C.J. Box as a kid often rode his bike to the Natrona County Library to check out books. Sometimes he’d walk through the shelves and find the spot where a book by him would stand among the B’s.
Staff at Casper’s library would recommend books to the young reader, long before he knew he’d write crime thrillers set in his home state and become a No. 1 New York Times bestselling author.
“The librarians there were very kind to me,” he said, “and they liked the idea of a boy showing up who didn’t have to.”
He became editor of the Kelly Walsh High School newspaper, studied journalism at the University of Denver and began his career as a reporter at the Saratoga Sun. While riding with a local game warden on assignment for the small-town Wyoming paper, the idea first came to him of a Wyoming game warden protagonist — an idea that eventually turned into his popular Joe Pickett series.
Box’s 19th Joe Picket novel, “Wolf Pack,” was released March 12 and “examines the clash between nature and 21st century technology in the American West,” according to a press release from the publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Box, who lives on a ranch outside Saratoga with his wife, Laurie, said he’d he never live anywhere else but Wyoming. Even Wyoming’s weather becomes part of his stories, he said, including blizzards a lot like last week’s storm that pummeled the region and grounded Box in Denver for a couple of days during his tour for “Wolf Pack.” He’ll sign copies Thursday in his hometown among other Wyoming stops.
The state’s people, terrain and issues have inspired two dozen novels so far, and the Wyoming author shows no signs of slowing.
“I think because I continually find it really fascinating — the people that live here,” Box said, “and so many people spread out over a big area somehow tends to create bigger personalities, I think. Maybe because there’s not so many people around to kind of buffer that, and because of the storylines and the narratives that come out of this very big, diverse state.”
When Box as a reporter rode along with a local Wyoming game warden in 1981, black-footed ferrets had just been rediscovered near Meeteetse after the species was thought to be extinct. The experience inspired his first novel published in 2001, “Open Season,” in which Pickett discovers both a murder and a species thought to be extinct amid a large company’s plans for oil pipeline construction, according to his website.
“The things that happened once they were found outside of Meeteetse, I thought it was just kind of a fascinating new West story about the Endangered Species Act and the way people react when they find these things,” he said. “So I just wanted to kind of fictionalize it.”
Box still rides along with game wardens, including last spring with Kim Olson, one of Wyoming’s few female game wardens. She checked winter herds and trappers, work featured in “Wolf Pack” along with Box’s first female game warden character, he said.
Box’s writing has always drawn from his variety of experiences in Wyoming. He ran the chamber of commerce in Saratoga while writing freelance columns for Wyoming newspapers, and for 24 years he and his wife also ran their tourism marketing firm, he said. Other jobs on his resume include ranch hand, surveyor and fishing guide, and he’s hunted, fished, hiked, ridden and skied through the state and the Mountain West, according to his website. He’s a member of the Wyoming Office of Tourism Board and has sat on the board for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo.
Box’s day jobs informed his writing, which for years he did on the side. He learned to see his home state through others’ eyes, for example, through his business, which toured overseas journalists, tour operators and travel agents through Wyoming and surrounding states, he said.
“When I started writing about the state, I kind of had to sit back and not just assume that readers would understand what an elk camp was or what snow fences were and explain those things,” he said. “And I think that kind of detail resonates with a lot of readers in Wyoming because they recognize it. But in other parts of the country, in the world, it’s what makes it unique and kind of exotic.”
Inspiration and issues
The plot idea for the new novel sparked from an issue a few years ago with tourists in Yellowstone National Park hovering drones over thermal features and disturbing animals, he said.
In “Wolf Pack,” Joe Pickett and a fellow game warden investigate a drone operator chasing wildlife, but Box discovers danger close to home in “a more complex web of crime” involving the Sinaloa drug cartel, according to the publisher’s press release.
“I always like the juxtaposition of high-tech technology in kind of a setting that’s pretty primitive and brutal in a way,” Box said.
He’s incorporated many Wyoming issues involving resources, environment and wildlife into his novels, he said, including wolf reintroduction, coal bed methane development, wind energy and wilderness versus technology in general.
“A lot of those things, Wyoming is kind of on the cutting edge of all of that. A lot of those issues tend to start here and then work their way out,” he said. “And there is a lot going on with all the issues and controversies in Yellowstone and with wolves and with grizzly bears and so on, and I think those are very interesting.”
Box’s prior Joe Pickett novel, “The Disappeared,” debuted in March 2018 at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Presales for “Wolf Pack” were up 20 percent over last year’s installment of the series, so he’s got his fingers crossed, Box said. He’s written six novels outside his popular series and a book of suspense stories titled “Shots Fired,” according to his website. His books are translated in 27 languages and have racked up accolades including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Gumshoe awards, two Barry awards, a French Prix Calibre .38 and a French Elle magazine literary award, according to his website.
Currently Paramount Television is developing a Joe Pickett series. Filming in Wyoming is a political issue that Box is dealing with himself. The state Legislature this year debated a bill to bring back the state’s film production rebate program, an attempt to make filming in Wyoming more affordable.
“I’m very disappointed in our Legislature who decided to kill the film incentive program now that there might actually be a television series based in Wyoming,” Box said. “Including lots of Natrona County legislators voted against it and I don’t mind making that political statement.”
Box’s next standalone novel, “The Bitterroots,” is slated for release in August, and he’s about 150 pages into the next Joe Pickett novel out next spring, he said, as his series continues to draw fans from Wyoming and across the globe.
“I always hope that they get kind of a snapshot of what current-day Wyoming is like culturally and socially,” Box said. “But also I want them to be entertained and think that the books are page turning.”
Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner