A Q&A with C.J. Box

Article published on August 8, 2011.

C. J. Box is the New York Times bestselling author of thirteen novels including the Joe Pickett series. He won the Edgar Alan Poe Award for Best Novel (Blue Heaven, 2009) as well as the Anthony Award, Prix Calibre 38 (France), the Macavity Award, the Gumshoe Award and the Barry Award. 2008 novel BLOOD TRAIL was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin (Ireland) Literary Award. The novels have been translated into 25 languages. Blue Heaven and Nowhere to Runhave been optioned for film.

Box is a Wyoming native and has worked as a ranch hand, surveyor, fishing guide, a small town newspaper reporter and editor, and he co-owns an international tourism marketing firm with his wife Laurie. In 2008, Box was awarded the “BIG WYO” Award from the state tourism industry. An avid outdoorsman, Box has hunted, fished, hiked, ridden, and skied throughout Wyoming and the Mountain West. He served on the Board of Directors for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. They have three daughters. He lives in Wyoming.

Which authors would you say you find most inspiring?

I’m a big fan of Michael Connelly, I like his career.  I’m a fan of Dennis Lehane.  Denise Mina, here, I’m a huge fan of; I usually don’t read women authors that write about women protagonists, but I love her.  Megan Abbott is a woman I’ve been reading a lot of lately.  John Sandford is another one I’m very fond of, I think Buried Prey is his best one in a long time.  I also like Cormac McCarthy and a few more literary writers.

A lot of us Brits tend to think of American crime writing in terms of gritty urban tales, like George Pelecanos or Raymond Chandler, but the backdrop to your work is very different.  Do you think of them as direct competition?

Not really, I don’t consider any crime authors “competition.”  I think in this genre, people who read it read everybody, so they’re not going to think “this year I’m going to read George Pelecanos or CJ Box,” they’ll read them both.  But I do think I’ve developed a little area and angle that I never intended to do.  I never sat down consciously and said “the world needs a game warden!” The original book, Open Season, which is about the issue of endangered species and happened to have a game warden as the protagonist because it drove the story.  When that manuscript was seen by Penguin Puttnam they said “we’d like you to do two more with this game warden as the protagonist,” I never thought about extending it.

Was there a conscious effort to set the stories in the crime genre?  Given your knack for research it feels like you could have done non-fiction, or standard contemporary fiction or any other number of genres.

It was more accidental, because the first few versions of the first manuscript that I wrote, that became Open Season, weren’t crime driven, but it didn’t work until it was crime driven.  The crime drives the investigation, which then drives the story, which holds everything else up, otherwise it’s just an essay.  There’s a quote by Richard Price, which says – and I’m paraphrasing – “the longer you circle around a homicide, the more you understand the city,” and I think that’s what it is, the investigation peels back the layers of the community; you’re writing about a community or a culture, you’re not writing about an investigation.

So do you have an audience in mind when you write, or do you write for yourself?

I have to say, I never try to write and think “will someone be offended if I write this?”  Then I’d start holding in too much stuff.  I write some things which are politically incorrect, and offensive to some, but what I usually try and do with controversial subject matter, which is usually environmental, is to have spokesmen on each side and let the reader come down where they want to, but accurately portray both side.   I think you have to trust readers to be smart, and I also think if they’re perceived as agenda books, you’ll have fervent followers, and you’ll also turn off people who think “I don’t want to hear that guys opinion again.”  Some of the writers I love, like Carl Hiaasen, he’s got to the point where every book is such staunch environmentalism, you know if a character is a developer by page two, and that’s the bad guy; it’s very didactic and it’s not fun to read any more, whether you agree or not.

You research a lot of controversies; have your own opinions ever changed as a result of your work?

Yes, they have.  One of the most recent is in the book Cold Wind which is going to come out here [the UK], the sub-story is wind energy, wind turbine development, which is huge in Wyoming as it is everywhere else in the world.  I probably went into that book 60/40 in favour of it, and the more research I did, I ended up probably 60/40 the other way.  I still think it’s applicable in areas it makes sense, but not where it’s forced to be.

A couple of years ago, you said you had three goals; to see your book in a book store, a library and being read on a plane.  Now you’ve achieved these, what are the next big three?

I don’t know about big three, but the last book, Cold Wind, made the top ten in the New York Times bestseller list.  Of course, I write, I want to be on that list, but other than that I don’t sit around thinking… I know of a few writers, friends of mine, if they get number one, but they only get two weeks, then they want three weeks, I’m not like that, and I‘m very happy the way things are.  I’m very excited that finally the books are out here, previously it was like a weird hole in everything.

You’re published in 23, 24 languages is it?

I think it’s 25 now; not every book though, it’s certainly hit and miss.  And here it was originally a very small hardcover press called Hale, that did the first three books, I think they only did four, five thousand copies, and most of those went to US collectors, and it was just driving me crazy that nothing was happening here.

Are you surprised at the breadth of your appeal?

I am, yeah, I always thought if I got a book published it would likely do well in the Rocky Mountains because the subject matter was the locals.  One of the pleasant surprises over the years is that I found that a lot of the subject matter, the controversies, is just the same everywhere else, just maybe with different species or different angles to it.  I never thought about that, but it makes me optimistic that books don’t have to be pigeonholed.

Tough one; which pleases you more, the praise of critics or the praise of the man in the street who actually buys the book?

I would say the man in the street.  I love the fact that, at least in the US, I’m not sure if it’s the same here, there’s a lot of male readers here who like these books who don’t read a lot of fiction.  I hear from Wyoming from ranch hands, from construction workers; people who don’t read fiction like these books because it relates to their lives, and because they’re outdoor oriented, or they’re fishermen, or whatever.  I find it really rewarding that people who aren’t reading a lot of mysteries, or even fiction, like them.  I get a lot of emails from places like Maine, and now like Australia and New Zealand, from guys who have been looking for something set in the outdoors, all their lives but didn’t know it.  That I find really rewarding; that says to publishers that there are males who will read if you give them something besides what you’re giving them.

You’ve been writing for a few years now; are you noticing a blurring of the line between critics and readers, what with amateur bloggers, etc?

Yes, but I think that’s all good.  It’s certainly a better situation than having a few critics who can make or break a book or an author, that’s a much better deal.  I haven’t honestly had that many bad reviews, I’ve been incredibly lucky, though I know they will come.  I think word of mouth is still the thing.   And, no offence, but rarely do I meet a reader at a signing who says “I bought your book ‘cause I read a review of it in the Houston Chronicle.”  It amazes me how few times that ever happens, it’s always “somebody told me to read it/my Mom told me to read it.”

You’ve been in print in the States for a long time now.  Are you starting to notice your work influencing others than are coming after you?

To some degree, yes.  Others influenced me, writers like Tony Hillerman, he wrote probably twenty, twenty-five books about a local sheriff and a local Indian detective in the Four Corners area, and created a rural, outdoor fiction that is very popular, and I think I probably wouldn’t have got a second look if it weren’t for him paving the way.  Now there are more series that have popped up that are set in more remote places, and even a couple more game wardens, and if there were any before mine, I’m not aware of them, but I know that there are now.  There’s one in Maine from a very good writer, there’s one in Texas, so there’s something there.

There’s an almost palpable fondness for Wyoming in your books.  What do you miss most when you’re away from the place?

We live outside of town, we’ve got horses and land, and I do like the isolation.  I can’t stand heat and humidity, we don’t have that so much, it cools down every single night.

You must hate it on the tube!

I do.  And I’ve been over here a lot, so I’m familiar with it.

What advice would you give to writers just starting out?

A couple of things.  Writing is a business, but I think a lot of writers approach it too strategically, and try to create a niche that either doesn’t exist or that they think will appeal, like “a gynaecologist detective, no-one’s done that yet,” but they aren’t really writing their best stuff from the heart, because they’re trying to do what they think an editor wants to see.  At least in my experience, a lot of the really good editors, they really don’t want that.  They do want something original that they haven’t seen before, that’s confident.  The other thing, and I know this is going to sound bad, but it amazes me when I meet writers who, in this genre or literary, who really don’t read that much.  They’re so obsessed with their own voice that they don’t feel they need to pollute it with other authors, and without that kind of depth of knowledge, which I don’t think you can get at any university, their stuff is kinda one-note, they’re shallow – they can’t draw from a wide body of work because they don’t bother to read it.

So do you approach writing as work, or are you able to treat it as a remunerative hobby?

It’s definitely work, but it’s work that I absolutely enjoy more than anything else.  This came late in life, my first book was published when I was forty, and I’d spent twenty years building a little company, a tourism company, going out on the road and all sorts of things, so I know the difference between real work and what I’m doing.  What I’m doing is the most fun thing I can think of, that luckily, they pay me for, honestly, I enjoy it all the time.

Would you like to swap jobs?  I’ll write the next Pickett and you can do my job…

The next book is actually a Nate Romanowski…

Excellent! So what’s in store for Nate?

After Cold Wind it’s gonna be called Force of NatureCold Wind ends, the next day Force of Nature begins.  For the first time, we find out what his background really is, why he is the way he is, and who’s after him, and what was the one big thing in his life that made him the way he is.  Honestly, when I created the character I didn’t know what that was, and it took a lot of years to find an event that really worked, and when I did, it was more perfect than I could even imagine.

So do you treat writing as an organic process, or do you know what will happen on the last page before you’ve written the first?

I do outline them all to the end, but what I’ve found out now after so many of them is that I’m comfortable even if they go a different direction, and even if the end is different to what I envisioned.  Sometimes I think some of the better endings have come out of the blue, because there’s no way I could have telegraphed that move.  There have been a couple that my wife read, and said “what if this other person did it?”  and I thought, “that’s much better.” But, generally I outline, because nothing annoys me more as a reader than when I get two thirds of the way through a book I enjoy and I’m feeling the author letting loose the reins, because they don’t know where they’re going, and I get furious at whoever did that, and I never want to be accused of that.  I’ll be accused of all sorts of things, but not of not knowing where it’s going to go.

I find that a lot with Chandler, wondering if he knew what was going to happen on the next page.

I don’t think he did, and I think that’s a good example.  Another one is Larry McMurtry, a very American author, and he says “I start with the character and see where they take me,” and sometimes they take him to everybody dies in the end because he can’t get out of this mess.

So which crime writers do you find particularly inspiring?

I’m a big fan of Pelecanos, in his structure.  I don’t think he gets enough credit for the way he structures some of his books, and how he’s gutsy enough to leave them open ended.  I don’t know if I’m that gutsy, but I admire the fact that he does, that he can be that realistic that he can let it go.  Some of Lehane, not all of them, not all of them – we actually share the same agent.  I like the ones that have good structure, good characters and nuance along the way.

Do you read much British crime fiction?  

I have, but I think I read more Irish.  I’ve read everything Ken Bruen has ever written.  For a while we had this love fest going; both of our books were hard to find so we had to send them to each other.  And Denise Mina – is she Scottish?  But to me it’s all…. I never pick up a book and go “Oh, an English writer.”

There’s a lot of that over here with Scandinavian crime fiction at the moment…

That’s carried over to the US.  Some of them are good.  I read the very first Stieg Larsson, and I liked that, I battled through the second and I couldn’t pick up the third.  I don’t want to slog on all of them, but I’ve done some blurbs for some of the new ones, ‘cause every agent over there is trying to find the new Scandinavian… They’re all good, workmanlike police procedurals, but they’re no different from English police procedurals that I’ve read, or even Donald Westlake, or [Ed McBain].  But just because there’s snow…?

Your books feel extremely cinematic, mainly because of the backdrop.  Would you want to see them on film?  Would you take a risk on a film being a flop just to see it on the big screen?

Sure, of course.  Blue Heaven, it’s set in Idaho, about LA cops that have moved to northern Idaho, a very remote area, it was the book that won the Edgar Award, that one’s been under option for a while, and I think it’s going to go into development, it’s supposed to be next fall, but it could be next spring, but Joe Pesci and Jack Nicholson are in it, they’ve got money and it may actually go.  The other ones have been optioned, but never developed.  The great thing about a movie is, even if it’s bad, there will be a certain percentage of the audience that says “I like the location, I like some of the dialogue – who wrote this thing?”  I do that.  I mean, people aren’t stupid, they know that movies are always worse than books, so even if there’s only just a couple of gems in a movie, they’ll credit somebody.  That’s how I found David Mamet, I’ve been reading lots of his plays because he’s a brilliant writer, and the first thing I ever saw was a crummy movie with great dialogue, and I thought “who did that?”  So yeah, it’d be good – it’d sell more books, and people’d go round and say “he’s the guy who wrote Blue Heaven – you’ve heard of the movie.”

A lot of your UK covers have very striking imagery from around Wyoming.  Was that something you insisted on, or was it just something your publisher thought was appropriate?

That’s something they did, and I agree, they’re very striking, and they’re perfect covers, they’re much better than the US.  They did their homework here, there’s some of those scenes that I thought, from the first time on the covers of books, “I know exactly where that is, that real place, it’s in Wyoming and I’ve been there.”  I’m amazed that they’re that good.  [On Out of Range], it’s the Molton Barn, it’s in Grand Teton National Park, and I’ve been to that spot twenty times.  I was so happy they chose it.

Joe Pickett ages in real time, so at some point his current line of work will no longer be an option.  Have you thought that far ahead, or are you enjoying the moment?

I’m enjoying the moment.  He’s now in his mid forties, so realistically there’s fifteen to twenty years before it would start to get silly;  I’m willing to wait that one out.  At that point, that may be enough, but I may never even get that far.  I don’t have an end in mind, but I’m not going to start suspending time, or coming up with reasons why he’s still on the job.  That’s usually when series lose me, and it would lose others.

How much of yourself is there in Joe Pickett, and your work in general?

Joe Pickett isn’t based on me, but a lot of the situation I’m very familiar with, with daughters, and working for state salary where if one pay cheque ever went away we’d be on the street – I remember that pretty well, and I try to use those things.  I think he has a tendency to go for the reasonable middle, and I tend to do that as well I think, I hope.  I draw from that.

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