C.J. Box (left) with his English/French translator, Robert Pépin
As unlikely as this may sound, I made the town of Laramie, Wyoming, my home for a time in the 1980s, when I was traveling around America’s West and Midwest. Fortunately for you, I’m not going to go into all of the reasons why I landed in that once lawless frontier burg. But I will say that I had a good time there and made some “interesting friends” at a bar called The Buckhorn. It was there that I met my first real cowboys, and for a time, was a rather unusual regular--a swarthy man with a clipped English accent, who drank gin-and-tonics and talked incessantly about books.
My Laramie days were still very much on my mind in 2003, when I attended my first Bouchercon, in Las Vegas, Nevada, and met C.J. “Chuck” Box. A Wyoming native, Box by then had had two novels published: Open Season (2001) and Savage Run (2002), both of which starred game warden Joe Pickett. Reading Box’s yarns took me back to my time in the West, when I wandered around the Black Hills and attended the Frontier Days celebration in Cheyenne, an event that offered me my first opportunity to ride a bucking bronco. (Yes, my time in America was filled with action!)
I bumped into Box again at Bouchercon in Indianapolis last fall. This followed my reading Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, a standalone thriller (published in the States a year ago) that, with its appearance on this side of the Atlantic last month, has finally introduced C.J. Box in a big way to British readers. (His books were previously marketed in a small way by Robert Hale Publishing, but Corvus, his latest publisher over here--and a new arrival on the scene, with big crime-fiction ambitions--is giving Box more extensive exposure.) I was blown away by Three Weeks, which builds on the story of a couple who’ve adopted a baby girl, and then must battle the child’s gangster of a biological dad--and, more importantly, that gangster’s powerful federal judge of a father--to keep her, and keep her safe. I can’t help but agree with Harlan Coben, who called Three Weeks “a non-stop thrill ride--a provocative suspense novel that has you rooting for the characters every step of the way.”
Box has been much celebrated for his fiction-writing over the last decade, at various times picking up the Anthony Award, the French Prix Calibre 38, the Macavity Award, the Gumshoe Award, and the Barry Award. He now has 11 novels in print, with a 12th due out this coming spring. In association with his entry into the UK market, he’s been open to doing lots of publicity. He agreed to write a feature for the e-zine Shots (“C.J. Box Asks: How Far Would You Go to Protect Someone You Loved?”), and I even managed to twist his arm to do an interview with The Rap Sheet. Like a couple of old cowpokes doffing their Stetsons and shooting the breeze (well, that was how I envisioned it, anyway), we talked about how Box got his start as an author, his associations with the American West, and what it took for him to finally make a splash in British bookstores.
Ali Karim: So, tell us a little about your upbringing. Do you come from a bookish family?
C.J. Box: I can’t really say I was from a bookish family. My dad, a former teacher, is certainly a reader and has become more of one, but the house I grew up in didn’t have a single bookcase--except mine. My relatives in Wyoming were blue-collar energy workers, although I do recall paperbacks by Mickey Spillane lying around.
AK: Who or what, then, do you put down as cultivating your early interest in reading and writing?
CJB: I was always a reader and a secret lurker in libraries. Maybe it’s because there simply wasn’t other entertainment available. I do remember sucking up books like a maniac. I read everything I could get my hands on.
AK: And what were the books that sparked you to pick up the pen?
CJB: The one that did it was Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. I read it in high school, I believe. The world just opened up after that book, and I knew I someday wanted to try to show readers a world they weren’t familiar with the way that Heller showed me. Not that I thought I could write another Catch-22, of course. And neither did Heller, for that matter.
Then I saw a movie no one has ever seen and no one I’ve shown it to has ever liked called Rancho Deluxe . It was written by Thomas McGuane, who is now my favorite writer. His vision of the New West showed me anything was possible.
AK: You worked as a small-town newspaper reporter and editor. Was that simply a way for you to write for a living?
CJB: Making a living and being a journalist, I found, are generally two different things. But yes, that’s what I majored in and my first job was working for a small Wyoming weekly newspaper. In retrospect, it was spectacular training in “the real world” for what was to come. I learned so much, and met so many people in all walks of life. Much of what I’ve since written came from those days as a starving reporter.
AK: It’s been close on to a decade since you debuted with Open Season, the first Joe Pickett novel. Can you tell us how you first found yourself in print, and where exactly did Pickett come from?
CJB: I’d written a manuscript called Joe Pickett while working as a journalist. It was my third manuscript and the only one, I thought, that was any good. Still, it took four years to get an editor to read it. That was a long four years, and I was ready to give up. Luckily, the editor was from Penguin/Putnam and she was fantastic and turned out to be a real proponent of the book. She renamed it Open Season. When it came out, everything that’s not supposed to happen with a first novel ... did. Four printings, awards, movie option. Thus is my 20-year overnight success story told.
AK: I first met you, briefly, at Bouchercon in Las Vegas, where I picked up Open Season and its sequel. I relished those books, in part because I’d lived in Wyoming and Colorado during the 1980s. Why do you enjoy using the American West as a backdrop?
CJB: Thanks for taking a shot on the first books, Ali.
I am a native of Wyoming and the Mountain West, and sometimes I think it courses through my veins. I know it and I want to set my novels in familiar territory. I’ve thought over the years that many books set in the Rockies were unrealistic, and I want to do my part to provide a more authentic sense of place. Yes, there are cowboys and Indians and bears. But there’s also the Internet and universities and everything else. I find the region fascinating because of its witch’s brew of Old West and New West. And I’m increasingly irritated by other authors who use the setting and the mythology, but don’t acknowledge contemporary issues like environmentalism and development in their portrayals.
AK: Back when I lived in Laramie, I used to drink in a bar called The Buckhorn. Do you know that place? It was full of neo-cowboys, so I was a little bit of an oddity then! Man, it was a tad rough ...
CJB: Yes, I’m afraid I do know the bar. In fact, I recall tumbling down the stairs once. But that’s another story.
I have trouble picturing you bellying up to the bar at The Buckhorn (which still has bullet holes in the back mirror) and ordering a round or two, Ali, but I think it’s a terrific image. And exactly what I was referring to earlier in regard to the Old West and New West.
AK: In addition to penning the Pickett series, you write standalone thrillers--first Blue Heaven (2008) and now Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, your initial entry into the British market. So what took you so long to get your stuff published on this side of the Atlantic?
CJB: What took me so long to come to the UK was UK publishers. I’d heard on several occasions that there was a perception that my novels were sort of hunting and fishing books, therefore British readers wouldn’t approve of them--even though they were never hunting and fishing books.
The early ones were published in hardcover by Hale, but there wasn’t much distribution.
I am wildly thankful that [editor] Nicolas Cheetham at Corvus read beyond the rumor and enthusiastically embraced the novels.
AK: And how did you find Corvus?
CJB: They found me, I’m pleased to say.
AK: Like all of your books, Three Weeks to Say Goodbye delves into the darker recess of the human condition. What is it about crime fiction’s dark side of the street that most appeals to you?
CJB: Maybe because there is no better or more fascinating way to truly understand others than when they’re desperate and committing desperate acts. Three Weeks is all about moral dilemmas and choices that are consciously made [and] that result in a death spiral for the protagonists.
AK: You sketch out some really vivid bad guys in Three Weeks. So let me ask you: What do you think makes a villain memorable?
CJB: When the evil is nuanced by other--and sometimes sympathetic--motivations it is more real and more frightening. Not that I suggest readers shouldn’t be judgmental--they should. I am. Judgment is a good thing, and I despise moral equivalency. But if the reader can better understand the motivation and thinking behind the evil acts, it makes the story richer and the villain both more fascinating and more awful.
AK: Has Corvus expressed any interest in bringing your backlist of Joe Pickett books to UK readers?
CJB: Yes! The UK needs more hunting and fishing books. Just kidding.
AK: In the future, are you planning to alternate between the Joe Pickett novels and your standalones?
CJB: That’s what I’ve done the last three years and I think it’s worked for me and for readers. Not everyone wants to commit to a series unless they’ve had a chance to sample the wares, and I don’t blame them. Plus, there are stories I want to tell that simply don’t lend themselves well to a Joe Pickett book. I think alternating makes both the standalones and the series books better, and I think it makes me a better writer.
AK: As a former journalist yourself, tell us your thoughts about the current state of print journalism.
CJB: I have more optimism for the British press than the U.S. newspapers, because papers are more vital in the UK. I hope they can figure out how to provide a model for the U.S. Overall, though, I think the state of journalism in general is dismal, and most journalists should seek gainful employment.
AK: We encountered each other briefly at Bouchercon in Indianapolis last fall. Can you tell us some of what you got up to there?
CJB: I did a couple of panels and went to cocktail parties. It’s always an enjoyable place to connect with readers and with other authors. I had to leave town early to go to another event, unfortunately.
AK: What books have passed over your reading table lately that have particularly impressed you?
CJB: Recently, I’ve become a huge fan of Megan Abbott and South African author Deon Meyer.
AK: So what’s next for Chuck Box?
CJB: In the U.S., my tenth Joe Pickett novel, called Nowhere to Run, will be out in April. I think it’s a really good one. I finished another standalone, called Back of Beyond, just last week. I don’t know the publication date on that one yet, but I think late 2010 or early 2011.
You’ll need to check with Corvus, but I think Blue Heaven is out next in the UK. That’s the one that won the Edgar in 2009. Then the series, I believe.
And hey, thanks, Ali. Funny you lived in Laramie! Small world.