Interview with James Rollins
(James Rollins took some time out of his busy schedule to speak to us about the writing craft, his bestselling books and much more, a more complete version of this interview will appear in the Strand next year)
AFG: What would you say was the most difficult book for you was to write?
JR: I’d have to say it was my first novel, Subterranean. As I had no formal training for a career as a novelist, everything was a new learning experience for me: how to structure a novel, how to contact an agent, etc. At the time, I ran a busy veterinary clinic, and writing was just a hobby. And because of that almost 24/7 schedule, I thought I could only fit short stories into my life. I wrote over two dozen stories, which are now all safely buried in my backyard. Then Marion Zimmer Bradley—the author one of my favorite historical fantasies, The Mists of Avalon—rejected one of those stories for her magazine Realms of Fantasy, but she was kind enough to send me a handwritten letter informing me that “yes, Jim, you can write but fundamentally I think you are a novelist not a short story writer.” So I took her advice to heart, especially recognizing that I preferred to read novels (and the longer the better) versus the snippets that were short stories. But again with no formal training and a busy schedule, learning to fit a full-length novel into that crammed schedule was a challenge. Luckily, I decided not to reinvent the wheel and used Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park as a road map in how to pace and plot my first big opus: on what page did the antagonist appear in Crichton’s book, when did the first character die, where in the novel does the first dinosaur step onstage? Using that template and committing to write three double-spaced pages a day, I began to slowly stitch together an adventure set two miles beneath Antarctica.
AFG: At what point did you know that you’d be comfortable enough to write for a living?
JR: During that learning curve on becoming an author, I remember I had read a rule of thumb at some point that stated: “You should only expect to give up your day job when you have five books on the shelves earning royalties.” I didn’t use that adage as a goal, but lo and behold, once I felt the income from my books was steady enough to begin stepping away from the veterinary clinic, I counted the books, and yep, I had five books on the shelf. It didn’t hurt that I also had a television option from NBC for that first novel, Subterranean, under my belt, too. So that certainly helped my confidence. Still, the process was gradual. I sold my clinic but remained working there as an employee, then over the course of another year, I began to wean my hours: from full-time, to part-time, to only weekend. Now all I do with my veterinary career is volunteer at a local shelter. So life has basically flipped around for me. Writing has become my paycheck, and veterinary medicine is now my hobby.
AFG: Do you outline or do you write just from an idea and then carry it on for a full-length novel?
JR: Ah, the yin and yang of writing. Do you outline or write from the seat of your pants? I’ve seen fistfights break out at panels where outliners and organic writers try to defend which is the better method. For me, I’m somewhere in between. I often know the last line of book before I even write the first line. I also establish the tent poles to a story beforehand, a necessity for the roller coaster plots that I love to build. But I prefer not to know how A connects to ,B, then to C. For me the joy of a writing day is that sense of discovery, where an unexpected character trait pops up or a twist to the plot tangles my characters into a jam. At least for me, it helps the writing feel fresher and less structured and, hopefully, more unpredictable for the reader.
AFG: There is everything in your books from history, science, adventure—where do you go to find inspiration?
JR: I’m not being glib when I say everywhere. I always have my antennas up for that next great tidbit or idea. I subscribe to 22 magazines (some print, some online), I have newsfeeds trickling information daily, I’m addicted to the Discovery, History, and National Geographic channels, and when I travel I take a ton of pictures and ask locals strange questions (“Tell me something about your town that no one knows about.”). I collect these breadcrumbs from everywhere, mainly concentrating on historical mysteries, cutting-edge science, and colorful locations. I’m also a bit of an adrenaline junkie, always willing to try something new. I love to try to instill that thrill into my books. For example, I just did my first solo skydive, so expect to see a character doing the same in an upcoming book.