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Interview: February 29, 2024

Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett faces two different kinds of rampaging beasts --- one animal, one human --- in THREE-INCH TEETH, the riveting new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author C. J. Box. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, a former publicist at G.P. Putnam’s Sons who worked with Box and is now the Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, Box talks about the challenges he faced writing the first two entries in this series, his portrayal of the bureaucrats in Wyoming that serves as comic relief in his books, and the characters he’d like to focus on more in future installments.

Question: THREE-INCH TEETH is your 24th Joe Pickett novel, most of which have become national bestsellers and even hit #1 in several cases. As you look back on this acclaimed body of work, do you recall the Joe Pickett book that gave you the most difficulty writing, and why?

C. J. Box: The earliest books (OPEN SEASON and SAVAGE RUN) were probably the most difficult, simply because they were the first two in the series. It took me a while to get my sea legs, to establish a protocol of a book a year in a brand-new series. I had never thought about a series at all (who wants to read about a Wyoming game warden, anyway?) until the first book contract for OPEN SEASON, which included two more novels featuring Joe Pickett. It wasn’t until the third book, WINTERKILL, that I recall sitting back and saying to myself, “You’re doing this now. You’re now a published novelist. This is your new life.”

I’d be lying if I said every book since then has been a breeze, but it’s so much easier to go to work every day knowing more about how publishing works. And occasionally, like with THREE-INCH TEETH, it almost feels like the book writes itself.

Q: This novel features the return of multiple characters from past books, including the two primary villains. You’ve created quite a marvelous cast over these 24 books beyond Joe, Nate and their families. Who is a character from one of your past novels who you feel may be overdue for a return to action?

CJB: I’ve always included the family in the novels: Joe, his wife Marybeth, and their three daughters: Sheridan, April and Lucy. I think both April and Lucy have gotten short shrift in the last couple of novels. They deserve their own star turns in future books.

Q: Your other bestselling series features private detective Cassie Dewell, who is just as vivid a creation as Joe Pickett. Do you ever hear from fans requesting a team-up that could extend across two books, one for each series?

CJB: Yes. It’s complicated for a couple of reasons. One is that it is taxing writing two series at once, or literally one-and-a-half books a year. It’s just me sitting here without co-writers, researchers, assistants or support staff. Also, Joe Pickett and Cassie Dewell have been published by two different publishers. Melding storylines would take more thought than a straight-ahead novel, and it would require the acquiescence of both publishers. That’s not to say it won’t happen. I have a germ of a future Cassie book in my head right now. It’s just a matter of finding the time to write it.

Q: Your merciless portraits of the bureaucrats on both the local and federal levels in Wyoming who over the years have been the bane of Joe’s existence often leave me laughing aloud. Are you aware of the comic relief these town and government officials tend to provide in your books, or is that wholly unintentional?

CJB: It’s intentional. Anyone who has lived a long time in the mountain West has confronted bureaucrats who seem to be put on earth to make local lives as miserable and unpredictable as possible. I often say that in the West, we don’t care who the president is as much as who the Secretary of the Interior is. They have day-to-day control over many aspects of our lives and livelihoods. Folks in the East don’t confront the same circumstances.

It’s been interesting and fascinating over the years to find out that when I depict cranky or incompetent bureaucrats whom I’ve encountered in real life, they never recognize themselves in the portrayals. Other readers do, but the bureaucrats themselves don’t. They always assume it’s someone in the next cubicle.

Q: Nate Romanowski is a character whom you have written to be far more colorful than Joe himself, much in the manner of Robert B. Parker’s Hawk, the deadly but fiercely loyal sidekick to Spenser. Do you feel you need to deploy Nate very carefully in this series because of his ability to hijack the story? He certainly looms large in this new novel.

CJB: Yes. Nate is big, colorful and fun to write. But he wouldn’t have as much impact if the story was solely about him without Joe Pickett as his counterweight, I think. Nate is better in small doses, I believe.

At the same time I say that, I’m currently writing the next book in the series, and it’s mainly about Nate!

Q: One of the rewards of following the Joe Picket series since 2001 has been watching his three daughters grow up to become very capable young women, each with her own distinct abilities. Do you ever toy with the idea of having one or more of them star in her own book, as John Sandford has done with Lucas Davenport’s daughter, Letty?

CJB: As mentioned above, I much prefer to have different members of the family do star turns within the narrative of a particular story than to concentrate on solo adventures. For example, Sheridan plays mightily in THREE-INCH TEETH, but the book is not exclusively about her lone journey to a weird ranch in Colorado.

Q: You once set a key portion of a Joe Pickett novel in New York City, which thrilled those of us who still remember Clint Eastwood in the movie Coogan’s Bluff back in 1968. And Joe recently ended up in Portland, Oregon, as well. Is there anywhere else in the US that you’d like to employ as a setting in a future Joe Pickett adventure?

CJB: Alaska seems like a natural since it’s so similar to Wyoming in many ways. And you’re right: there have been storylines within the books set in other locations, such as Denver, Phoenix, Seattle, New Orleans, and the aforementioned New York City and Portland. I’ll continue to do that (although I know not where at the moment), but I think the books work best when Joe Pickett is firmly located in Wyoming.