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Most Read Interviews

All TopShelf Interviews


JAMES ROLLINS is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of international thrillers, translated into more than forty languages. His Sigma series has been lauded as one of the "top crowd pleasers" (New York Times) and one of the "hottest summer reads" (People Magazine). In each novel, acclaimed for its originality, Rollins unveils unseen worlds, scientific breakthroughs, and historical secrets––and he does it all at breakneck speed and with stunning insight.

Now, on with our discussion:


THE DEMON CROWN, slated to be released on December 5, 2017, is the 13th Sigma Force book you've written. Obviously, it's hard to maintain that momentum In a long series. How do you come up with fresh ideas to continuously evolve both the characters and the plot?


I actually have the opposite problem. I have so many thoughts and ideas for future books (or short stories) that I wish I could clone myself so I can get them out of my head. As to the origin for all those ideas, I always have my antennae up for three things: a piece of history that ends in a question mark, a tantalizing bit of science that makes me wonder “what if?”, and finally, some intriguing locale where those first two could collide. I collect all those tidbits on a daily basis, from reading newsfeeds, from magazines I subscribe to, or simply from asking someone “tell me something about this place that no one else knows about.”  It’s the latter method that generates the best story ideas.


What made you choose Alexander Graham Bell as the leader of the scientists protecting humankind against this terrifying secret?


To me, Alexander Graham Bell could be a member of Sigma Force.  Here we have a scientist and inventor who was not above a little skullduggery…in this case, literally.  I was fascinated to learn that Mr. Bell at one point absconded in secret to Europe to steal the bones of the founder of the Smithsonian Institution from a graveyard in Genoa, Italy. There, he bribed people, lied about his intentions, then in the middle of a snowstorm, he secured those bones and transported them back to America, where they reside today at the Smithsonian Castle.


In 2008 you were commissioned to write the novelization of INDIANA JONES AND THE CRYSTAL SKULL. How did this opportunity present itself and how exciting was that experience?


My earliest books were often compared to Indiana Jones, what with my mix of archaeology, crazy adventures, and international intrigue.  So when I was approached to write the novelization to the fourth Indiana Jones movie, how could I refuse?  I was a huge fan, even rushing wet from a weekend white-water rafting trip to a theater to catch a sneak preview of Raiders when it first debuted. So to be able to put on Indy’s hat and crack his whip—if only in my own head as I was writing the novel—was such great fun. I was also allowed to pepper a dozen or more new scenes into the story to flesh out the plot and characterizations, which was a dream come true. 


Being an active spelunker and scuba diver, have you ever written any of your own personal adventures or experiences into one of your books? 


All the time.  My first novel, Subterranean, takes place almost entirely underground, leaning on my past hobby as a caver. My love of scuba diving gave rise to my third novel Deep Fathom, which deals with a marine salvage operation and the mayhem that follows when Air Force One crashes into the Pacific. I still love to travel, to explore off the beaten track. Some of my adventures (and misadventures) along the way were used in various novels over the years.


A recurring theme in your novels seem to be the advancement of technology and how it affects us. What are your personal views on this advancement? 


As a veterinarian myself, I’ve always loved science, medicine, and technology, especially anything that’s cutting edge and new.  In my books, it’s not so much the cogs and wheels of that new bit of science that intrigues me as it is where that technology might be heading and how it might affect our lives—good or bad. The rapid advancement of such technologies often challenges the moral compasses of society and to have that mirrored by my characters during their adventures adds that touch of relevancy to a novel. At least, I hope it does.  I always love to hear from readers who have been intrigued by something I raise in one of the books and gone on ahead and pursued their own investigation into those subjects.


Looking back at your previous writing process versus your current one, what advice could you offer new authors that could help streamline their efforts?


When I was working full-time as a veterinarian, I made a commitment to write three double-spaced pages per day (5 out of 7 days of the week). It took me some trial-and-error to come to this schedule, but every writer needs to find that balance in their life. To wait for inspiration before writing is seldom a path to success. I still keep to that schedule, though my page count is higher now that I write full-time.


When you submitted your first manuscript, and it was ultimately picked up by Harper Collins, did you have to make adjustments to it?


Definitely.  The old adage “Writing=Rewriting” still holds as true today with my process as it did at the beginning. I go through countless drafts before my editor ever sees one word. When I submitted my first novel, I thought the “rewriting” was over.  Nope. By the time I was finished working with my editor, a quarter of the novel ended up on the cutting-room floor. And she was right. It needed it.


If a library or bookstore would like to request an appearance or signing by you, what would be the best way to schedule it? 


The best contact for such a request would be my publicist at William Morrow/HarperCollins:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Obviously, not every book can be displayed front and center in a bookstore. But, let's say you had the ability to help your favorite bookstore merchandise your latest novel. How might you ensure that your book isn't lost in the crowd?


Whenever I visit a bookstore, especially independents, I love to read those staff recommendation cards that are affixed to shelves below select titles. I’ve often discovered new authors through those recommendations. So if there were any stores with workers who enjoy my novels, any such endorsements would be greatly appreciated. It’s word-of-mouth that grows a readership far more effectively than any marketing campaign. 


Clearly, a lot of research goes into your books. How do you go about researching your books and how much time is spent on it?


I certainly do love to dig deep into the subject matters I write about.  I love it so much I’ve learned over the years that I have to rein myself in a bit.  I limit my main block of research on a novel to 90 days.  On the 91st day, I have to begin writing. That all said, I’m also a bit of a lazy researcher. I prefer to interview people and pick their brains versus drily reading some history lesson or scientific treatise. Rather than having to earn a degree on a certain subject, I’d rather query people who have already earned those PhDs. Such a method often uncovers tantalizing details that I would’ve never found in a book, magazine article, or Internet search.


What is one thing you wish you had known as a budding writer that you could share with other authors?


I’ve never had any formal training in writing, so for the longest time, I convinced myself that it would be impossible for me to ever get a book published. I read a lot…and I mean a LOT.  And that instilled the desire to one day try my hand at writing, but again that earlier doubt competed with that desire to actually pick up pen and paper. But as I continued to read, it whetted that appetite to write, enough for me to finally squash that doubt. So if I had to share one wish:  If you want to write—then write. It’s that simple. 


We're all human, so I imagine you must have periods when you just don't feel like writing. With such high demands on your time and incredibly tight book release schedules, how do you overcome these down moments?


It goes back to that schedule. I don’t wait for inspiration to write or even the desire to write. I write because I have a daily goal of pages to complete.  It’s sort of a carrot-and-stick method. If I procrastinate, then I’m writing until the wee hours of the morning. If I get cracking early, then I might finish those pages early and be able to catch a late matinee.  So maybe the incentive here is less “carrot” and more “movie popcorn.”


You love to include scientific gems in your books. What is one such gem that we might expect to discover in your newest novel?


This novel serves as a cautionary reminder that we are not living in the Age of Man, but rather—as has been true for over 400 million years—we are living in the Age of Insects. In fact, it is now hypothesized that insects contributed—if not led—to the extinction of the dinosaurs. How? From analysis of recent fossil records, it has been discovered that these tiny predators attacked those lumbering giants while they were weakened by the climatic changes at the end of the Cretaceous Period, contributing significantly to their demise. At that opportune moment in pre-history, insects took advantage to finally rid the planet of their main competitor for all those new plants and flowers—and in one fell swoop, ended the Age of Dinosaurs.


Which, of course, begs the question concerning the insect’s latest competitor for the earth’s dwindling natural resources:  Could we be their next target? 


You've been a member of a critique group since your early days. How has that been helpful to your writing career?


I joined my group long before I was ever published, and I’m still with the same circle of writers and readers today.  They critique every page before it ever sees my editor.  I’ve learned to value and appreciate their viewpoints, as each member brings their own eyes and background to the table. The group contains members with military backgrounds, PhDs, teachers, and housewives.  They not only bring a critical eye, but also offer encouragement and support on the long road to composing a novel. They are my secret weapon.  


As a bestselling author, do you still do any of your own marketing and promotion, and if so, how?


Back when I first started writing, author websites were a rarity. Today, all of the many outlets of social media allow an author to directly connect to a reader. It’s one of the greatest marketing tools available to us. I remember decades ago trying to tell my publishing house about this new vehicle for telling people about my books. It was called Facebook. My house said basically “Don’t bother. It’s a fad.” I didn’t take their advice and was an early adopter of the platform. And it continues to this day. I love having that immediacy with my readership, whether it’s sharing something from my day or talking about the genesis of a new book. I test titles via social media. I talk about plots and characters. It’s a great way of involving readers, of making them part of the process. 


Is there any one outlet that you've found, that's had a huge impact on helping to promote your work? 


That would be social media, mainly Facebook, but also Twitter, Snapchat, Periscope, etc.


Is there any advice you could give to a small bookstore that you feel could give them an edge over a large chain?


In a word: Knowledge. I know that I value the opinion of those small bookstore employees, whether it’s those staff recommendation cards on bookshelves or simply chatting up a worker about what they’re reading and enjoying. You seldom get the level of personal attention and knowledge from chain stores. I would say almost every new author I started reading was first introduced to me by an independent bookstore seller. Word of mouth sells books far better than any expensive marketing plan.  And that’s where small bookstores have a huge advantage:  They love and live books. That’s a well of strength and knowledge that a chain store will never match.  


Are there ways that fans can interact with you on social media, and if so, how?


As I mentioned, I’m very active on Facebook and Twitter, so that’s where you’ll find me spending way too time.  As to my website, it’s more of an encyclopedia of my work, where you can discover all about the books, my background, the charities I support, even a section about writing for those future authors out there. Otherwise, for the day to day peek at my life, Facebook is best. I also run contests, quizzes with prizes, and tackle whatever catches my eye that day.


I understand that you warmly support American veterans and that you’re involved with The US 4 Warriors Foundation. Please explain a little about this fine organization and what your role is there.


My support for various veteran organizations came about when I participated in a USO tour of authors to Iraq and Kuwait in the winter of 2010. Prior to that trip abroad, I also got the chance to visit Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital and met many of the warriors wounded on the battlefield. Upon coming home, I knew I wanted to do more. First, I worked with USA Cares (USACares.org), which raises emergency funds for vets in need, then most recently I joined US 4 Warriors (US4Warriors.org) as an advisory board member. The new charity started as a grassroots effort in San Diego and has since expanded nationwide. Besides helping to promote the social welfare of vets in a wide spectrum of activities, the latest endeavor also involves helping veterans tell their stories…and get published! So I’m excited as US 4 Warriors expands into this adventure.


How much say do you have in the creation of your book covers? Is this something your publisher takes care of or do you like having say?


Ah, I wish I could say I had much input at all—or could take credit. But as a book’s cover is a significant marketing tool, the artwork is handled in house at William Morrow by a crack team. They do keep me in the loop as a new cover undergoes the process of production, and the team asks me for ideas, but ultimately the final product usually has little or any of my fingerprints on them.


Do you have a favorite bookstore? If so, what is it about that store that makes it stand out for you?


I’d have to say Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona. Over the years, I’ve come to know the owner and staff very well. They’ve been supportive of my career from the very beginning, so how could I not love them?  But I also love Murder by the Book in Houston, and of course, the megalopolis that is Powell’s Books in Portland. If there’s one detail that stands out about all three of them, it’s their knowledgeable staff. Those people love books, and as a writer, there’s not much more a person can ask than that. 


What is the one book that has had the most influence on your life and/or writing career and why?


I’m going to pick two books. First, The Shipping New by E. Annie Proulx. I try to read the big award winners every year, so I picked up a copy—and it changed me a writer. Even my critique group noted the change.  E. Annie Proulx does something with language, sentence structure, and storytelling that I’d never experienced before. It unlocked something in my brain and freed my writing, making me a better storyteller. I don’t think I’d be published today if I hadn’t read that book.


Second, I’d pick Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. That novel also greatly influenced my writing, so much so that I had a copy above my desk when I was working on my first novel (Subterranean). I used that book as my coda on how to construct and plot a thriller. Again, I don’t know if my first book would have ever sold if not for the lessons found within the pages of Crichton’s thriller.


What was the most memorable thing that has happened to you throughout your writing career?


Far and above, it was meeting my literary heroes. And I think the greatest thrill of all was being able to interview Clive Cussler on stage at ThrillerFest. I was tongue-tied and in awe, having grown up reading the adventures of Dirk Pitt. And here was the author himself, seated across from me. It’s a moment I’ll treasure forever.


What was the pivotal point in your career when you realized that this was going to work—that you were going to be a successful author?


You know, I had stumbled across a rule of thumb on when an author might start considering “giving up the day job” to write full time. The answer was when an author has five books out on a shelf. I forgot that I had read this until I sold my veterinary practice and transitioned to a full-time writer.  Only then did I realize this was indeed when my fifth novel had hit the shelves. So I guess that rule of thumb held true, at least in my case.  That all said, I still do charitable work as a veterinarian, basically performing free spays and neuters for the local shelter. I enjoy doing this, but also deep down I know it’s best to keep my scalpel sharpened…in case, this writing business ever comes crashing down.