Since 2001, when his Joe Pickett mystery series debuted with Open Season, C. J. Box has earned accolades and fans in ever-growing numbers. Not only was Booklist one of the earliest publications to take note of his exciting talent (Bill Ott wrote a double-length, rave review), Box went on to have a track record here that few writers can equal: five of seven Joe Pickett novels have been deemed worthy of a starred review.
It takes guts to tinker with a successful formula, but the Wyoming native (recently photographed sans cowboy hat) has done just that. In January, St. Martin’s Minotaur will publish Blue Heaven, his first stand-alone thriller. It’s different from the Joe Pickett books in a number of ways, most notably in the larger cast and the breakneck pacing. Set in north Idaho, dubbed "Blue Heaven" by the California cops who are retiring there, it starts with two kids watching a man get executed–and then things really get hairy. Does Box pull it off? Make that six starred reviews in total.
I talked with the author in 2005 about his remarkable Out of Range, but given the new direction he’s taking, it seemed like high time to check in with him again. Over e-mail, Box explained why he wrote Blue Heaven, affirmed that "Blue Heaven" actually exists, and proved he has a gift for sports prognostication, too.
First things first: is Joe Pickett on hiatus?
Joe will be back next May in the eighth Joe Pickett novel, called Blood Trail. My intention is to keep the series going with Putnam while writing stand-alone thrillers for St. Martin’s Minotaur. It’s not as crazy at it sounds. Blue Heaven has been in the works for over two years.
Why did you decide to write a stand-alone thriller?
There are themes, formats, and characters that just won’t work in a series format and I wanted to stretch myself. Plus, I hoped readers who may think of the Joe Pickett books as "huntin’ and fishin’" books–which they aren’t–might give Blue Heaven a try and be surprised.
Blue Heaven has some familiar elements we’ve come to expect from you, but with a different feel. How different were you trying to make it?
As different as it needed to be. There is a large cast of characters in Blue Heaven, and the novel is told from the point of view of many of them in real time over 60 hours. Because of the ticking clock, the characters needed to be introduced as quickly and clearly as possible before moving to the action. There was no time for a lot of back-story but enough, I hope, that the reader can tell everyone apart and empathize with several of them. There’s somewhat of a comfort zone with the Joe Pickett books because we know the protagonist and his family and we know–to some degree–what they’re capable of. With Blue Heaven, the onion is peeled just a little each time a character is reintroduced to the story.
I feel like I saw some familiar character traits, too–but with a larger cast, it was almost as if they were spread out over more characters. Not to keep asking about Joe Pickett, but it almost seemed as if you need more than one character to replace him.
That’s a really good point and shows your familiarity with Joe Pickett! I never really thought of that before. There are also a couple of very "gray" characters in Blue Heaven that I find as interesting as anyone; the local businessman with a guilty secret and the wavering ex-cop who just might turn out to be okay after all.
Is it true that California cops are retiring to north Idaho in great numbers?
Yes. In fact, the first time I heard the phrase "blue heaven" was from an ex-LAPD officer at a book signing who asked me if I came from "that blue heaven country." He had dozens of colleagues who who had sold their California homes for a lot of money and bought acreage and huge homes in north Idaho. It turns out there are hundreds of them up there. Luckily, I’ve run across no bad ones like the ones in the book.
What kind of research did you do? Does a stand-alone require more research than a series book?
I went to Santa Anita Racetrack one day and found it completely empty but every gate or door I tried was open. It was very strange. I walked through the grounds, on the track, inside the restaurants and saw absolutely no one. I also spent some time in north Idaho interviewing locals. They confirmed not only the presence of all of the ex-cops but how their community had been transformed pretty quickly from a kind of sleepy timber and mining economy to one that catered to wealthy new residents. The cultural cross-currents were there for anyone to see. And I drove around a lot on my own, just looking and taking notes.
There wasn’t necessarily more research required than an series book, but there was more background required of the characters. I was creating a whole new world.
How is the culture of Idaho different from Wyoming–or is it different?
I found the culture in Idaho very different, even from other parts of Idaho. In that state, the division is from north to south, not east to west, like Wyoming or Montana. The north Idaho I got to know doesn’t have a single iconic image and is kind of a mish-mash of influences–a little ranching, timber, mining, recreation, but also Pacific Northwest and the new California thing.
You have more stand-alones coming out with St. Martin’s. Can you tell us what they’ll be about and when they’re coming?
All I’ll say about the second stand-alone is that it takes place in Denver, Lincoln (Montana)–and Berlin.
Your work seems to be getting even more attention since we last talked (you’re a New York Times bestselling author, for one). Has it changed your life or the way you write? Does your office still have a bad view of a window well?
I now have a painted window well, thank you very much! Thanks to my artist daughter Molly, I look out on a painting of a fly-fisherman on the Lamar River in Yellowstone. Last year it filled with snow for several weeks. That was kind of boring.
Will the Cubs finally go all the way this year?
No, I’m sorry. The Rockies will beat San Diego in the one-game playoff tonight and take the rest of the National League by surprise (although, as I write this, the Padres just hit a grand-slam and went up 4-3).
[Editor's note: If Box ever tires of writing thrillers, he might try his hand as a sportswriter. The Rockies went on to win a wild, 13-inning game and make the postseason. At this writing, they're leading the Phillies in the NLDS 2-0. As for the Cubs, well, they're behind the Diamondbacks 0-2.]
(Photo credit: Roger Carey.)