A man walks into a bar. Cowboy boots. Black cowboy hat. It’s a scene out of a western novel. Only we’re in Greenwich Village at the Cowgirl. And the cowboy is real. He’s C.J. Box, author of a mystery series featuring Joe Pickett, a game warden from Box’s native Wyoming, whose 14th entry, Stone Cold, was published by Putnam in March. Box has also written four standalone western novels, and his first story collection, Shots Fired, is due out in July.
Box has been to the Cowgirl many times before. This visit he’s in New York to see his publisher and take a break from his book tour. He enjoys touring and the unexpected pleasures it brings. This time around, he got to hang out with Dave Barry. “He was in St. Louis when I was there so we had drinks. And he wore my hat. There’s even a picture to prove it.” At this point, Box’s wife, Laurie, joins us, proud to have found her way around the city. “I had no problems with the subway,” she says. “And I knew when I got out I had to go west, so I just looked for the sun.” A good lesson for any New Yorker.
In the introduction to Shots Fired, Box explains that most of the 10 stories in the collection were originally written for anthologies. “Blood Knot” is the result of being asked to write a 1,000-word story. “It was a challenge, honing this multigenerational encounter down to size. I couldn’t waste a word. And I like the results. ‘Every Day Is a Good Day on the River’—about three men in a drift boat: two clients, a guide, and a gun—was my contribution to an anthology of fishing stories written by crime writers, called Hook, Line & Sinister.” Will Box fans respond to short stories the way they do to his novels? “Boy, I don’t know” is Box’s answer. “Some readers like the stories but want much more. Others like shorter subjects.” Box will find out soon firsthand: a book tour for Shots Fired is on his schedule.
Meanwhile, Endangered, the 15th Pickett mystery, is well underway. Box isn’t tired of his game warden yet. “I love the guy. And Stone Cold left a lot of loose ends,” he says. It certainly did: villain Wolfgang Templeton; April, Pickett’s young ward; and Nate Romanowski, his friend, were all in seriously hot water at the end of the book. Box reports steady working habits: “I go to work every morning. I have a five-day work schedule. And I write 1,000 words a day. For Endangered the outline is done, and all the twists are there. It’s kind of like storyboarding.”
The Pickett novels have resulted in millions of fans, and important prizes, too. They’ve won the Anthony, Macavity, Gumshoe, and Barry awards, as well as the French Prix Calibre .38 and have been Edgar Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalists. Box won the Edgar for his first standalone, Blue Heaven. As for Hollywood, Box says, “I’ve heard from them. Blue Heaven has had its option renewed four or five times. So I’m glad about that. It’s still a possibility.” Regarding the Pickett books, he says, “No movie requests so far. But maybe a TV series. Robert Redford’s interested. He has read all the books! He’s executive producer for a team in Hollywood that’s talking to networks about doing a Pickett series.”
When the Boxes come to New York, they usually stay at the Beacon Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Box likes that the hotel is next to the Beacon Theater, where the Allman Brothers play every year. Not surprisingly, the Upper West Side shows up in the middle of Stone Cold’s quintessential Wyomingness. At one point, Romanowski parks on West 75th Street waiting for a bad guy to walk by on his way to Zabar’s. “I’ve done that walk so many times,” says Box.
But Wyoming is the place that Box is always happy to get back to. Aside from Pickett, the state itself is the author’s most beloved character—in all its magnificent, wild, serene, and sometimes cruel beauty. If Box has favorite areas, he says, “they would be Yellowstone and the North Platte River, but not by much.” Any place that boasts mountains, rivers, fish, grizzlies, geysers, falcons, and cottonwoods—not to mention a touch of corruption, poaching, and more sinister activities—means a lot to do and a lot to write about.
The Boxes live eight miles north of Cheyenne on 20 acres filled with horses, dogs, and cats. They have three daughters, including twins—one is getting married this summer, the other is expecting her first child. And their youngest daughter is at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, living in White Hall—which, at 12 stories, is the tallest building in Wyoming and figures prominently in Stone Cold. The family also has a cabin on the North Platte. “When I’m there I can write all day, with no interruptions, except for some fly fishing, of course” Box says. His daughters love fly fishing, too. “They started when they were five or six, and they’re really good at it.” Laurie admits she’s “getting to like it, too.” They also ride horses, often together.
Box, who is 54, grew up near Casper, and was three or four years old when he learned to fish. “I caught brookies,” he recalls, referring to small brook trout. In high school he worked on the school paper, and got a scholarship to study journalism at the University of Denver. “I think reporting is the best background for writers,” he says. “You meet so many people from all walks of life. Sometimes it seems that people who study creative writing can be very cloistered.”
Over the years, Box has had many trades: he’s been a fishing guide, ranch hand, surveyor, smalltown reporter, but never a game warden. “I’m intrigued by game wardens,” he says. “I really admire them. They have a hard life. They’re isolated. They have no backup. I’ve become friends with several of them. We like to fish together.” The Wyoming Game Warden Association gave Box a Certificate of Appreciation. “That one is really special,” he says. When he’s not writing or fishing, Box reads, both fiction and nonfiction. One of his favorite authors is Thomas McGuane—“a Montana literary writer,” Box calls him. He met McGuane once, not at a book event but at a horse show.
Toward the end of our conversation, Box mentions that he has another book due out next year—not a Pickett. Badlands is a novel that takes place in North Dakota’s badlands, in the town of Williston, where there’s an unprecedented oil boom going on. “It’s a wild place,” Box marvels. “Five years ago, there were 5,000 people there. Now there are 80,000–90,000. Workers live in man camps or in fancier homes that go for the highest rents of any place in the U.S. There’s 0.5% unemployment. The men-to-women ratio is 20 to 1. Fast food workers get paid $17 an hour. Enormous amounts of oil are coming out of there. And there are gangs, too—biker gangs, and the drug gang MS13, the most violent gang on Earth. The sheriff says they can’t build the jails fast enough.” You can hear the excitement in his voice. It sounds like a setting bursting with possibilities—and for subject and author, a match made in western heaven.