The Roundup - A Conversation with CJ Box

Tune in to our second episode of The Roundup, a podcast featuring voices, opinions, and perspectives from interesting people in the Cowboy State. Episode 2 features our conversation with bestselling author CJ Box.

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Wendy Corr

December 16, 202325 min read

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Cowboy State Daily’s “The Roundup” - Episode 2 - CJ Box

Wendy Corr:

Well, hey there, folks, welcome to Cowboy State Daily’s podcast. This is The Roundup, and we are so thrilled to have one of the state’s, and one of the nation’s, most well known authors, CJ Box as our guest this week. This is of course our second podcast. We are just thrilled to be able to get CJ Box to say yes to an interview. I think, I think CJ, though, you say yes to interviews when it comes to your hometown folks.

CJ Box: 

That's right. I tried to always do that. I can't remember ever saying no.

Wendy Corr:

Well, you have become a household name for so many people, and for so many readers. And now television as well. So let's just kind of start out, let's start out local. Let's start out, you are a Wyoming guy, you're born and raised Wyoming, you have made your life, your living here, even before you became a best selling author. Tell us about you - tell us about growing up Wyoming.

CJ Box: 

That's right, you and I met a long time ago in tourism, as opposed to the writing stuff. That's right. 

Wendy Corr:

So yeah, you've done a lot before you actually became this best selling author. 

CJ Box:

Yeah, I, like I said, grew up in Casper. I was the editor of the Kelly Walsh newspaper. So that's kind of got kind of going in that direction at that point. And then was lucky enough to get a journalism scholarship to the University of Denver. So I went there instead of UW simply because I could actually go there cheaper at that point. 

And then my first job was at the after that was at the Saratoga Sun newspaper, where I got to be a general assignment, do everything kind of reporter and got to meet all kinds of people and really enjoyed that.

Then I went on from there to you know, several jobs and careers. It was primarily though, in the tourism industry, where I was promoting the state of Wyoming and then for other states, the Rocky Mountain states in Europe, with a private company called Rocky Mountain International at that time. My first novel, “Open Season” was published in the year 2001. And I still remained where I kept working for another 10-12 years, while doing the books. And then finally the books kind of eclipsed everything else I was doing. And we've since moved back to Saratoga, my wife and I bought a little ranch. I'm living a good life.

Wendy Corr:

You're living a very busy life, though, as well. I mean, you're not just out there on a ranch, you're not kicking back, you're cranking out at least a book a year, aren't you?

CJ Box: 

That's right, it kind of worked for a while there was going to working out to about a book and a half a year because I was doing books with two different publishers at the time. And it's now I've been able to slow it down a little bit. I kind of needed to slow it down a little bit. And it's about it's definitely a book a year.

But every couple of years, there'll be one that is not in the Joe Pickett series. And I'm kind of between those right now. So yeah, I you know, I like to keep busy. I like to go to work every day. I start getting antsy if I if I'm not working on something. So for me, it was it's perfect. 

Wendy Corr:

I just have to say, over 10 million copies of your books have sold, you've got international audiences. And I think, I don't know about the Cassie Dewell series and the popularity of that. But I know Joe Pickett, people love Joe and his family and the Wyoming Game Warden and his adventures. He's a reluctant hero in so many ways. And tell me a little bit about where Joe came from. Because I think people want to know who inspired you to create him? 

CJ Box:

You know, I joke a lot in talks, you know, when people say, are you surprised how well the books have done? And I always say, Well, no, I knew the world was waiting for a Wyoming Game warden series and I'm the guy who could do that. But that's not true at all. No, I don't, originally I was not. I didn't have any plans to do a series of books. I wanted to do a novel about the Endangered Species law. And that would become the first book, “Open Season,” and I based a lot of it on - Wendy, I'm sure you'll remember when Black footed ferrets were discovered around Meeteetse. That fascinated me as a journalist at the time that these critters were there. Posters were up all around the state. If you see this critter call this number. No, a lot of people knew they were there and nobody made the call. And I thought that's, that's very interesting, new West kind of story. So I wanted to fictionalize that and the best protagonist, I thought for that, for that particular story was a game warden, because they would be involved in that activity and that discovery and landowner relations and all the tensions and you know, all the environmental issues involved. So that made it the first guy a Game Warden, based on a little bit on a game warden that I'd done some ride alongs with in Saratoga who later moved to Cody, but no one in particular, it was more like a typical Wyoming guy, I thought. And then luckily, after five years, the book got published with Penguin Putnam, and they wanted to do more with Joe Pickett. So that's how the series was born.

Wendy Corr:

And then you eventually branched off, you did some standalone books, which got you a lot of critical acclaim. And then you started on a different series. And tell me a little bit about the Cassie Dewell series and how that came to be. You just decided, I need to explore a little bit different, Montana, rather than Wyoming. Tell me about that.

It really, yep, there's certain ideas and storylines that I get kind of obsessed with, that can't really be Joe Pickett books, and wouldn't be too much of a stretch. And in the case of “Blue Heaven,” which was the first non-Joe Pickett book that was based on hundreds of ex LAPD cops moving to North Idaho. I learned about that from one of those cops and thought that was fascinating, all these big city cops in a very rural area.

And then later on, two things happened at once. We were in Cheyenne at the time, my youngest daughter drove back from the University of Wyoming on I-80. She pulled in, I went and looked at her car, a little red car, she's a very cute little blonde. And I noticed that the check engine light was on in her car. And I said, How long has that been on and she said, Dad, it's always on. And I started thinking about all the things that could happen on the highway, a father's worst nightmare. And then “The Highway” came from that.

And at the same time, same weekend, I read a story in The Wall Street Journal that said that the FBI figured there were about 1000 missing truckstop prostitutes across the US. And that it was probably the work of maybe 20-24 drivers, and the two things came together at once. And that became “The Highway,” and then the Cassie Dewell series, much darker than the Joe Pickett books.

Wendy Corr:

I have noticed that, yes, I've noticed that it's darker. How is that for your heart? I mean, to me, it would be very difficult to go to that dark place in your writing, and yet maintain - because you've got a happy, sunny personality. And it just seems to me that it would be dark.

CJ Box:  

I am fine with it. It's weird, I can kind of put myself into the, because I like to tell stories from different points of view, not just a like, first person narrative throughout, but different characters. And I find it remarkably easy to get into the point of view of a bad guy. Because I think, I realized a long time ago, bad guys don't think they're bad guys, they think they have good reasons for what they do. And, you know, they're not just walking around kicking dogs all day, but there's this weird thing.

And it's fun to kind of write from that perspective. So I don't worry so much about myself. I think my wife worries more about me, sometimes, and people sometimes take her aside at events and say, Are you okay, honey, you know, hanging out with that guy. But no, I find it kind of enjoyable to do different points of view. 

Wendy Corr:

Obviously, you've had a chance to explore so many different things. But I can't imagine the different things that you learn about, the different topics and issues that you research, and that has to go into each of these. So let's segue that into how long does it take you? I mean, we talked about the fact that you’re doing a book and a half a year. But you've got to do the research for these issues and yet still have time to write the story.

CJ Box: 

You know, I enjoy the research part. I don't know if that goes back to my old journalism roots. I think it does. Yeah, I mean, I like whatever I find out, you know, there's never never a dearth of topics in Wyoming, you know, note the Cowboy State Daily. And there's so many things that I find interesting, and I try to incorporate those into the books and I enjoy the research part of it very much talking to, you know, I'll put on my old reporter hat and go talk to people on both sides of the controversial issues or in case of I mean, I remember climbing a wind turbine so I could understand what it was like to go to the top in one of the books and doing you know, whitewater rafting and Yellowstone multi day wilderness pack trip, it's fun to do those things because I think you can't recreate those as accurately on the page.

But no, I, a recent book I had was about Bitcoin mining, you know, that's actually happening on the top of old oil wells, gas wells in Wyoming. I found it a fascinating subject. So I incorporated that into the books, you know, and then people often read the books, and then find out later that I didn't just make it all up, you know, it was based on something. 

Wendy Corr: 

So really, your journalism is coming out, and that you're teaching your readers, you're really teaching your readers something in that way.

I don't think of it that way as I don't ever have an agenda. My goal isn't to try to make readers think one way or another. But in a lot of cases, especially when it comes to environmental topics that are very controversial, I like to have both sides portrayed as accurately as the advocates from both sides would, and just trust the reader to come down where they may.

And I do know that for an awful lot of readers, especially not in the West, it might be the first time they ever hear that there is another side of the story. That not all energy development is bad. Not all land developers are horrible. Not all environmentalists are perfect angels. I think it's important to do both sides as accurately as I can. And there's nothing better than to, like be at an event and have advocates of both sides. Say thanks for being with us, Chuck. You know, I know you're on our side. But opposite points of view, that's happened several times. 

Wendy Corr:

Let's talk about, real quickly, going back to the idea of these characters that you created years ago. How did they evolve? So you started, you wrote Joe Pickett, the first Joe Pickett, “Open Range,” in 2001. It's been years now, these characters have grown. They've evolved - everybody from Joe and Mary Beth to Nate Romanowski. Tell me about watching them grow up? Because it seems like you're, yes, you're creating them. But it's kind of happening outside of you in some ways, isn't it?

CJ Box:

It is and it isn’t. Again, that wasn't the original plan. But I decided early on to make the characters age in real time and tell the books in real time and not make them static in a certain period. So I'm working right now on the 25th Joe Pickett novel. That doesn't mean - it means 25 years of books, but not necessarily 25 years in the lives of the characters. Because some books take place right after the other, sometimes four months down the road. Joe Pickett is now 51, but his kids are all the, anyone who's read all the books, they know, all three of the daughters are now out of the home. Joe and his wife are empty nesters once again.

And so those kinds of changes are fun. I think it I think it adds to the realism of the book because it changes everybody's perspective and they get a little more experienced. I think it's fun to follow the lives and the paths of the girls as they grow up and what they choose to do. And also Joe and Mary Beth’s relationship being empty nesters, again, that stuff's fun to write about and has nothing to do with dead bodies everywhere.

Wendy Corr:

The other characters in the book aren't necessarily people, you have grounded and created this world of Saddlestring and Twelve Sleep County and all that in reality, and yet. So the people who are Wyoming, Wyomingites have kind of the inside track. Oh, I know where that is. I know where that is. I actually genuinely used to live five miles from the Saddlestring post office. So, so to me, I'm reading these books. I'm like, I know these places. And I in some ways know these people. How does that work for you, creating worlds within worlds?

CJ Box: 

Well, that's a good way to put it because some books take place in real communities. And I try to make it as accurate as I can. When Joe Pickett goes to Jackson Hole, he's going to Jackson Hole and going down those streets and dealing with those things. But Saddlestring is a basically a fictional town, that in my mind is based on equal parts shared in Buffalo, and Saratoga and has a river that goes through it, and it's in the Big Horns, but it's probably more Saratoga than anyplace else, because that's where I live. So I use it, all of that.

And sometimes all, you know, but if I like I said, if I do write about Yellowstone, or Jackson or Cody or Cheyenne, I try to make it as accurate as possible. Not change street names, that kind of thing. But and I can always fall back on the fictional town of Saddlestring because I can make that all up.

Wendy Corr:

Yes, you can. That's part of the joy of being the author. You have that creative license. Um, quickly, tell me a little bit about the experiences that you had before you became an author that gave you the basis for some of the writing that you've done. You've been a fishing guide, you've been a surveyor, you've been a ranch hand. Do you use that experience? Obviously, I mean, I'm sure you must use that experience in the books that you write.

CJ Box: 

Yes, you know, and it wasn't my plan at the time. But I now realize that everything I did kind of set me up for what I do now. I wasn't going, I didn't have boxes to tick, I have to do this, and this and this and understand that, but it's all worked out. Well, I mean, that even the, you know, the years of tourism promotion of Wyoming going around the state. All of our market at the time was all international guests, tour operators and journalists. And I was able to see Wyoming and the Mountain West through their eyes on these trips. And I learned a lot of things, things I took for granted that they were seeing for the first time, and were amazed by that I tried to now incorporate in the books, whenever I think about it.

I remember the first time having a bunch of Europeans see a snow fence, you know, they couldn't understand why this fence just stopped. You know, what good was it? I remember one time, a bunch of French guys, we stopped at a rest stop in the big horns, they all went up, or went off to smoke cigarettes, because they have to do that every five minutes. And they walked into an elk camp and saw animals hanging from the trees and came running back to the bus. You know, things that aren't that unusual. But you know, we're to them. And I think to a lot of readers, so I tried to incorporate those things in.

Wendy Corr:

You have taken all those great experiences, you put them into these wonderful books, and then you have jumped genres and media's now and you have gone to television. Tell me about that. That's fascinating. How did you feel the first time someone came up to you and said, Hey, we want to make Joe Pickett into a series. Well,

CJ Box:

I mean, I've had several, we had, when I say we, my wife and I, we've had several opportunities over the years, and several different approaches from producers and most of them didn't pan out. In a couple of cases, we were able to get out of them before we saw how much they would ruin it. But then two things kind of happened at once - Big Sky, which is based on the Cassie Dewell books, and Joe Pickett, which is based on the novels. And I thought both of those, those producers got it. And they at least to begin with, they did. And and I don't look at it as the panacea of all things, the pinnacle to a novelist is to have a television show based on their stuff. It's helpful. And it's really good if you think of it as our long commercials for your books, as opposed to your legacy.

And the nice thing about both of the TV shows is it created a lot, a lot of new readers. And I hear from these people all the time, when I saw the show that I'd start reading, I've read all 24 Joe Pickett books kind of thing, where they otherwise may not be exposed at all. So that's, that's very helpful.

Wendy Corr:

You got a whole new set of experiences, though, being an executive producer. And right, what was that? How did you feel about that? What was that like for you?

CJ Box:

Different when it depended on the show, and the approach. The Big Sky was very corporate. The actors and crew didn't necessarily like each other very much. It was obvious on the set. The Joe Pickett show was completely opposite of that. It was like a big family, and everybody was having a good time, and reading the books. And that was, it's fun to visit the set, but it's also the most boring experience on earth. Because all you do is sit in a tent and watch them do the same scene 15 times. You know, I could do those by the end of it. So it's not real exciting, but it is fun to meet the principles meet the actors talk about the characters a little bit.

I was never involved on a day to day basis and didn't want to be. But I did. I was able to talk to the producers before they start the seasons and say, What's your arc? What are you thinking about? Have you thought about this? And in most cases they accepted my input, but I think they were also probably glad I wasn't there every day.

Wendy Corr:

So it's pretty safe to say you'd much rather write and be executive producer on a television show.

CJ Box:

Yep, that's true. Yes.

Wendy Corr:

Well, speaking of writing, you've got another Joe Pickett novel coming out. "Three Inch Teeth." And it's going to come out In 2024, tell us about what we can what can you tell us about the new book? 

CJ Box:  

Well, it's about a rogue grizzly bear. going after people all over the state of Wyoming, and Joe Pickett is recruited to be on part of the predator attack team, which really exists to try to go after this bear and try to figure out what motivates it, how can it move so fast? What's really going on? It's, you know, based, we've had so many bear stories. And I was able to spend a lot of time and get a lot of information from Dan Thompson, a large carnivore specialist. And he really helped me out with behavior patterns. He read in some early drafts of it and said, I don't think a bear would do that. But it might be I do this, it was so interesting was that there is no way to predict bear behavior at all. And every time they think they've got it totally figured out a bear does something that no one thought was possible. And then some of the stories are very creepy and eerie. And I'm fascinated by him. I'm, a lot of people are fascinated by grizzly bears, and I'm trying to really kind of, you know, bring some different kinds of information to it to the world. And in this one.

Wendy Corr:  

What else? You've got grizzly bears in this one, I'm sure you have a file drawer full of ideas. For sorts of storylines you'd like to explore that you just haven't in your 25 Joe Pickett books haven't had a chance to do yet. 

CJ Box:

Well, I, you know, I don't want to really say this is what the next book is going to be. But it kind of, I don't think in terms of 10 more books, or what's the next arc is, I whenever I get done with the book, I think, what come what makes the most sense next. And the book I'm writing right now, after three inch teeth is much more of a Nate romanovski book than a Joe Pickett book. Because Nate, it was time to, you know, to do that, again, I won't spoil anything about it. But it's, it's much more Nate than the last one.

Wendy Corr: 

I think Nate is a very popular character. I mean, you probably get a lot of a lot of mail just about Nate himself.

CJ Box:

I do and it seems like lots of women like him. 

Wendy Corr:

He is kind of a roguish character, kind of that really scary, you know, but really cool, bad boy.

CJ Box:

Yes. My wife does. 

Wendy Corr:

Let's get personal here. Let's talk about you and your wife, Laurie, you have been partners, not just in business. How many years have you guys been married now? 

39. 

Wendy Corr:

Oh, my goodness. And you've got your daughters,

CJ Box:

Three daughters. All of them are married, four grandkids now, which is great. I a long time ago, I heard this. I can't remember who told me this. Somebody said the way the reason grandkids and grandparents get along so well as they have a common enemy. And it's so true. And it's great. You know, it's so much fun just to hang out with a grandkid feed him ice cream for breakfast and then send them home, you know.

So they must all live, you've got all your family close by or do you haven't spread out a bit?

CJ Box:

A couple hours is all. You know, they're not here. But we've got to have the grandkids in in Cheyenne and two in Wellington, Colorado, which is very close as well. 

Wendy Corr:

Very good. What do you want your grandchildren to know about Wyoming, to know about the state that you love, that you have advocated for, that you've introduced so many people to over the years and over all the books? What do you want your grandkids to know about your Wyoming legacy? 

Wow, nobody has ever asked that question, Wendy, that's an interesting one. You know, I think it's kind of what I would I kind of would like most people to know, most readers to know. And that is that there's a lot of complexity and beauty in this state. And there's a lot more sophistication than most people realize, based mainly because the people who live here want to live here. And they could live other places. And they may have other, you know, they may have PhDs in something but be working at a ranch. And it's I'm always amazed by the complexity of the people here, and how much they love the state for different reasons. And that Wyoming tends to be in the forefront of an awful lot of issues that then become nationwide. And international, they tend to start here. I mean, we've been talking about all the energy, you know, for example, energy development of all kinds for years and years and years. And now the rest of the world is also environmental, endangered species, things like that.

Wendy Corr:

So that's to me, I think you really hit it on the head. People who live in Wyoming tend to want to live here. I've always said that. And people say, Oh, you're all so happy and so friendly. Well, not everybody's happy. But most people are friendly. And I think I agree. I think that you're right that we want to live here. And so that kind of contributes to our satisfaction in life. CJ, just real quickly, what can we expect from you next, after you get done with this? What is the launch date of your next book, by the way, Three Inch Teeth?

CJ Box:

Yeah, the lead time on all these things takes a long time. So I'm already working on the next one after “Three Inch Teeth,” and that's going to be the Nate Romanowsky book. I don't really have a title for it yet. I've got one I have in mind, but have to let, the publishers have to sign off on that. I'm just going to continue on. It's a great thing to do. It's a fun, fun job. And we'll just continue on. Maybe there'll be more grandkids. I hope.

Wendy Corr:

That's wonderful. CJ, thank you so much for your time today. This has just been a delight. And we're so grateful that you were able to spend some time with us with Cowboy State daily with our podcast, the round up. Thank you for being our second guest. We are we're honored and we're just all watching to see what new adventures Joe Pickett and Oh, I forgot to ask - Cassie Dewell. Are there going to be more Cassie Dewell books?

CJ Box: 

There will be, we've got, I've got a germ of an idea but not a developed idea yet. So it may be still be two or three years away. 

Well, we know what to look forward to. Then we'll be anxiously awaiting and spending time at our local bookstores, waiting for your next book to come ooutn. CJ, thank you so much. Merry Christmas. Happy holidays. We're so glad to have you as an ambassador for our state.

CJ Box:

Thank you very much. That's very kind. I appreciate it. 

Wendy Corr:

Well, it's true. And folks, thank you for tuning in to The Roundup today. We've got more great guests coming up in the coming weeks. In the meantime, have a wonderful day. Have a wonderful week, tune in to The Roundup and tell someone else that you know if you've enjoyed The Roundup about us. And don't forget, Cowboy State Daily is your news source for everything Wyoming - from what's happening with your favorite authors, to what's happening with energy development and with business and the people that make Wyoming so great. So sign up for the Cowboy State Daily newsletter and stay in the know, CJ Box, thank you for your time today and good luck! Folks, thanks for tuning in to The Roundup. Have a wonderful week!

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Wendy Corr

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