Saturday, December 20, 2014

"About Joe Pickett"

by C.J. Box, bestselling Wyoming mystery author

After graduating from college in Denver, my first job was a news reporter in a place called Saratoga (population 2,200) in my home state of Wyoming. My job interview took place in a fishing boat on the North Platte River. I loved the place, and the outdoor lifestyle. To make ends meet, I wrote freelance, filled in here and there, and sometimes helped out local outfitters when they needed a guide on the river.

I remember taking a fisherman out in the late afternoon in a boat. As we neared a remote inlet where large trout hung out, I had the distinct Deliverance-like feeling of being watched from above. I looked up on the same high bank and there he was: the game warden in his red shirt and stained Stetson. He waved. I waved.

The next fall, when I was doing a story for my small weekly on a poaching arrest he had made, I visited the game warden's tiny state-owned home and interviewed him while his children swirled around his desk and his wife looked in from the kitchen. Here was a man who was in charge of enforcing the law in a district that stretched 1,500 square miles. He did it without a real office, or a staff, or a supervisor. Virtually alone, he went out into that rough country every day with only his Labrador as his partner and backup.

Years later, when I sat down to construct the tale of murdered outfitters, endangered species and what can happen in a small town when huge outside forces blow into it (Open Season), I kept that game warden in mind. At the time, I didn't dare envision a series of novels where other issues could be explored.

The character of Joe Pickett is, in a way, the antithesis of many modern literary protagonists. He's happily married with a growing family of daughters. He does not arrive with excess emotional baggage or a dark past that haunts him. He words hard and tries, sincerely, to "do the right thing." He doesn't talk much. He's human, and real, which means he sometimes screws up.

Game wardens are unique because they can legitimately be involved in just about every major event or situation that involves the outdoors and the rough edges of the rural New West. They're trained and armed law enforcement officers. While reaching Open Season and Savage Run, I've ridden on patrol with game wardens to try to get it right. I think I have been embraced by the game wardens themselves (as well as their long-suffering wives). I received a vote of confidence when I was told about a message to game wardens addressed to "Joe Picketts."

Real-world experiences provide the background for Joe Pickett novels. While working on ranches and exploration survey crews, I learned first-hand about the beauty, cruelty, and balance of the natural world. Journalism proved to me that stories, and words, really matter. The growth of my own (and my wife's) international company showed me that one  can succeed in business without being a thug. Through it all, I read and wrote and thought about that game warden.

The land itself--the environment--plays a major role in Open Season and Savage Run, and all the Joe Pickett novels [which followed]. That's because the land in the Rocky Mountain West dominates day-to-day existence. The fight over that land provides the conflict and the stories.This fight has economic, ideological, historical, and theological overtones. It's a serious fight. With Open Season, I was asked by both environmentalists and developer, rancher and industry types what side I was really on, because the strong issues in the novel were presented in a balanced way. They all assumed I was on their side.

Meanwhile, Joe Pickett will try to do the right thing. Wish him luck.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers: The Many Facets of Mystery Writing, Poisoned Pen Press.)

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