The man behind the character of Joe Pickett was 40 when his popular Wyoming game- warden protagonist grabbed readers and wouldn't let go.
New York Times best-selling author C.J. Box never intended to write a series of contemporary Westerns featuring the same hero, but that's what the fans wanted. He's churned out 17 books featuring Pickett, starting with "Open Season" in 2001, five stand-alone novels and one book of short stories. His latest Pickett book, "Vicious Circle," arrived last month. His sixth stand-alone novel, "Paradise Valley," will be released in July.
"It was just a book," Box, 58, said about "Open Season" from his home outside Cheyenne, Wyo. "To make it as realistic as possible, I wanted the protagonist to be a character I was familiar with, who doesn't make a lot of money and is devoted to his family and kids. I thought that would add tension if people knew the guy wasn't a superhero but just an average guy. Readers seem to really like him and empathize with him and see themselves as him to some degree."
Box is this year's recipient of Friends of the Pikes Peak Library District's Frank Waters Award, which is given to a writer who exemplifies the spirit and literary excellence of the late local author. Waters wrote the "Pike's Peak" trilogy and several books about Native Americans and was nominated multiple times for the Nobel Prize for literature.
Box will be on hand Saturday to accept the award and give a presentation at the Friends of the PPLD's Literary Award Luncheon.
"C.J. Box was chosen because he's a skilled writer, a great storyteller and he addresses issues that face the West today," said Linda DuVal, chairperson of the committee that chooses the recipient. "His books are extremely popular here, perhaps because he is a Westerner and understands the culture and times inwhich we live. We think Frank Waters would have approved."
Manitou Springs artist Charles Rockey will receive the Golden Quill Award for "Love Songs of Middle Time Echoed Through Illuminations and Fables," a book of illustrations and writing. The award is given to someone in the Pikes Peak region who publishes a book of note.
"This is Rockey's only book, but it took him 15 years with a great deal of help from daughter Hannah (Rockey) to produce it," DuVal said. "He's an artist first, so the fables in the book are often contributed by a variety of other local writers. But he put the project together in a rather remarkable collection that evokes the works of Tolkien. It's already a collector's item."
Box, a Wyoming native, is acclaimed for his depiction of the state's wilderness and the way he weaves his novels around socially relevant issues, including endangered species, animal cruelty, the environmental impacts of fracking, and conflicts between environmentalists and developers.
"I listen to what people are talking about - what the big issues are locally, across the state, the region," he said. "Rather than go worldwide with them, I've found the mountain West has so many controversies that are cutting edge when it comes to energy, environment, state versus local control. They resonate well beyond the West and into the rest of the country."
Becoming a published author was a long haul but not an unexpected twist to the tale of the former newspaper man. After attending the University of Denver on a journalism scholarship, he took a job as a general assignment reporter at the Saratoga (Wyo.) Sun weekly newspaper. That job, along with a handful of others, such as ranch hand, fishing guide, surveyor and co-owner of an international tourism marketing firm, contributed knowledge and experience to the secret manuscripts he wrote in his spare time.
"If you're a writer, you write," he said. "You feel compelled to do it. Hopefully you have a book contract in hand. I didn't at the time."
"Open Season" was finished in 1995, published in 2001 and went on to collect a mess of best first novel awards. Since then he's written one book every year.
"I would have loved to have had a novel published at 25," he said, "but in retrospect it was much better that I was able to establish a career in the business and learn more and have experiences. I could appreciate when I published books and not think they were my due."