Thinking outside the Box


As described by local author C.J. Box, the road to becoming an internationally best-selling novelist can be long and potholed. Like many faint two tracks winding through the checkerboard, that road can lead to unexpected delights, or peter out in the wastelands, leaving the ambitious motorist in the middle of nowhere with a busted oil pan.

With a trivia event celebrating his creations going on in the background, Box sat down for a 15 minute interview with the Sun Aug. 13. Sporting his trademark white cowboy hat and a plaid button-up shirt with a pair of aviator sunglasses tucked into the collar, Box was friendly and expressive as he shared his views on the creative process, changes in the Valley over the years and the future of American letters.

Before more expansive talk, though, Box spoke of his time as a young reporter for this newspaper. Fresh out of the University of Denver’s journalism program, Box came to Saratoga in 1981. In other interviews, Box has described a beery boat audition for the job with then-Sun editor Dick Perue, who had the promising young storyteller on the hook before the pair got back to shore.

Though Box hasn’t gone back to formal journalism since his time at the Sun, the rigors of the job continue to inform his approach to writing. “I think there’s something that comes across (in journalism) that’s efficient and not just navel-gazing. It’s not “creative writing,” it’s just telling a story–big difference,” he said.

The profession’s unforgiving deadlines and demand for daily production also seems to have leached into the author’s creative process. “(I have) a 1,000 word minimum. I’ve had as many as 5,000 words in a day when it’s really coming. But other days, it takes all day to get those 1,000 words and then I’m done,” he said. A practical, no-excuses approach to the craft was evident in the way Box talked about writing: “I go to work every day, just like everybody else,” Box said.

Much like a reporter, Box said he delves deeply into research before sitting down to write. Instead of starting with a narrative, Box said he begins with a topic or controversy in real life and then he tries “to figure out ‘How do I draw the reader through that topic or controversy in a page-turning way?’” Box said he often conducts multiple interviews on both sides of an issue during this research phase, which culminates in an outline he uses as the base of his story.

Box’s approach has proved prodigiously successful, resulting in 16 Joe Pickett novels and five stand-alone novels, all published since 2001. Prior to the publication of his fiction, Box published two guide books and he said he also “wrote two manuscripts that weren’t very good that (he) later mined for stuff.”

Like many authors, however, Box said a long wait preceded his ultimate literary success. “I had full-time jobs, it wasn’t like I was just working on this book,” Box said of the year’s leading up to his 2001 publication of Endangered. “It took four years after I got (Endangered) done to get the book published,” he said. The germ of that novel started all the way back in the early 80’s when Box was at the Sun, he said.

Though he wouldn’t go so far as to describe his works as romans a clef, Box said “I use enough (local detail), I think, where people can kind of recognize certain characters and situations, but they’re fictionalized.” When asked how he avoided hurt feelings when grounding his characters and plots so closely to real people and events, Box said he avoided taking on a judgmental tone in his work, letting the reader decide how to feel.

On the changes he has seen in the Valley since arriving as a young man, Box said “It’s still just kind of warm and small and friendly. It’s not hugely different–and that’s a good thing.” One shift the author did make note of was in the tenor of the relationship between the town and Old Baldy Club. “There used to be almost a wall between people at Old Baldy and the rest of the community, whereas now I know there’s a lot of people at Old Baldy that really participate in the community and are involved,” he observed.

Though he spoke knowingly of the difficulty of breaking into writing as an unknown, Box was bullish on the prospects for the fiction business moving forward. “There’s more books being published now than ever in history, whether electronically or in hard copy, and people have access to them more than ever before,” he said. He described fiction as a growth industry, but Box acknowledged “There’s about as many authors in America that actually make money writing fiction as there are NFL football players.”

Despite such long odds, Box chased after a literary career anyways and said “I feel really fortunate that it’s worked.” He said he admires authors like Thomas McGuane, Mike Connelly, Denise Mina, Cormac McCarthy and Keith McCafferty. Box further identified Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 as his “favorite book of all time.”

“I always thought I wanted to write a book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, but it took 20 years,” Box reminisced. For aspiring authors, his advice was loud and clear: “Don’t take creative writing–take journalism. And then be one for a while. Learn something.”


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