C.J. Box created the Wyoming game warden as a one-off character for his first novel, 2001’s “Open Season.” Then his publisher asked for two more books starring Pickett.
Readers connected with the character, so much so that Pickett has now been featured in 15 books, including Box’s latest, "Endangered,” which was published this month.
“I wanted someone who was a state employee, who was married and loved his family, not the typical or mystery crime novel protagonist, and whose only real claim to fame is he’s dogged and he won’t give up on something,” Box said. “Oftentimes he makes mistakes and he screws up … I didn’t want to make him an action figure. I wanted him to be a guy.
“I think an awful lot of readers can relate to that kind of person because they can see themselves there.”
The formula is working. “Endangered” will enter The New York Times' bestseller list at No. 2.
Box is touring the country in support of the book, which has Pickett seeking answers after his daughter is found in a ditch, nearly dead. But like other Pickett novels, the book also deals with contemporary Wyoming issues – in this case, the status of sage grouse.
The author, who lives near Cheyenne, will appear Tuesday in Casper at Natrona County High School. He spoke to the Star-Tribune recently about Pickett’s longevity, his appeal and possible plans to turn his adventures into a television series.
What has the Joe Pickett series been so successful?
You know, it’s built over the years. This is the 15th book and luckily, each one has outsold the previous one. Just kind of a critical mass thing. There are always people who maybe start with the current book and then go get the paperbacks, or they read all of the paperbacks and they can’t wait for the next one, so it just kinds of builds up.
How do you keep a character like Joe fresh after 15 novels?
The characters in the book age in real time. He’s got children. Sheridan, his daughter, was 7 years old in the first book and now she’s a junior at the University of Wyoming. The children age every year. The children are different every year. It keeps it fresh that everybody is grown and gotten more mature and benefited or not from previous experiences in the novel. So it’s not ever stagnant.
The book opens with a scene where Joe is investigating the killing of sage grouse. And it discusses not just the animals but the environmental issues related to the bird. Why did you decide to make that part of the story?
I hope that when people read these books they learn something about an issue that they didn’t know before. That they get more than one side, that it’s kind of a balanced, I hope, portrayal of it. When we all live there and know the story about the sage grouse, it’s nothing new. But for a lot of places around the country and the world, it is a wholly new issue. I hope when it’s all done, they’ll be really entertained but they’ll learn something about a natural resource or ecological issue that they didn’t before.
You talked earlier about Joe aging in real time. Is there a time, whether because of his age or because you’ve taken him as far as you can, when you have to walk away from Joe Pickett?
Yes, there will be a time. But recently I went back because I realized I wasn’t sure what his age was. I went back to the very first book and went through each one with whatever time elapsed between them, whether it was a year or in some cases it’s like four months, one book begins immediately after the other, and I realized he’s 46 years old. He’s going to be around a while, even if he retires at normal retirement age.
Let’s talk about “Endangered” specifically. Joe receives a call every parent fears, which is about a gravely injured child. Why did you use that for the basis for this novel?
Well, I wanted to kind of thematically, wanted to sort of link three story lines in a way and have them come together at the end. The three storylines, one, obviously (Joe's daughter), April is endangered, the birds are endangered and although we don’t know it at the time, Nate Romanowski is in danger. And how does it all work, how does it all fit together at the end? This book is a little different than a lot of them because for Joe Pickett it’s very personal what he’s investigating as opposed to a crime against nature.
So this time it’s personal. With that theme, it would be easy to fall into clichés. How do you keep those ideas from becoming stale?
For one thing, never doing it again. This is 15 novels in and this is really the first time that something has happened this close to home. If it happened constantly, and I’ve read some series where every book a family member or a spouse is endangered … that gets a little old. This is, like I said, 15 books in and the first time it’s ever happened. And so it has a little more impact than if it had happened immediately.
You’re driving from New York to Philadelphia now for your book tour. Do you find when you meet with fans in a big city, do they relate to the characters differently than readers in Wyoming, where those settings and characters might be more familiar?
Well, often they do. I get a lot more questions about the state, the kinds of people who live there, there are a lot more questions about things like federal land, which doesn’t exist anywhere else. We are so used to it that I’ll get questions about “What is BLM land?” So I have to explain a lot more about where we live. It’s a lot more exotic place for some readers.
Any possibility that Joe Pickett might be turned into a television series?
Yeah. Right now there are two things going on, projects -- who knows if either one will really bear fruit. Robert Redford is executive producer and he’s assembled a team of producers to try and get Joe Pickett on television. For a while, they had a commitment from Viacom, from CMT, to do a scripted series, but at the last possible minute CMT bowed out of it for reasons no one seems to know. So they are trying to place it somewhere else, another network, another outlet of some kind. And that will be interesting to see if that happens.
Also, producer David E. Kelly wants to develop a series. I signed an agreement about three weeks ago to develop a series based on the characters in my stand-alone novels, “Back and Beyond,” “The Highway” and “Badlands,” which is coming up. Two things going on, so we’ll see.
Follow Assistant Content Director Joshua Wolfson on Twitter @joshwolfson.