John Rose Putnam
Right across the bay from San Francisco
Good morning, John, and welcome to Vision and Verse, the Place for Art and Authors. Can you tell us a little about what you've written?
I’ve written ten novels, five published. Most are about the California Gold Rush and a mining town called Hangtown about sixty miles east of Sacramento. It’s still there but they call it Placerville now. I have three unpublished mysteries that take place in the mid-fifties in a small southern town surprisingly like the place where I grew up and a published book about the Native Americans I believe lived around a cabin our family had in South Carolina along a depression era lake where I spent some of the best days of my youth.
Now I’m starting a book that’s a prelude to the last Comanche war in Texas. The Indians are gathering in the ancient homeland, the Llano Estacado, or the Staked Plains, a gigantic plateau in the panhandle that’s 200 miles wide and 250 miles long and rises off the prairie a mile high in places. My hero must go there to return a wounded Indian boy but he knows that his chances of making it back home alive are very slim.
What is your favorite genre to write?
It sure looks like my favorite genre is Westerns, but just between you, me and the fence posts I kind of like the mysteries. Unfortunately I seem to have a little more trouble getting them published.
I’ve got to say Mexican, but then I’m awful fond of Thai food. Unfortunately I’m a poor struggling writer and can’t afford to eat out that often and it’s really easy to whip up a taco or two.
Tea or coffee?
Coffee hands down. I was weaned on the stuff.
Pizza or ice cream?
Aaargh!!! I love ‘em both but I’m diabetic and so I need to stay away. Another reason to like Thai food. Except for the rice it’s really low carb.
Wine or beer?
I live in California so I have to love wine, but I was a beer drinker for years—until I gave it all up. I no longer drink and I’m darn glad for it.
Where would you like to visit?
I like to go to places I write about so how about the Llano Estacado from south of Lubbock to north of Amarillo.
Favorite musical artist. Do you listen to music when you write?
I majored in music at UC Berkeley many years ago. I fell in love with Beethoven but now I rarely listen to music, especially when I write. I get lost in it if it’s the good stuff and I’d rather get lost in my story. Besides, a good book is remarkably like music, don’t you think?
Yes, I agree. What makes you laugh?
In 2009 I had cancer surgery. These days just being alive makes me incredibly happy. When I first found out that I had such a terrible disease I wrote myself off as a dead man. Well, I’m still here and I get stronger every day. I’m always smiling and often for no other reason except I’m still kicking. Trust me, that is reason enough.
Yes, John. That's a great reason to smile. This is an Art and Author blog, so I'm obliged to ask: Favorite work of art or sculpture.
I’ve always been a Van Gogh fan but after putting in so much work on my gold rush history blog I’ve become quite fond of the old landscape artist, Albert Bierstadt. He painted many stirring scenes from California that I’ve used, but one in particular is so good it’s on my Facebook author’s page. Few people recognize the scene though it is one of the most famous in all of California. It’s painted from Seal Beach in San Francisco looking back toward Marin County and shows clearly why this stretch of water was named the Golden Gate by John C. Fremont. No one recognizes it because, you see, it was painted long before the Golden Gate Bridge was built.
How old were you when you started writing?
I wrote my first story way over twenty years ago. It was terrible, just ghastly. Hopefully I’ve gotten better. It took me 6 years to write my first novel. I finished in 2002. It gets a little easier with each new book, and hopefully each new book gets a little better.
Describe your perfect evening.
It’s simple—sitting at my desk lost in newest story. My books always take me to a different time and place. Sometimes I think I’m really there, maybe sometimes I am.
Where do you get your inspiration?
And this is the real key to the whole shooting match, isn’t it. Where do the ideas come from? The simple answer is everywhere. They are in the air, in my dreams, on TV or the radio. They follow me when I’m walking and haunt me when I can’t sleep. I love them.
My first book idea came many years before I ever thought of writing a book. I was going from Sacramento to Placerville, or Hangtown as they called it during gold rush days, when I kept seeing two men and a woman riding along beside our car. I knew they weren’t real because we were doing 60 and their horses were walking, but I knew some evil men were after them. I couldn’t make much of those images for years.
Then I decided to write a book and they popped up again. I had to go back to Hangtown to chase them down. It was Maggie, Joshua and Eban running away from Smiling Jack and Cherokee Bill, and bingo, I had a story to write about.
What do you do when you get a writer's block?
There is only one solution to writer’s block that I know of and that is to sit down and write. Oh, it might be hard to do and you might not get a lot done but the water doesn’t run until the tap is turned on and the pump is primed. Keep at it. Soon your effort will pay off and the words will flow.
Who is your favorite author?
I’d have to go with Mark Twain as a favorite author, but it’s more than his writing. In his day he was known more as a humorist than a writer. People packed theaters to hear him talk. He had a magnificent way with words and a terrific sense of humor.
Best book you ever read.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer fills that bill. Sure I read it as a kid and you know it stuck with me all my life. The funny thing is that my book, Hangtown Creek, was almost done when a boy named Tom Marsh worked his way into it from out of nowhere and man did that book take off. I knew right off that Tom Marsh was a gift from Sam Clemens. Tom’s the protagonist in 4 published gold rush books so far.
Last book you read.
That would be “Get Shorty” by Elmore Leonard. He’s my next favorite writer. His ‘Rules for Writing’ helped me a lot. One, “cut out the boring parts,” I find particularly helpful. I learned about Elmore from the movies. I’d seen so many Western films taken from his novels I can’t say I remember them all, but I never knew he wrote them until I saw the movie version of ‘Get Shorty’ and did some research. Elmore Leonard was one heck of a writer.
Yes, he is. I love Elmore Leonard. What would you do for a living if you weren’t a writer?
To paraphrase what an old friend of mine once said, if I didn’t write I’d still be independently poor. I would still get my social insecurity check every month. It’s a nice fall back though. A writer’s income can go up and down more than a roller coaster ride at Great America.
Who is the one person who has influenced your personal life the most and why?
That person would have to be my Dad. My earliest memories of him were when I helped him build a boat in the basement of our new house. Okay, I was three years old and I’m sure I wasn’t much help but that didn’t bother either of us one bit. As I grew up I spent a lot of time with him and we always had tons of fun.
One of the things we did often happened in that boat we built. The boat fit perfectly in the back of Dad’s pickup truck and off we would go to a cabin we had on a new depression era lake near our town. There were rumors of Indian burial mounds under the lake, and all around the cabin we found arrowheads and pottery.
As a boy I never knew who the Indians were or where the mounds were. Then, when I was 12, we moved away. The lake property was sold soon after. My Dad passed on when I was 17 and by 20 I was in California, and soon the Indians from our cabin began to haunt me. Like an old girlfriend I never could forget about them.
If you could sit down and have a conversation with ONE person, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be and why?
Surprise, that would be my Dad again, and a whole bunch of that conversation would have to do with the cabin and what he knew about the mounds that were there before the lake filled with water. In 2002 I went back to the old cabin site. I’d just finished the first draft of Hangtown Creek. Within seconds of getting out of the car I knew I had to write a book about those Indians, but I had still no clue who they were or what happened to them, and neither did anyone I knew. I sure needed my Dad then.
After I got home I started research. Talk about inspiration, I felt like I had the spirit of one of the Indians at my side, maybe the one who haunted me for so many years. From all the way on the other side of the country I found those Indian Burial Mounds. My Dad and I had ridden right by the one at the main city every time we went to the cabin in the boat, and the cabin itself sat exactly where the Queen’s house once stood. I got really involved in that story. The River of Corn was one fun book to write.
What advice would you give someone who aspired to be a writer?
My advice is simple, keep writing. The more you get in touch with who you are, with your inner self—that’s the place your writing comes from—the better your writing will be. Never give up!
Thank you, Carol, for the terrific opportunity to do this interview with you. It’s been great.
My pleasure, John. We at Vision and Verse wish you continued success in all your writing endeavors.
Here’s a list of my books. They’re all on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited:
Face of the Devil
The Yuba Trouble
The River of Corn
And here’s a few other links you might like:
Facebook author’s page