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Mystery Man: An authentic Western character himself, novelist C.J. Box knows how to turn a tale

Charles James Box (Chuck to those who meet him face-to-face; C.J. to the legions of crime fiction fans who snap up his every release) often wears a black hat and black leather jacket. In the iconography of the wild and woolly West, that would make him one of the bad guys.

A lifelong Westerner, C.J. Box (pictured) sets his novels in the landscape he knows best.

A lifelong Westerner, C.J. Box (pictured) sets his novels in the landscape he knows best. Photo illustration: Wayne Armstrong

Box (BA mass communications ’81) is far from that, but he can rustle up an evildoer and depict an evil deed with the best of them. Some eight years and 10 additional novels after the publication of his first page-turner, Open Season, he is hailed for his fast-moving plots, likable protagonists and surreal showdowns. He’s also heralded as one of the literary world’s foremost chroniclers of a modern-day West, one where avaricious individualists and deadly earnest do-gooders ride into town on their high horses.

“A crime novel peels away the culture,” Box says, explaining why he works within the genre. “It exposes the culture in a way that other books don’t.”

In Box’s disrobed West, readers encounter what he calls “a cutting-edge culture” — cutting edge because it’s shaped, and sometimes distorted, by the passions of so many advocates and oppositionists. Think fans and foes of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. Think proponents and opponents of oil shale development, green energy, hunting, fishing, cattle grazing, development, the reintroduction of wolves, you name it. Think larger-than-life characters with outsized carbon footprints or inflexible agendas.

In his celebrated Joe Pickett series, which follows the exploits of a Wyoming fish and game warden, the protagonist is often caught between clashing interests. Like so many archetypal heroes in this genre, Pickett is an accidental sleuth, an honest man forced to fall back on his principles to negotiate venality, sanctimony and many forms of felony. “It’s very much a classic Western point of view — the corrupting forces of civilization versus the individual with a code,” Box explains.


Issues and inspiration

A native of Casper, Wyo., the 50-year-old Box finds literary inspiration in the day’s news. The Pickett novels always focus on an issue that has captured Box’s imagination, if only because it has ignited acute passions and moved people to take radical measures.

“I’m interested in those kind of ethical, resource-based things,” Box says. “Most of the time I try to be really balanced in the portrayal of an issue. There’s extremism on both sides, and I try to have someone who portrays that extremism.” After that, it’s a question of strategic plotting — “How do I pull a reader through this issue in an interesting way?”

His gift for plotting and for portraying controversy have made the Pickett novels — and Box’s two “stand-alone books” — immensely popular with readers from both sides of the political spectrum and with critics. His first novel, which took about four years to meander into print, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2001. Since then, his books have garnered an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, a Gumshoe Award, a Barry Award and the granddaddy of them all, an Edgar Award. He has been an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist, his short stories have been featured in America’s Best Mystery Stories 2006, and in 2007, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers named him Writer of the Year.

With each book, Box’s audiences and accolades grow. His January 2009 offering, Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, spent three weeks on the New York Times extended bestseller list. His latest Joe Pickett book, Below Zero, due in bookstores on June 16, 2009, has fans who frequent his online forum salivating in anticipation. “Just waiting ’til June for Below Zero, but not waiting well,” one devotee posted in early spring.

There’s more. Blue Heaven, Box’s first stand-alone, was recently optioned for film. Its honors have ranged from the impressive — it received the coveted Edgar — to the esoteric. “Blue Heaven was the No. 1 book in Berlin last year,” Box notes. Across the border in France, he has become a cult figure, capturing the Prix Calibre 38. Why has he fared so well in the land of Coco Channel and café au lait? “Don’t ask me to analyze the French,” he says.

At lunch in a downtown Cheyenne pub, over red chili and iced tea, Box learns via PDA that his books will finally be introduced to readers in the United Kingdom. The novels have been translated into 21 languages, but until now, British publishers have worried that their readers would reject any novel with so many hunters.

Ah yes, opinionated readers. Box has them by the score. And many of them seem to seek validation of their views within his plotlines. At one book signing, Box found himself flanked by members of the Sierra Club and the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, two groups typically positioned on opposing sides of any given environmental issue. What tickled Box — a hunter, fly fisherman, skier, avid reader, rodeo aficionado and wry observer of human foibles — is that each of these readers greeted his remarks with a knowing wink, suggesting that his sympathies were allied appropriately. That’s OK with Box, but he doesn’t cotton to enforced allegiance.

“I have had readers who have written and said, ‘I want to know where you come down on this before I read anything else,’” he says, the look on his face flickering between amusement and exasperation.


View from the inside

Box knew he wanted to write fiction even as a high school student. A voracious reader, he devoured many of the novels set in the West but wondered why so few of them were written by native Westerners. The outsider’s perspective was interesting, but where was the insider’s insight?

Providing that insight became his goal, but he wasn’t sure how to craft and pace a story. Over the years, he took some creative writing classes, but to his disappointment, they failed to provide the instruction he wanted. “While there are creative writing programs and MFA degrees, rarely are there classes in writing commercial fiction,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in journaling, in getting in touch with my feelings. I’m still not.”

Box had better luck in his DU mass communications classes, where he learned how to write crisp prose with strong verbs. At DU on a journalism scholarship (his high school newspaper had a knack for investigative reporting), Box dreamed of following in the footsteps of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two Washington Post reporters responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal. He pictured himself, by day, uncovering corruption and exposing hypocrisy in the pages of a hard-hitting daily. By night, he’d write those insightful novels.

The “by day” part of the story departed a bit from the plan. Degree in hand, Box began his first reporting job at Wyoming’s Saratoga Sun, a weekly where he took on every task in the newsroom, from covering city council meetings to laying out pages.

“It was pretty humbling because I thought I was a hot-shot investigative journalist, and there I was taking pictures of the 4-H cow,” he recalls. If that scenario didn’t conform to his romantic career ambitions, he was, at least, able to churn out a few short stories when the paper was put to bed. They were rough, he acknowledges, but they were a start.

It was at the Saratoga Sun that Box first began “ride-alongs” with the area’s game warden. They’d patrol the backcountry, the warden monitoring wildlife while Box searched for news.

“That is when everything started to click for the protagonist of the first novel,” he says. “In the first couple of drafts of the novel that became Open Season, the protagonist was a journalist — because that’s what I was. And then a sheriff, because I needed someone who could draw a gun.”

But neither character offered a satisfactory hook. A game warden, however, provided intriguing possibilities. After all, Box says, “a game warden is autonomous.” He rides by himself, and the nearest authority figure is typically miles away — in the case of Wyoming, perhaps even hundreds of miles away. Just as important, for the purposes of mayhem, “almost every person they encounter is armed.”

With Joe Pickett, he continues, “I created an archetypal game warden. Most of the game wardens I meet in the field are very much like Joe Pickett, but I created Pickett first.”

Pickett’s characteristics? He’s law-abiding, nature-loving, honest, earnest, family oriented and given, occasionally, to bumbling. Unlike so many crime-novel protagonists, he’s neither cynical nor world-weary. Much of the time, in fact, Pickett has a lot to learn.

Box’s newspaper experience provided much more than the character of his series. It also refined his prose, developing his sense of how to reel in a reader and propel a tale. “I work hard on the first page, on the first line. And I do it throughout the whole book; I keep going back,” he says, describing his writing process.

Take the first page of Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, a thriller set primarily in Denver:

It was Saturday morning, November 3, and the first thing I noticed when I entered my office was that my telephone message light was blinking. Since I’d left the building late the night before, it meant someone had called my extension during the night. Odd.

Not just odd, the reader soon discovers, but sinister. By page 2, the story is in full swing. Notice, Box says, that the reader doesn’t get detoured by lots of “description.” He doesn’t do description, not by the paragraph anyway.

Box tries to write five days a week, descending to the basement of his home, located about eight miles north of Cheyenne. There, with a window well for scenery, he crafts about a thousand words each day. He also devotes a fair amount of time to tending to his fans, monitoring his Web site for their comments. He posts responses to many of them. Where other writers complain about fan zealotry, Box can’t wait to connect with his readers.

And who are his readers? They’re too numerous to conform to generalizations, of course, but Box knows this about his American fans: Many of them come from rural ZIP codes, many of them love the outdoors, and many of them hunt and fish. Some of them can’t find much else that they like to read.

That Box delivers something they do like to read makes him happy. That his readers include a fair number of teenage boys, notorious nonreaders, makes him proud. At a book signing in Helena, Mont., an entire football team showed up to meet him. “They were all huge fans,” he says. “Everyone talks a lot about how people don’t read, but a lot of people can’t find something that relates to them.”

For those readers, the prolific Box is the gift that keeps giving. Another Joe Pickett novel is already in the works, and Box claims he has a lifetime of ideas simmering on the back burner. What he can’t dream up, the newspapers will undoubtedly provide. He’s already scanning Washington’s economic stimulus package for literary fodder. More money for green technology? Wind farms? Just who owns the wind? And how sloppily will all those wind farms be developed?

Trust Joe Pickett to find out. Box likes riding shotgun with his fictional game warden and plans to keep Pickett on the scene “until the series kind of wears itself out. As long as it feels right and it’s fresh,” he says, “I’ll keep doing it.”

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