“Writing for kids seems a very serious business.”
Texas author Nathan Dahlstrom — writing as S.J. Dahlstrom — has been compared to John Erickson of Hank the Cowdog fame. So it's only fitting that the two writers have teamed up in a special session this month at the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock. This week, we were happy to kick off Texas Kids Summer Reads 2018 via a Lone Star Listens interview with Dahlstrom, who talks about the importance of shining a light on rural stories.
This month the National Ranching Heritage Center, in Lubbock, will be hosting a writing seminar featuring both Erickson and Dahlstrom. The seminar will take place on Friday, June 15, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the NRHC.
A variety of topics, including how Erickson and Dahlstrom started out in the business, marketing and publishing, and more will be covered at the 1-day seminar that also includes readings by the authors. Family members are encouraged to attend together at a discounted price. Participants must be at least 16 years old or accompanied by an adult.
Visit http://ranchingheritage.org/writers/ to register.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Where did you grow up, Nathan, and how would you describe those days?
NATHAN DAHLSTROM: I grew up on the Llano Estacado in Roosevelt County, New Mexico. That’s a huge flat piece of ground that encompasses eastern New Mexico and western Texas. Our closest neighbor was three miles away and town was a thirty-minute drive. It was an ideal childhood full of cows, horses, and endless land to roam. We went to church three times a week and never missed a basketball game at our local school. I played the first video game system, Atari, for two weeks when it came out and then one day realized how stupid it was. There was just too much to do outside. I once rode my horse twelve miles to school. It was a great childhood that many kids still get to live. But many don’t.
What kinds of books did you enjoy reading while you were growing up?
I read pretty much what my dad read — the Bible, Tarzan novels, Mark Twain, Louis L’Amour, Sherlock Holmes, WWII stuff, and eventually got around to the good old Newberys about dogs and horses and courage and being tough.
When did you first become interested in writing?
Looking back, I know I always loved reading and writing. I have always dabbled in poetry. I was raised Church of Christ, and those people took the written word very seriously. That definitely rubbed off on me.
But I never came across anyone to really suggest that I might write books, even though I knew it was lurking dormant into my twenties. I met John R. Erickson (Hank the Cowdog) at one of his performances, and we struck a fast friendship over cowboying and writing and reading. He didn’t encourage me as such, but he represented the possibility in a real person who was similar to me in many respects. So I started scratching things down. I loved it.
At the same time I was a young father and my kids were beginning to read. I had a huge library built for them of old classics, but I began to realize as I shopped the bookstores that very few of the contemporary books being written for kids passed my idea of what I wanted in their young minds. Nobody besides Gary Paulsen was writing honest books about the outdoors, and all the outdoors had to teach.
So, like many many children’s authors, I started writing books for my kids. Books are time machines, and if something should happen to me, I knew they could dip back into a book and hear straight from me what I thought was important. It’s magic.
What was your first "big break" as a writer?
Well, the first big break was being raised with no screens to empty my childhood of meaningful memories. The second was having a mom and dad who dragged me to the library at school and town and showed me that books were important for a good life. The third was meeting John. All those gifts in place, it seems, the fourth break was that first Wilder Good contract with my excellent publisher, Paul Dry Books. Nothing flashy happened there; I didn’t even have an agent. I just queried The Elk Hunt and luckily a few folks wanted to put it out. We have had a great relationship between Texas and Philadelphia and are now five books deep.
Tell us about the Wilder Good series of books. What was your inspiration?
As mentioned above, as a young father I saw that most children’s books had left the old Newbery model of the authentic outdoors setting and real kids striving for a brave, wholesome life…usually with real animals. Meaning not animal avatars with people inside. I wanted my kids, and kids everywhere, to understand the feeling a boy has when he kills his first deer. How awful it is. How conflicting it is. How violence is terrible, and has much to teach. And then, what do we eat for supper?
I wanted my kids, and all kids, to see a family with people that love each other in hard times, through cancer and grief. I wanted to simply lift the lives of rural, agricultural people into the spotlight, free of political or social agendas. Where the chief ethic is not to be nice…but to be good. I’m not talking about a shallow sentimentality here. I am talking about a nourishing goodness that literature can do for us. I’m not saying I have pulled any of that off, but I am shooting for excellence. I am shooting for art that makes children and their families stronger, truer, better.
I guess that sounds real ambitious, but that’s what I want for my kids. So my work for other people’s kids had better reflect that. Writing for kids seems a very serious business, and we ought to have high standards for who gets to put ideas into their brains. I don’t find many people talking about nourishment and goodness in that world right now.
What is your creative process like?
I write every morning at 5:30, and brood all day long. I write poetry constantly. I am typing this during a family-and-friend camping trip to Hord’s Creek Lake in central Texas. I write in my home office some, and like I am now, showerless for three days with lake mud in my ears. My fingers reek of catfish.
I just try and observe. Simplify and observe.
Tell us about your most current book.
The Green Colt came out in 2016 and won four nice awards. I love reading it at schools and libraries. But Black Rock Brothers is on deck and releases August 7.
Black Rock Brothers (book five in the series) is about Wilder [Wilder Good, the title character of the series] and two friends taking the big trip into the wild that all boys dream of. One boy, Corndog, is a foster kid from church whom Wilder’s mom coerces him into taking along. It’s a backpacking narrative, wilderness adventure, and a study of how boys develop when adults aren’t around. I did my best.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Turn off your screens. Distraction is the enemy of the artist. ALWAYS.
Read all the time. Read everything. Not just stuff you like or is popular. Study literature page by page, book by book. Learn and watch who came before.
Write every day, and prepare yourself for not being called a little genius. Prepare yourself for criticism…because success in anything is hard. You don’t get to the top of a mountain by accident. You have to grab your pack and walk uphill just like every one else. Get started…or go home and sit on the couch in the air conditioning. Ha!
Are you working on something currently?
Always! Book #6, Silverbelly, is done and being refined. I have several poetry manuscripts I would like to get out there (doesn’t every writer…?!). I hope to write a book this summer about a turbulent period in my life when I was kicked out of college at nineteen, went to Montana to cowboy, and then enrolled in Bible college two years later to start a boys’ ranch. Strange? I hope it makes good story. Maybe not. But gosh, it’s so fun to create.
What’s on your nightstand or in your To Be Read stack?
I am an addictive book collector and reader. I am reading Walden (Thoreau) for the fourth time right now; the new Jordan Peterson book (like everyone else) Twelve Rules for Living; Myself and Strangers (third time) by the peerless Texan John Graves; and Teacher by Frank McCourt. Also Calvin and Hobbes. Little Calvin had about as good a childhood as anyone I know.
* * * * *
Praise for S. J. Dahlstrom and THE ADVENTURES OF WILDER GOOD series
“If you like Hank, you’ll like Wilder Good, too.” —John R. Erickson, author of Hank the Cowdog
#1 The Elk Hunt: The Adventure Begins
Lamplighter Finalist 2015–16 (Triple Crown Awards)
“Among the best books for young boys I've seen in years. This is classic Americana, values and all.” —Robert Pratt, “Pratt on Texas"
“The Elk Hunt is a book for young men's men.” —Texas Home School Coalition
#2 Texas Grit
Will Rogers Medallion Gold Medal Winner (2015)
“I am a big fan of this series. Texas Grit is every bit as insightful and positive as the first one.” —Glenn Dromgoole, “Texas Reads”
“Dahlstrom writes about ranch life with flair and specific detail.” —WORLD magazine
#3 Wilder and Sunny
Lamplighter Finalist 2017–18 (Triple Crown Awards)
“These are exciting tales. Dahlstrom’s superb writing takes Wilder through those anxiety-producing years between childhood and adulthood, when life's simplest and most important lessons are learned.” —Forbes
#4 The Green Colt
Winner of the Western Heritage Award for Juvenile Book
Finalist, Western Writers of America Spur Award for Juvenile Fiction
“The Green Colt is told beautifully, with grace and quiet power, and shows S. J. Dahlstrom to be a big new talent. I highly recommend this wonderful book.” —Nancy Plain, award-winning author and vice-president of Western Writers of America
“Horse-loving readers will identify with Wilder, and take away positive messages about horses, respect, family, friendship, and never giving up.” —Western Horseman
“Wilder loves the outdoors, and the author's appreciation for nature rings true in his writing. The language was rich, and the imagery was vivid. I felt as if I was walking the ranch with Wilder, feeling his pain or his excitement.” —The Old Schoolhouse magazine
* * * * *
S. J. Dahlstrom lives and writes in West Texas with his wife and children. He has numerous magazine credits for his writing and photography. A fifth-generation Texan, S. J. has spent his life bouncing around the outdoors from New Mexico and Texas, north to Colorado and Montana, and east to Michigan and New York. He is interested in all things outdoors and creative. He writes poetry and hunts deer; he plants wildflowers and breaks horses; he reads Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, C.S. Lewis, and Søren Kierkegaard.
The Adventures of Wilder Good is his first book series. In his writing he draws on his experiences as a cowboy, husband, father—and as a founder of the Whetstone Boys Ranch in Mountain View, Missouri. He says, “I wrote these stories about Wilder Good for kids who grew up in the outdoors and for kids who long for the outdoors…working, fishing, hunting, farms, ranches, mountains and prairies. I think all kids want to do these things and go to these places.”