James Rollins is the New York Times, USA Today and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of Black Order, Map of Bones and other adventure thrillers. He was born in Chicago and grew up in Ontario, Canada, and St. Louis, Missouri. He graduated with honors from the University of Missouri with a degree in veterinary medicine. And like most veterinarians, he presently shares his home with a Golden Retriever, a Dachshund, and a sixty-five year old parrot named Igor. Rollins currently practices in Northern California, and when not writing or working in his veterinary practice, he can often be found underground or underwater as an amateur spelunker and scuba diver. These hobbies have helped in the creation of his earlier books Subterranean, Deep Fathom, Amazonia, and Sandstorm. His thriller, Black Order, skyrocketed to the top of bestseller lists across the country, winning the author countless new fans, and was proclaimed by People magazine as one of last summer's "hottest reads." Map of Bones was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the most likely to win over Dan Brown's faithful audience, and the New York Times rated the book as one the summer's top crowd pleasers.
Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.
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Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Rollins:
"I often get asked if I still practice veterinary medicine. While I don't practice full-time, I still do volunteer. I work with a group that traps stray cats, brings them to the shelter, where I spend a day spaying and neutering them. It's basically eight hours of removing genitalia. It's a hobby."
"I am a TV junkie. I have two Tivos and they are constantly full."
"My first job was to flip pizzas. I once got a pie spinning that was ten feet across. I had to spin it on my back to keep it going. Yet, I still love pizza."
"Two hobbies I love -- caving and scuba diving -- are also essential research for my novels. Case in point:
I've always been an avid cave explorer, from the vast systems in Missouri to the lava tubes of Hawaii to the tighter squeezes of the California foothills. But one of my most frightening episodes also allowed me to better describe claustrophobia in my novels. While climbing out of the fairly technical wild cavern, involving lots of rope work, I managed to jam myself midway up a narrow vertical chute. Hung up on my ascending gear midway up the chute, I found myself unable to move up or down. My chest was squeezed between two walls, my left knee turned the wrong way. I could not maneuver, and there was not enough room to get a rescue climber to me. I was trapped. I remember the team leader, leaning down from above, shining his helmet lamp at me. ‘You either find a way to un-jam yourself, or you stay there forever.'
So over the course of a long hour -- wriggling, sweating, cursing, and clawing -- I managed to creep a millimeter at a time out of the jam. After this event, I had a better understanding for panic and the determination born of pure desperation, essential ingredients for to writing thrilling fiction.
But spelunking through caves was not my only ‘research' lesson. Two decades ago, I also took up scuba diving and went on dive trips all around the world: Monterey Bay, Hawaii, South Pacific, Australia. I particularly remember one trip to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. I was informed by the dive master to beware of the many hazards found in the region. ‘On land, Australia has seven of the ten deadliest snakes. The seas are worse. Box jellyfish can kill in minutes. Local sea snakes are some of the most toxic. But worst of all is the stone fish. It looks like a stone, but its spines are loaded with paralytic poison. So be careful what you touch.'
And down we all went, buddied up in pairs, enthusiastic and excited. I dropped toward the reef and adjust my buoyancy until I'm floating just above the reef. All around spread amazing sights: giant clams, a flurry of colored fish, an astounding variety of coral. But I miscalculated my buoyancy, my weight shifted, and I planted a hand into the sand to stabilize my tumble, careful of the razor-sharp coral. Inches from my thumb, a jagged rock suddenly sprouted fins and swam away. I met the gaze of my buddy diver. His wide eyes firmed up the identification. The deadly stone fish. And I had almost slapped my hand on its back. As the fish scurried away, I understood at that exact moment how little Nature cared about the life of a scuba-diving novelist. Down here, Nature ruled. We were only visitors.
This mix of respect and terror is brought to life in my latest novel, The Judas Strain."
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In the summer of 2007, James Rollins took some time out to answer some of our questions about his favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I don't know if it was any one novel so much as entire narrow genre of writing, specifically the pulp writers of the thirties and forties. I had a large collection of reprints while growing up: Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Spider, The Avenger. From adolescence through college, I was absolutely in love with these old "scientific adventure" novels. On some unconscious level, I think I've been trying to bring back those old dime adventure stories, recast into the present, adapted to modern technologies, and given a polish. Along those same lines, the three writers who also had a great impact as the founders of "scientific thrillers" were Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, and H. G. Wells. In fact, my first novel, Subterranean, was an attempt to do a modern retelling of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Only ten? I read across a wide field of genres, so I'll list them by different genres.
Literary Fiction: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx -- This book taught me how creative the written language could be, both in roller-coaster twists of vocabulary and the playfulness of her structure. Plus it's a darned good story of a downtrodden character set in the strangeness that is Newfoundland.
Fantasy: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien -- Do I really need to say why? Along with The Hobbit, these novels were what taught me the joy of reading. I was lost in that world as a teenager, and I don't know if I ever found my way back.
Science Fiction: Dune by Frank Herbert -- This is a masterpiece of storytelling, world-building, and mind-blowing scope. But the author never forgets one of the essentials of a good story: a conflicted, sympathetic main character.
Mystery: Blind Descent by Nevada Barr -- I'm a huge Nevada Barr fan. I love the way she turns the natural world into a character in each of her novels. She's created a great central character and centerpieces a different National Park in each book. It's equal part nature travelogue and gripping mystery.
Horror: Salem's Lot by Stephen King. While perhaps Carrie and The Shining are considered to be the favorite of many readers, I still love this book the best. It scared the bejeezus out of me...and more impressively, it made my mother scream.
Graphic Novels: The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman -- I defy anyone to read this series and not find proof that comic books can be considered literary fiction. It is a tour de force of art and word.
Romance: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon -- This is the first book in her time-travel series that is addictive as it is brilliant.
Thriller: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton -- Here is a perfect storm of high concept (dinosaurs cloned and brought to modern life) and thrilling execution. It was what I strive to achieve.
Memoir: Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt -- How a writer can turn childhood horrors into a laugh-out-loud memoir is a book not to be missed. I was in awe from page one, and it grew with the turn of each new page.
Other: Watership Down by Richard Adams -- This novel defies classification, a novel of rabbits told from the point of view of rabbits. It is part fantasy, part grim allegory for our world. Here is a novel that again proves the power of a simple story told well.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Here, also, I could go on and on:
Raiders of the Lost Ark -- My dime-store pulp novels brought to flickering life on the screen.
Jurassic Park (again) -- I listed it as one of my top ten books, and the movie might actually be even better. A car chase through the limbs of a tree -- pure brilliance!
Chinatown -- The best of Jack and a screenplay that deserves to be taught in every screenwriting class.
Dawn of the Dead -- I watched this the first time in college and held my hands over my face most of the time.
Star Wars -- Of course.
Alien/Aliens -- The first was quintessential horror, the other quintessential adventure. I remember never being so happy to see credits roll as the end of Alien. Pure terror from opening frame to last.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy -- My only complaint was that movies were too short. I would've sat through five hours each.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown -- Almodóvar rules the art house. Enough said.
Gosford Park -- I will miss Robert Altman.
Oh, I could fill up pages and pages here.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I am a massive Bruce Springsteen fan. I skipped studying for my national board exams in veterinary medicine to stay up until 2 a.m. to catch his concert. Still I got one of the highest scores of my veterinary class, which I attribute to Springsteen's concert. The Boss rules!
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I would run a book club that covered a wide range of genres. So many book clubs seem one note, limiting the range to literary fiction or one specific genre. I'd prefer to mix it up, challenge members to sample genres that they might never have considered, to pull them out of their comfort zone. Every genre offers a new world of vocabulary, pace, story, structure, and character. So why not stretch those wings a bit?
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Like I mentioned above, one of the joys of reading is that sense of discovery. I'd prefer to get a book that I might never have tried before. If there's a book you love, buy another copy and give it to a friend. I know I would love to receive such a gift. It not only offers a chance to read something new, but it also gives you some insight into your friend. Why did he or she like this enough to gift it to me? Additionally, it also allows you to share something later, to compare notes, to talk about it over coffee. So books make a GREAT gift.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My main ritual is to write six pages every day. I'm very regimented in this, but to help with this, I have TWO yellow Post-it notes stuck to the edges of my computer monitor. One lists the five senses to remind me not to just write visually. Sometimes writing is like trying to capture a movie in your head and put it on paper. It's a struggle and a challenge every day to try to get that movie that plays like crystal in your head to shine like that on paper. And one of the ways of achieving that is not to forget to fold in other senses into your writing: taste, sound, touch, smell. So the Post-it note reminds me not to forget this. The second note is even more important. It's a simple declarative statement: "I give myself permission to write crap today." So many writers talk about being "blocked." And this statement is my shield against that. Sometimes the sense that you have to write perfect prose that day can cripple a writer, so my simple statement reminds me to relax, have fun with it, to know that writing is an adventure. And then the story flows!
What are you working on now?
I'm just finishing up my 2008 thriller, and I've just sold my first young adult novel, which I'm gearing up to write this winter. And just to keep busy, I'm also writing the novelization to the next Indiana Jones movie. Now you understand WHY I mentioned above about the necessity of writing six pages a day. Writer's block?!? Who has time for writer's block?!?
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I definitely was not an overnight success. First of all, I have years of short stories -- horribly written short stories -- buried in my backyard. I personally fear some future archaeologist stumbling upon this cache of stories and using them a verifiable proof that the end of the twentieth century was void of literary merit. And it didn't get much better when I got around to writing novels. I was rejected by 50 different agents before one finally agreed to represent my first novel. So it's a long haul, but one well worth the uphill climb.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I'm going to choose not so much a new writer as someone who deserves be discovered and read more widely. That would be Dan Simmons, whose novel The Terror was a critical success and finally a moderately commercial success. But I've been reading Dan Simmons since his first novel, The Song of Kali. It went on to read horror awards across the board with its debut. Later, he produced a modern opus of science fiction titled Hyperion, which garnered him the Hugo Award for best science fiction of the year. He's gone on to write stellar detective novels and now a novel in the literary vein with The Terror. The ability of this writer to cross genres with some striking success is amazing. As a writer, he's a high-wire act that everyone should be experiencing.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
As I mentioned above, as someone who was rejected by fifty different agencies, I must stress the word PERSISTENCE. Believe in your work, keeping sending it out there... but more importantly, don't stop writing. Move on to a new project. Don't keep revising the same book unless an agent or editor asks you to. Simply accept that baby is finished and ready for the world... and go about conceiving a new one. Keep doing this and eventually you will get published! And while I do believe in the old adage "Write Everyday," I also also believe you should "Read Every Night." The best teacher of the craft is simply a good book. As you write and struggle with difficulties in your own writing, each book you read can teach you aspects of the craft. Why re-invent the wheel, when you can learn by example?
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|James Rollins Home
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|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by James Rollins|
|Deep Fathom, 2001|
|Ice Hunt, 2003|
|Map of Bones, 2005|
|Black Order, 2006|
|The Judas Strain, 2007|