Monday, August 18, 2014

@ The Poisoned Pen with James Rollins!

Denis and I enjoyed ourselves so much during the author event for Linwood Barclay that the following week we just had to head back to The Poisoned Pen to see if we could repeat the experience with James Rollins.

It's a good thing we got there good and early because people were already milling around when we walked into our favorite bookstore. Before I even took a look at the books, I headed over and reserved our seats. After buying five paperbacks, I sat down in the back with Denis and another Poisoned Pen patron to chat. By the time the event was about to start, the staff were busy trying to squeeze as many chairs in the space as they possibly could to accommodate the crowd.

Before the author made his appearance, Barbara clued us in on a surprise in store for him. We all had a part in it, so we had to know our cues. It was just a little special something because Barbara and the staff were so appreciative of the fact that Rollins made a point of coming to the bookstore for each and every one of his books.

"Bring out the scales!"

L to R: Barbara Peters, James Rollins
James Rollins walked in to a rousing round of applause, and the first thing Barbara made him do was to twirl around to show off "the newer, slimmer James Rollins." It seems that Rollins' publisher kept pushing the fact that Rollins was a caver, even though he hadn't done it for a few years-- "It was related to the expanding size of my waistline," Rollins said. He'd decided that caving was a young man's sport, and that "diving was good because I had the necessary buoyancy." It wasn't until he met a 65-year-old caver that he was inspired to lose weight so he could go back to doing something he loves. 

It was then Barbara's turn to twirl, for she had also lost weight. As she was turning around, someone in the room shouted, "Bring out the scales!" which made everyone in the room laugh.  Barbara said, "Everyone thinks that authors come to The Poisoned Pen just to sell their books, but the real reason is so they can go to our house for dinner and have Rob cook. I have a husband who lives to cook, so this diet was difficult for me-- especially since I'm heading toward seventy-five and I'm female!"

"This book is crap!"

Jenna and Nico
Once the weight loss congratulations were over, Rollins got down to it, telling us that he'd always wanted to set a book at Mono Lake, California, outside Yosemite National Park. When he learned that the government had established secret research labs at Mono Lake during the Cold War, that set fire to his imagination.

Two of the characters in the latest Sigma Force novel, The 6th Extinction, are California park ranger Jenna Beck and her Siberian Husky, Nico. Last year Rollins ran a contest in which entrants were asked to have photographs taken of them in imaginative ways that would make the author laugh. The prize for the winner was being a character in his next book. Jenna and Nico won because of the expression on the dog's face. "He's looking at Jenna like he's saying, 'This book is a piece of crap,'" Rollins said.

For this newest book, Rollins researched synthetic biology. "The more research I do, the creepier and down-the-rabbit-hole it gets," he admitted. There are three groups of people: those who want to preserve today's existing species, those who want to resurrect extinct species like dinosaurs, and those who want to create brand-new species. 

Yesterday's computer hackers concentrated on hacking into the Pentagon or into banks, but today's are focusing on hacking into genetic codes to create brand-new things. One such group started a Kickstarter campaign, and five thousand people signed up to buy and disperse one hundred seeds (each) of a "created glowing weed."

Barbara and James then began to talk about the spread of disease, of pandemics. Barbara brought up the quarantines of her childhood, and the English village of Eyam which shut itself away from the rest of the world in an attempt to stop the spread of the plague. "They now have a cordon around three African countries where Ebola is most prevalent. They're bringing back quarantines because they don't know what else to do," she said.

"Kill us all."

James Rollins
It was so hard keeping up with changes in the world of synthetic biology that Rollins had to keep making changes as he wrote, partly due to the fact that the original genetic alphabet, which consisted of the letters A, G, C, and T, was increased by 50% with the addition of X and Y. A, G, C, and T comprise all life on earth "from slime molds to human beings." What the future will hold with synthetic biology and that X and Y remains to be seen.

Rollins then gave us a brief synopsis of The 6th Extinction:

"A remote military research station sends out a frantic distress call, ending with a chilling final command: Kill us all! Personnel from the neighboring base rush in to discover everyone already dead-- and not just the scientists, but every living thing for fifty square miles is annihilated: every animal, plant, and insect, even bacteria.

The land is entirely sterile-- and the blight is spreading
."  And of course it's up to Sigma Force to save the world.

Talk then moved to Darwin, with Rollins telling us that we'll have to read his latest book to find out his theory on why there was a 22-year gap between Darwin's voyage on the Beagle and his publication of The Origin of Species. Barbara also wondered why the captain of the Beagle committed suicide.

Rollins moved back to the book, reminding us that this was the tenth anniversary of Sigma Force so we may be seeing familiar faces from previous books as well as looking forward to what may happen in the future.

Rollins told us how he prefers writing a series based on a group of characters, thus avoiding the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome. An author can't write true jeopardy or peril if the main character always comes back-- as Jessica always does. "And why is she always stumbling over dead bodies? This is a problem for the suspension of disbelief. The only resolution I could see to this was the revelation at the end of the series that Jessica Fletcher was a serial killer who's been framing everybody else all along. Then that series would work for me," Rollins said. This man definitely knows how to keep his audience laughing.

"I was in bed one Sunday morning...."

The Kill Switch was next up for discussion, with Peters saying that she really liked the way Rollins incorporated Kane the war dog's point of view into the narrative. Rollins, who is a veterinarian, does have insight into a dog's behavior and in particular he wanted Kane's point of view to be realistic in order to honor these military hero dogs. His solution? Kane's point of view is written in present tense-- the way a dog experiences the world-- and the rest of the book is written in past tense. (Chalk up another book for me to read.)

Rollins told us that some fans have complained, telling him that the dog is totally unrealistic and "Super Kane"; however, those soldiers who have actually worked with these dogs read the book and told him that he's reining them in-- that these dogs in reality are capable of much more. "This is one of those cases when truth is stranger than fiction," Rollins said.

The second Sigma Force book, Map of Bones, got a brief mention from Barbara as having "the most kick-ass opening thirty pages for a thriller I've ever read."  Rollins then told us of a thirty-page outline he submitted for his first Sigma Force book. Detailed, single-spaced. Then... "I woke up in bed one Sunday morning wondering what would happen if someone poisoned a communion wafer in church? What would happen? It just wouldn't go away, so I emailed my editor and told her in three sentences about this idea for another book in the series.  A half hour after I sent the email, she wrote back and told me to 'Write that one instead.' They don't get thirty-page outlines anymore. They get three lines."

Peters wanted to know if Rollins was going to be able to keep up his three-book-a-year pace for much longer. "It's okay, but we'll see if I can survive it. Of course we have an idea for a whole new trilogy!"

Q & A & Surprise

Just before the question and answer section began, James Rollins got his surprise: a huge cake with candles honoring the tenth anniversary of Sigma Force and everyone in the room singing "Happy Book Day!" 

James Rollins and his anniversary surprise

Once the photo moment was over and we'd calmed down a bit, Rollins was asked where he got his ideas. Rollins replied, "From locations where I'd like to set my stories, from history, and from science. I collect all these facts as I travel. I allow myself 90 days for research, and by the 91st day, I have to start writing."

Rollins likes to travel just for the fun of it. While he is traveling, he journals, takes plenty of photographs, and asks locals about strange things in the area. This behavior often provides the seeds of ideas for books. It's rare that he travels specifically to research a book, although his research technique is a combination of interviewing, books, and some travel.

Available Now!
A woman then said, "I'm an archaeologist, and I've noticed that you seem to take great glee in totally obliterating archaeological sites. Do you have something against archaeologists?" Rollins looked at her with a twinkle in his eye and replied, "No, I just like blowing things up." He then told us that when he was asked in the third grade what he wanted to be when he grew up, number one on his list was veterinarian-- and number two was archaeologist.

The International Thriller Writers sent authors to Iraq in "Operation Thriller" for the soldiers fighting over there, and that's where Rollins got his idea for Tucker and Kane. One of the things the authors who went over there tried to do was to encourage the soldiers to write down their experiences-- to leave a written historical record that can be shared with generations to come. Peters mentioned how email and Skype have completely taken over from writing letters and journals. She then shared a story about the guide alone on top of Mt. Everest who was able to use his satellite phone to call his wife in New Zealand before he died. 

Rollins looked out at us and asked, "Want me to tell you the story that creeps me out? It's a true story. If you hear this story, it will change you.

"This woman at home got a call from her daughter who was on a camping trip in Alaska. Her daughter reports, 'We've been attacked by bears. Killed my boyfriend. My legs are broken. The bear's going to eat me.'  The mother is frantic. She's trying to reach somebody, but she doesn't know where her daughter is. The phone goes dead. A half hour later, the phone comes back on. 'Mom, it's me again. The mother bear left. She brought her cubs with her this time. I don't feel any pain. But I just wanted to say I love you.' And those are the last words she heard from her daughter. There. A horrible story. But true!"

Barbara and the rest of us were rather shocked at what her Everest story had spawned. "The world... in some respects we're more remote than ever, we're more alone than ever due to technology, and in other ways we're more in touch than we've ever been able to be before," Peters said. Rollins agreed. "The world's definitely gotten smaller with all this technology, but it's also gotten more isolating."

After another question about Rollins' middle school series featuring Dick Ransom, which are being reissued one every six months, prizes were handed out, the big one being a complete set of the first nine Sigma Force novels, each with a special wax seal and an autograph.

Before the evening ended, however, someone in the audience informed us that Rollins' birthday was in a week, so this time we all sang "Happy Birthday" to him while he turned a lovely shade of pink.

What an evening! For the second week in a row, Denis ordered an audiobook of one of the author's novels from his phone, then-- after we talked all the way home, I started looking up all the Rollins books I intended to get my hands on. Yes, attending these author events can get expensive if you have no restraint, but you simply cannot beat meeting authors and spending time with fellow book fans!


  1. Thank you for an interesting post

  2. Cathy - I love reading about your PP trips. Not only is it a nice way to get to know an author a little better, but also, the place itself sounds fabulous! I hope I'll get there one day...

  3. Me, too! I love reading about the PP trips, the humor and even the book purchases. That picture of Jenna and Nico is adorable; what other author would have an idea like that?
    That dog does look like he's reading.

    And I'm amazed that Barbara Peters is nearly 75! She looks ageless, and certainly much younger that her real age. Must be her glee for books and authors that's keeping her young.

    1. I think you're right about Barbara, Kathy!


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