By Josie Brown
If A. J. Colucci’s latest novel, SEEDERS, is anything, it is timely, especially with scientists’ latest warnings that human-induced climate change will cause even further extinction of both animal and plant life as we know it.
Colucci uses this conclusion as the starting point for a scientific thriller that has the most unusual villains. Then again, if the goal is to stop the destruction of life on Earth, who is the “bad guy?”
Colluci’s answers will surprise you.
You are living proof that if a steady diet of horror movies and a career as a science journalist doesn’t prepare you for writing this kind of thriller, then nothing will. Still the premise of this book both surprises and horrifies. How did the concept of SEEDERS come to you?
As a small kid, I pulled an Alfred Hitchcock anthology off my mom’s shelf. It was a bunch of scary short stories that were not age appropriate, but my mom didn’t care what I read as long as there was a book in my hands. One of the stories was The Sound Machine by Roald Dahl, about an engineer who invents a device that allows him to hear high-frequency sounds, including the scream of a rose as its being cut by a neighbor. It was so damn frightening and changed the way I thought about nature. So a few years ago, while I was surfing the web and read about all the new breakthroughs in plant signaling, I knew that was going to be my next book.
That same fright I had as a child—that plants could actually feel pain, think and reason—was now a possibility. The more I read about plant neurobiology, the more excited I got about the book. It’s a very controversial subject, as you can imagine. During the seventies a lot of research came out about the thinking and feeling of plants, but there was no science to back it up. So it became the spoon-bending of botany. But now there is scientific evidence that plants use all five senses, they can make decisions, and they react to their environment much in the way people do. We’re fooled into thinking they’re dumb creatures—think of the word vegetative—but they’ve developed a lot of clever abilities, and because they are rooted to the ground, evolution has made them very adaptive to their environment. They have more genes than humans and can see more types of light than we do, and they are constantly moving. But the plant world moves in a very slow timeframe compared to ours, so we cannot see all the marvelous things going on.
How did you go about conceptualizing your isle of terror?
Originally I pictured the island in the South Pacific. Some tropical plants are freakish-looking, plus terror and panic seem to go well with humidity and sweat. But I started the book during the winter months when the trees were bare and scary, and I could picture them as towering, clawing monsters. So I went with cold, dark, and desolate.
It’s easier to write about places I’ve visited, but a small, remote island was not on my been-there list, so I had to do some research. It really was a matter of hovering over the north Atlantic on Google Earth until I found a great location off the coast of Nova Scotia, and then it was a couple more weeks of research, figuring out what the island looked like. There’s a map of Sparrow Island in the first pages of the book, which I had drawn right away so I could actually see it, and make sure all my navigation in the story was correct. Having a mansion on the island was tricky. I contacted a survival expert—this interesting guy who has written books on how to live in remote areas without sacrificing food, heat, and clean water—and he helped me plan out the logistics.
A running theme in the book is whether or not plants can communicate with humans. In fact. Tell us more about that.
I would be giving away too many surprises if I told you whether or not plants are able to communicate with humans. But I will tell you that scientists have been learning over the course of a hundred years that plants, trees, and grasses are capable of signaling insects and other plants through chemical emissions.
For instance, when attacked by hungry caterpillars, a poplar tree will not only produce a chemical repulsive to the insect, it will signal surrounding trees to do the same. Likewise, that smell of fresh-cut grass we love so much is actually your lawn screaming, “Danger! A giant blade is cutting us all in half!” Plants can communicate with insects as well, so if larvae start eating their leaves they can chemically signal an insect that preys on those larvae, much like a dinner bell announcing “come and get it!”
Throughout the story, the eyeless doll heads act as foreboding omens. How did this imagery come to you, and does it have personal significance?
The place really exists! By far the creepiest island I found in all my research is Island of the Dolls in Mexico. The trees are full of old mangled, mutilated dolls—not just the heads like in my book. There’s a story about the man who dolled the whole island because he was haunted by a young girl who drowned in one of its canals. The man’s body was found years later in the same canal where the girl drowned. Sometimes life is stranger than fiction and I just couldn’t let that gem go without putting it in a book.
Really, dolls are one of those scary things we fear for no good reason, like clowns. Think of all the movies about dolls coming to life. The first one I saw as a kid was Trilogy of Terror where Karen Black is being attacked all night by a small, knife-wielding Zuni doll that she destroys over and over but it keeps coming back. Scared the bejeezus out of me.
There is an interesting dichotomy going on in the story. The two women are emotionally vulnerable, and yet they are the strongest characters in the book, whereas the male characters are weaker when it comes to resisting the island’s horrible secret. This is not something you typically see in horror thrillers. How and why did you choose this kind of gender flip?
It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision. Whoever spent the most time in the woods would be more affected and that happens to be the men. Truly, each of the characters goes through a complete metamorphosis, with the exception of Ginny. For instance, Monica starts out tough and pretty much crumbles when things go south, whereas Luke has no confidence in himself, but finds strength when he’s suddenly needed, and timid Isabelle turns into a bad ass when the lives of her children are at stake. This is because stressful situations can bring out either the best or worst in people. Those are the times we learn what we’re truly capable of doing.
Horror is one of the hardest genres because the writer must walk a fine line between realism and paranormal elements that play on our worst “bogeyman” fears. At any point, did you feel that you may have gone too far into the fantastic? If so, what kind of checks-and-balances did you place on yourself?
There are definitely elements of horror in the novel, but it’s a science thriller and must follow a whole different set of rules. Horror authors don’t have to explain supernatural events because the terror is that the laws of physics are suddenly broken. There’s a loss of reason. But anything paranormal in a science thriller needs to have a rational, scientific explanation. It can be hard for me, because on some level I do believe in ghosts, spirits, ESP, plant intelligence, and all of that. It was actually my publisher who kept me in check. They had a problem with the first draft because an element of the story had no scientific validity. It took a few weeks of research, but I uncovered a fascinating new discovery that gave me a cogent explanation. So when you close the book and wonder, ‘Wow, could something like this ever happen?’ the answer is yes.
Like other thrillers, the villain’s drive comes from a previous victimization. Can you elaborate on that?
It’s common in novels—and in real life—for people to suddenly snap and become violent due to childhood trauma that happened years ago. In the situation with Jules, you have to wonder if what’s happening on the island is real or his own imagination. It makes him more sympathetic and complex, and more frightening because you start to wonder how far he’s going to fall down this rabbit hole of madness.
If the book’s premise is right—that plants can talk to us—what would they tell us that we’d be afraid to hear?
Well, there’s the obvious answer: our endless consumption is destroying the planet and we’re all going to die. But for me, there’s something worse. It would be that human existence didn’t matter. Think about how rapid our lives are, how quickly we grow from one cell to trillions and move about so hastily, compared to the incredibly slow world of plants, ancient forests that carry the history of life in their veins. Plants have been around for seven hundred million years, and in that time they have seen millions of animal species come and go. To them, human existence has been less than a blink of an eye. I read an interesting comparison: imagine if our ecosystem observed us the same way we observe the short life of a bubble. Perhaps it’s with that same sense of whimsy that they view our birth, existence, and annihilation, in what seems to be seconds.
Do you have another thriller project in the works?
I’m working on a monstrous project that I can’t really discuss for a variety of reasons. I hope that piques your interest but all I can say is stay tuned.
A. J. Colucci is the critically acclaimed author of THE COLONY and SEEDERS, stories that combine true, cutting-edge science with the adrenaline-rush a thriller. Her books have received praise from several New York Times bestselling authors including Steve Berry, James Rollins, Scott Sigler and Steve Alten. A.J. has also written hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles covering everything from the computer and film industries to fortune 500 companies as well as interviews with famous celebrity authors, actors and musicians.
To learn more about A.J., please visit her website.
You can hear a more extensive version of this interview on Josie Brown’s Author Provocateur podcast.