Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett — the blue-collar protagonist of a series of Western crime novels by Wyoming native C.J. Box — has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong (or right) time.
Beginning with “Open Season” in 2001, the straight-arrow Pickett has juggled life as a devoted husband and father with the hardships that come with being a state employee who lives paycheck to paycheck. Crossing paths with some of the more unsavory characters in contemporary fiction, Pickett has battled corrupt politicians, organized crime, eco-terrorists and a truly frightening mother-in-law, all in the name of enforcing Game and Fish regulations. He once arrested the sitting governor for fishing without a license.
Only in Wyoming.
Exploring the writing process
Debuting at No. 2 on The New York Times Bestsellers list last month, “Vicious Circle” marks the 17th book to feature Pickett and his usual cast of characters, as well as the return of a pair of his fiercest adversaries — disgraced rodeo champion Dallas Cates and Cates’ mother Brenda.
In Billings last week for a book signing event, Box reflected on the challenges of creating an everyman’s hero while making each story seem fresh and new.
“I read a lot of series, so I see how other authors do it,” the Cheyenne-area resident said, settling into his chair at the Barnes & Noble Cafe. “Some don’t keep it fresh; they start writing the same book over and over. One of the things that makes these books different is that the characters age in real time. The family has grown up in front of us over the years: Joe’s oldest daughter Sheridan was 7 in the first book, and in this one, she’s a University of Wyoming graduate. Because of that, the dynamics change, giving each book a little different approach.”
Another technique Box uses to keep readers engaged is to base each book around a hot-button issue or controversy — be it wildlife management, the Endangered Species Act or renewable energy, to name a few.
“When you approach it from that angle, it’s not about the whodunit, it’s about what’s going on at that moment,” he explained. “You have to suspend disbelief to stick with a series like this anyway. How can this guy go through so many adventures in his life? In order to make it more realistic, writing it in real time and with current issues and events adds to the realism of the series. Obviously, no game warden or anyone else could have gone through all these things.”
Bad guys (and gals) and a local connection
The latest novel is a bit of a departure in that it’s more of a straightforward revenge tale, as opposed to an issue-driven narrative. Dallas Cates, the antagonist of the novel “Endangered,” was last seen swearing revenge on the Pickett family as he was carted off to prison. Two books later, Cates has served his time and is looking for a little payback. Box said he enjoyed writing Cates because he represents a classic Western outlaw.
“Even though he’s a rodeo champion, and most rodeo cowboys are very upfront, great guys, Dallas is an exception to all that,” Box explained. “I really liked the idea of writing a modern-day Western, kind of a showdown. It’s shades of ‘High Noon,’ where he gets out of prison and recruits two ex-cons, then heads north to go after the guy he blames for destroying his family.”
A few key scenes in “Vicious Circle” take place in Powell, as Pickett’s middle daughter April is a member of the Northwest College women’s rodeo team. A frequent visitor to Park County, Box said he chose NWC as a plot device based on a visit to the college a decade earlier.
“I always try to bank experiences, and it was maybe 10 years ago, I got invited to do a talk on the Northwest College campus,” said Box, who grew up in Casper. “I still wear all of the NWC stuff that they gave me at that visit. As I was researching the book, I found that NWC is one of the schools that has a women’s rodeo team, so it was a perfect fit.”
Long-time readers of the Pickett series will welcome the return of the enigmatic survivalist Nate Romanowski, master falconer, ex-special forces operative and Pickett’s best friend and protector. A well-written supporting character can carry his or her own storyline, which Box proved with 2012’s “Force of Nature,” putting Nate center stage with Joe Pickett in a supporting role. With Romanowski, Box has created an ally for Pickett with a rich back story, plenty of demons and a moral compass that often skews left of center.
“I based the character of Nate on a friend of mine from high school,” said Box. “He was a big blonde kid, star linebacker on the football team who went to join the military and special forces. He was the one who introduced me to falconry, and the interesting world in which they live.”
Though devoted friends, Pickett and Romanowski’s relationship has been at times tenuous, due to Nate’s inclination to operate outside the parameters Joe has sworn to uphold.
“That’s fun to write, because their relationship changes throughout the series, sometimes to the point where they’re at odds with each other,” Box said. “I didn’t want to have a traditional sidekick type relationship. In the new book, Nate is trying to
go straight, and not really enjoying the process. But as usual, the few scenes he is in, mayhem ensues.”
Another character back after a short absence is Joe’s mother-in-law Missy, the embodiment of every evil stereotype one associates with the title. A question Box is often asked at book signings and events is if Missy is based on a real person.
“My cheap answer to get laughs is I say she’s not based on my mother-in-law, because mine’s worse,” he said, laughing. “But that’s not true, mine is actually a big fan. Missy was introduced in the third book, and it was just so much fun to write that character. It’s like just when you think Joe doesn’t have enough trouble in his life, she just keeps coming back.”
Hollywood comes calling
Aside from the Joe Pickett books, Box has written five stand-alone novels, all released to critical and financial acclaim. His sixth stand-alone, “Paradise Valley,” will be released in July. Box said the stand-alones give him an opportunity to explore stories outside of the Joe Pickett universe.
“With the stand-alones I have to kind of invent a new world each time,” he said. “But the stand-alones are also kind of linked together. These books are darker, and they tend to take place outside of Wyoming. This next one will take place almost all in Montana.”
When a series of books finds success, it’s inevitable that Hollywood will take notice; the Joe Pickett novels are no exception. Production companies have circled for years around different Pickett-related projects, the most recent a proposed television series from a company headed up by a big-screen legend. Yet, despite assurances from producers that the series would follow the arc of the books, initial drafts took the story in a different direction, prompting Box to withdraw the project.
“It didn’t so much as fall through, as my wife Laurie and I decided not to proceed with it,” Box said. “Right out of the gate, the producers started coming up with their own ideas for the characters. We figured a TV series would be nice, but if we’re unhappy with it, the readers will be unhappy with it, and what’s the point of that? So I fired Robert Redford.”
Hollywood remains interested in the Pickett books, however, and talks are underway with writer-producer David E. Kelley for a possible mini-series based on one of Box’s stand-alone novels. Kelley is best known as the creator of such TV series as The Practice, Chicago Hope and Boston Legal, among others.
“David E. Kelley bought the rights to ‘The Highway,’ and is at this minute approaching networks with that,” Box said. “He wrote the pilot, and wants to do a seven or eight-episode miniseries. We’ll see how it goes.”
Looking ahead, enjoying the present
For now, Box is content to finish up a busy signing tour for “Vicious Circle” and continue work on the next installment of the Joe Pickett series, which he estimates he’s halfway through. Finding time to write while on the road can be a challenge, but Box said if he finds himself with a couple of hours to spare, he tries to take advantage.
“There have been times where I’ll find myself with an afternoon somewhere, where I’ve been able to get some work done,” he said. “But this tour has not been like that. It’s been pretty crazy this time around.”
After reading a selection from his new book at the Billings event, Box fielded questions from a few members of the standing-room-only crowd in attendance before sitting down to sign books.
Box’s events “are always the biggest,” said Lorrie Niles, community development manager at Barnes & Noble. “It’s fun, because whenever he’s here, it’s like welcoming home an old friend. You like being around him, and he always has great stories to tell. He’s very entertaining.”
Questions touched on what goes into his writing process, whose work he enjoys reading and whether certain characters are based on actual people. Other questions were about Box himself.
“What does C.J. stand for?” asked one gentleman.
“Charles James,” Box replied.
“Is Box your real last name?”
Box chuckled. “You think I’d make up a name like that?”