based on Gregorian chant, an ancient form of sacred music.
LSLL: Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to writers and their work. How has Texas shaped you and your work, living on the Panhandle Plains, in particular?
JRE: I grew up in a little town in the Panhandle, and by the time I graduated from high school, I thought most of the Real World existed somewhere else. I couldn’t wait to leave Perryton and had every intention of washing every whiff of Texas off my skin. I figured I would end up living in New York or Boston, and tried it, but it didn’t work out. I discovered that Texas was more than a blemish or a bad smell. I was a fifth-generation Texan, and somehow that was important.
Kris and I moved back to the Panhandle, and I went to work as a cowboy, digging down into the ranch roots my mother had told me about in stories of her family. At some point, I gave up trying to be the next Hemingway and began studying Texas authors: Dobie, J. Evetts Haley, McMurtry, Larry King, Al Dewlen, A.C. Greene, John Graves, and Elmer Kelton. From them, I learned that Texas has a strong literary tradition.
The writing technique I developed for the Hank stories was an imitation of the oral-tradition storytelling I learned from my mother and the ranch people I encountered during my cowboy years. It is Texas down to the bone and specifically West Texas. It wasn’t what I had in mind when I started writing; it was much better, and it fit me like an old pair of boots.
LSLL: I had the pleasure of being in the audience the evening you were inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. Your dramatic reading was so entertaining. You record an audio book for each installment, including original songs. How did you develop the performance part of your work?
JRE: My lack of success with conventional publishers backed me into a corner. I had to quit or do something different. I chose to start my own publishing company, which was a pretty crazy thing to do. I didn’t have money to spend on advertising and had to build an audience in a region that had very few bookstores. From the beginning, I sold books by reading aloud to an audience.
The Hank stories are unique in that they were always meant to be read aloud and were a natural performance medium. I had no formal training in drama or music but had enough talent to entertain an audience and record audio books in a studio. I got the job because I worked cheap and built a literary brand without the adult supervision of anyone in the entertainment business. I owned the company, so nobody could fire me.
LSLL: Which writers, particularly of children’s literature, would you recommend to readers who love Hank, especially the generations of kids who grew up with him and would like books with the same sort of ethos for older readers?
JRE: I never intended the Hank stories to be for children and don’t know anything about children’s literature. It’s embarrassing but true. I’ve always been a slow reader, and slow readers forfeit the right to be experts on literature, but I would guess that anyone raised on Hank books would enjoy the work of S.J. Dahlstrom, a young novelist from Lubbock. They might also enjoy authors whose work I have admired: Elmer Kelton, John Graves, Ben K. Green, Mark Twain, Alexander Dumas, and Herman Wouk.
LSLL: Can you tell us what’s next for you and Hank?
JRE: In the immediate future, we will concentrate our efforts on Finding Hank. It’s a new kind of book for us, a big, full-color hardback that departs from our usual format of an inexpensive paperback. I’ll be doing a book tour in November and making bookstore appearances in San Angelo, Abilene, Plainview, and Amarillo, and at the Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock. In the spring, we will bring out #74 in the series, The Frozen Rodeo, and the next five books are already written. Of course, we face the sad task of finding an artist to replace Gerald Holmes.
At the same time, my son Mark is heading up an investment group that will create a professional-quality podcast of the eleventh Hank episode, Lost in the Dark Unchanted Forest. It will involve the talents of some prominent Texas actors and filmmakers, and we hope it will be a step toward something Hank fans have been wanting for decades—an animated movie that retains the innocent humor of the books.
LSLL: What books are on your nightstand?
JRE: My reading tends to follow my curiosity. At the moment, the stack beside my bed includes three books on ancient Egypt, several reports on Texas Panhandle archeology, and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I just finished A.C. Greene’s The Last Captive. It’s a book I’ve known about for years but never got around to reading.
It might sound egotistical, but I always have several Hank books in the stack. When I can’t find anything else that grabs my interest, I read a Hank book. I love ’em. They make me laugh.
John R. Erickson has written and published seventy-five books and more than six hundred articles, and is best known as the author of the Hank the Cowdog series of books, audio books, and stage plays. His stories have won a number of awards, including the Audie, Oppenheimer, Wrangler, and Lamplighter Awards, and have been translated into Spanish, Danish, Farsi, and Chinese.