Monday, January 04, 2010

The Men from Laramie

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 [1975]. 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.


Judy Bobalik said...

Great interview, Ali. But, I really can't wrap my mind around you living in Laramie. How I wish I knew you then.

Zack said...

I love the Rancho Deluxe album ... recorded by Jimmy Buffett.

Ali Karim said...

Thanks Judy - I never knew you lived in Laramie too; after my 1st degreein the UK, I studied for a PhD at UW, but things didn't quite work I traveled a bit around the US.

BTW bumping into Chuck at Indianapolis brought my memories back. I entertained Gary Philips, Scott Philips and David Leiven [and others] late into the night with my stories of drinking at The Buckhorn....and my misadventures in the US.

Ce'st la Vie as they say


Judy Bobalik said...

I don't live in Laramie, I live near Chicago. I just can't imagine you in Laramie. I'll need to hear your stories.

Ali Karim said...

They're pretty funny stories now; but as a young scientist in my twenties ending up at UW was rather surreal looking back. It’s no longer relevant why I chose Laramie as opposed to Philadelphia [I guess it was because of reading and watching westerns as a kid, plus I am a tad eccentric].

Laramie is dominated by the University, and famed for its agricultural department, and also for US football [well it was when I lived there]. I have many war stories - but let me give you just one, which I told to Gary and Scott Philips last fall in B’con Indianapolis [and we all roared at my quick thinking].

The first time I stepped into The Buckhorn Bar in Laramie; I thought I was a deadman. Two of my Undergraduate students played a bit of a prank on me, knowing I was new to town. They asked to meet me there after class, and we'd go drinking. They were mature students on GI-Bill. They told me to meet at 8pm inside The Buckhorn on a Thursday night, which I did.

I didn't know the reputation of The Buckhorn. I thought it was just a local friendly pub. When I arrived, my two students were nowhere to be seen. It's the 1980's, the bar had pick-up trucks lined up outside [I discovered that the trucks belonged to the 'Cowboys' in the bar], and get this – real sawdust and globs of spittle on the floor; there were wooden barrels peppering the place, and each time someone finished a bottle of beer they lobbed it in the barrel, making me jump at the sound of broken glass. As I walked to the bar, all eyes turned to me - A dark stranger. I felt as welcome as a yellow line of piss in a swimming pool.

I knew if I ‘bottled’ it and fled, I’d been seen as weak, and let the Cowboys know how easy it was to frighten a Black kid. So I walked in holding my head high. I rested my elbows on the bar as I was shaking like a tree in the breeze and needed not to show my fear to the Cowboys. I felt eyes stare at me. The Barman smiled nervously and crookedly as he was missing a few teeth. Then one of the Cowboys came over to me. The bar was silent, all eyes were on me. His elbow poked mine. I kept my eyes on the mirror behind the bar [the same mirror I later learned contained a real bullet-hole]. The barman asked "You're kinnda new here aren't you boy?" All I could think of was of a scene with Sidney Poitier in ‘In the Heat of the Night’, and how Poitier kept his dignity.

PART II to follow as I am restricted to 4,096 characters

Ali Karim said...



I decided that I was going to get badly beaten up, even killed, so I had nothing to lose and nothing to prove, so sucking in my breath I replied in an massively accentuated and very loud English Accent; Queen's English if you will -

"You are very perceptive my friend. Yes this little place is not at all like London!” Then I smiled as the Cowboys started to laugh at my accent, and one said “Man, he’s from ENGLAND! He’s a damned Limey” another said “Man, you know the Queen?”

I replied “Of course I do! What sort of rogue do you take me for?” The authority in my voice was working, so I continued “Now esteemed barman, can I please get a drink. It’s been a long journey.”

As the bar echoed with laughter, I realized I wasn’t going to get a kicking. The barman put out his hand and said “What will you have Mr England?” Despite the laughter; being a black guy in a rather rough looking bar with Cowboys whose arms were wider than my stomach, I realized I was not out of the woods yet. So I sucked my breath in and said “I’ll have a very large Gin and Tonic, with ice, a slice of lime, and please, shaken not stirred, Gordon’s if you have it?” Then the bar erupted in laughter again, the other Cowboys came over the biggest of the gang [with worse teeth than the barman] slapped me on my back, and the leader said “Welcome Mr England, we’ve never seen a Black Limey here; the next round is one me”. Toothless barman informed me that “We don’t have Gordon’s Gin but we do have Tanqueray” from which I replied “Damned colonies, no Gordons! OK give me that Tanqeray then” which was met with a roar of laughter; And then I was a regular at The Buckhorn for a time.

When my two students arrived, they didn’t see me at first, as the group of Cowboys had huddled around me in a protective circle, listening to my stories of London, the Queen, that James Bond was based on a real guy blah, blah, blah. I helped that I had read many westerns, and they were amazed at my knowledge of Zane Grey, and the books I’d read and films I’d seen. Over time I became an oddity, and the Cowboy regulars were very protective of me, enjoying the tales I would tell and if anyone gave me a weird stare, they would take them out. Teeth would go missing.

I considered changing profession, as I reckoned Dentistry a very good career in Laramie, but then I moved on.

This is true


PS - Forgive typos, Quoting Winston Churchill "I must apologise for writing you such a long letter. I didn't have enough time to write you a short one"

Judy Bobalik said...

Fabulous and proof that you can never be too well read. I have no doubt you became a favorite of the bar. Thanks for sharing, my friend.

Karin M said...

Great story, Ali. (We met briefly at B'con in Baltimore.) You've got nerves of steel, I guess.

Holly West said...


Your description of Laramie reminds me a little of the place I grew up, a small gold rush town in Northern California originally called Hangtown but now known as Placerville. It still retains its gold rush roots as much as it can, though it's grown a bit since then.

Anyway, for my 40th birthday I had a party at a restaurant in the old part of town and after the party of course none of us wanted to go home yet. So I asked my dad to drive us to Main Street where there was a bar called the Hangman's Tree Tavern. I'd never been there but I'd always been fascinated by the dummy in flannel, jeans, and cowboy boots that hung from a wood block from its roof. I figured at 40, I was finally old enough to go there. My dad expressed doubt--he knew it was a rough place and didn't think a group of yuppies like ourselves would be welcomed there, but we insisted and he drove us anyway.

Once parked in front of the bar, we were immediately terrified by the rough crowd and decided to call it a night. Yes, I know the end of this story is a let down, but not all of us have your courage!

Someday I will write a crime story about Hangtown and the gold rush because the history there is just too good to pass up.