One-on-One with John Erickson

The author of Hank the Cowdog—one of the country’s most popular and beloved children’s book series—didn’t always have it easy. John R. Erickson, a Perryton native, received approximately 1,000 rejection slips from publishers over a 15-year span. But undeterred, Erickson started his own publishing company, Maverick Books, Inc., in his Perryton garage in 1982 to self-publish his work.

Since then, Erickson has written and published more than 80 books, and the Hank the Cowdog series has sold more than 8 million copies. Erickson’s audio recordings of the books are the longest-running successful children’s series on audio—ever, and he’s adapted the series into several stage plays. The series is also being made into a movie. His writing has won multiple awards, including Lamplighter Awards, the Audie, Oppenheimer, and Wrangler. In addition, Erickson’s work has been translated into Spanish, Danish, Farsi, and Chinese.

Erickson was born in Midland, but he moved to Perryton with his family when he was three. He graduated from PHS in 1962. While in high school he ran track, played varsity football, sang in the choir, played the bassoon and drums, and participated in speech events and school plays. He went on to attend the University of Denver for a year and finished his B.A. degree at the University of Texas in Austin. It’s there where he met his future wife, Kristine. He then studied theology at Harvard Divinity School. After college, Erickson worked as a ranch cowboy in Oklahoma and Texas, and he wrote four hours each day. Today, Kris and he live on their ranch near Perryton. They have three grown children and four grandchildren.

We talked with Erickson about his successful writing career. Here’s what he had to say.

When did you begin writing?
I started writing poems for my English teacher when I was a senior in high school. I also wrote while at the University of Texas. When I got married, I started writing every day.

What do you like about writing?
It satisfies some deep need to express myself through words, just as a musician needs to express himself through singing. I take pride in writing. It is a difficult profession, but it is starting to get easier. It’s a nice way to make a living.

When and how did you come up with the idea for Hank the Cowdog?
It kind of fell out of the sky. I was writing a series of humorous articles for The Cattleman magazine in 1981 about dogs I knew at a ranch I had worked at.

How did it expand into the series?
I read the articles to various groups in Perryton like Rotary Club, Lion’s Club, and Jennie June Club. The groups said I needed to do more with Hank and Drover. I self-published the first book from my garage in Perryton because it had become so popular.

Do you plan to write a certain number of books in the series, or will it keep going indefinitely?
We just brought out #61 and are still having fun with it. We are about five books ahead. If readers keep enjoying it, we’ll keep doing it.

Where do you get your ideas for all the novels and other works?
They are historical, based on research about the frontier period. Hank the Cowdog and humors about ranch work are based on experience from working on others’ ranches and my own ranches.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
That’s like asking a mother which is her favorite of her 12 children. I have written stuff I don’t like that is either in a filing cabinet or thrown away. Everything that has been published, I like.

What helped you persevere when your writing wasn’t published in the beginning?
Some might say that I’m not too smart. But I followed the advice my mother had given me. She told me God had given me a talent and to protect it and use it wisely.

Was it scary starting your own publishing company?
I received probably 1,000 rejection slips over a 15-year period. I was tired of getting rejected, so starting my own publishing company did not seem scary. My wife and I thought I could do it, and I didn’t think about how risky it was.

What appearances do you make with the Hank the Cowdog series?
I do programs all over the country. I give presentations at public schools, home school groups, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and others.

Note: Earlier this year, Erickson was a guest on Dr. James Dobson Family Talk. You can listen to him here on the show’s archives. The dates for Erickson’s broadcasts are May 16 and 17 and are entitled “The Heart of a Cowboy.”

How is the Hank the Cowdog movie coming along? When is it scheduled to debut? Will it be in theaters nationally?
They are currently in the storyboard phase. An artist is doing pencil drawings of the action. We are still trying to raise the production money. We are hoping it will be released around Easter 2015 with Odyssey Films. It will be released where the series is most popular, which is everywhere except the industrial Northeast.

Who is involved in the Hank the Cowdog series?
Gerald L. Holmes has been the illustrator from the beginning. Trev Tevis does the music for the audio book recordings. The audio books are recorded at Audio Refinery Recording Studio in Amarillo, and all books are published at Maverick Books, Inc., here in Perryton.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I like to work on the ranch; it’s a working commercial cattle ranch. It would be more fun if we had some green grass. I sing in the church choir. My wife and I play the banjo and mandolin. I read and write every day. I also enjoy getting together with my family.

What tips do you have for aspiring writers?
I spent 18 months putting together tips in a book called Story Craft: Reflections On Faith, Culture, and Writing. That said, it doesn’t amount to tips. It amounts to perseverance and hard work.

 


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