James Rollins didn't set out to be the best-selling author of four different series under two different names. First, he was a veterinarian.
Rollins will be in Naples on Monday as the second speaker in the 2012 Nick Linn Lecture Series, presented by the Friends of the Library of Collier County. Brad Meltzer was the kickoff speaker last week; Rollins will be followed by Andrew Gross (March 13) and Lisa See (March 26). For information and tickets, call 239-262-8135.
A Chicago native, Rollins earned his veterinary degree from the University of Missouri in 1985 and went into practice in Sacramento, Calif. He sold his first novel, "Witch Fire," under the pen name James Clemens in 1999. Since then, as Rollins, he has published seven stand-alone adventure novels, including the novelization of the movie "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." In addition, there are now seven books in his Sigma Force series, with the eighth, "Bloodline," due out in June.
Rollins has also written two "Jake Ransom" books for children and adults. As Clemens, he has published four more "Witch" novels in "the Banned and the Banished" series and two "Godslayer" books.Ahead of his visit, Rollins answered questions via email.
Q: Which of your varied series is your favorite as a writer? In which characters do we see you as you imagine yourself?
Rollins: They certainly all have some special place in my heart, but as I've always been a bit of an armchair archaeologist, I'd have to lean toward the Sigma series, which features a team of former Special Forces soldiers who have been retrained in various fields of science to protect against global threats. The lead character in that series, Commander Gray Pierce, gets to explore all corners of the world, digging through ruins, searching ancient tombs, and unearthing historical mysteries. So as the writer, I get to be dragged along on his adventures and get to do things I can't normally do in my everyday life.
Q: Do you ever feel constricted by your characters or series?
Rollins: I actually resisted doing a series for several years. I was concerned with what I describe as the "Murder She Wrote Syndrome." Each week of that television series, Jessica Fletcher would stumble over a dead body. Eventually this begins to stretch the laws of probabilities (unless Jessica Fletcher was secretly a serial killer, pinning all these murders on some innocent bystander ... that I would buy). Also viewers knew that Ms. Fletcher was not going to die at the end of each episode, so it makes it harder to maintain suspense if you know that character is not in any real jeopardy. I got around these two problems by creating a team of characters in my Sigma series. So the jeopardy can come from many different directions and no single member of the team is indispensable, each is at risk. And this has allowed me to kill off major characters over the course of the series.
Q: Will Sigma Force be your legacy, or is that book or books still working through your mind?
Rollins: I hope Sigma is not my legacy. I have so many stories still to tell. In fact, in my office at home, I've got literally boxfuls of ideas and bits of story collected, more than I can probably write in a lifetime. And as a writer, I'm always striving to make each book better than the last. So I hope the best is yet to come!
Q: What is your process for developing story ideas and following them through to publication?
Rollins: First comes the "Big Concept." I always keep my antenna up, searching for that next big story idea. It may come from reading an article in National Geographic or Scientific American. Or it might come from a jotted note while watching something on the History or Discovery channels. I'm usually looking for that bit of cutting-edge science that I can pair up with a historical mystery. Once I have my topic, then comes all the research necessary to construct the basic plot. I love this part of the process — probably too much — so I limit myself to 90 days of research and plot development. On the 91st day, I must start writing the story. And that first draft generally takes nine months, with another month or two to polish it up with my editor.
Q: You went to vet school, a rigorous route for anyone, and unusual for a writer. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Rollins: There's the old adage that you should "write every day" if you wish to get published, which is definitely true. You do need to practice and hone your craft. But I'd like to add a caveat to that old nugget: "Write everyday, but read every night." There is no better teacher on the craft than a good book. Whatever problem you struggle with during your writing day (dialogue, opening a scene, etc), you'll discover a great example on how to address that in the book you read that night. If you write every day and read every night, you'll grow stronger and stronger as a writer.
Q: What will be the focus of your lecture in Naples?
Rollins: I'll be sharing more details about my personal journey from veterinarian to best-selling author — trust me, it was a rocky road that holds much insight and lessons for any would-be writer. I'll also be tackling the subject of e-books and discussing the new paradigm that's shifting the entire publishing world.
Q: "Bloodline" is due to be published on June 26. Any new projects for which readers should be watching?
Rollins: I do have a new joint project that I'm just finishing up that I'm not at liberty to discuss due to its potentially explosive and controversial subject matter. For this huge project, I've teamed up with an award-winning mystery writer, Rebecca Cantrell, and all I can tell right now is its title, "The Blood Gospel."
Q: Finally, ever any thoughts of forgetting deadlines and returning to the vet clinic?
Rollins: I love veterinary medicine, and I'll never fully give it up. Even now, I do volunteer work with a local group that traps and collects feral cats in the region. I spend one Sunday a month spaying and neutering the cats. Once healed, they are released where they were trapped. Basically this is all in an effort to curb the kitten factories that these feral cat colonies can become. So I'll always keep at least one toe in the field of veterinary medicine — the other toes will be off on a wild adventure in some far-flung corner of the world.