Interview: James Rollins, Author
A veterinarian by trade, James Rollins has been writing adventure novels for several years now. Author of Subterranean, Amazonia, Ice Hunt, Sandstorm, Deep Fathom, and Excavation, Rollins left behind the vet business some years ago and now focuses on writing his bestselling novels. Most recently, he has attracted a lot of attention for his newest book, Map of Bones. Epic in scope and scale, this book is a page-turner in the old-fashioned sense. You’ll stay up late into the night reading it. Mr. Rollins was kind enough to talk to us about pacing, writing thrilling moments, and the stories buried in his backyard.
Slushpile: You’re a veterinarian by trade. How did you get into writing novels?
Rollins: I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but I mostly considered such a possibility to be a pipe dream. So once I was accepted into veterinary school, I thought, “here is my profession, my career, my life.” And I put aside my pens and pencils and journals. For fifteen years, I concentrated on vet school, beginning my career, and eventually starting my own clinic in South Sacramento. But that part of my brain that spun tales continued to churn stories. I would read a novel and say “I want to do this!” And I kept telling my self, “one of these days.” Well, on my thirtieth birthday, I decided I couldn’t ignore that twisted little corner of my mind any longer and took up pen and paper again.
Slushpile: Your website mentions that you wrote short fiction until you finally found your voice and the type of material you wanted to write about. What were those early stories like?
Rollins: I read across a wide gamut of genres, and when I finally took pen to paper again, I tried my hand at all of them: science fiction, mystery, horror, humor. They were a necessary evil to discovering my own voice and style. And evil they were. They are now safely buried in my backyard, never to see the light of day.
Slushpile: For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll use the term “literary fiction” to refer to one genre of work. And since you seem to use the term “adventure fiction” for the type of work you do, we’ll use that term for this interview. What characteristics do you think that the literary fiction genre should take from the adventure fiction genre?
Rollins: As I mentioned above, I read avidly, including reading widely in the “literary fiction” market. And while there are many great books out there (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Shipping News, The Time Traveler’s Wife, etc.), many books classified as literature seem more fascinated by wordcraft than storytelling. And I think that’s a problem.
From Hemingway to Dickens, from Shakespeare to Fitzgerald, they all knew how to tell a compelling story with character AND plot. Lately much of literate fiction seems to concentrate on character with NO plot. I find this a lifeless sort of introspection, internal navel gazing that while perhaps poetic, serves no real story. I’d certainly recommend “literature” writers study some of the popular fiction writers out there. There is reason Stephen King and others of the world are popular. They strike a chord and touch an audience. Such examples can teach a valuable lesson to ANY writer.
Slushpile: You mention the Doc Savage novels as being a big influence on you as a young man. What else did you read growing up?
Rollins: Besides Doc, probably the authors who most influenced my writing are ALL the early pulp writers of the thirties and forties. I had a large collection of reprints while growing up: 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.
Other influences include Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and H. Rider Haggard. But for more current influences, I would definitely have to include the mainstays of thriller fiction: Crichton, King, and Cussler.
Slushpile: Many of those serial characters, whether it’s Doc Savage or Mack Bolan or any of those, are no longer being written by the original authors/creators. If you could write a book featuring any serial character, who would you choose?
Rollins: I have no strong hankering to revisit a character of another author, though I could have my arm twisted to tackle a Doc Savage novel. One of the joys of writing is to create your own character: piecemeal their bones, flesh out their musculature, get their heart beating and loins stirring. Each book is an adventure of discovery. I’m not sure I’d enjoy treading a path already well-marked and trodden.
Slushpile: You mention on your website that you quit working your “day job” as a vet around the time your fifth book was published. Many people only know two types of writers: the super-rich Grisham and King type and then the struggling, dirt-poor type. I’m not rude enough to ask for specifics on how much money you were making, but in general, as a working author, what was your standard of living like? What is it like to be a working, successful author, but not a household name?
Rollins: I will break a taboo here and state something scary: you can make a good living as a writer, a VERY good living, and never really be known well. There is good income not only from the US market, but the foreign market is a great source of additional income. There is a general rule-of-thumb that proved true in my case. If you have five books on the shelves, you can generally make enough income to quit your day job. You don’t have to have a mega-contract with one book. Slow and steady will get you there just as well.
Slushpile: I’m afraid that I simply have to ask this question, although I’m sure you’re sick of it. How has the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code phenomenon affected you? You were writing these types of novels long before his monster was published, so you’re not a copycat. But you’ve clearly gotten sucked up in his wake. Is that good or bad?
Rollins: I don’t think having your name associated with such a phenomenon is a bad thing. As they say, “any press is good press.” I don’t necessarily appreciate the word “Da Vinci clone” bandied about. I’m my own artist and was writing similar novels well before Dan Brown ever published his first novel. Still, that said, if the publicity gets a few new readers to pick up the book, all the better. It’s after that point that my own writing will either pass or fail.
Slushpile: Do you think the success of Dan Brown’s work helped get more attention (and possibly higher advances) for your newest novel, Map of Bones?
Rollins: It certainly helped gain more attention. But not a larger advance. I actually sold a different book to my publisher, an entirely different plot and then afterward came up with the plot for Map of Bones. It came about when I woke up one morning with a really cool way to kill people: poisoning the communion wafer. The story built from there, and I approached my editor about switching to this new storyline. She said “Run with it!” I did. But the contract was already set in stone, based on the old proposal.
Slushpile: Publishers Weekly and other industry sources often report on the dollar amounts involved in author contracts. Your deal for Map of Bones and two other books was reported as being a seven-figure contract. Does it bother you that the world knows about your financial dealings?
Rollins: Not really. Again it goes back to that publicity angle. Big deals gain attention in the industry: among book buyers, reviewers, and Hollywood types. It’s part and parcel of the business side of writing.
Slushpile: Articles focusing on the negotiations for Map of Bones have quoted your agent Russell Galen. How long have you been represented by Mr. Galen?
Rollins: Russ has been with me since my third book. He is fierce negotiator and an excellent representative in the business. I plan on being with him for a long time.
Slushpile: How did you first establish contact and ultimately a relationship with Mr. Galen?
Rollins: I had another agent originally, but she went into retirement. By that time, Subterranean and Excavation had hit the shelves and a few best-sellers lists. With such credentials, I went looking for a new agent; a much better position to be in than querying agents with hat in hand, unpublished and unproven. I interviewed three different agencies and decided the best fit was with Russ.
Slushpile: Aspiring writers are often obsessed with obtaining representation. All the reference books say to make sure you get a good agent, one you can trust, one who loves your work. But for most new writers, it can be difficult even getting an agent to read the submission. They’re happy to get a positive response from ANY agent. How do they determine if this agent is the right person for them instead of just leaping at the first person who responds positively to their work?
Rollins: I was rejected by fifty different agents before one agreed to represent me. And like you said, getting an agent ain’t easy. It is hard to breach that wall around agents. So my opinion, if you only get the attention of one agent, check to make sure they are legitimate and not a scam agency (ie, asking for up-front money of any sort), then sign on the dotted line. The key to getting published nowadays is being represented–any representative. Once you get your foot in the publishing door, you can always shift agencies that might suit you better. Of course, if you get multiple interest from agents, lucky you! Then you can interview them and pick and choose. But to be honest, that’s a rare alignment of the stars.
Slushpile: On your website, you stress the importance of persistence for aspiring authors. Is there a point where a writer should just give up? Not everyone is going to be able to play in the National Basketball Association and no one tells me (a 32 year old 5’10” guy who never played any organized ball) that I shouldn’t give up my dream of playing for the Lakers. Is there a way a writer can tell if maybe they’re just not cut out to be a professional author?
Rollins: To be an NBA star is a matter of genetics. I don’t believe authors have a genetic predisposition to storytelling. Some talent might be tied to genius, but a vast majority of writers are of garden-variety intellect. I think the only time you should give up your dream of being a writer is when you are not willing to put in the time to hone your craft on a regular basis.
Writing is work, not the stuff of dreams and fantasy. It’s back-breaking, spine-bending, eye-watering, finger-cramping labor. If you’re not ready to put your proverbial nose to the equally-proverbial grindstone, then it’s time to give up the craft.
Slushpile: Map of Bones is written in the past tense. How much do you think about tenses when beginning a book? Did you ever think about presenting this book in the present tense?
Rollins: I think this is a matter of taste and experience. The most common tense in writing is past tense. Present tense works okay in first-person narratives, but otherwise, I personally find it actually distances the reader from the action.
Question: Map of Bones begins with a scene in ancient times, then cuts to two young travelers in Cologne, Germany, then cuts to a fight between covert military operatives in Frederick, Maryland, then cuts to espionage leaders in Washington, DC, then cuts back to Frederick and continues to jump between Frederick and DC several more times. All this movement occurs within the space of 36 pages. How did you write this section? Did you write it as it appears (jumping back and forth) or did you try to get the complete stories for the different locations and then splice them together?
Rollins: I write from point A to point Z. I’m not one of those writers (and barely comprehend those writers) who can jump from scenes throughout a book. I have to write a story sequentially. So to answer your question, yes, I wrote those scenes in the order they appear in the book. But that’s just me. Other writers jump-cut throughout their novels and enjoy writing that way. I just don’t know how to talk to them.
Slushpile: Early in Map of Bones there are some short, declarative, one-sentence paragraphs. For example, at one point the highly-trained covert American military group Sigma is considering the motives of a dangerous mercenary force The Guild. The reader is aware of The Guild’s dangerous threat to our society. After writing about their attempts to operate their evil schemes with impunity, you include a one sentence paragraph that reads “That must not happen.” Another example is when a group is cornered in a cathedral and you point out that there is no exit. Then there is a paragraph that reads “Trapped.” Some readers might say these sentences are too obvious, too heavy-handed. Other readers might say these sentences reflect the urgency of the situation. If an aspiring author has to make the choice between erring on the side of being too obvious or erring on the side of being too subtle, which choice would you make?
Rollins: From a pacing standpoint, when the action kicks up, I think your writing needs to be faster: shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences. The eye flows more fluidly down the page, inflaming the sense of urgency and tension. So when it comes to a scene that is action-driven, go for the gut, don’t worry about being heavy-handed. If you go over the top, your editor will do a fair job of reigning in your prose.
Slushpile: There is a lot of history and information that needs to be disseminated in Map of Bones so the reader can understand what is happening. Many young writers struggle with giving out information, but not making it so obvious and sounding like a lecture. In one scene on a plane, the heroes are brainstorming ideas about strategy and the reader learns a lot of the history and background during that discussion. How else did you distribute the necessary information in the book?
Rollins: An entire book could be written on this subject–but I think essentially you need to frame a quieter scene of narrative information with decent suspense and make sure the information is given in an entertaining way. Also keep it lean. Seed information gradually. Know how much you need to get across throughout the length of the novel and spread it out.
Slushpile: Which characters in Map of Bones did you think of before the project really got underway and which characters were added to serve some need of the plot? For example, I would imagine that the hero, Commander Gray Pierce, was someone you had from day one when working on the book. But the wonderfully executed character of Uncle Vigor, I suspect, might have been added later on to help distribute the necessary historical information.
Rollins: Actually both characters were pre-conceived. Gray, of course, as the main character had his own full bio sheet. Vigor was not so well fleshed out. But I knew he would be in the book. One of the elements that helped build this story was my interest in Vatican spies, priests who were sent into situations as intelligence operatives for the Holy See. I had read a book, Spies in the Vatican, that intrigued me and I knew I wanted to someday include such an agent in one of my novels. So Vigor fit in perfectly here.
Slushpile: How much of the plot do you know before you begin writing? Can you give us an idea of how complete the idea is before you put it down to paper? How much do you alter the plot as you’re writing?
Rollins: I know the beginning and end very well. Even down to opening and ending lines. And I certainly know many of the stepping stones in between. But other than that, I let the story flow organically.
Slushpile: Do you use an outline?
Rollins: I usually sell a novel based on a proposal. This is a detailed synopsis of the full story. So I’m forced to somewhat outline my book. But truth be told, my final version seldom resembles the original storyline, except like I mentioned above: the beginning, the ending, and a few of the stepping stones.
Slushpile: The scope and scale of Map of Bones is incredible. How long did it take you to write this novel?
Rollins: The research took about 3 months and the text took about 9 months to write. This is my usual schedule to get a book out once a year.
Slushpile: Your website says that each evening, you polish the work you produced during the day. Does this make your revision process, after the first draft is completed, go smoother? How much revision do you usually need?
Rollins: I do a rolling edit: I write several pages, then go back and polish, then write more, and polish those. Back and forth, back and forth. As they say, “writing is re-writing.” And yes, this method does allow for less work at the tail end. Usually once the first draft has been “rolled through,” I only need to do a final polish over the entire text to smooth out the remaining rough spots and off to the editor it goes!
Slushpile: The book has settings including Rome, Avignon, Egypt, Washington, DC and many others. You live in Sacramento, California. Did you actually visit all these places or just rely on your research to get the settings correct?
Rollins: I’ve been to Rome and Washington, D.C., but not Alexandria or Avignon. I seldom travel to specifically research a place. It’s usually the other way around. I visit a place for pleasure, take lots of picture, discover tantalizing bits of local lore, and file it all away to be used at some time down the line. As to places where I have never visited (and in many respects, those I did), I do intensive research: libraries, National Geographic, the Internet, and interviews. I really have to feel like I know a place well before I’m comfortable running my characters through there.
Slushpile: On the Acknowledgements page, you mention the need to thank travel agents and fact checkers. Do you have any tips for writing a book of this scale, with so much research, for aspiring authors who might still be working a fulltime job and don’t have the finances for travel, etc. How did you handle these demands when you still had a fulltime veterinary practice?
Rollins: My “fact-checkers” were mostly those folks I interviewed over the phone, so that does not impinge too severely on a budget or a schedule. As for travel, like I mentioned above, you don’t have to travel to a place to write with authority about it. All the resources you need are available at libraries and the Internet. If you have the time and money and desire to travel, great! But it’s certainly not a necessity.
Slushpile: I’m a big watch collector so I noticed that a couple of times you mentioned Commander Pierce checking out his Breitling dive watch. Are you a fan of this brand?
Rollins: Actually a friend of mine, a fellow diver, swears by them. So I included it as a nod to him. But no, I don’t own a Breitling.
Slushpile: You have correctly pointed out that in all fiction the character has to be developed enough to make the reader care. You have said the reader “must care about the characters or why join you on this journey? He must be invested in the character to care about their fate. So though entertainment is the goal, it is equally important to craft characters who will live, breathe, and bleed in your reader’s heart and mind.” How do you develop the character enough to make the reader care, but yet stay streamlined enough to maintain the pace necessary in an adventure novel? “Literary” novels can burn dozens of pages examining the most esoteric feature of a character. You don’t have that luxury. So how do you do it?
Rollins: The short answer: build sympathy. And there are short-cuts to achieve this. Give your characters not only noble traits but a few idiosyncrasies that make them flawed and human. Surround them with friends who like them; this can rub off on the reader. Have sudden tragedy befall them, have them save a child or animal, have them excel at a particular field, especially if it’s unusual for that character. Any and all of this can help establish sympathy between reader and character. And on this very subject, there have been a great number of books published. My favorite: Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.
Slushpile: Sting once said that a major difference between jazz and rock music is that in jazz you get time to warm up, to get into the groove, to find the rhythm and that it might be thirty minutes before you have to play a solo. In rock music, he said, you have to burn from the very first note. Do you think this is a comparable analogy to the difference between adventure fiction and “literary” fiction?
Rollins: Definitely. And I may have to steal that analogy sometime. Genre fiction of the thriller, suspense, and adventure type needs to be lean, mean, with staccato pacing, and sudden swift turns. These are generally plot-driven genres. Most “literary” fiction is character-driven, and such stories are allowed more leeway to wallow in the details as plot is usually thin to non-existent.
Slushpile: Adventure stories are based on suspenseful moments and each successive suspenseful moment should increase in intensity. If the character is first attacked with a knife, then the next time he should face an assailant with a pistol, and the next time he should face an attacker with a machine gun, and so forth. But how does a young writer get a feel for how much down time is necessary between these suspenseful moments?
Rollins: I think the best lesson is your own heartbeat. As the story begins, the story’s plot and pacing are beating slowly. The peaks and troughs are wider and longer. But as the story heats up, the tension rises and the story peaks become higher and more frequent. The lulling troughs are narrower and shorter. Doing this, the very beat of your story accelerates toward the end.
Slushpile: Some people advocate writing so that a character wants something or struggles for something on every page. It doesn’t have to be a life and death struggle; maybe he just wants a cup of coffee so he walks to the kitchen and gets a cup of coffee. But that tension, that desire, should be on every single page. Do you agree with that assertion?
Rollins: I think as a generalization it has merit, but on the practical side, I think it’s exaggerated slightly. I think every scene needs to have a clear goal or desire. Story equals conflict. And the only way to achieve conflict is to set blocks to your character achieving those individual goals: whether they be emotional or physical. If you did this every page, I think it would be too exhausting.
Slushpile: There are quite a few characters in Map of Bones. Do you have any system for tracking your characters and when they appear and what their individual information is? Some authors keep rosters and bios of their characters. Do you have anything like that?
Rollins: I use the very tried-and-true method of using 3X5 index cards. I move them around like chess pieces. I jot down notes on them. They are very messy. But it works for me!
Slushpile: The scale of this novel seems to be begging for a movie. Has anyone bought the film options for this book?
Rollins: Hollywood is always nibbling. NBC optioned Subterranean for a potential mini-series, but nothing came of that. And just last week, I signed a film contract with a production company interested in turning Amazonia into a film project. But Hollywood buys much more than it produces. So we’ll wait and see.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring writers?
Rollins: That’s easy: READ! 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?
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring writers struggling to break into print?
Rollins: As someone who was rejected by 50 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 onto 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!