With thanks to FMcM Associates and Corvus, I was able to spend an enjoyable breakfast with multi-award winning author C.J.Box during his stay at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.
Due to the full-on experience I was having there this year (attending pretty much every event every day) the only time slot I had available was between 8am and 9am on the Saturday. Fortunately, Chuck (as he likes to be called) was staying in the Holiday Inn for his first night’s stop and was very accommodating in joining me at the early hour, considering he was zipping around all over the place on his tour to promote the new standalone, BACK OF BEYOND.
I arrived in plenty of time and texted his publishers to advise where I was sitting and that I was wearing a black t-shirt with a big fingerprint logo. Identifying Chuck was no problem at all – everyone in the room turned when the man with the big black cowboy hat walked in for breakfast!
We started by discussing Harrogate and the festival.
Chuck: This is just a beautiful area. I flew in from Dublin and I couldn’t believe the landscape – I had no idea.
Keith: So, presumably you visited No Alibis bookshop whilst in Ireland?
C: In Belfast. Yes, I did that two nights ago and then drove to Dublin and then yesterday was some stock-signing of books, but mainly interviews – haven’t had a break – they’ve kept me running.
K: So, have you been across to the venue hotel as yet?
C: We went across last night for a drink, but I’ve yet to register over there – I haven’t even seen a programme yet.
K: Well, it’s certainly the biggest Harrogate Crime Writing Festival I’ve been to so far – I think they’ve sold in excess of 9,000 tickets so far.
C: Good Lord !
K: It’s grown and grown – I came for the first year just for a day trip, and have tried to do more and more each year.
C: That’s impressive. Maybe you can help me out, from what I was told earlier it’s a great festival to be invited to but it’s primarily a trade event – or maybe it was in the past?
K: Not so much, I wouldn’t say. I just think at Harrogate the mix is perfectly right. I was talking to someone last night who arrived and went straight into their first event which was the CWA Daggers Awards/Alibi Awards. He said he could not believe the atmosphere. He’d just been to the Hay Festival which would be considered more of a literary festival and he said that the authors are pretty much kept separate from the readers until they are wheeled out onto stage and then they disappear again. Whereas here last night, he was standing next to Lee Child within moments of arriving. The thing about Harrogate is you often do not know if it’s an author, publisher, agent, reader or member of the press you might be turning to talk to – which all adds to its friendly atmosphere.
C: I was noticing last night in the bar, and have noticed on tours, that there are kind of cultural differences. As Americans we are told to wear our name tags at all times which we do – but last night no one had a name tag.
K: This is something that has come up a lot since the start this week with people on twitter trying to identify people from their sometimes obscure avatars!
C: Yes, maybe everyone should have nametags with a colour code as to where they fit – author/reader etc maybe.
K: That could be good as next week I’m sure there will be exchanges on twitter from people saying ‘sorry I missed you’ or ‘didn’t know that was you’. But, regardless, it’s still the best festival the UK has and next year’s programme is already shaping up nicely and includes Harlan Coben and Charlaine Harris which will be an interesting addition.
C: Oh really? She’s a hoot! And Harlan – he can be a lot of fun.
K: You did an event at Corvus’ office this week for reviewers I understand? One of them said I need to ask about your new hat?
C: Yes I did and it was very well attended. They presented me with a ‘cap’ and they did their spying homework to find out through my agent or through my wife what size hat I wore and then figure out how that translated over here. Yeah – it’s a great hat –‘cap’ I should say ‘cap’. I was wearing it last night. The ‘cowboy hat’ thing is a big pain in the butt!
C: Yes – especially when flying on airplanes. You have to put it in the overhead lockers and then someone wants to put their bag on it. About five years ago, before the books were out over here, and my visit was tourism related, I went to Dublin. It was in November and I came out of the Hotel and I was going to meet my publishers in London. I was getting ready to go and got my hat out and a gust of wind came and takes my hat off and zooms it off and into the road and wedges it underneath the differential of a taxi that’s going by –this is like some Monty Python thing! So, it got stuck right underneath and it kept going, so I’m chasing it and about a block later I can see the driver look up in his mirror and see me running after him and then he takes off again because he has no idea why I’m chasing him. Finally, like three blocks later, I get this stupid hat back that’s all covered with mud and spent the next day fixing it. K: Corvus have certainly done you a great service over here with the launching of the Joe Pickett books –banging them out one per month is unheard of. C: I think it was brilliant and the thing that scared me to death when they announced how they were going to do this to me and then that I would be coming over to Harrogate – I was scared to death that it was going to be a disaster and that it would be like being at a week-long wake. But, apparently it’s really exceeded their expectations – and they have done their work – they are everywhere.
K: Linwood Barclay said at his talk last night that he likes to get the books written quickly, somewhat hoping that publication will be quicker – I think as a reader, the fact that we can buy a book of yours and not have to wait a year until there’s another one to get is great.
C: Yes – and that’s what I heard in Ireland from the booksellers. People come in and get their first one and then a week later they can come in and buy all the rest – wow!
K: And how do you feel about the kindle? Are all your books now also in that format?
C: They are now. It didn’t really matter if I was an advocate or not, they are going to do it. But I am perfectly fine with it – in fact I am starting to realise the benefits overall because when I talked to my US publisher, Andrew Martin of Minotaur, he said that anticipated that this new book when it comes out is going to be 50% electronic sales. The biggest number I’ve ever heard from any publisher was something like 15-20% by the end of the year in the US. But 50% this fast – it just stuns me! But the other thing is that there’s a phenomenon of people buying books twice – I do it – whenever I’m going to go on a trip…. I’m just reading this Andrew Roberts gigantic one volume history of World War Two. It’s the size of a door stop and I thought I don’t want to take that with me, but I’ll download it, so I bought it twice. I’ve bought a bunch of books twice, so that’s all good.
K: Yes – and I did the same with one of yours just last week. I downloaded 3 Weeks to Say Goodbye for the kindle and then, for the journey here, downloaded the audiobook. It came up in discussion yesterday with Allan Guthrie talking about ‘bundle’ selling being a way forward where the hardback and the ebook are purchased at one time.
C: Yes, I was talking to my publishers at Corvus and they were saying exactly that – for example, would you pay £1 more for a code that would enable you to download the ebook when you buy the hardback – I know that I would.
K: Well, we were saying yesterday, the book market has, in a way, followed the music market, but if you look at DVDs now, they are packaged with the DVD/Blu-Ray and Digital download all in one pack.
C: I bet that if we were talking one year from now, someone will have figured out how to do all of this. I do think that too many authors are just dumping stuff onto kindle and sometimes that kind of shows what they think of their readers. The other thing it does is it offers up a market for short stories – I’ve got a bunch of them – I’ve got enough for an anthology and I’ll get one published, but no magazines take short stories anymore.
K: So, the anthology will include some Joe Pickett I assume?
C: There are a few Joe Pickett ones and it’s probably two years away – but what we are doing in the US is releasing some of the stories from the anthology every few months for something like $2.99 download.
K: On your website you mention Blue Heaven’ and ‘Nowhere to Run’ as optioned for film – is there any further news on either or will we get to see Joe Pickett on television perhaps?
C: It’s been pitched, not by me, but it has been pitched a couple of times, but no interest as yet. ‘Blue Heaven’ supposedly –and all I can say is what they tell me – is supposed to start filming either this Fall or next Spring and that’s been optioned now for about three years and they’ve got Joe Pesci apparently to star and direct, and Jack Nicholson is going to be the rancher and Josh Brolin is attached to it, and they have money and they have a script. So, it looks promising. But, I’ll believe it when it happens.
K: With regards to Joe – do you have an actor in mind?
C: Not really. I never picture anybody when I’m writing him. The only actor that my wife and I saw on television and both looked at each other and thought yes that could be him is a guy called Kyle Chandler – in the US he was in a show called Friday Night Lights and was just in the Spielberg movie Super 8. We both liked him and I think he’s be perfect.
K: I heard Harlan Coben talk about movies once and said he thinks the best view is to drive up to a fence and throw your book over in exchange for a bag of money being thrown the other way and then both parties drive off again. The book is one thing, the movie is another.
C: That’s a perfect analogy. And I think readers are much more sophisticated than they are given credit for – they know that the television series or the movie is not as good as the book – so even if there’s a couple of lines or something that sparks their interest they’ll watch it, even if the thing sucks – at least it will generate some more interest and some more sales of the books.
K: And that whole increasing sales thing, just going back to the kindle – there’s always the possibility for you to include links to places I guess – so that someone who wants to know more about Montana can click and read up about the place more, or see a map maybe?
C: I thought about that, I wish I had more maps in my books – readers love maps but publishers don’t because they have to buy the rights to them. So, they always resist a map, unless they say… well, do you have one? To which I say…yeah right here in my pocket! Give me a moment and I’ll draw one up for you.
K: So, are all of your locations set in reality?
C: No, there are a few where I’ve mixed fictional locations with real ones. For example Saddle String, Wyoming where Joe Pickett lives is a fictional recreation of a place, but when he goes to another place like Yellowstone I try to make it as authentic as possible. I don’t stretch any of that, but if he’s going to a fictional town then I make it all up.
K: Do you get people write to you about those fictional towns and say ‘that’s where I live’?
C: Yes. And there’s a couple of towns in Wyoming where they are convinced that everybody there has been a character in the books.
K: Is there any relevance to the name, Joe Pickett? I think in 3 Weeks to Say Goodbye you make reference to someone being an ‘regular Joe’.
C: Yes, he’s a regular guy. Recently I was going through some old stuff and I found this box where I had this little notebook going way back, twenty years ago where I was coming up with the name for him. And I’d been scratching through first names and last names and then finally chose Joe for that reason, and all of the last names were names of famous rodeo cowboys – the first cowboy to ever win all the competitions at the turn of the century was a black cowboy named Bill Pickett. So I was scratching out names left and right until I saw the two ‘Joe’ ‘Pickett’ and I thought that’s it!
K: (at this point in the interview Chuck got identified and nabbed by a couple on the next table praising him for Back of Beyond for a few moments, describing the book as ‘Beyond Brilliant!’ and he told them he hoped it was their gateway drug to all of his other books now). We then chatted for a while about Denise Mina’s work, which he loves and I recommended that he seek out the BBC Scotland adaptation of The Field of Blood.
C: In ‘Back of Beyond’ I have a female character called Mina, and those who are aware of her work will suspect this character long before anyone else will.
K: You need to read some Ray Banks – he manages to ‘tribute’ other writers – specifically Allan Guthrie in a very different light.
K: So, if you hadn’t been born, raised and lived where you do, and we could take CJ Box back to before he started writing and drop him into New York City or Philadelphia – a big built up city instead of the area you are in, do you think you’d still have written the types of books you write now, and would you have still written?
C: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I would because for me the motivation originally to write fiction was more about exploring the place as opposed to writing a story. I didn’t even think I was writing a mystery, until it was published and that’s where it was categorized. I thought I was writing a contemporary western novel which dealt with some environmental issues – that, to me, was what it was so I doubt…I wouldn’t write the same kind of thing and I don’t know if I would choose crime fiction. To me, it’s more about the area.
K: It comes up time and time again on panels that being a crime writer gives such scope, allows you to write a ‘message’ book.
C: Yes – it’s the vehicle as opposed to the driver. It’s not about a whodunnit it’s about how you get there.
K: It is a very broad church and that’s very much in evidence here this weekend, with people writing everything from very dark horror crime crossovers right through to cozies.
C: And quilting mysteries and cat mysteries!
K: Okay, well we’ll move on from that swiftly – Is your new book ‘Force of Nature’ finished yet?
C: Wow! You’re up on things. I’m not done yet. That one’s probably about 100 pages from being finished.
K: And what’s coming up after that one? What are the plans ahead?
C: Another standalone – It’s kind of 2 to 1, series to standalones for the way I’m writing right now. I started a new standalone, then put it aside to do the new Joe Pickett book, then I’ll go back to that. I really admire Michael Connelly and his career – he’s got this continuous great series but also has done great standalones and mini-series – I just like his approach.
K: Have you always written under the name CJ Box? Or are there books out there under any other names?
C: Yes – it’s always been CJ Box for the books. When I first got out of college I was working for a little newspaper in this little ranching community in Wyoming, and I was writing under the name ‘Chuck Box’. Then I went to this barn dance thing with all these cowboys standing around and they were saying ‘we love your name’ because a Chuck Box is the name of the box on the back of a wagon – so they thought it was like my clever little western nickname. At that point, at 24, I was very offended by that and so the next day it became CJ Box.
K: Do you have any involvement in the covers/ jacket design? Which I think are fantastic by the way.
C: Not really. Because of the way the twelve were being launched over a year, they sent me all of them in one go. There was only one, the very last one, for I think it was Nowhere to Run or Cold Wind where we made a bit of change because I don’t think at that point they’d even had the manuscript in, but I think the covers are perfect and much better than the ones we have in the US. And the strange thing is that whoever’s done them, the art director, has found the actual photographs of the places where in my mind the books actually take place – so it was really kind of eerie to see them all for the first time.
K: And you are fortunate to be in the situation that, for readers, we can have a complete block of your books all on the shelves at home with the same jacketing which always looks great.
C: I recall reading just that in I think the Bookseller. They (Corvus) have done a great job – I have really landed well here.
K: We’ve touched on messages you get across in your books, but is there any subject matter you wouldn’t tackle?
C: Well, I’ve certainly written more than my fair share of children in danger scenarios but I would never go further than that. In ‘3 Weeks to Say Goodbye’ there was some darkness but that’s about as far as I’d want to go. I don’t ever want to go beyond that. When I finished that book I felt like taking a 3 month shower. And with the political stuff, I always try to present a balanced viewpoint and let the reader come down on the side they choose. I hope I never write an agenda book because I’m turned off by them. And I can think of a couple of authors who I really like who have gotten so politically pedantic – I know where they are coming from – but hey!
K: How do you feel about books where the author has clearly tried to shoehorn all their research onto the page?
C: That’s the old Elmore Leonard thing ‘Leave out the parts that the reader will skip’.
K: Is he a favourite of yours? And who else do you read and admire?
C: Oh yeah, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard. Raymond Chandler, Michael Connelly and a lot of writers who are not crime fiction writers actually. I’m also a fan of John Sandford – I don’t think he gets enough credit. He does pacing better than anyone I know, so I really admire that. And Denise Mina of course.
K: And is there a crime book that you’d love to have written? Or do you watch crime movies?
C: I do, but not any more than any other kind of movie. I kind of go blank when asked to think of a favourite crime book.
K: Ok. So, do you write whilst you are on tours?
C: On this one I haven’t – I cannot believe how busy they have kept me, but often I do – more editing rather than writing when I’m on the move. I have a home office where I live in Cheyenne and we have a cabin on a river, only two and a half hours away, so I’m writing there more and more.
K: When did you start?
C: It was twenty years before a book came out – so I was writing in secret. I think there were three manuscripts that no one ever saw because they were so horrible – but I’ve now since mined all the good parts out of! Okay, just thought back and one of the books I wished I’d written was Presumed Innocent – that’s such a great structure, such a great surprise – but realistic at the same time – loved that.
K: It came up on a panel yesterday about writing something and finding something very close comes up on the news.
C: Constantly – and then you find you’d need to tone it down as no one would believe it.
K: Have you ever written anything that’s been almost mirrored in the news?
C: Yes. In ‘Blue Heaven’ the fact that these children are in danger – as I was writing it, set in Idaho, there was this horrible incident where this guy kidnapped two children and killed the parents, and he had the children with him for months and it was awful. The beginnings and the locations were so similar that it kind of creeped me out. That’s happened several times actually.
K: So, how many exploding cows have you seen then? Is that based on anything you are aware has happened?
C: No – it was just an image and I had that opening line for probably ten years before I knew what the book was going to be about, and I still like it. Every now and then when I’m writing I think, this thing’s starting to slow down a bit, I need an exploding cow!
K: Well, it makes a change from having someone come into the room with a gun!
K: So, where does Joe finish and Chuck begin? Are you alike? Would you get on with him over a beer in the bar?
C: That’s a good way to put it. I would get on with him but he’s not me. I’ve done ride-alongs with game wardens and he’s closer to them. I’m really happy that I got the character right, as the very few game wardens that are out there are very much like that. I like the guy, it’s always fun to go back.
My thanks to Chuck for a great chat over an early breakfast, and to FMcM and Corvus for making it possible.