Interview with C.J. Box
Edward Abbey once wrote, “But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need—if only we had the eyes to see.”
The wilderness conjures up all sorts of images, from majestic stillness to unspoiled beauty, yet hardly, if ever, does it conjure up images of dastardly crimes and conspiracies. But it’s in the rugged beauty of the Wyoming wilderness that C.J. Box has penned fifteen New York Times best-selling novels, simultaneously evoking the spirit of Abbey’s words and exposing the dark side of human nature.
Box’s journey to becoming one of the most successful thriller writers in the US had a lot of stops along the way. A jack of all trades, he worked as a ranch hand, editor, fishing guide, journalist, and surveyor, before gathering up his life experiences to pen Open Season (2001). The novel introduced the hardworking, incorruptible game warden, Joe Pickett, who finds himself thrust into a deadly conspiracy that threatens his family. A huge success with critics and mystery fans alike, Open Season won the Anthony, Macavity, Barry, and Gumshoe awards for best first novel.
While there are countless fictional detectives whose personal lives are in shambles, and who are tormented by inner demons and riddled with character flaws—yet can fight off a perp with almost superhuman strength—Joe Pickett is the polar opposite. He is happily married, even-keeled, less handy with a gun, and doesn’t possess any superhuman fighting or detection skills. According to his creator, one of Pickett’s most serious flaws may be that he “doesn’t enter every fight with an agenda other than to do the right thing.” That flaw may also be why millions of fans around the world have embraced the character so completely.
As atypical as Pickett is of crime genre protagonists, so too is C.J. Box unlike other crime writers. Sure he spins inventive and complex page-turners, but he also tackles socially relevant issues, ranging from endangered species and animal cruelty to the environmental impacts of fracking and the ongoing conflict between environmentalists and developers. In 2002, for example, Box followed his debut novel with Savage Run, in which Pickett investigates the bizarre death of an eco-terrorist, which then spirals into a series of more ghoulish murders. In Trophy Hunt (2004), he puts Pickett on the trail of a modern day Jack the Ripper who savagely mutilates animals and humans.
In other books, Box has factored in more personally and morally challenging issues. In Out of Range (2005), Pickett unearths a fatal conspiracy while investigating the suicide of one his best friends. And in his 2006 novel, In Plain Sight, Pickett is drawn into a violent family feud and finds himself the target of a remorseless ex-cop turned killer. Below Zero (2009) even pits Pickett against his own past when he receives phone calls from a girl claiming to be his late foster daughter.
Despite addressing serious and divisive issues, Box’s stories are never bland or preachy. His narrative style is fast and terse, and his stories are known for colorful characters, pathological villains, and riveting plots. Box is also lauded for his evocative descriptions of the Wyoming wilderness. Far from an impersonal backdrop in his narratives, the wilderness would more aptly be described as one of his most powerful characters.
In 2008, the author tried his hand at a stand-alone novel, Blue Heaven, in which two children witness a murder and are chased through the Idaho woods by a gang of killers. Box won rave reviews for the book, as well as the Edgar Award for Best Novel. On the heels of this success, he wrote two more successful stand-alone thrillers, Three Weeks to Say Goodbye (2009) and Back of Beyond (2011).
C.J. Box lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with his wife and three daughters.
AFG: So tell me about your new book.
CJB: Ah, Force of Nature. It came out March 20 and it’s the twelfth Joe Pickett novel. This one features Nate Romanowski primarily, who has been not necessarily a sidekick to Joe Pickett but kind of a partner-in-arms in a way throughout the entire series. He’s a mysterious kind of outlaw-falconer with a background that’s never really been revealed until this book. Joe Pickett is in it, but as a secondary character. So basically it reveals Nate’s backstory, why he is the way he is, who’s after him, why he’s been living off the grid all these years. And his secret—or his background—is actually tied to an actual event that happened in 1999 that is featured in the book The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for that book. When I reread that book, I found an incident in there that happened in Afghanistan and I figured if Nate were there, it would explain everything. I didn’t have a grand plan or strategic kind of plot in the back of my head for years and years. But when I read that, I realized the timing was right and the circumstances were perfect—then I knew I had the Nate book, finally.
AFG: Yeah, you always said that there was not enough in him for you to turn out a novel all about him.
CJB: Right. And I sincerely believed that. And until I realized what his backstory was, it wouldn’t have made sense to do it. I’m not going to start another series with Nate Romanowski or anything. This is the Nate book.
AFG: So how many jobs did you have before becoming a writer?
CJB: Oh man. Four or five. But primarily when the first book was published, my wife and I owned—and still own—an international tourism marketing company that works for state government. We work for five states and we represent them and their tourism efforts in Europe and Scandinavia and Australia. And the company is still going strong and doing well, although I kind of backed off any kind of day-to-day involvement with it. Prior to that, I worked for the state of Wyoming in international tourism promotion. Then prior to that, I was a journalist—small-time, small-town journalist. And then quite a few jobs up till that point. I worked on ranches; I was an exploration surveyor. But those were mainly jobs simply to supplement going to college.
AFG: Would you say those different jobs helped you with your writing?
CJB: It’s really kind of weird. I always wanted to be a writer, but I never really thought of the mystery genre. And I never looked at the jobs I took as a means to an end. But I’m glad now that I had the jobs that I did, because almost every one of them filled in some kind of gap that I can now write about—outdoor things and natural resource issues and the kind of things I write about with some kind of confidence.
AFG: So what should people know about Wyoming? I’ve never been there. I go to Europe all the time. I have to explore America more …
CJB: Yeah, I used to do the same thing. I was much more familiar with cities in Europe than I was with cities in America.
AFG: When I started going to conferences, I started exploring the states. The funny thing is, I was born here and when I was two we moved to Greece. When I was twelve, we came back here. And since then, I would go to Germany, France, Italy, visit Greece again, and when people would ask, “Have you been to Florida?” No! “Have you been to California?” No! … But tell me about Wyoming.
CJB: Well, it’s, a huge state. I mean, it’s one of the big square states in the middle. But it’s got the smallest population of any US state—only 600,000 people—and about half of it is federal land of one form or another. But it also contains a lot of energy—coal, oil, gas, uranium, everything, wind. It also has Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and those are the main reasons why people visit here. You know, world’s first national park and so on. But it’s a very interesting state because of the huge distances and lack of population. Extreme weather. Snowing today, in fact.
AFG: Would you say there’s a very low crime rate in Wyoming?
CJB: It’s fairly low. Nationally, comparison-wise, it’s fairly low.
AFG: And you’re in Cheyenne, right?
CJB: Yeah, we’re actually outside of Cheyenne.
AFG: And do you guys sort of look at the old western films as completely inaccurate?
CJB: Oh, you know, a lot of them are. But I mean, Cheyenne is certainly one of those names that evokes that western movie thing for me. Medicine Bow—all those places are right around here within a couple hundred miles. And the Johnson County Range War—that kind of classic western plot. All those kinds of things happened in Wyoming, so although the population is low, a lot of those iconic western themes happened here.
AFG: Are there any of the old towns that have been well maintained, or have they just disappeared?
CJB: No, there are several of them that still have that look, that evoke that feeling, although they haven’t been redeveloped like theme parks or anything. But certainly when you walk down the street you think, “Boy, this hasn’t changed much.”
AFG: You’re making a good pitch for me to visit Wyoming. So tell me, with Joe Pickett, how do you convince publishers or agents or editors to invest in something where your character is just basically a nice guy? Because the norm, you know, is that a hero has to have lots of internal conflicts—about three divorces and a lot of bad habits—before the publisher will take the character seriously. And I for one think that’s overdone.
CJB: I think it is too. I have written a couple of stand-alones with a character like that named Cody Hoyt, and I can see why so many writers do it. It’s fun and it’s easy in a way. But anyway I never thought of [Pickett] in terms of a series or that he was going to be against the grain. To me, with the first book, it was going to be a book about the Endangered Species Act and the protagonist happened to be a game warden. So there wasn’t anything strategic. I never thought the world needed a game warden series. To me, it was more about the issue and the conflicts—kind of a contemporary western story. And when Putnam finally agreed to publish it, they wanted two more books with Joe Pickett, so that’s how it got going. It wasn’t me sitting in my basement plotting this thing. But I’m glad now in retrospect that it worked that way, because it’s held up well and readers have certainly responded to that kind of character. And most people, when I go on book tours and so on, that’s what they want to talk about. They want to talk about Joe Pickett and his family and his life circumstance, as opposed to “who done it”.
AFG: And are you surprised that it has international appeal? That it isn’t something that only appeals to readers in the western US, in the Rocky Mountain area? That Italians and Germans are so interested in these characters?
CJB: Yeah, I’ve been very surprised. And it’s been interesting to go there and find out why. A lot of it just has to do with the exotic setting. The books are much different than the other kind of similar books coming out of the US, and I think it’s gotten its niche that way. A lot of the themes that I write about that I consider really local—energy development and endangered species and environmentalism—are actually very international themes, just in different clothing. And those seem to resonate well beyond the West. Again, not intended, but I find it really interesting that they have.
AFG: You once said that if a person lives in the Rocky Mountain area, it’s just impossible not to witness that there’s always a conflict going on, whether it’s conservation, the environment, drilling for oil, mining for minerals. Tell us about that.
CJB: Yeah, and that’s kind of an old story out here. I think what tends to happen is that because there’s so much open land and just geographically it’s so high and easy to get at, that this is the first place a lot of those big issues come to light. You know, it’s pretty easy to find coal for example. It’s pretty easy to find all these things because there are not a lot of trees and you can just drive around and find it. So I think a lot of the conflicts start here because so many of those issues start here. And even though, you know, it’s certainly not a cutting-edge technological area, it is in terms of the environment and wildlife issues and energy development. And all these clashes tend to start here and then work their way east and west.