20 Questions: James Rollins

Photo credit: David Sylvian

Best-selling author James Rollins reveals a talent to PopMatters 20 Questions not otherwise seen in his many books -- beware, kitties and politicians, lest he approach you wielding a scalpel.

New York Times bestselling author of international thrillers, James Rollins, has seen his books sold to over 30 countries, thus far. The Last Oracle, Black Order, and The Judas Strain earned national accolades, such as one of 2005's “top crowd pleasers (New York Times) and as one of 2006's “hottest summer reads (People Magazine). He was hand-picked to novelize this summer's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. His most current thriller, The Doomsday Key, published June 2009.

Rollins may thank Doc Savage, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells for sending him down his adventurous, prolific, and successful path, but there’s another side to the man not revealed (but perhaps concealed) in the pages of his many books. Beware, kitties and politicians, we learn on PopMatters 20 Questions, lest he approach you wielding a scalpel…

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

That would be Marley & Me. C'mon, I'm a veterinarian. What do you expect? I had read the book and should've known better than to attempt the movie.

I first read the book on an airplane and had to keep closing the book every couple paragraphs near the end, so I wouldn't start sobbing like an idiot on the plane. Knowing this, I avoided the movie at the theater and got it from Netflix. That way I could watch it in the privacy of my own house (with the shades drawn). I thought I was prepared, but when the final denouement played out, I was a mess.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I' d say Tom Sawyer. Having grown up in Missouri, I've always loved Mark Twain. In fact, I borrowed Mr. Twain's real last name for one of my pennames (James Clemens).

Plus I'm an avid spelunker (caver), and I think that interest had its roots from reading about Tom Sawyer and his adventures in Injun Joe's cave.

Book: The Doomsday Key

Author: James Rollins

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2009-06

Length: 448 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $27.99

Image: The greatest album, ever?

Hands down, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. I caught his concert tour for this album when I was in college. I had driven from Missouri to Louisville, Kentucky, to take my national veterinary board exam. When I rolled into town, I discovered that Bruce was playing that very night. So rather than studying for the big exam, I was standing and rocking on my chair at the concert until 2AM.

By the way, I got the best score of my veterinary class on that exam. Thanks, Bruce!

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Really? Need you ask? Star Trek. That series was pivotal to my childhood. I still remember being terrified as Captain Kirk battled that Lizard Man. Gave me nightmares for weeks.

Star Wars proved to be good space opera, but Star Trek laid the groundwork for that movie series and many others.

Live long and prosper.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Any novels or short stories by E. Annie Proulx. Before I was ever published, I read her novel The Shipping News. Her weird use of vocabulary and grammar really loosened something up inside me as a writer and inspired me. I might not be published today if not for her.

Even now, whenever I'm needing a little “fix” or kick in the pants, I read one of her stories.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Reaching the summit of Half Dome in Yosemite. The physical exertion of the climb and the mental challenge of scaling those steep and rocky heights was pure exhilaration. Of course, I could hardly walk the next day.

Next up: Everest.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

Being a good man: for helping others, for caring for “all creatures great and small”, for bringing a bit of joy and entertainment (and a little escape) into readers' lives.

If I'm remembered for all that, then I've lived as fully as possible.

Book: The Last Oracle

Author: James Rollins

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2009-05

Length: 496 pages

Format: Paperback

Image: Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

The underdog. Those people who overcome long odds on the road to success. And I don't think I'm the only one who believes this.

Look at the world's response to the few minutes of grainy YouTube video that featured Susan Boyle. I know I got a little teary-eyed watching that video for the first time. There's something that touches the human spirit when an underdog surprises and shines.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Harry Potter. The series is a modern classic that will survive the centuries as surely as anything by L. Frank Baum or Lewis Carroll. And we got to experience its unfolding during our lifetime -- that opportunity was magic in and of itself.

10. Your hidden talents...?

I can spay a cat in under five minutes and neuter one in under 30 seconds. The first veterinarian I worked for would time my surgeries with a stopwatch, challenging me to become a more efficient and skilled surgeon. I eventually beat his best time.

And though I write full time, I still do volunteer work at the local shelter's spay-and-neuter clinic. I refuse to let that skill grow rusty.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

To write every day. That's an old adage for honing your craft as a novelist. In other words, practice makes perfect.

But over the years, I've also added my own caveat to that nugget: Write every day -- but read every night. I firmly believe the best way to become a better writer is by reading. Whatever problem you're having with your writing during the day (dialogue, introducing a character, etc.), you'll find a solution in the book you read at night. So by continuing to write every day and read every night, your writing will get stronger and stronger.

Book: Black Order

Author: James Rollins

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2009-07

Length: 541 pages

Format: Paperback

Image: The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

My Yeti mountain bike. It's a small item, but it opened the world. More than a mode of transportation, it's my stress reliever, my gym-membership, and my place of contemplation. I've had more story ideas and worked through more problems on the seat of that bike than most anywhere else in the world.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

Levis. I live in them. I own one suit, one sportcoat (which I wear mostly with jeans), and rent a tuxedo only when someone holds a gun against my head.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

My parents. I'd pick family over celebrity any day. And besides, I owe them both a ritzy dinner out.

My mother taught me not only to read, but to love story in all its formats. My father showed me that anything is possible through hard work and dogged determination. They're the true celebrities in my life.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I wrote an entire kid's series (Jake Ransom) just so I could write about dinosaurs. Michael Crichton (one of my writing idols) pretty much killed it for any adult writer to tackle the subject of living dinosaurs. So the only way I could do that was to make it a middle-school book where a brother and sister get transported in time to a prehistoric landscape. And if I could, I'd definitely tag along with them.

So sign me up for the Jurassic Cruise and Tour. I'll bring the bug spray.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Of the three, I'd say hit man. Don't like drugs, don't even understand the appeal of massages (let alone scrubs and body wraps).

When I need to blow a little steam, it involves action, movement, challenge, and physical exertion. So looks like I'd better oil my Glock.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

Sugar-Free Rockstar Energy drinks. It's how I start (or jumpstart) each morning.

Even before I check my e-mail, I like to write a few sentences or paragraphs on my current project. It gives me that little push to roll me through the day. And the kick from the Rockstar clears the cobwebs out of my head.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Country. Somewhere near water, up in the mountains, and with spectacular views. Of course, I prefer to write in a small, confined cubby (my man cave), so maybe all that natural wonder will go to waste most of the day, but it's great to come out of my imaginary world and see a bit of the real one from time to time.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Keep it in your pants. If I have to read another sex scandal from a leading politician, I'm going to retreat to the mountain cabin and become a hermit.

Either that or maybe grab a scalpel and start a new campaign: Have Your Politician Spayed or Neutered.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

As I mentioned, I'm in the midst of middle-school series (Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow), but I'm also finishing a stand-alone thriller titled Altar of Eden, where for the first time I'll be featuring a veterinarian in the lead role.

Finally, I'll be able to “write what I know.”

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