Wyoming’s Mystery Man: C.J. Box on Top
By Susan Gray Gose
Riverside– C.J. Box walks into the Beartrap Café wearing a baseball cap, Carhartt jacket, jeans, and low-riding hiking shoes. He greets Margaret, the owner, and nods to her two dogs as they wander in. He orders a cheese-steak and iced tea. And he points to a spot at the bar where he likes to catch Nuggets games.
But this is also a place where the best-selling author dreams up the latest adventures for Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Box cranks out 1,000 words a day—whether here at the Bearside, in his stream-side cabin, or at home in Cheyenne.
C.J. Box is possibly this state’s most successful homegrown author, and is certainly its more prolific. The Kelly Walsh High grad who couldn’t find a journalism job after college and was snubbed by his first agent, now publishes two books a year. The first Pickett book appeared in 2001. In less than a decade, Box has scaled the heights of the publishing world; millions of copies in the Pickett series have been sold worldwide.
Still, Box can pass for an average Wyomingite, both in his appearance and in his passions. When asked how success has changed him, he smiles.
“I don’t think I’ve changed—other than I get to do a lot more stuff that I’ve always wanted to,” he says. “I can fish just about anywhere in Wyoming. People are always, like, ‘Want to come to my ranch and fish?’ I love that.”
Each new Joe Pickett book—there are 10 now—outsells the last. Below Zero, which came out last year, hit the No. 19 spot on The New York Times Best Sellers List. Box’s publicists at G.P. Putnam’s Sons say Nowhere to Run, which will appear in stores April 6, might make the top 15.
Incredibly prolific—at least for a modern writer (Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope used to churn it out, too)—Box also has penned two stand-alone thrillers, Blue Heaven (2007) and Three Weeks to Say Goodbye (2008) for a two-book-a-year pace. While prepping to tour for Nowhere to Run, he has a new thriller, Back of Beyond, in the editing stages and a new Pickett mystery, which will highlight the wind-energy industry, in the research phase.
Despite the speed, Box clearly is impressing some critics. He won a prestigious Edgar Award—the mystery world’s top prize—for Blue Heaven. He also has won the Anthony, Macavity, Gumshoe, and Barry awards, as well as the French Prix Calibre .38.
And now Hollywood has come calling. The producers of About Schmidt (the 2002 New Line Cinema comedy) bought the rights to Blue Heaven. While many optioned books languish, this one seems to be moving forward. It’s received financing, and actors Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin and Joe Pesci have signed on.
NOT JUST COWBOYS AND INDIANS.
After lunch, Box—who says to call him “Chuck” (the C.J. stands for Charles James)—gives a tour of his four-acre property here in Riverside, population 59, which lies 20 miles south of Saratoga. Box bought the place three years ago as a retreat for writing—and fishing. (Fly-fishing comes up often around Box.) He guides photographer Brad Christensen and me, who are far less sure-footed, onto the frozen Encampment River which runs through his property. He grows giddy on the frozen ripples, describing the “big browns” beneath. In a nearby shed, he keeps a raft and a drift boat, which he can launch from his front lawn at the first thaw.
The property’s two-story cabin is spacious with upper and lower decks that look out to the river and Snowy Range. But it’s humbly furnished. No granite or leather, no picturesque pelt or elk-horn-chandelier— none of the usual trappings of Mountain West wealth. A wood-burning stove stands in the middle of the main room upstairs, where two sway-backed couches face a simple wooden table: furniture that, minus the beer stains, could be found in a college dorm lounge. Downstairs, Box guides us into a small office with a single window that overlooks the driveway. His desk faces a wall adorned with a picture of a trout painted by his two oldest daughters, 23-year-old fraternal twins Becky and Molly.
Box’s main residence remains in Cheyenne, where he and his wife Laurie raised their three daughters (their youngest is a student at the University of Wyoming) and where they still own a tourism business.
It’s clear why Box loves his cabin.
“This area has the best fishing in Wyoming with the Encampment and Platte rivers,” he says. “There’re no dams. It’s all natural. From the Colorado state line to Saratoga, a survey of 30 miles of river found 3,000 to 4,000 catchable fish.”
Box’s passion for wildlife and the Mountain West makes its way into all his books. As a game warden (with the familiar pickup truck, red shirt, and badge), Joe Pickett is dropped into some of the state’s most gorgeous terrain: the Big Horn Mountains (Open Season), Jackson Hole (Out of Range), Yellowstone (Free Fire), the Sierra Madres (Nowhere to Run). Pickett often pauses to “drop in a line” in a glacial lake, or admire a sprinting herd of pronghorn.
This love of place has won Box some elite Wyoming fans. Gov. Dave Freudenthal became hooked on the series after stumbling upon a Pickett mystery when he intended to grab a different book for a trip to Alaska. He’s now read every one, and, “I am deeply troubled by the way C.J. Box treats governors.” (Box’s fictional Governor Rulon is often manipulative and devious—though he comes off better than the sheriffs.)
The governor’s wife, attorney Nancy Freudenthal, also reads Box. And the eminent geologist David Love (the hero of John McPhee’s non-fiction classic, Rising from the Plains) is said to have had his wife read him a Box novel while he was bed-ridden, before he died in 2002.
While he extols Wyoming’s virtues, Box says he tries not to “sugarcoat.”
“It amazes me when I get an e-mail from someone saying, ‘I want to move to Wyoming.’ I think, ‘Why? The wind blows, and you just read a book with five blizzards in a row and everybody dies,” Box says.
In particular, he is interested in nailing his portrayals of Wyoming people. He grew up reading Westerns laden with stereotypical cowboys and Indians who didn’t “talk or act like people I knew.”
“Yes, there are people who wear hats. But more than likely most Western characters aren’t from the West. They’re from someplace else, and they come out and put on airs,” he says. “Most people in Wyoming are pretty well-read, but they’re not geeks. They’re not rural or false. I want to write about real people and different points of views.”
BEERS ON THE PLATTE
Box grew up in Casper, the oldest of four children and a third-generation Wyomingite. His father was an elementary school principal and his mother taught at the Wyoming School for the Deaf. Box was the only dedicated reader in the house.
“There were no bookshelves,” he says. “I used to hang out a lot in the Casper library. I had librarians who were my friends.”
At Kelly Walsh High, Box became editor of the school newspaper and went after the high school football coach for teaching “jocks-only classes,” which helped the newspaper win national awards.
He won a scholarship to the University of Denver, where he became the college newspaper’s restaurant and rock critic. (“I had no money, but I got to eat free and see all the bands of the day.”)
After graduating from college, unable to find work in Denver, Box returned to Wyoming, where the publisher of the Saratoga Sun invited him for an interview on a fishing boat on the Platte River.
“For five hours, we floated and fished and drank beer. By the end of it, I would have paid him for the job,” says Box.
At the Saratoga Sun, Box became the sports editor and “features guy.” He also married Laurie Meese, whom he’d met in college, and began writing fiction.
Box traces his desire to write fiction back to age 14 when he read Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s blackly humorous novel about World War II.
“That was the book for me. I was so captured by it.”
At the same time, Box watched the 1975 movie “Rancho Deluxe,” written by Montana writer Tom McGuane, which featured contemporary cattle rustlers.
“It was the first time I’d seen the modern West portrayed the way I thought it was,” he says. “That started me thinking.”
His first two attempts at finished novels, written while he was at the Sun, fell flat: “I knew they weren’t really good enough,” he says. Before settling on a game warden, Box tried using a sheriff and then a journalist as his sleuth, but, neither would realistically find himself in remote areas chasing criminals. He completed his third attempt, Open Season with Joe Pickett, in the late 1990s, and “it just felt like it was done.”
“When Chuck finished Open Season and I read it, it was around the time I was reading The Horse Whisperer,” recalls Laurie Box, who remains her husband’s first reader. “When I read Chuck’s book I really thought it was as good as the Nicholas Evans’s book. So if that book was published, why couldn’t Chuck’s book get published?”
THE AGENT VANISHES
Box shipped Open Season to an agent in New York City, but the writer was naïve about publishing in those days.
“In retrospect, he was pretty low-rent,” says Box. “For three years, nothing happened. I’d call him and say, ‘Is anyone reading it?’ He’d give me every excuse. It didn’t really fit into a formula because it was kind of environmental and Western. He basically said, ‘Quit calling me.’”
Box did, and his career took a swerve into tourism. He left the Sun to become director of Saratoga’s Chamber of Commerce. Around 1990, he and Laurie moved to Lander for five months, where they started their tourism business, Rocky Mountain International, with Lander businessman Bill Sniffin. Sniffin credits Box with the business concept: convincing Rocky Mountain state governments to save money by marketing themselves en bloc to Europeans, who annually take month-long vacations and can visit the whole region in one trip.
“He was the brains,” says Sniffin, who later sold his share in the company to the Boxes. “He’s a very smart guy and makes a lot of smart decisions.”
One of those decisions was to move the company to Cheyenne to be closer to a major airport and the state capital.
A thriving tourism business would be enough for most people, but Box couldn’t shake the desire to write. Sniffin remembers reading early drafts Box’ mysteries on trans-Atlantic flights. “They were really good,” says Sniffin, a former newspaper publisher turned columnist. “I can always brag to people that I read them first.”
Still, Open Season was going nowhere in New York. Box decided to “give it one more shot” and took his manuscript to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Denver, where writers can pitch their ideas to agents and editors.
Box showed Open Season to an agent whose interest was piqued. He asked Box if he had a representative. Box gave him the name of his New York agent. The man’s response was shocking.
“He said, ‘He died,’” says Box. “I thought it was a joke. He said, ‘You didn’t know he was dead?’ He had died of AIDS, and I didn’t know it.”
But from that point on, Box’s novel took a trajectory rare in the publishing world. A young Putnam editor at the conference took the book home and within days pitched it to her boss. The publisher offered Box a contract for three books featuring Joe Pickett.
Despite the low advance of $15,000 (fairly typical for first novels), Box was thrilled.
“It was everything,” he says.
Open Season went on to outperform expectations by going into four printings, receiving four-star reviews, and being nominated for an Edgar and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
THE JOE SIX-PACK FAN
Box’s books have succeeded partly because of his unusual readers: Men. The readership of the average American novel is about 80-percent female, but Box’s readers are split 50-50, male-female, says Box. With all the hunting, big game, ammo, and mountain air, it’s probably no wonder.
“It always perplexes the bookstore owners,” he says, with a chuckle. “They’re used to a certain kind of person coming in, and here are these guys.”
Box has received fan mail from a hunter who reads Pickett novel while hunkered down in deer blinds. A group of Maine hunters mailed Box a snapshot of themselves, outfitted in orange and holding up copies of his books. They told him they usually “sat around drinking and telling dirty jokes” but now “sat around drinking and reading Joe Pickett novels.”
“It’s not like a ‘Brokeback Mountain’ scene,” they added.
Sarah Brown of Laramie, who attended a Box book-signing event in Saratoga in early February, says her two sons, ages 23 and 24, were far from big readers until they discovered Box.
“They’re backcountry skiers,” she says. “They thought sitting down with a book wasn’t a good use of their time. But one of them found a Pickett mystery. In two months, they’d read the entire series.”
Box fans are also drawn to his guileless heroes who recall the romantic Old West. There isn’t much moral ambiguity in a Pickett mystery. The game warden is brave and doesn’t hesitate to go after evil, even when it lies far outside his job description. He’s also a good family man, who, while chasing down the bad guys, also pines for his wife Mary Beth and three daughters in fictional Saddle String.
But Box’s heroes aren’t like a John Wayne character. Pickett, for example, is a poor shot, and he’s constantly killing off his horses by accident. In Box’s thrillers, one hero is a down-and-out divorced rancher (Blue Heaven) and another is an adoptive father (Three Weeks to Say Goodbye).
Box says he can’t conceive of writing books without such main characters.
“I could write other books with other characters, but I wouldn’t be as proud of them,” he says. “Other people can do those.”
Surprisingly, Box’s Western style has made him popular in France. The country is his No. 2 for sales.
“I’m almost considered a literary writer in France, believe it or not,” says Box. “Their critic community has a real thing for contemporary Western novelists like Tom McGuane and Jim Crumley. They’re venerated much more [in France than at home]. I kind of fit in with them, in [the French critics’] minds.”
But Box’s fans need not worry that too much France is rubbing off on their favorite mystery writer. On his Web site, www.cjbox.net, Box posted a photo of himself titled “Snooty.” The picture shows a sour-looking Box standing in an ornate room, while the caption says, “American crime fiction novelist C.J. Box doesn’t appreciate a castle in the Loire Valley in France and wishes he could order beer and chicken wings in the café to get him through the day.”
No, Box is not at risk of becoming a member of the literati. In college, he could barely stand being around so-called “creative writers.”
“I could never finish a creative writing class,” he says. “I think I started seven of them. What I was interested in there were no courses for: Writing commercial fiction. [The creative writing classes] were all about journaling or writing stories about your angst. Everyone in the class was like that, and I hated it.”
Box was a guest-lecturer at the University of Wyoming recently.
“I advised the students to take journalism, not creative writing,” he says.
Others, however, might fault such a workmanlike approach to prose. Geoffrey O’Gara, a Lander journalist and author of What You See in Clear Water, says he admires Box’s productivity (“Some of us ‘literary’ writers take forever to produce books.”) and increasing skill (“He’s improved his writing, his plotting, his depth of characterization over the years.”) But he wonders if Box is “exhausting his ideas.”
“While Joe Pickett has grown richer with age, some of his plots and themes seem to be recurring,” O’Gara said, adding, “I’m not sure you could identify a Box ‘voice’. So he may never compete with, say, Annie Proulx..”
Coincidentally, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Proulx owns a large ranch up the road from Box in the Platte Valley. The two have met. Box reports that Proulx said she is a fan of his work. And Box says he admires Proulx “as a stylist.” But, he says, “she often portrays people whom I’ve never met.”
KEEPING THE DAY JOB
Box and his wife Laurie still own Rocky Mountain International, though he’s dramatically cut back his involvement. He’s pragmatic about keeping his “day job.”
“Everyone says, ‘I wish I could just write and quit my job,’ but I think there’s some value in not quitting,” he says. “There are a lot of writers who after a few years start to lose touch with how real people think and look. They’re not out among them. They’re in a place like this.” He sweeps out his arm, indicating his cabin and its mountain views. “I like the day-to-day interaction stuff. I like to be plugged in to where the business is going, what the clients are doing, what’s happening in those states, and that kind of stuff.”
Ever level-headed, he adds: “You don’t have insurance programs as a writer. There are a lot of benefits to owning a business, which I’d hate to give up.”
His familiarity with marketing may also be one key to his success. He is no shrinking violet when it comes to self-promotion. He admits, for example, that the black cowboy hat that he wears for his dust-jacket photos, goes on during book tours and promotional events. The everyday Box is a baseball-cap guy.
His old colleague Bill Sniffin has noticed the image adjustments.
“It was interesting how he took on a Garth Brooks look,” Sniffin said. “He took on the hat and got rid of the glasses.”
While some writers complain about book signings and promotional road trips, Box embraces them.
“I honestly do like them,” he says. “I really like meeting with readers. Plus, it’s part of the deal. It’s pretty unusual when novels just become best-sellers without any promotional support. It happens, but it’s pretty unusual.”
His publicists at Putnam love his attitude and wish they had “25 more just like him.”
“Chuck thinks nothing of jumping into his mammoth SUV and driving 300 miles to do an event and then repeating the process the next day,” says Michael Barson, co-director of publicity for Putnam. “Last year I rode with him from Yellowstone to Cody, doing multiple events along the way, and then he tossed me by the side of the road in Cody and pressed on to do another book signing in Casper before heading home to Cheyenne.”
Box also answers every fan letter and e-mail he receives, fair and foul. On his Web site, he recently hit his 1,000th reply. He’s answered gushing notes from beanbean, and responded to grumpy messages like “Below Expectations” from Dorothy.
Reader by reader, he believes, is the surest way to increase sales.
“It’s such a low-tech business,” he says. “Nobody buys a book based on an ad. There’s always somebody telling them, ‘I met the author,’ or, ‘Have you read this?’ It’s always one-to-one.”
Occasionally, fans have gotten a little too close. At a book signing in Los Angeles, a man showed Box a photo of deer. The animals were grazing in Box’s yard in Riverside.
“It was a little eerie,” says Box. “I was kind of discombobulated.” The Boxes recently unlisted their Cheyenne phone number.
WIND MILLS AND ENVIRONMENTAL EXTREMISTS
Beyond promotion, Box also spends time researching his books. Each starts with a controversial issue that hooks him: endangered species in Open Season, or the government’s ability to condemn and take private land in Nowhere to Run. He then wraps the crime around the issue. Currently, he’s researching the wind-energy industry, climbing to the top of a wind turbine to “see if a dead body could hang from it.” (And? “It could.”)
“Here’s the question I’m puzzling over,” Box says. “How can a person look at an oil field and say that it’s ugly, and look at a wind farm and say it’s beautiful? There’s as much growth disturbance, maybe even more because of the view shed, with the wind farm than with oil derricks. What it means to me is that some kind of beauties are ideological.”
Box tries to get the details right. He’s done numerous ride-alongs with Cheyenne Game Warden Mark Nelson, his “technical advisor.” (The two have also become fishing buddies.)
“When we fish or ride together, he’s got a lot of questions,” says Nelson, who met Box after Open Season and has consulted on every mystery since. “He’s like a sun that soaks things up.”
As our interview wraps up, Box seems anxious to get on with his day. That night, he’ll make an appearance at the Community Center in Saratoga to hand out awards for student essays, make brief remarks, and sign books. Undoubtedly, he has research to pursue, a manuscript to fact-check, a book-tour to prep for, and a family to check in on.
Finally, does Box think he might ever become so wrapped up in his writing that the rod and waders collect dust?
“Neh,” he says. “I’d rather be a fly-fisherman.”
Susan Gray Gose is a freelance writer who lives in Lander with her husband Ben and two children, Lily and Gage. She has been managing editor of the Lander Journal, a correspondent for People magazine, an assistant editor for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and a reporter for The News & Observer (N.C.) She also writes fiction.