I like it when authors take chances — and C.J. Box has certainly done that with the latest book in his Joe Pickett series, Force of Nature.
I was sent this book and asked if I wanted to interview the author. I did want that, but upon reading about his latest book, a departure from his usual series (more on that shortly) I requested and received his prior book and read that as well before submitting questions for our email interview.
I have to admit that while I had heard good things about C.J. Box’s books I had not, before this, read any of them. As you may be able to figure out, being smart readers, the Joe Pickett series focuses on a park ranger named Joe Pickett.
One of Joe’s friends mentioned often in his books is Nate Romanowsk, who was previously in a secret Special Forces unit abroad. As Box’s most previous book, Cold Wind, ended, it looked like Nate’s bad old days were about to get worse in the present.
So with Force of Nature Box has the characters essentially switch place: While Pickett is still in the new book he is a minor character compared to the amount of the story that is about the past and present problems of Nate. I should mention, since C.J. references it in the interview, that Nate is heavily into falconry, something I previously knew almost nothing about.
Both Force of Nature and Cold Wind are good thrillers — you may guess some plot twists but I suspect you won’t see all of them coming. Box has a tight writing style, a just-the-facts manner that serves him and the reader well.
Now let’s go to the interview as Box explains why he wrote this book the way that he did.
How did the idea for this book come about? Put another way, which came first – the idea that Nate would have his own book or the plot?
For years, when I was asked if I’d ever write a Nate Romanowski book I said no. The reason was I thought his character worked best in small and intense doses, and I wasn’t sure I could get into his head well enough to have him carry an entire book. Then, a few years ago, I wrote a short story called “The Master Falconer” with Nate in the lead — and I realized I could probably do it. The thing that pushed it over the top for me was figuring out his backstory. Once I had that everything fell into place: who he was, what he’d been involved in, and who was after him.
Had it been your plan for a while to give Nate his own book or did that just sort of happen as you finished writing the last book? Was that a hard decision to have him be the focus of the book?
I’d been leading that direction for the last two books. The falling-out Joe and Nate had at the end of Nowhere to Run isolated both of them to some degree, and showed their different world view.
The end of Cold Wind leads right into Force of Nature. It’s the first time in the series that there wasn’t a lapse of time between books.
How would you describe what this new book is about? I’ll attempt to summarize in an introduction but am curious how you sum it up.
I think it’s a book about friendship and loyalty with a heavy dose of the art of falconry.
What was the best and worst part of writing this book versus your usual Joe Pickett series?
As I mentioned, Nate is an intense character and he’s capable of extreme violence. Force of Nature is more of a thriller than a crime novel or a mystery, so in that regard I was stepping out in a deliberate way. Pacing was essential. The body count is incredibly high. But it was fun to write from Nate’s point of view with Joe as the secondary character in a sense. I can’t think of a worse part about writing it.
There will inevitably be some readers who, like me when I was sent your most recent book, who realize this book is different from the usual Joe Pickett series. Would you suggest they do what I did namely read the last Joe Pickett book first?
I don’t think that’s necessary although it might be helpful. I try to provide enough back-story in each novel in the series that the reader isn’t entirely lost if they haven’t read the previous books. This is always tricky because I don’t want loyal readers to have to slog through information they already know. But I think each novel stands alone and can be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone.
There’s no doubt, though, that Force of Nature would probably be more rewarding if the reader has been tracking Nate Romanowski since his introduction in the third book, Winterkill.
Were there things about Nate that you only realized as you wrote this book? Can you give examples?
Sure, plenty of them. I hadn’t thought much about his childhood and upbringing, only his recent past. I tried to create a history that jibed with his personality and characteristics.
What do you think readers of this book will be surprised to learn about Nate?
That the source of his troubles and the reason for his self-imposed exile in Wyoming can be traced to a little known true incident in the mid-1990s. And that if he’d acted differently during that incident history would have been changed.
How would you describe Nate? How are you similar to Nate and how are you different? And how are you similar and different from Joe?
Nate is an island with his own customs, laws, and sense of justice that have very little to do with society and he won’t adapt or bend. He’d rather go down fighting than conform. I think many of us wish we could be more like that but we don’t want to take the risks involved. Joe Pickett is more conventional: a state employee with a job that focuses on enforcing the law. I think I’m somewhere in between.
What have been the high and low points of your literary career so far?
There haven’t really been any low points since the publication of the first novel, Open Season. It’s been a wonderful and very rewarding ride in every aspect. My job is doing what I love to do most. The low points were probably prior to finally getting published. It’s a very humbling experience to think of oneself as a failed novelist.
I was a newspaper reporter for many years and it affected me as a writer. You wrote, I believe, for a small-town newspaper. How did that work affect you as a person and as a writer?
Being a small-town newspaper reporter and writer was the best training imaginable for what I do today. I really think more fledgling novelists — and many current and even established novelists — should get out into the real world and cover local politics, sports, culture, and crime and write it up on deadline. It exposed me to people from many walks of life I never would have met otherwise, and allowed me to observe people and situations I’d be completely ignorant to if my path to writing had been an MFA degree. I still draw from those years in every novel I write.
Can you talk about how you research your books including for this one?
The amount of research depends entirely on the subject matter of a particular novel. As you know, each novel has a real-world issue or controversy as its framework. Some of those subjects are familiar enough to me I don’t have to do extensive research. Others, like mineral rights, wind energy, environmental terrorism — required much more time. Sometimes, I put on my old reporter hat and interview experts in a particular field. And often I ask more knowledgeable people in a given occupation to review passages I’ve written for accuracy. I do like the research part of writing, I must admit.
I always end my interview with what I call my bonus question: What question do you wish interviewers would ask that they don’t ask or ask often enough? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.
Okay, I’ll bite:
Q: You often feature children in your novels — particularly young girls — and sometimes write from their perspective. Isn’t that unusual in this kind of genre?
A: What a terrific question! I wish more interviewers would ask about the family aspects of the novels since I think it’s integral to the series and the stand-alones. I love to feature children and young adults as real people — flawed, naive, virtuous, venal — but real. I think it adds nuance and depth to the stories that wouldn’t exist without them. It also creates empathy, I think, because every reader was young and can probably relate to the character and their feelings and aspirations in some way.
As a reader, I’m often put off by authors and story-lines without families or children and all of the angst and joy they bring with them. It’s asking for too much of a suspension of disbelief in a genre that requires too much of it to start with.