C. J. Box

Steve Thomas: CJ Box, welcome to Circulating Ideas!

C. J. Box: Thank you. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Steve Thomas: We generally, the main topic is usually around libraries on this podcast, so I usually when I have an author on, I like to ask what your experiences have been with libraries throughout your life.

C. J. Box: Oh, they’ve been terrific. I often say when I talk to groups that I learned more in libraries than I ever did in school. When I was a young boy in Wyoming, I used to ride my bike to the local library, and I always have to caveat, I was a normal Wyoming boy. I was involved in sports and hunting and fishing, but my dirty little secret was that I would read books and the librarians at the library, they liked the idea of a kid coming in on his own, wasn’t forced to, and they would challenge me with better and more interesting books through the years. And I kind of had my own special section in the library where I just read very, very widely. I do remember, I tell this story often, going down the aisles in that library into the B’s to see where my book would be someday. I had no idea what I would write, or that makes no sense, cause if it’s stocked, that means it’s not checked out, which means it’s just inventory. That was a dream that’s since been realized. And I still spend a lot of time in libraries and doing things on behalf of libraries, fundraisers, Friends of the Library organizations, and I always enjoy it cause I think libraries are, in a lot of places, really the community central. Of course there are books there, but in a lot of places, if I’m doing research in a little community, I go to the library first and talk to the librarians cuz they know what’s going on and they know everybody.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. I have to ask, since you brought it up, now when you do those library events, do you go to the B section now to find your books?

C. J. Box: I do not. I’ll often cruise through the mystery or thriller section to see if my books are there and hopefully that there’s space where those books have been checked out. But yeah, I do, I do. I’m still vain that way.

Steve Thomas: Maybe a couple copies of the newest one cuz they have more copies of that one, but the rest of ’em should all be gone. And of course, we’ll talk about all your characters in a minute, but one of your main characters is a librarian now, so it didn’t start that way, but she became a librarian throughout the series.

C. J. Box: That’s right, and in this, we won’t give away anything in this book, the library plays a very important role in the end of it. Again, as that community center and Mary Beth, Joe’s wife, is the head librarian and the director of the library, and she also has access to a lot of information and databases, so she always helps a Joe who’s not as technically literate as she is or as smart.

Steve Thomas: Right. A good man marries a good, smart wife.

That’s right!

So before we get into Storm Watch in particular, can you tell listeners just about Joe Pickett and his world?

C. J. Box: Joe Pickett is a Wyoming game warden, which means he is basically a state employee, a law enforcement officer who’s charged with enforcing the game and fish regulations for the state.

And in Wyoming, game wardens are a little unique in that there’s only 50 of them total. They’re very autonomous. They live in generally little state owned homes scattered around the state. And when they go out on patrol, they’re unique also in that they rarely have backup if they get into a situation.

It’s just too far. They’re too remote. They generally have their Labradors in their green trucks when they go out. And they get into situations well beyond handing somebody a ticket for fishing without a license. Because it is so rural and so isolated, they often get involved in other situations, and Joe Pickett does as well. Over the course of the series now 23 books, he has grown and matured and so has his family over the years, gone different directions, scattered. The books take place in real time.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, cause you start out his kids are little kids, and now in the newest books, they’re all college age or above. It’s interesting sometimes when the author makes that choice of, am I gonna stick them in a short period, and they’re always gonna stay the same age, like Peanuts where Charlie Brown is the say, is eight years old for 50 years, but it’s fun to learn along with the characters of seeing them grow up.

C. J. Box: Well, I think in a long running series… I mean, I didn’t start out to write a long-running series. I started to write a book, which then became two books, and then the publisher wanted more books. So, I’m glad now in retrospect that I made that choice to do it in real time because I think a reader has to suspend disbelief anyway for a mystery thriller series and to make them suspend disbelief to the point that the protagonists and the characters never age from book to book always turns me off as a reader at a certain point. And I also think it’s more interesting to see them grow. I mean, Joe Pickett was 32 in the first book; he’s 51 now. He really does have aches and pains when he goes through deep snow or ride horses now, and I think that makes the thing more nuanced, more realistic to the reader, and I enjoy it as a writer. Anybody who has a family knows from year to year the situation changes personally. People grow, they go different directions, and that adds some nuance to the series, I think, that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, well, and you force some growth on them cuz you put ’em through some pretty tough situations where they have to learn to grow up there. Joe in particular started much more with a moral center and he still kept that moral center, but he’s been battered around by life, but he still has that moral center and a lot of times it’s like, it makes sense of why you made him a game warden because he’s out there by himself and so he has to look into things. A lot of times he’s wanting to do what’s right, but he doesn’t usually wanna investigate what he’s investigating. He sort of just stumbles across it and then tries to hand it off to law enforcement and then they are not interested. Especially in the newest book, the sheriff is not very interested in investigating this crime. So he wants to make it right, but make the right person do it. And if it’s gotta be him, then it’s gonna be him.

C. J. Box: Exactly. That’s well put. And in some cases, when he gets into something, like this in Storm Watch, his superiors and others want him to just go away. Yeah. Quit pursuing it, you know, go away, do your job, but that’s one unique characteristic of Joe Pickett is he can’t. Once he gets into it, he’s gotta see it through, and it gets him in a lot of trouble and has over the years, but at the same time, that is him. He’s never going to just simply walk away and see what happens.

Steve Thomas: And he’s unique, because number one, he’s a game warden and not a, like, a sheriff where at the end he can go and arrest the person. He’s enforcing laws, but he is enforcing different types of laws and not criminal like that kind of thing.

But one of the other things that’s precious to him, obviously more so than anything else is his family, and because it’s this kind of book, the family often gets involved and so you can feel… you do a good job, I think, of conveying his mix of fear and anger and worry and desperation whenever he hears that they’re in danger but can’t do anything about it. Was that connection to family a really important part of what you wanted to imbue in that character?

C. J. Box: You know, it always has been from the very first book, and I remember plotting that very first one called Open Season, 23 years ago now, thinking, in real life, game wardens do live in their homes with their families out in the middle of nowhere, and their families get involved in things whether they want to or not. Errant hunters, landowners, whatever, will come to their house at any time of day or night needing something. So kids are involved. Mary Beth, his wife, is very involved and he regrets that sometimes that they are involved. But sometimes things are solved as an entire family, even though that’s not the plan.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. And, and that continues even into the newest book when they’re adults. A lot of times to differing degrees, depending on the book, the girls will be involved or Mary Beth is always involved. But the girls sort of, it wraps them in, especially Storm Watch, with Sheridan, she really is involved in one of the plots. And this is the interesting one I think, cuz you have lots of different plots that do come together in the end, but it’s sort of like, “Are these the same book?” But then they do all come together and it’s great. You do a good job with that.

C. J. Box: Thank you very much. Yeah. There are a lot of different threads going on in this, in fact, to the point where when I start describing the book, I think “This sounds so complicated!” but hopefully for the reader it is not, it simply flows. There are a lot of things going on, but they all come together in the end. As I was writing it, I was thinking, I have never done like a Godfather type ending where things are happening at several levels in several different places with everybody that you know all at once, and hopefully I pulled that off. But it was fun to write; complicated, but fun to write.

Steve Thomas: So when you’re getting started on a new book, how is it that you really get started? What is that idea that kicks you into you finally getting down and sitting down and writing? Like, do you diligently outline when you start or do you just kind of find the story as you’re writing? What’s that process like?

C. J. Box: I always start with two or three topics, sometimes controversial, sometimes newsy that really interests me. I mean, my background originally as a journalist, and I really dig into stories and I live in a community not unlike where Joe Pickett lives, where you hear things in the post office or in the grocery store, what people are concerned with, what’s going on. There’s a lot of conflict especially with federal agencies because there’s so much public land. So there’s always a lot of things brewing and I’ll key on a few things that I either stumble across or sometimes experience myself. And then in the case of Storm Watch, it’s a combination of crypto mining in very rural areas in the middle of nowhere, which actually exists and a movement kind of that’s always under the surface, anti-federalists, secessionist kind of movement, all going on at once, corrupt politicians, which are not such a huge thing in Wyoming, but certainly are around the country. So I start with those elements and then start building an outline, and the way always look at it as, how can I pull a reader through these issues or topics in a page turning way. And that’s how it all begins, and then I bullet point the outline all the way to the end and then start writing literally on top of the outline. And changes happen. Sometimes the ending is totally different from what I originally planned, but I always have an ending in mind and a direction in mind when I start, I have some good friends as authors who tell me, “I start with the characters and see where they’ll take me.” I don’t know if I could ever do that. It scares me to think about that without having a pretty good idea where the book is going before I start.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. I remember reading, I think it was Stephen King that said like he just writes a book and then goes back and reads it again and figures out what the theme is from that. Oh, okay. I guess that’s a way to do it.

C. J. Box: That’s one way to do it. There’s no wrong way. I think the wrong way, and I think as readers, we all know about some books that really pull us in and about two thirds through, you start to realize, “Uh oh, the captain doesn’t know where this ship is going.” You know that. They know that. And hopefully they can bring it in.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, this is a TV show, but that reminds me of Lost, where you just…

C. J. Box: Good point. Right, exactly.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s the key to a mystery is that at the end of the mystery you will know who done it. I mean, that’s the promise of reading something in the Mystery genre that you will find that out, but do you ever have that when you’re writing someone, you said sometimes it will veer off. When you throw Joe into that story, not sort of metaphysically, but like does he react in a way that you would not expect? Like would you go, “Oh, well, I thought this would happen this way, but then when I have Joe going through with the story, he would do something different,” and so that changes the course of the story?

C. J. Box: It happens quite often, and it usually has to do with like a secondary character who is going to be extremely minor in my outline who becomes really interesting and steers the story that way, and I usually go with it. I think if it’s intriguing to me, it’s intriguing to the reader, so I’m not gonna force them into a direction that I originally thought about that no longer seems like it’s gonna work or it’s not satisfied or it’s boring.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. Well, and you’ve got such a good supporting casts now that you can always kind of tap into them and see. You’ve got Nate and in this one, Geronimo Jones comes back from a previous book. That’s always fun to see characters that you saw before coming back into the mix. Are there any in the supporting cast that you really, that you go to a lot that you wanna make sure, I guess maybe are in every book, you wanna tap into them every time?

C. J. Box: Well, certainly Nate Romanowski, Joe’s outlaw falconry buddy. He’s very popular among readers, and he needs to be in there and perform some kind of act of violence that Joe can’t and that every reader wishes they could, including me, but I tend to key on a member of Joe’s family in every book, besides Joe and Mary Beth, so that they’re not all involved in every book, but in each one they have a certain role to remind me and the readers that there’s a lot of lot going on there with the family as well. That has nothing to do with plot.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. And, and it’s nice to just peek in with them, like this one is more Sheridan of the girls, but we see the other girls too and peek on ’em, see what they’re doing. Cuz as you said if we don’t, then we have to go two years without knowing what is April doing now?

 So at the start of Storm Watch, what is Joe’s situation and what are the challenges he’s facing?

C. J. Box: Well, a blizzard is on the way. It’s March, which in the Rocky Mountains, March and April are the two snowiest months, believe it or not, should be spring, but it’s not. And in this case, he is pursuing a wounded elk that was hit by a car. That’s one bad part of game warden jobs is they’re called out on the scene to dispatch animals that are hurt, and as he’s pursuing this animal, chasing it through the snow, he finds a little high-tech facility about the size of a house trailer in the middle of nowhere with no power lines going to it that is very curious to him. And as he gets closer to it, he sees that there is a body outside of this facility. He pursues it. He goes down there, he finds a body that he can identify through his wallet as a University of Wyoming professor. And then both the storm closes in and somebody is after Joe. So that’s how it begins. I love to juxtapose high-tech stuff with the middle of nowhere, and in this case, it’s based on real activity in the West where crypto miners have figured out how to do crypto mining on the top of old oil and gas wells that have been capped because crypto mining, a lot of people don’t realize, is hugely energy intensive and they needed their own source of power. So it’s crypto mining, why is there a University of Wyoming professor there, why is he dead, and why does everybody not want Joe to pursue this any further than he has already?

Steve Thomas: And then meanwhile, as you said, you mentioned Nate was in this one, that he’s getting approached by a group that’s pushing overthrow of the government, secession, something like that, and he’s not sure where that mix is, and that could potentially put him at odds with Joe.

C. J. Box: That’s right, Nate always kind of flirts with, like extreme libertarianism and finds the appeal a little bit interesting, but also wonders who’s really behind this.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, Nate reminds me of the Spenser Books. He’s like Hawk where he goes and beats everybody up while Joe investigates the crime.

C. J. Box: That’s right, although, over the series of the books, things have changed a little bit. Nate Romanowski used to just be a wild card, is now married, he’s got a child, he’s got a business he’s trying to run. He kind of had a struggle with going back to being off the grid and staying on the grid. And when this approach comes, he sees some romance in that, but at the same time is wary.

Steve Thomas: And Sheridan is involved with the business and then Sheridan’s also involved with the ranch where Joe found the body, so I guess it’s small enough that you can always find intersections between people to keep all the characters involved.

C. J. Box: Right. And I think that’s very true to a very small rural community where everyone is connected whether they wanna be or not, and tend to know everything and everybody else’s business to some degree. And when big outside threats come in, they either embrace them or resist them.

Steve Thomas: I’ve lived in the southeast basically my whole life so when I read descriptions like in your books and other places, in the Rockies, it’s almost like I’m reading a sci-fi novelist doing world building. It’s just separate cuz even over here in the Appalachia, that’s completely different mountains than the Rockies, but the setting has lots to do with all of the Joe Pickett books. What is it that you love about the outdoors that you’re trying to bring to the page, to the reader?

C. J. Box: I think it’s just very important to render the area as accurately as possible. I think that makes it more interesting to the reader. It makes me more interested, and like I mentioned earlier, all the public land. That makes a huge difference. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of timber and sage brush that are basically public open, meaning anybody can be there, anybody can camp there. That adds a lot of different elements to the books and in real life. And also the weather is very extreme. I sit at 8,000 feet where I live, there’s a blizzard going on right now. You can’t move around and I think it adds character to the books to make it so outdoorsy and have all the characters so linked to the weather, the terrain, and lack of population.

Steve Thomas: Well what has it been like to see your characters, your creations as TV stars? Like, it’s probably not exactly what you see in your head, but just the adaptation.

C. J. Box: I was able to observe for many, many years other authors books being turned into TV series or movies and talking with those authors. So I kind of knew what was coming. I knew not to expect the TV shows to religiously follow the books. Never happens. Sometimes they go different directions that just make me cringe and wanna fall to the floor, but sometimes I think they get it right and sometimes they add things to the storylines that I wish I would have. The Joe Pickett series is one we’re particularly fond of cuz I think they’ve really figured out the character and they’ve done a good job with it.

The best thing about the TV series, money’s good. That’s great, but the best thing about it is, viewers are smart, if they watch a show and they really like even aspects of it, they wanna know where the source material comes from and it drives them to the books. We’ve had a big upsurge sales of all of the back lists since the series have been on, because readers are interested in the source material and that’s very rewarding, to have people go back, pick up the first book Open Season that was published 23 years ago and start there with it that they may not have otherwise.

Steve Thomas: It worked for me. I don’t have Paramount Plus unfortunately, so I haven’t seen Joe Pickett, but we watched Big Sky and, well, I hadn’t read those books, so there’s a little bit of a big surprise early on. And then I was like, “Well that’s not in the books probably, right?” And I like, “Oh, that is in the books. He did that in the books too!” but that worked for me. Definitely. Cuz I mean, you were kind of always on that list of “I’m gonna read his books”, but that was what kicked me finally to do it so that it works.

I know Storm Watch was just released, but I guess I would be remiss if I didn’t ask what’s up next, if we’ll be seeing Joe and crew again sometime?

C. J. Box: That’s right. I’m already working on the next Joe Pickett book. Like all of ’em, it’s a little bit different. There’s not a formula here. This one is gonna have Joe being quite isolated and involve a rogue grizzly bear.

Steve Thomas: Well, I look forward to that one! And then the last question I wanted to ask is just, between your two series, do you think Joe and Cassie would get along with each other if they met?

C. J. Box: I do. I think they’d be a little wary of each other, but I think they would get along because both of them tend to have that same kind of drive when it comes to seeking justice, exposing the bad guys. I don’t know if that’ll ever happen. It’s two different publishers. That makes it very complicated, but I think they would probably get along, though.

Steve Thomas: So again, the new book is Storm Watch, which is available now. So you can either run out or click over to your favorite bookstore and buy it, or you can go to your local public library and check it out and just check it out a whole bunch of times, and then check out all of his old back catalog as well to catch up on the 22 previous books in this series. So CJ Box, thank you so much for chatting with me about the book and the series and everything else.

C. J. Box: Thank you. It’s been fun talking to somebody who’s read the books. Thank you so much.