Charles James “C.J.” Box was catching some private time at his remote cabin in central Wyoming, gathering psychic energy for his upcoming book tour.
“We’re sitting here watching the snow come down,” he said. “It’s very peaceful.” Nearby were his two dogs, Daisy the Labrador retriever and Willow the Welsh corgi.
Many of the faithful who follow his best-selling Joe Pickett series envision Box as a rough-’n’-tumble cowboy type. Sure, he’s a veteran hunter, fisherman and horseman who has worked as a ranch hand, guide and surveyor, but he’s also an urbane writer who’s quite savvy about the workings of the book industry. His love for the Wyoming outdoors led improbably to a career as a novelist specializing in crime fiction that reflects his own environmental concerns.
Box, who lives outside Cheyenne, Wyo., sees himself as “a novelist of the contemporary West.” His protagonist is the enormously likable and arrow-straight Wyoming game warden troubleshooter Joe Pickett. He lives in the fictitious town of Saddlestring in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains and, like Box, has a wife and three daughters.
For the sake of storytelling conflict, Pickett lives by a code of morality that often leads to confrontation and consequences. Not only with his bosses and the independent-minded locals and interlopers who hunt, trap, fish and poach (and sometimes murder) in his district, but also with his wife, Marybeth, and their daughters. Which is part of what makes him a character with whom readers can comfortably identify.
Pickett is off on his 15th adventure in “Endangered,” the Bee Book Club’s choice for April. The action begins when their 18-year-old daughter, April, is found in a ditch, “beaten to a pulp” and barely alive. Pickett goes on the warpath but doesn’t anticipate the depth of the danger he’s about to face.
For one thing, he has to square off against matriarchal psychopath Brenda Cates, one of most despicable characters in contemporary fiction. “She runs this family of crazy men,” Box said. “I wanted to make her frumpy and not threatening at all, until you get to know her.”
In addition to the Pickett series, Box has four stand-alone novels and a collection of short stories. His works have been translated into 27 languages and have sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. alone. His résumé includes prestigious awards – an Edgar, an Anthony, a Macavity, a Gumshoe and a French Prix Calibre 38.
Before all this “sudden fame” (it took him five years to publish his first novel), Box and his wife of 31 years, Laurie, co-owned a marketing company that promoted the Rocky Mountain West to European countries. “Part of my job was being the escort and the guide on back-country trips,” he said. “I’ve been to Yellowstone National Park over 140 times, and I still love it. I was writing part-time during (the 24 years) we did that.”
Let’s get serious: Has his literary success cramped his fishing style? “No, I have more time now than when I had the full-time marketing job,” said Box. “Trout is the thing here, but I’ve gone saltwater fly-fishing for tuna and dorado (dolphinfish) in Mexico with some author buddies (including best-selling novelist John Lescroart of Davis). I caught a 75-pound tarpon last year in Puerto Rico. That’s the only one I’ve ever caught and the only one I ever want to catch, because it took so long to get it in. That turned into work after hour two.”
Box began laying his writing groundwork in high school and at the University of Denver, where he was involved with the schools’ newspapers. “My first job out of college was at a small weekly newspaper (as a reporter/outdoors columnist),” he said. “A lot of the characters and situations (in my books) still come from interviewing every kind of person I wouldn’t normally meet. Also, a lot of the same (environmental) issues that were important then still are, in different iterations. I continually draw on that for the Joe Pickett books.”
Box is a conservationist whose concerns vein through his stories. “I don’t think the Joe Pickett series are ‘agenda books,’ but I always have topical and controversial themes in them, usually about wildlife management or resources or energy,” he said. “The one in ‘Endangered” is about sage grouse, a huge issue here.”
What’s his stance on state and federal interventions into environmental issues affecting ranchers and hunters, another huge issue in the West? “All I ever profess is reasonableness,” he said. “Keep the politics out, look at the actual biology and science, and make decisions based on that. There are lots of examples where that doesn’t happen, and it makes people cynical about the whole process.”
Box’s 2001 title “Open Season,” which introduced Pickett, his wife and their daughters, was largely focused on the Endangered Species Act and the plight of the black-footed ferret, thought to be extinct at the time. When the publisher accepted the book, Box was offered a contract for two more Pickett novels. “I certainly never imagined the world was waiting for a game warden series,” he said with a laugh.
How does he explain its unexpected success? “It’s a family-friendly outdoors series that takes place in real time, so everybody gets a little older and you can literally watch the family grow up,” he said. “My wife and (adult) daughters are my best editors because they grew up with the characters and know them very well.”
That unusual dynamic has helped skew the series’ readership demographics. “It’s half men and half women – husbands and wives who read the books for different reasons, which is unusual.” Box noted. “The men tend to be outdoors-oriented guys who don’t read a lot of fiction. For the women, the books are about Joe’s family or about Nate Romanowski, who women seem to love. Even my wife likes the character.”
As Pickett’s longtime pal and sometime “sidekick,” the lethal and secretive Romanowski is the tornado in the game warden’s landscape. The former Special Forces operative, survivalist and – of all things – master falconer plays a minor but key role in “Endangered.”
Box introduced Romanowski in 2003’s “Winterkill,” included him in subsequent books and turned over 2012’s “Force of Nature” to him, telling the story through his voice and relegating Pickett to secondary-character status. That apparently was a popular twist, as Box’s next book will do much the same, continuing Romanowski’s story from his final scene in “Endangered.” “I like having Joe and Nate run on different tracks, with the assumption they’ll get together at some point,” he said.
As for the book-to-film template common with popular series, Box reports that Robert Redford is “heading a production team that’s trying to find a place for the Joe Pickett series.” Further, Box’s 2008 stand-alone novel “Blue Heaven” “has been optioned three times for a feature film. We’re still waiting.”
Just for the fun of it, what would happen if Joe Pickett showed up at Box’s front door? “We would go fly-fishing,” the author said without hesitation.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.
C.J. Box in Sacramento
The Bee Book Club presentation with C.J. Box is sold out. However, we will do our best to accommodate those who did not secure a ticket through BeeBuzzPoints. Although it is not guaranteed, it is likely that some seating may be available at 6 p.m. April 30 (doors open at 5:15 p.m. for those with tickets). The event will be at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento. Information: (916) 321-1056. Visit the author at www.cjbox.net.
“Endangered” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27, 370 pages) is being offered at a 30 percent discount through April 30 at Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento, Avid Reader in Davis, Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, Time Tested Books, Underground Books, Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento, the UC Davis Bookstore and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.