C.J. Box is back, his latest novel Vicious Circle is out this week. We took time out to find out all about the New York Times bestselling Joe Pickett series.
Joe Pickett is the main character in seventeen of your novels. Who is he and what motivates him?
Starting with Open Season in 2001, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett has taken on environmental terrorists, rogue federal land managers, animal mutilators, crazed cowboy hitmen, corrupt bureaucrats, homicidal animal rights advocates, and violent dysfunctional families. Joe has matured, lost some of his innocence and naïveté, and committed acts that continue to haunt him. But through it all, he has remained true to himself and his family. And even when he knows that pursuing justice will bring the community, state, and his superiors down on his head, well… he just can’t help it.
About Joe, the New York Times once wrote, “… Box introduced us to his unlikely hero, a game warden named Joe Pickett, a decent man who lives paycheck to paycheck and who is deeply fond of his wife and his three daughters. Pickett isn’t especially remarkable except for his honesty and for a quality that Harold Bloom attributes to Shakespeare – the ability to think everything through for himself.” I still like that. I’ve been surprised and gratified how the character of Joe Pickett has resonated with readers across the country and around the world.
The character of Joe Pickett is, in a way, the antithesis of many modern literary protagonists. He’s happily married with a family of daughters. He doesn’t arrive with excess emotional baggage, or a dark past that haunts him. He works hard and tries, sincerely, to “do the right thing.” He doesn’t talk much. He’s a lousy shot. He’s human, and real, which means he sometimes screws up.
Game wardens are unique because they can legitimately be involved in just about every major event or situation that involves the outdoors and the rough edges of the rural new west. They’re trained and armed law enforcement officers, and nearly every human they encounter in the field is armed, which is unique. Often, they’re too far from town to call backup in an emergency so they’re forced to deal with situations with their experience, weapons, and wits. Their districts can encompass 5,000 square miles of rough country filled with wildlife, history, schemes, and secrets. By necessity, they’re lone wolves.
I’ve ridden on patrol with game wardens to try and get it right. I think I have, because the novels and the character have been embraced by the game wardens themselves (as well as their long-suffering wives). I try hard to portray their lives accurately, and in 2005 I received a certificate of appreciation from the Wyoming Game Warden Association. My novels
have won quite a few awards over the years, but that one is very special.
When I think of Joe Pickett, I don’t think of an action hero, or a smooth operator, or an actor. I always picture him as he is: a western archetype – briefly described in the novels only as “lean and of medium height” – alone in his pickup truck, accompanied by his dog or perhaps his sidekick, Nate Romanowski, perched on a mountain under a huge blue sky, contemplating hundreds of miles of raw Wyoming landscape laid out in front of him.
Real world experiences provide the background for Joe Pickett novels. While working on ranches and exploration survey crews, I learned first-hand about the beauty, cruelty, and balance of the natural world. The land itself – the environment – plays a major role in all the Joe Pickett novels. That’s because the land in the Rocky Mountain west dominates day-to-day existence. The fight over that land provides the conflict and the stories. This fight has economic, ideological, historical, and theological overtones. It’s a serious fight with enormous consequences.
Joe doesn’t enter every fight with an agenda other than to do the right thing. It’s his fatal flaw. Wish him luck.
Tell us about the Wyoming landscape and what makes it a great backdrop for a crime novel.
Wyoming is the size of France but has the smallest population of any state in the union. All that open space seems to foster big personalities and fascinating characters. Because of the few people, diverse landscape, abundant wildlife, and natural features, Wyoming tends to be the tip of the spear when it comes to resource-based conflicts. I’m talking about energy development, environmental conflicts, and even federal versus state versus local control. When we add cultural themes like cowboys and Indians and Western history and throw in the extreme weather, we end up with a very interesting place to write about.
Your stories deal with contemporary Western issues and controversies. Is there anything you have discovered during your research that has shocked you?
Doing the research myself is one of my favorite parts of every novel. I love to go out into the field with my reporter’s notebook to interview people and, in most cases, actually participate in activities that will take place in the novels such as whitewater rafting, searching for lost hunters in a private plane, shooting large guns, riding into the mountains on a horse, or climbing to the top of a wind turbine. While researching wind energy for the novel Cold Wind, I approached the topic with an open mind because it made sense to me that in a place as windy as Wyoming that this kind of renewable energy could be extremely clean and worthwhile. The further I delved into it, though, the more disillusioned I got. Many of the windmills spun around but weren’t hooked up to the electrical grid for much of the time, and a high percentage of wind turbine construction was being done to provide tax credits and write-offs to major corporations – not because they produced cost-effective power. Plus, the bases of the turbines were littered with the bodies of dead bats and dead birds.
What is the craziest thing you have done in the name of research?
Probably climbing to the top of a wind turbine to see if, in fact, a 250-pound dead body could be hoisted to the tercel and chained to one of the blades. Until I entered the shaft of the turbine I’d assumed (wrongly) that there was some kind of elevator inside. Alas, there was a greasy steel ladder that went up 250 feet. While I was climbing, the tower swayed in the wind and I was in complete darkness. When I finally got to the top and opened the hatch, the wind nearly blew me off the structure and I had to secure myself with a flexible steel cable. And yes, there was a way to hoist a dead body up there.
Either that, or joining two long-haul truckers on a trip across the northern US to do research for The Highway. All of the dark things and quirks I’d read about regarding life on the road were confirmed, plus many things I’d never dreamed about. Maybe that’s why the book is so creepy.