Author C.J. Box takes his outside chance at success

'Stone Cold' is his 14th novel featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett


At first blush, Wyoming seems the least likely setting for a bestselling mystery series. After all, with just shy of 600,000 residents, the nation's least-populous state has fewer bipeds than Omaha, Neb., and a violent crime rate that barely registers a pulse. Only recently have the independent-minded citizens of the Cowboy State begun to warm to its unofficial nickname: "The Big Empty."

Q&A with author C.J. Box
Stone cold

Photo by Michael Smith.

C.J. Cole's latest wilderness thriller, "Stone Cold," is the 14th featuring Joe Pickett, the game warden whose mysteries encompass the wilds of Wyoming. "Stone Cold" is slated for release March 11, 2014.

Then again, as Wyoming native Chuck Box discovered early on, Wyoming is a great place to stash a body.

And with so much wilderness to work with, it seems preordained that the author known as C.J. would choose as his series protagonist a headstrong, little-too-nosey-for-his-own-good game warden named Joe Pickett.

There are similarities of course between author and creation. Both are dedicated frontier family men with resourceful spouses and multiple daughters to level the household testosterone. Both have a deep and abiding love of the mountain west. And both have become successful at what they do, despite where they do it.

Box's latest wilderness thriller, "Stone Cold," is the 14th Joe Pickett title since his critically acclaimed 2001 debut, "Open Season." And, despite the odds, his readership continues to build, with each of his last four books reaching the top 10 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Behind Box's meteoric rise to mystery writing's A List lie stints as a small-town newspaper reporter, outdoors columnist, ranch hand and fishing guide. Ultimately, he and wife Laurie founded Rocky Mountain International, an international tourism firm that promotes the wonders of Wyoming worldwide from their base in Cheyenne.

Ahead of him: a possible Joe Pickett TV series being pitched by none other than Robert Redford.

Q: Many readers had no idea that you worked a day job until recently. How did you manage to turn out 17 novels on the side?

A: Because it was mine and I was the director of it, I was able to start structuring time so I could write more and hire people to take over a lot of the things I used to do, including a lot of international travel. But even that eventually got to the point where the writing business just got all-consuming. I finally sold out just last year and now write full time. My wife is still an owner, but she's in the process of selling out as well, so within a month or so, we'll both be free and clear of this company that we ran for 24 years.

Q: How did you wind up marketing "The Big Empty" to foreign tourists?

A: I moved to Cheyenne and went to work for the state tourism department for a few years. I was in charge of their international tourism development. Then I realized that was the kind of job that would be better off privatized, so I started my company and started working with four other states to consolidate their international tourism promotion. It's still going strong.

Q: That must have been quite a leap from small-town journalism.

A: It was, but it was pretty fascinating, too. I found out later that a lot of the things I learned doing that job have been really, really helpful in writing, because a lot of what I did was work with international journalists and tour operators, bringing them here to see the area. And I came to see Wyoming through their eyes and realize that what I took for granted would be interesting to a reader.

Q: So you essentially got paid to scout the Joe Pickett books.

A: Exactly! I would do up to a dozen "familiarization tours" a year around Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and South Dakota and really got to know the territory very well.

Q: Were you a bookish kid?

For 20 years, I worked on and off on manuscripts, until the third one I wrote eventually became "Open Season." It took 20 years from when I first started doing that in secret to when a novel actually got published.

A: I always read, and the direction I went was journalism, but I was really involved in sports. Also, it's Wyoming; there's a lot of hunting and fishing and camping and that sort of stuff.

Q: Unlike Joe Pickett, you didn't pursue a career in the outdoors. Did you ever consider it?

A: Not really. I was always intrigued by the local game wardens, because they were kind of important within the community; everybody knew where the game warden was. We used to get school visits by the local game warden, who would basically tell us, 'Once you go outside, you belong to me.' He was kind of iconic. But it wasn't until later, when I actually started working on the first manuscript, that I realized a game warden would be the best protagonist for the first book, "Open Season."

Q: You didn't have a series character in mind at that time, right?

A: I didn't sit down to write a game warden series; I sat down to write a book about the Endangered Species Act. When the publisher picked it up, they wanted two more with the game warden, and the series was born that way.

Q: Were you the stereotypical beginner who had a novel in the desk drawer?

A: Yes, exactly. For 20 years, I worked on and off on manuscripts, until the third one I wrote eventually became "Open Season." It took 20 years from when I first started doing that in secret to when a novel actually got published.

Q: You hit the mystery lists so fast with so many novels. Did you have a backlog of books written?

A: Yeah; I just felt unleashed. Once I got published and the book sold well, I was finally able to do the thing I always wanted to do. I'm a fast writer, I just write every day. It's a good job. As a journalist, you learned how to write fast and get to the point and don't spend too much time in your head; you just get to work.

Q: You don't present many obstacles between the reader and Joe Pickett's world. By design?

A: I think that's important. There are a lot of books out there for people to read, and I always think of what I like to read and how turned off I get sometimes when I feel like a writer is either showing off or going for a prize or some review, rather than thinking about the reader.

Q: Who influenced your writing?

A: My favorite author is Thomas McGuane ("Panama," "Ninety-Two in the Shade"). I started reading him really early on; probably too early on, considering some of the subject matter! (laughs) I really fell in with him. My favorite book still is (Joseph Heller's) "Catch-22." I started reading very widely, a lot of different stuff. I never really thought of myself as a mystery writer; I always thought mysteries were sort of Agatha Christie closed-room kind of things. I didn't realize that some of the stuff I was reading was also considered mystery.

Q: Like McGuane's work, place plays a starring role in your novels. Was that what attracted you to his books?

I think the first three-book contract was like $15,000. So it wasn't much at all, but I was sure excited about knowing that what I was writing would get published.

A: Yes, exactly. Because he was writing really, really smart stuff set in the mountain west that wasn't corny or a little too cute or too rural. I really like that take.

Q: Was your first book deal a life-changer financially?

A: Oh yeah, but it wasn't that much. I think the first three-book contract was like $15,000. So it wasn't much at all, but I was sure excited about knowing that what I was writing would get published. The first book did very, very well; it won more best first novel awards than almost any book to date. That was a shocker because it had been completed for five years with nothing happening, and when it did come around, it really made an impact, which was terrific. Subsequently, each book has outsold the last one.

Q: How close are Joe Pickett's financial challenges to your own starting out?

A: I can really still feel the years where my wife and I moved to Cheyenne, we had twins immediately, and it was paycheck to paycheck. I still try to write Joe Pickett from that point of view.

Q: Did you struggle with debt?

A: No, because my wife is a much better money manager than I am. We never really got into any kind of serious money trouble, but it was very, very tight.

Q: At some point, your book deals exploded. How did that change your life?

A: You know, it hasn't changed it as much as I anticipated it would. We still aren't extravagant at all, even though I've gotten many of the things in life I want, like a cabin on a river where I can fish off the front lawn. That was always a dream. We were able to send three girls through college. It came late in life, so I don't get to giddy with it.

Q: A lot of writers who hit in their 20s often aren't prepared for it.

A: No, and I think they're insufferable.

[M]y wife is a much better money manager than I am. We never really got into any kind of serious money trouble, but it was very, very tight.

Q: You're about to embark on another adventure, courtesy of another famed Western figure, Robert Redford, right?

A: Wow -- how did you know about that? Well, yeah; Robert Redford is the executive producer and they're pitching a Joe Pickett television series. Nobody has said let's do this yet, but right now, they've started to take it network to network, something like 14 places.

Q: Have you had the opportunity to meet the Sundance Kid?

A: Nope, never met him. I was kind of surprised that he was the one behind it, and I was really excited to hear that he's read every book. I'm encouraged, but at the same time, who knows? It's a crap shoot. I loved the movie, "A River Runs Through It," loved the book. And Redford has done some other great Western stuff like "Jeremiah Johnson" way back. That was a wholly different take on a Western. I still love that movie.

Q: Constancy seems to be one of Joe's most beloved features. He's not likely to relocate to Beverly Hills or Miami, right?

A: (Laughs) I'm a reader, too, and I hate it when series do that -- "Let's go to Italy with the game warden!" But I also write stand-alones, so I set books in other places besides Wyoming; I've got that outlet as well.

See related: 8 novels show how credit cards appear in fiction

Published: March 3, 2014

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