Mystery is at home on the range with Wyoming writer C.J. Box
Tony Hillerman wrote of C.J. Box's first novel: "Buy two copies of Open Season, and save one in mint condition to sell to first-edition collectors." In his well-crafted debut, Box decisively set himself apart from the crowd of freshman mystery writers. Deftly sidestepping the dreaded sophomore slump, he is back with a vengeance in Savage Run, the second book featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett.
Box, a Wyoming native who has worked as a ranch hand, a surveyor and a fishing guide, focuses his latest book on the battle between conservationists and ranchers for control of the West's open range. The scales tip one way, then the other, in this ongoing struggle, with neither side seeming to gain lasting advantage. In Savage Run the stakes have been raised, as an organization of zealous environmentalists locks horns with the Stockman's Trust, a well-heeled clandestine association of ranchers who will stop at nothing in pursuit of their objectives. When several "tree huggers" meet with foul play in rapid succession, the investigation falls to Joe Pickett. It will prove to be the toughest assignment of his career.
"People seem to see environmental issues as black and white," says Box ("Chuck" to his friends) via telephone from his Wyoming office. "I hoped to present a fair look at both sides of the issue." The environment is certainly a running theme in both Open Season and Savage Run, but more compelling are the characters on either side of the fence: the ranchers who depend upon the use of government lands for grazing their cattle; the newcomers from out of state who hanker after a taste of the Old West; the environmentalists bent on conserving the dwindling natural resources of the region; and finally, the game wardens, who stir the simmering pot in an attempt to keep it from boiling over.
So, are the protagonist and the supporting characters drawn from people in Box's daily life? "Well, there are any number of game wardens who are absolutely sure that Joe Pickett is based on them, and their wives think so as well!" Box says, laughing. "But the truth is that he is a composite of several different people. A game warden has a unique and autonomous job, and that lifestyle attracts a certain type of individual, someone like Joe Pickett."
On a more personal note, Box reveals that his 15-year-old twin daughters are convinced that they are the models for Pickett's older daughter, Sheridan: "I guess there's more than a little resemblance between my youngest daughter and Lucy Pickett, as well," he says with a chuckle. "The girls take a bit of ribbing from their friends at school, because all their friends read the books to see if there is anything potentially embarrassing."
How does it feel to be an overnight success? "It's weird. Open Season sat on my shelf for three and a half years before anyone showed any interest in it. I went to a conference hosted by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Association, and they had agents on hand to critique new writers' work. The deal was, you could sign up to meet with two agents, so I signed up with two as C.J. Box, two more as Chuck Box. I think I signed up for eight in all. That was in November of 1999, and by the following May I had a publishing deal." Now, two years down the road, Open Season has been optioned for a movie, and Savage Run has received rave advance reviews. "Originally, I was signed to do three books in the Joe Pickett series; we have just signed for an additional three, plus another book that is not part of the series."
Things are nothing if not hectic for Box these days. He has not given up his day job (organizing tours of the western U.S. for European travelers), but writing demands more and more of his time: "I try to devote two entire days a week to writing. The rest of the time, I go in to the office and work just like before." And has he at done something wonderful to celebrate his new success-a round-the-world cruise, a Mercedes? "No time," he says ruefully. "I did take my wife out to dinner, though. Does that count?"
Tops on his wish list: "I hope that someday I have the opportunity to meet Tony Hillerman and thank him personally for his great review!"