John Erickson - About the Author
If you look closely at the Hank the Cowdog books by John R. Erickson, the author confesses you will see fingerprints. He is not talking about mysterious traces uncovered by super-sleuth Hank. Instead, Erickson is alluding to his early fascination with another tricky hero, Tom Sawyer, and his creator, Mark Twain. "I was deeply influenced by Tom Sawyer and the thing that impressed me most is that he was writing about mischievous boys who didn't like to read," muses the author. "Mark Twain allowed his readers to laugh."
So does John R. Erickson. Whether he is investigating a case or being outsmarted (again) by the barn cat, kids know that any time spent with Hank is a good time for everyone. Erickson has heard that Hank the Cowdog is the longest running series by a single author. The 57th Hank the Cowdog (The Disappearance of Drover) has just been released by Puffin and the longevity of the series is a testament to Erickson's ability to keep Hank as fresh as a prairie breeze. He claims this is "because I write about the world I live in and I operate a 7000-acre ranch - I do most of the work myself except during the busy times when we need a cowboy crew."
"If you hang around with dogs you see a lot of funny things," explains the author. "Those experiences are universal - they cut across all lines." He believes that "readers are very perceptive and smart in identifying when an author is writing about what he knows. Since a typical day on the ranch may involve any combination of cats, dogs, cattle, horses, raccoons and porcupines, John Erickson has a constant supply of fodder for his stories.
"A lot of kids get the impression that I don't like cats because Hank doesn't like cats. Pete the barn cat is a wonderful character - he's my favorite villain." If you read closely, you'll notice that "Hank is the one who initiates all the trouble between them and Pete uses his cunning mind to get the best of him" .
Rip and Snort the coyote brothers are another set of favorite mischief-makers. "They remind me of myself in the eighth grade." Erickson says that "Kids often ask if I am Hank." Erickson adds that "I don't doubt that I have a lot of qualities in common with Hank. I don't listen very well, I'm not too smart, but really, the original Hank was based on an actual dog." This is an important distinction for the author and possibly the secret to Hank's appeal: "I don't think of him as a human. Hank is really a dog and a lot of his characteristics are things I've observed in the dogs here in the ranch."
An Australian shepherd named Hank was the model for the first of the Hank the Cowdog books but John Erickson had been a writer long before Hank made an appearance. "One of the most common questions I get has the word "inspired" in it, comments the author. "To me it is an odd way to put it because I'm a professional author and I don't depend on inspiration--I go to my office for a number of hours and some days I'm inspired and some days I'm not." Some of the mystery of keeping a long-running series active is revealed: "When I'm there, I do some kind of writing. It might be a book on story craft, an article for Western Horseman or answering fan letters."
A recent one sticks out in his memory. "It was a wonderful letter from a sixth grader who said he was not interested in reading, did not like reading, and would not read until he came across Hank the Cowdog: The Case of the Most Ancient Bone." The young newly enthusiastic reader said he became interested in the language and the plays on words that are a hallmark of Hank's (and John's) narrative style. He told me he decided reading other books, too." He adds, "He's a talented kid and a heckuva good writer himself."
Erickson started his own publishing company, Maverick Books, after 15 years of writing. When he told a story to some locals one day, a few later remarked that "You need to do more with the dog." So he published the first stories himself with modest expectations and before long, the Hank business became too big for little Maverick and Texas Monthly Press became the official publisher of Hank. Two and a half million books later, Hank was ready to make the move to a New York publisher. With fifteen million books in print, Hank will be returning to Maverick for #58 this coming fall and John Erickson will once again be a publishing maverick himself by staying true to his source material and giving his readers the opportunity to laugh.
-- Interviewed by Ellen Myrick, April 2011