“He threaded his horse up through gnarled bell-shaped stands of juniper. The trees were heavy with clusters of green buds, and the scent within the stand was sweet and heavy and it reminded him of a gin martini. His horse spooked rabbits that shot out from bunches of tall grass like squeezed grapefruit seeds, and he pushed a small herd of mule deer out ahead of him. It had warmed to the mid-seventies, and as the temperature raised so did the insect hum from the ankle-high grass.”
This is an extract from Cold Wind the latest Joe Pickett book by CJ Box. If you could write like this, would you keep it a secret?
That’s exactly what US author CJ Box did when he first started writing. “I have a journalism background, I was working on a little newspaper in Wyoming when I first started writing fiction in secret on the side.” Squirrelled away in his home office, not telling his wife or daughters what he was doing, he said, “Open Season was the third manuscript that I wrote. I was self- taught. I was told you need an agent from New York – not an agent from Omaha. I connected with this guy and he agreed to represent the book. He had it for four years. This was pre email and I kept calling and he said ‘I’m trying to sell it, it’s difficult because it doesn’t fit a genre’. In the end he said just quit calling, I’ll call you if there’s news. So I thought that was how the business worked, that you just waited.
‘Then finally I went to a writers’ conference in Denver where you pitch ideas to agent and publishers. I went hoping to meet publishers, but I met this agent and told him about the book. He got real excited about it and asked if I had an agent. I told him about the other guy. He said, ‘you don’t know right, he’s been dead about 8 months’.”
Despite this shaky start, Penguin Putnam snapped up Open Season, and immediately looked for a series featuring Joe Pickett, a game warden based in Wyoming. Interestingly, after all the years of waiting, Open Season, hardly changed in the editing process. Box shrugged when I asked him if it had, “The subject matter of the first one is a little unusual, I started a subgenre without knowing it. I’d always been told and heard that these New York editors would get hold of it and try to change what you’re writing, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. They really encourage and celebrate books that are different rather than trying to mould everything. Maybe I’ve just been lucky with editors.”
At the time, Open Season won more awards than any other first crime novel. But as Box says, “I’m from Wyoming, we don’t have a literary culture or tradition there. I knew so little about the industry, when my editor called to say that Open Season had got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, I was like, what, one star out of four? That’s terrible. I didn’t know how it all worked, it was a whirlwind. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.”
It is this type of outstanding writing that has earned C. J. Box his place on the New York Times bestseller list. Now the author of thirteen novels including several stand alones as well as the Joe Pickett series, Box won the Edgar Alan Poe Award for Best Novel (Blue Heaven, 2009) as well as the Anthony Award, Prix Calibre 38 (France), the Macavity Award, the Gumshoe Award, the Barry Award, and the 2010 Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Award for fiction.
His short stories have been featured in America’s Best Mystery Stories of 2006 and limited-edition printings. 2008 novel Blood Trail was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin (Ireland) Literary Award. The novels have been translated into 25 languages. Blue Heaven and Nowhere to Runhave been optioned for film.
Unlike the majority of crime writers, CJ Box doesn’t start his story with a core crime – he starts it with an issue. “I’ve done this since the very first book, I start with an issue that is very local, and I try to research it as best I can, and then I find experts in the field on both sides so I get their viewpoints correct. They aren’t agenda books but they cover environmental issues. I think books really need to be about something apart from who did it.” He says “I hope to present a balanced approach to controversial issues. These issues are predominantly local, but I’ve discovered they have an international interest. I try to pull the reader through the issue in an interesting and page turning way.”
Talking to the experts gives Box an endless supply of story ideas, “They say, ‘do you know, if this happened…’ I always have seven or eight ideas for the next book.”
Key to CJ Box’s writing is his ability to transport the reader to a location in Wyoming, or Yellowstone National Park. Blending fact and fiction is a technique he employs to create realistic locations – blurring the edges. Creating the small fictional community in Twelve Sleep who often venture out to real places, gives his books an added element of reality. As Box says, “basing your book entirely in a real place can give you too much detail – detail that bores the reader.”
Box cannot emphasise enough how important reading is for writers. “The first book I remember reading is a series Encyclopaedia Brown, about a kid detective, I got completely captured. I was a great reader as a child much to the chagrin of my cowboy and oil field family. Now I read constantly, all of the time. I think it’s really important to read widely, all types of book. To me the mystery genre was an Agatha Christie type book, and I didn’t realise how wide the genre was, but I still think it’s essential to read way outside your own genre.
‘As a judge for the Edgar Awards in the United States, I got a lot of books to read, but one I couldn’t put down was by Denise Miner, the Scottish crime writer. I got about five pages in and I got hooked, I thought it was fantastic. I’ve read everything she’s written. In fact there’s a character in this Back of Beyond who’s called Miner.
‘As a reader, I really love writers who establish a sense of place. After reading Denise Miner I still feel kind of damp.”
So how does this award winning writer structure his writing day?
“I’m a morning writer; I try to write every day, a minimum of 1000 words. And in the afternoon I edit what I wrote, so I can start on it fresh each day. I’ve just bought this cabin up river – it was always my dream to have somewhere on a river where I don’t ever have to break my fly-rod down and put it back in its case. I live in the country but the cabin is even more remote – and when I’m there I can have three or four writing sessions a day. Half of each book is done there. There are no distractions, no phone, no internet.
‘I do a chapter by chapter outline right to the end. Each chapter might only be a few bullet points but I use multiple points of view, and I make sure I carry that through. It doesn’t mean I won’t change the ending – I’ve changed the ending several times – but I know where I’m heading . There’s nothing worse as a reader if you get two thirds into a novel and you don’t feel the writer knows where it’s going to go. It usually takes seven to nine months to write a Joe Pickett story, but the stand alones can take a year to a year and a half.
‘The hardest one to write in structure was Blue Heaven as I decided to do a book that took place over sixty hours from five different points of view, and what you want is for the reader not to even think about what the author is doing. But that point of view means that each character has a limited perspective and I kept screwing that up as I was writing, until finally I did a grid – each hour, one through sixty for each character – so I could advance the story but not repeat it again. I had a bunch of false starts with that one. But I used that technique with Back of Beyond too, where the reader knows far more than the characters.”
I wondered what the secret was to coming up with a character that could carry a series – but Box told me that Joe Pickett, the straitlaced game warden from Twelve Sleep who drives the series, did not start out as a serial character. “I’m lucky, I didn’t intend it this way, but he’s aged well.” Box has discussed this with legendary American crime writer Michael Connolly, “I was talking to Michael Connolly, I’m a huge fan of his and his career. He was saying that if he knew then what he knows now, he wouldn’t have made Harry Bosch a Vietnam veteran, because now he’s in his mid sixties and how can he still be on the police force?”
CJ Box has aged each character naturally with each book. “Like Pickett, I’ve got three daughters and the first book Open Season has a lot from the point of view of a seven year old girl named Sheridan – my twin daughters were seven at the time. In the last Joe Pickett book they’re taking her to college. Sheridan is twenty now, the same age as my youngest daughter. I have one book with a lot of texting in it, and I gave it to her and she rolled her eyes, and said, no-one would write like that. She fixed it.”
A realistic timeline gives the reader a true bond with the characters. As Box says, “You can only expect readers to suspend disbelief so much. If you’re in book eleven and you don’t reference something horrible that happens in book ten, and no-one ages, it becomes fantasy.” Box recognises that for Pickett to be believable, his past is as essential to the reader as his future. “I don’t base characters on real people – a lot of time they are based just on a glimpse of someone you see on the street. But characters have to be real people who happen to be in the story, you cannot create characters who are there purely to advance the story. They have to be part of the community, have backstory, have to speak in particular ways, have to be real to make the story work.”
Box is a Wyoming native and has worked as a ranch hand, surveyor, fishing guide, a small town newspaper reporter and editor, and he co-owns an international tourism marketing firm with his wife Laurie. All these experiences and interests are essential ingredients to his books.
His newest Joe Pickett novel, Cold Wind, was released in March and debuted at number ten on the NY Times best seller list. The standalone thrillerBack of Beyond is out now.
“Standalone books are refreshing but they are more challenging than a series. There are certain story ideas, things I want to write, that don’t fit in the series. For example Blue Heaven all came about because I met an ex-Cop in LA who was telling me that so many of his colleagues had moved way to this place in Idaho to retire. And the idea of a thousand big city cops in this very rural location, intrigued me. I had to go and see if it was true; but it couldn’t be a Joe Pickett story.”
“The protagonist in Back of Beyond is totally different to Joe Pickett, he is an out of control alcoholic, a detective who has driven his family away and screwed up his life. He’s a loose cannon. His name is Cody Hoyt and he was introduced in Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. In Back of Beyond, he’s investigating what looks like a suicide in a mountain cabin in Montana when he becomes convinced it was a murder – and the bad guy is on a multi-day horsepack trip in Yellowstone Park with his estranged son. Hoyt has to find the pack trip on his own in the wilderness, but he’s there without cigarettes or alcohol.
‘Back of Beyond is similar in structure and style to Blue Heaven with five points of view told over a tight sixty hour timeline in real time.”
Box spends a lot of his time in Yellowstone National Park and told me, “I love Yellowstone, it’s 2.2 million acres and only 2% has roads or any sort of development, the other 98% has no roads, and no-one goes there because people don’t walk. That part of the park is managed but it’s not managed, that’s where the bears and the wolves are. Some writer friends of mine are fishermen, and we took our annual trip – a wilderness horse pack trip in Yellowstone. On that trip I started thinking of this idea of a close mystery, with a group of clients where one is knocking off the others. That was the start of Back of Beyond.”
‘Half of the book is told from the POV of a fourteen year old girl who suspects something is wrong but nobody believes her.
‘I write a lot of child characters, and when I think of child characters, I think a lot of people try to make them too cloying. They’re really all little monsters, and if they are told from that selfish point of view they come out very realistic. In some ways they are the most mature people in the book.”
Box cites Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing as a must read for every writer. “He said: don’t write the parts that people skip. I was on my second or third book when I read that, and it was a moment of revelation.”
Finally I asked Box if he felt his career would have been any different if that first book had been snapped up by a publisher on its first submission. He smiled, shrugging in only the way a true cowboy can, “Well I wouldn’t have set up my business, or done any of the other stuff. I probably would have been full of myself…”
After buying the UK rights to all CJ Box’s titles, Corvus have recently announced the unprecedented publication of twelve of his books in a single year, publishing one book a month from the bestselling Joe Pickett series in 2011, together with two stand alones, including the 2009 Edgar award-winning Blue Heaven.
Publisher Nicolas Cheetham says: ‘Every crime writer needs a series character, and Corvus has the great pleasure of introducing Joe Pickett to the growing number of C.J. Box’s British fans. The Joe Pickett books are addictive, each instalment surpasses the last, and that’s saying something when the first book, Open Season, won nearly every crime writing award in the USA. You shouldn’t have to wait for something this good, so we’re publishing the Pickett novels in quick succession. The best way to watch a hit TV series is to buy the box set and watch them all at once… Why shouldn’t it be the same for books? In more ways than one, this is the ultimate Box set.”