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Help Support Features Interviews James Rollins
James Rollins interview
by Shipwreck - posted on May 27, 2008
James Rollins

James Rollins is the New York Times, USA Today and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of The Judas Strain, Black Order, Map of Bones and other adventure thrillers. Rollins is also a veterinarian in Northern California, who when not writing or working in his veterinary practice, can often be found underground or underwater as an amateur spelunker and scuba diver. These hobbies have helped in the creation of his earlier books Subterranean, Deep Fathom, Amazonia, and Sandstorm.


The Judas Strain, a thriller that garnered rave reviews, including this comment from the Charleston Post-Courier, saying Rollins "invests...with his characteristic command of detail, along with a creeping dread.," spent 5 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list — and broke onto international bestseller charts as well, proving that this riveting author has won countless numbers of new fans, both at home and abroad. Rollins' previous thriller, Black Order was proclaimed by People Magazine as one of summer's "hottest reads." Map of Bones was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the most likely to win over Dan Brown's faithful audience, and the New York Times rated the book as one the summer's top crowd pleasers.

In 2008, Rollins released Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a novelization of the long-awaited Lucasfilm sequel starring Harrison Ford. For more information about this extraordinary author, visit him online at

Mr. Rollins, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule and upcoming Indy tour to speak with us.

In my research and review of your numerous books, I discovered that you write in a genre I've never heard monickered before. Can you explain to us what "Science Adventure" is?

Well, I love writing stories that blend globe-circling adventures with intriguing extrapolations about current scientific mysteries. I think this goes back to when I grew up reading reprints of the old 30s and 40s pulp novels: Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Avenger, the Spider. I still have huge collections of these stories in my library. I believe my writing is basically an updated version of those old pulp adventures.

Can you share with us a little about what lead you to writing?

I read voraciously while growing up, and I think that instilled a desire to write. With three brothers and three sisters, I was sort of the storyteller of my family (what my mother called “the Liar”), so it was only natural that I began to write those stories down. But I also loved science, medicine, and animals, so in college, I pursued getting a veterinary degree. But that twisted corner of my mind that spun tales never really let go. Eventually I started my own veterinary practice and during lunch breaks I would write. After a few years, stories began to sell, and a new career was born.

I see that you are an adventurer of sorts yourself. According to your website you enjoy spelunking and scuba diving. I also noticed a little blurb in the 'Indy Interview' clip posted there about how you first experienced Raiders of the Lost Ark. Care to go into a little more detail with us?

click to enlarge
Rollins scuba diving
with a sea turtle.

I grew up in Missouri, which is cave central. I joined a local “grotto” (a caving club) and took up the sport of caving. I loved both the challenge and escape and wonder of the sport. But I eventually moved to the West Coast and took up scuba diving (after being landlocked in the Midwest, it was something new and exciting to pursue). Since then, I've caved and dove across much of the world and I hope to do more. As to seeing Raiders for the first time, I'm a huge movie buff. I'm one of those folks who have to see a movie the first day it comes out… and if it's a sneak preview, I'm there! In fact, I still have a “May the Force Be With You” button from being one of the first 100 people to see the first Star Wars movie. So of course, I had to see Raiders when there was a sneak preview of it. But I had already booked a whitewater rafting trip for that same day. In order to make that sneak preview, I had to paddle like a madman down the river. I barely made it… arriving in the theater with sopping wet sneakers from the river. It wasn't actually a bad way to watch Raiders. Sort of added another level of realism to be sitting their with wet shoes.

So, the BIG question - How did you end up writing the novel adaptation to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?

As I mentioned earlier, my writing is sort of an updated version of those pulp novels of the 30s and 40s. So it was no wonder that my earlier novels were often compared to Indiana Jones. One reviewer of my novel, Map of Bones, described the book as a cross between Indiana Jones and the Da Vinci Code. To this day, I'm still not sure if that reviewer was insulting me or complimenting me. But any comparison to Indy, I always take as a compliment. And as the last few of my novels have hit the Top Ten lists nationwide, I drew the attention of the publisher who obtained the adaptation rights to the upcoming film. After that, my name was submitted to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and got the thumb's up.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is your first adaptation novel. How did you prepare yourself for the task of putting such a big screen story and character on paper and can you share with us the process or experience of writing an adaptation?

click to enlarge
Indy 4 novelization cover.

Though I pretty much had the first three movies memorized long ago from watching them over and over again, I happily watched them a few more times, to get a feeling for the cadence of the character, to study what Harrison Ford added nonverbally to his creation of Indy on the screen, and to get a feel for the frenetic pacing. Basically to immerse myself in all things Indy.

Then I first read the script back in the late spring of 2007. At that time, security was as tight as a bank vault, and to even read the script, it required a drive over to Lucasfilm studios in the Presidio of San Francisco. But over time, I was allowed access to the script at home and granted a key to a site where still shots from the movie were uploaded. So between reading the script, talking with the screenplay writer (the amazing David Koepp), and viewing the shots from the production department, I was able to begin working on the novel.

I found it an interesting and fascinating challenge. It was both involving and liberating: deconstructing the script, creating internal monologue, expanding some scenes, contracting others, and inventing brand new scenes. The studio also gave me a fairly free hand. And all in all, I was able to add about a dozen entirely new scenes that aren't in the script or movie.

Past Indy authors have generally been given free reign with the character of Indy. The only exception has been particular do's and don't's from creator George Lucas. Do you feel you were able to impart new characteristics to Indiana Jones through your writing despite whatever limitations, if any?

I had a relatively free hand in writing the novelization, though there were certainly many eyes watching over my shoulder and certain things that were taboo. In the case of this book, I really wanted to address the aging Indy. There was much press prior to the movie about Harrison Ford reprising his role at his age--and while the movie does address this passing of time, I wanted to explore this in more depth. In scenes from Indy's perspective, I wanted to have Indy reflect on the passing of years, where he ended up in his life at this moment. In this story, Indy is at a crossroads in his life--both career-wise and personally. So I wanted to explore what this meant for him.

What type of research were you able to achieve and did any of it involve seeking out Crystal Skulls of your own?

You know, there is a weird bit of serendipity involved in this project… almost creepily so. First of all, even before I read the script, I had been finishing up my next novel (The Last Oracle, due out June 24th). The book involves a group of modern-day Russian scientists who are doing research with autistic children who show miraculous savant talent. Their research was attempting to unlock and harness the power of the human mind, much like Irina Spalko in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. So I had already done vast amounts of research into Russian experiments with psychic powers. Secondly, I already had a crystal skull in my “cabinet of curiosities” (along with a fossilized hadrosaur egg, an ammonite shell, and a section of jaw and teeth from a tyrannosaur). So it was strange to discover that crystal skulls were going to play a central role in the Indy 4.

You are an author that enjoys sci-fi and the thrill ride and appear to have been the perfect choice for the adaptation of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. When you first read the Indy script, were you surprised at how it seemed to stand out so much from the original three and did you think you had it 'in the bag' from your past writing and genre experience?

click to enlarge
James Rollins, keeper
of a crystal skull.

While eventually I had a blast writing the novel, my first reaction after reading the script was “wow, there's a lot of action here that I have to capture and make it all come alive on the page.” But there was also a certain amount of trepidation. I mean, I would be writing Indiana Jones! The amount of expectation around the movie was huge, and I had to do it justice, while also trying to expand and create a companion piece to the movie with the novel. It was a bit daunting. But once I started writing it--picking up that whip, donning that fedora--it all felt natural, and I sank into the role happily.

So, after getting the gig, reading the script, and while working on the novel, when everything about Indy was under wraps - did you ever just want to go out and tell everyone you met what you were doing?

Oh, man, yeah! For a while, it was like holding the biggest secret in your heart. But I also know how much I hate whenever someone slips out spoilers to an upcoming movie or book. I absolutely hate that. So I certainly wasn't going to be the one to do that with this highly anticipated movie. But it was also sort of secretly fun, hearing all the rumors flying around. Some struck close to home, but others were so wild and crazy.

While browsing through your website, I read in the really great Q&A, the posed question: Have you ever put yourself into a story? After reading your response, I couldn't help but wonder, as an Indy fan, did you at least, in some way, put yourself in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull story?

When I write, I do disappear into my point-of-view character, whether that be hero or villain. It's one of the joys of writing: you can be anyone and do anything! And the case of Indiana Jones, I got to put on that fedora, pick up that bullwhip, and crawl through those ancient ruins. I mean, who wouldn't want to be Indiana Jones…if only in their own imagination? And that's what I got to do when I wrote this book.

So, tell us about Marion and Indy. It must have been exciting for you as a writer to see these two revive their romantic relationship?

First of all, who didn't fall in love with Marion Ravenwood from the opening scene in the Raven Saloon in Nepal, where she drinks a competitor under the table? Even by then, it's already clear that Indy had a rocky relationship with the fiery Ms. Ravenwood. Jump decades into the future… and nothing has changed! When those two meet, it's like tossing gasoline on a fire. The two of them are ultimately the heart of both the movie and the book. In fact, their relationship completes the larger romantic story that started with Raiders.

I understand you have a particular fondness for the character Mutt from a creative standpoint?

I think, after Indy, he was my favorite character to write. He's a motorcycle-driving, prep-school drop out with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Empire States Building. But he's also sharply intelligent and as keen of eye as Indy. He's also a great foil for Indy to reflect on his own life. The two make a great team… that is, if they can stop from killing each other first.

Writing about a character that has been the creation of others must have been difficult. Were you ever intimidated by the challenge or felt constrained?

click to enlarge
Rollins in a tight spot.

As I mentioned, I was definitely intimidated initially. Expectations were SO high. But I felt very little constraint. I had a few conversations with David Koepp, the amazing screenwriter, and we talked about some aspects of the character that stretched beyond the movie. But ultimately I already loved Indy and wouldn't want to change him. My goal was to portray not only the external Indy, but also the internal: what he's thinking, how does he react, what does he see… and sometimes more importantly, what DOESN'T he see? That was both the challenge and the exhilaration to bring this character to life on the page.

As an author and storyteller, would you liked to have seen something different happen with the story or the characters that you were given? Anything left out that you wished had remained, etc.?

The movie stuck pretty close to the script, but there were many things left unexplained or were not dramatized. That was one of my goals in writing the novelization: to fill in those events. Some of the scenes brought to life in the novel that were never addressed in the movie include: What exactly happened to the Conquistadors who first stole the skull? How did Indy get captured by the Russians in Mexico? How did Indy end his relationship with Marion? Plus many, many more bits and pieces.

There have been 15 other full-length Indiana Jones novels, including all three film adaptations. Nearly ten years after the last one was published (1999), you are the first author to write an Indy novel. How does that make you feel and have you considered writing more Indiana Jones adventures?

Well, if you ask reviewers of my books, I've already been writing Indiana Jones books all along. The books are full of archaeology, lost civilizations, and strange bits of mysticism. In my novel Sandstorm, I even have an archaeologist named Omaha Dunn. But would I be interested in penning my own Indiana Jones novel? To create a unique storyline of my own? The answer is simple: Of course!

What do you feel you have walked away with personally from this experience and how has it changed you, if at all?

Writing the novelization has reminded me of the joy I had when I first was reading those old pulp serials. Though I have those books still in my library, it had been a long time since I'd read one. After reading the script for the first time, I came home and pulled those books off the shelf, dusted them off, and read three of my old favorites. The storylines just revitalized that kid in me, reminded me of what good storytelling should do: to transport, to thrill, and to entertain. The old pulp novels knew how to do this so well, and the Indiana Jones franchise captured this on film. There is a reason this series is so beloved by young and old. As I wrote in my dedication to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, these movies turned “geeks like me into heroes in the dark.”

I know I keep referring to your website, but I can't help mention one other area in the Q&A portion. You share a lot of great advice for those seeking a career as a writer. Your three key rules are read, write, and be persistant. What would you warn aspiring authors NOT to do?

The Last Oracle
Rollins' next novel
coming in June 2008.

Not to follow popular trends. So many new authors believe they have to write imitations of novels that are on the bestsellers lists. Instead, I challenge authors to write the truest novel they are capable, stories that thrill and speak to them personally. It is such stories, written from the heart, that have the best chance of stirring a reader--and that should be the goal of any novel. Including a novelization. I've been approached to write novelizations in the past, but I've turned them down. I only took on this project because I knew I could be passionate about it. As I mentioned in that interview, I would've written this book in my own blood. To just be able to dabble with the mythology and legacy of this character, what more could an adventure writer ask for? It is from such a place of passion that all writers should work.

Looking back on your many novels and reading through some of your thoughts on past ones, how do you feel you have grown as an author and is there anything you would do different?

I think the personal goal of any writer is to strive to do better. I follow my own advice: to write everyday and read every night. There is no better teacher in the craft of writing than a good book. So I hope each novel I write is a little stronger or a little more polished. I definitely challenge myself a bit harder each time out. Would I do anything differently? No. Again I write from a place of passion with each novel, and as long as I do that and put all my effort into a novel, I am content with the result.

What ultimate goal do you want to achieve as a writer?

That's easy. My ultimate goal of writing is to entertain. I want to transport my readers, to thrill them, and to stir their imagination. If I can do all that while leaving them with something more after they turn the last page, all the better. One of the best compliments I get from readers is when they tell me that a certain novel intrigued them enough to pursue their own research into the subject matter. Then I know I've done my job well.

Lastly, share with us some about your latest projects and if possible a glimpse into the next novel? Also, how can fans keep up with the latest from James Rollins?

Coming out in the last week of June is my latest Sigma thriller, titled The Last Oracle. As with many of my novels, it started out from a question: What if you could bio-engineer the next great world prophet: scientifically produce the next Buddha, the next Mohammed, or even the next Jesus? Would it mark the Second Coming or initiate a chain reaction with disastrous consequences? The novel already has garnered some glowing reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. But I've also finished a new project--a middle-school book--that will be out next summer. And presently I'm working on next summer's Sigma thriller, but that plot's still under lock and key.

James, again, THANK YOU so much for taking time out with us. We at wish you and yours the very best and hope to sit with you again one day, if you will have us. To learn more about James Rollins visit his website


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