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The WD Interview: James Rollins

James Rollins publishes two books per year—one fantasy, one thriller—and finds his latest book garnering comparisons to The Da Vinci Code.  by Maria Schneider

You can call him James Rollins. You can call him James Clemens. You can even call him James Czajkowski. Just don’t call him Dan Brown.

James Rollins, 43, is an author who writes action/adventure novels mixed with Catholic mysticism, history and exotic settings. Publishers Weekly named Rollins’ latest suspense novel, Map of Bones, one of the top five contenders for “the Da Vinci crown.”

But he’s no pretender. Since 1999, Rollins has been putting out one smart thriller after another, including Subterranean, Excavation, Deep Fathom, Amazonia, Ice Hunt and Sandstorm. Not content to write just one book a year, Rollins also writes fantasies under the pseudonym James Clemens, including the popular Banned and the Banished series, and his most recent offering, book No. 1 in his new Shadowfall series.

Rollins talked to us recently about the challenges of writing in two different genres, under two different names, for two different publishers—while still managing to put out one great tale after another.

You were a veterinarian with your own clinic before you became a novelist. How’d you make that leap?

I wrote a lot in junior high and high school and took some creative writing classes, but I was set on being a veterinarian. I always read voraciously, and I always wanted to be a writer, but it didn’t seem like a career. When I got accepted to vet school, I put writing aside for 10 years or so. I kept thinking: One of these days … . The turning point was when I hit my 30th birthday. I thought, If really want to write, it’s time to start. I picked up the book How to Write a Novel in 90 Days. The author said to just write three pages a day, and I figured, I can do this. I never got past Page 3 of that book.

I started writing short stories. I tried writing horror, mystery, science fiction. I joined a little critique group here in town and ran my stories past them. After about three years, I tackled my first novel, Subterranean. It took me 11 months to write.

How did you make your first sale?

My sale for Subterranean happened the old-fashioned way—sending out queries and sample chapters. Fifty different agents rejected me at first. I didn’t want to get too wrapped up in the rejection, so I started working on a fantasy during the process of querying Subterranean. I was about 200 pages into my fantasy Wit’ch Fire when I got a call from an agent. She liked Subterranean and asked, “What are you working on next?” When I told her, she responded that she didn’t represent fantasy. I thought, Great, I’ve got an agent but she’s not going to represent my next work.

I decided to go ahead and finish the book anyway. I’d already submitted the first 50 pages of Wit’ch Fire to the Maui Writers Conference contest. I was at a cocktail party at Maui that first night, and I met Terry Brooks, one of my favorite authors since junior high. I was telling him what a big fan I was, exhibiting typical fan behavior, and he looked at my name tag and said, “Oh, I’m a big fan of yours, too.” Well, I gave a little awkward laugh, and he said, “I was one of the judges of this year’s contest. I loved your manuscript and passed it on to my publisher.”

As a result, I was offered a three-book deal with Del Rey for the Wit’ch fantasy series. And just after I got back from Maui, HarperCollins picked up Subterranean.

Why the different pen names?

Initially, I was thinking about writing in both genres under the same name. But the publishing houses on both sides agreed that the same name wasn’t going to be on both novels. They also agreed that the name on the cover wasn’t going to be my real name, Czajkowski.

Does having two identities ever cause problems? And are you able to cross-promote your books, even though they’re with different publishing houses?

I’ve mis-signed many a book Rollins or Clemens. My readers quickly become aware. Booksellers will often promote me under both names, and I do plug both at signings. Generally, the fantasy reader has no problem going into the suspense genre. It’s harder for the typical suspense reader to go the other direction.

How would you describe the difference in your writing style for your fantasies vs. your thrillers?

Thrillers are faster, more staccato-paced, more plot-driven. Fantasies are a bit slower, more character-driven. There are formulas the readers in both genres expect, and you want to stick with those to some extent. There are certain expectations, certain tropes that exist. At the same time, a lot of those tropes are becoming tired and clichéd, and they need some new life.

You set your novels in exotic locations—the Middle East, the Amazon—how do you go about researching these places? Do you feel the need to travel there?

It’s usually the other way around—I go someplace and then want to write about it. I take notes when I travel, and most of the time I’ll go back to my notes and the description I need is there. I’m always trying to make that triangle between some exotic locale, science and history.

Scientific theory is woven into Map of Bones and your other thrillers. Does the idea for the story come first, then the research? Or do you find out about some bit of science that’s so compelling it leads to the story?

I read constantly, both fiction and nonfiction. I subscribe to magazines like Scientific American and National Geographic and am always finding little tidbits of info. I cut them out and put them away. I go through those notes every few weeks and think about whether or not a novel is there. I accumulate information and try to tie this to some plot.

I also interview experts in the field I’m interested in writing about. Generally, if you preface an interview request with, “I’m an author writing a book,” for some reason, that seems to open a lot of doors.

The Catholic history and theology detailed in Map of Bones— you’ve said that it’s all based in fact. Can you comment on this?

I thought I was pretty well-versed in Catholicism, having been raised Catholic. I’d also been to Rome and, while there, I read a book on the history of the papacy. I learned that for almost a century, the papacy wasn’t in Rome; it was in France. There was another pope in Rome, so the two popes were vying for control. I realized that was a great point to start a story.

What is it about the Catholic church and Catholic history that makes for such compelling story fodder?

We’re Eurocentric when it comes to our history, and the guiding force for a lot of European history is the Catholic church. When you have human nature trying to find balance with religion—that’s high drama.

Reviewers have compared Map of Bones to The Da Vinci Code. What was your initial reaction to that comparison?

I knew when I was writing Map of Bones that it would be compared to The Da Vinci Code. And what author wouldn’t want to have a book with that success? But I don’t like the idea of getting dumped into a category, like I’m trying to glom onto The Da Vinci Code appeal. I want to be my own voice, not get lost in that shadow. My books have always contained history, science and theology. My first novel dealing with Catholicism, Excavation, was released in 2000.

Is it difficult moving between the fantasy and suspense genres? Do you write them concurrently?

I tried doing that once but didn’t like it—it’s too hard. The writing styles are very different. I found myself losing productive writing time trying to make that gear switch. I write all the way through now. And I’m always doing research on my next suspense while I’m writing a fantasy, and while writing a suspense, I’m keeping notes for my next fantasy.

Have you come to favor one genre over the other?

The genre I love best is the one I’m not writing. If I’m writing a suspense, and I’ve backed my characters into a jam, I think, It would be nice to be able to use magic here. And sometimes when I’m writing a fantasy, I think it’s so difficult introducing an entirely unknown world to a reader because there’s no common knowledge to lean on. Each genre has its constraints.

You’re so prolific. Do you ever deal with writer’s block?

With two books a year, I don’t have time for writer’s block.

Any thoughts of going beyond fantasy and suspense?

I’d like to do a James Herriot-type novel—a veterinarian novel. When I was working 60 hours a week running the clinic, writing was my escape. When I let go of my vet career, animals started appearing in my books. I didn’t even realize it—readers pointed it out to me.

What’s your writing routine like?

I write six days a week. I get up in the morning and write for two or three hours. Then I take a break, go to the gym, do my errands, then write more in the afternoon. I write on a computer. I don’t know how people ever wrote in longhand. I keep two sets of journals, little black notepads. There’s a stack of them for my thrillers and a stack for my fantasies.

Your hobbies—deep-sea diving and spelunking—pop up with frequency in your stories.

They tell you to write what you know. It’s also a way for me to be inside the house writing and under the water at the same time. But my characters are far more courageous than I am. I’d never do cave diving—it’s incredibly dangerous—so I get to experience it with my characters.

Your novels have intricate plots. Are you a believer in outlining?

I think for plot-driven stories, it’s more important to outline. For character-driven novels, it’s much less important. For example, my outline for Sandstorm was 25 pages, single-spaced, while the outline for the first book in my new fantasy series is just four pages.

I do always know the beginning, the end and many of the plot turning points before I begin writing.

Any final advice for writers?
Perseverance and persistence. Keep plugging at it. Just three pages a day. Set a goal, set a personal deadline and keep sending your work out there. 

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