Posted on March 6, 2019 at 9:05 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek

Oftentimes, authors describe being encouraged externally or internally compelled to pick a “safe” career versus making a living off writing.

That’s not exactly the case for John Hansen, who picked up writing western and historical novels after he retired in 2014.

Sure, he went through school with the idea of becoming an author and even published a few articles and fiction stories, but ultimately shifted to a line of work that offered more financial stability.

Then why wouldn’t that career be considered safe?

Well, Hansen chose to become a wildlife biologist and wildland firefighter.

The latter role took him to many frightening places, but one especially memorable incident was in the Black Hills in South Dakota, when daily highs were in the low 100s.

There was almost no humidity, meaning that the ponderosa pines around the countryside were essentially standing kindling.

Hansen and some colleagues had been attempting to save one particular house surrounded by pines when they realized they were surrounded by something else: fire and heavy smoke.

With almost no visibility, it would be extremely difficult for a plane to accurately drop the extremely heavy fire retardant (as in, to avoid hitting the firefighters on the ground).

Thankfully, a slight breeze came to their rescue, clearing the smoke enough to allow the fire crew to flee to safety.

Hansen shared more stories from his life, most of which aren’t as physically scary but are just as thrilling, in a recent interview. 

SADYE: What inspired your youthful passion for writing?

JOHN: I was a voracious reader as a kid.

I don’t know if my passion for writing came from a desire to emulate people who wrote books or just a need to express myself.

Regardless of the impetus to write, it was like an addiction for me. It was something that I could not let go of.

SADYE: Your bio says your great-grandmother captured bank robbers — can you tell us about that?

JOHN: A bank in Blackfoot, Idaho, was robbed near the turn of the century.

My great grandparents were ranchers in the Gray’s Lake area, which is in the mountains southeast of Blackfoot.

The robbers made their escape into this country and stopped at my grandparents’ ranch, wanting something to eat.

My great-grandmother was suspicious of them right off as her husband was out with the sheriff and the posse looking for them so she no doubt was privy to how many robbers there were and possibly the colors of their horses, etc.

Her capturing these guys at gunpoint and locking them in the root cellar sounds like a very bold thing to do, but just living in a remote area at this point in history and being by yourself a lot of the time would require a person to be of fairly strong character and handy with a rifle.

SADYE: You told us a thrilling story about life as a firefighter; can you add one from your time as a wildlife biologist?

JOHN: Probably the wildest thing that happened to me during my wildlife career occurred on a check station intended to record hunter success.

Three guys came in who were not hunters but were drunk. They became concerned that they were going to be arrested for DUI.

Things went totally south after that. Ultimately, the state and county police as well as more fish and game personnel came.

There were guns drawn before the men could be arrested. All three had police records; two were on parole from the state penitentiary.

This incident was an anomaly. The thing that I did on an annual basis in New Mexico, that I considered wild, was count big game from a helicopter.

On the surface, it sounds pretty tame — unless you are prone to air sickness and you consider that wildlife biologists have one of the highest occupational accidental death rates due to aircraft crashes.

Counting big game from a helicopter is like going on the worst carnival ride of your life for about two and a half hours.

My usual preflight routine was to take Dramamine with Pepto-Bismol. I kid you not.

SADYE: What has been the most surprising, rewarding, and challenging parts of being a writer?

JOHN: Without a doubt, the most challenging part of writing is the promoting of my books once they’re done.

I sometimes feel the writing has been secondary to all that is required to get my books noticed.

Amazon has millions of books. Getting one of them to a position in the rankings where a potential reader will see it is akin to digging a foxhole in a sand dune, it just keeps filling in.

The most surprising part of my writing is the way my characters, once I’ve created them, seem to tell the story.

I do a very general outline of what a book is going to be about before starting to write. In every case the story and characters do things I’d never imagined.

A lot of people talk about writer’s block or even of writing being drudgery. I’ve never experienced these feelings.

I’m up early (5:30) most days and after feeding our dog and two cats, I get a cup of coffee and start writing.

I look forward to it and to seeing how the story will progress for that day.

The rewards of writing for me are intangible.

It’s certainly not the money. If money or even fame is a person’s motivation for writing, I would say they’ve chosen the wrong profession.

There is some recognition that comes from being a published writer, but I think more than anything, it is being able to share one’s life experiences in little micro bites and the endorsement of what you’ve got to say through the reviews that you receive.    

SADYE: In hindsight, what would you tell your younger self to do differently, as it relates to writing, if anything?

JOHN: Probably nothing.

To me, if a person is going to write with insight as to people’s emotions and behaviors and places and events, you can only do this if you’ve lived life.

I constantly draw upon my memories of hired men who worked for my father on our ranch or neighboring places or old-timers who lived in the mountains and prospected.

These kinds of men, you don’t see much of anymore.

When I describe in one of my books a man rolling a Bull Durham cigarette or a wire gate that “no sissy is gonna open,” I go back fifty or sixty years and there this person is rolling that smoke or that difficult gate in the fence line that cuts through the sagebrush and grass and wildflowers.

SADYE: What would you like readers to take away from your stories?

JOHN: I stay away from creating invincible, superhero protagonists in my books.

I tend to deal with characters that are just common people, like the vast majority of us, who are just trying to make a living, find love and survive.

Whether I’m writing a western or historical fiction, I want my characters to be believable with realistic problems to solve.

I strive to write as descriptively as I possibly can so that the reader feels like they’re right there hearing, seeing and smelling all that is going on in that scene.

After reading one of my books, I want the reader to feel like they have learned something they didn’t know.

They should, as I do a tremendous amount of research for all of my books.

If I describe the process for ringing up the telephone operator in Butte, Montana, in 1917 while drinking a Blatz beer, you can rest assured I researched it.    

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Learn more about John Hansen on his website. Know an author you'd like to see featured? Email us with a recommendation!

Categories: Author Interview

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