Up Close: James Rollins

History and Homer Unleashed 

By K. L. Romo

What if the journeys in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey were real? That’s the premise behind New York Times bestselling author James Rollins’s latest thriller, THE LAST ODYSSEY, book 15 in the Sigma Force series.

Since the unearthing of the lost city of Troy and the identification of Ithaca, Rollins has taken Homer’s mythical epic poems and conjectured what might have happened during the Greek Dark Ages. Could there have been a World War Zero in the Mediterranean between 1100 and 900 BC?

When scientists unearth an ancient Arabic ship frozen into a Greenland glacier, they find The Storm Atlas—a three-dimensional map of gold with a lapis lazuli sea, emerald forests, and ruby volcanos—with a silver astrolabe (an ancient navigational device) imbedded inside. Their discovery also unleashed ancient mechanical monsters that history connects to a fiery end of civilization. They learn The Storm Atlas is the map to the gates of hell.

When a powerful organization intent on causing Armageddon steals The Storm Atlas, Sigma Force must uncover the secrets of the map before the nefarious group can use it to bring about the end of human existence. And what they find is “like a pantheon of Greek and Roman myths.”

Rollins uses ancient texts and scientific discoveries to provide readers with an action-packed story that brings ancient history to life. As Rollins will tell you, “history is a fluid enterprise,” knowledge passed from one culture to the next—the Greeks to the Romans, then to the Arab world during the Islamic Golden age, then to Leonardo da Vinci. This history-packed and thrilling story will have readers fascinated with the question “what if?”

An exhausted Rollins after completing a Tough Mudder endurance event in 2017.

Rollins is truly a master at taking historical facts and theories and seamlessly incorporating them into an electrifying tale that keeps the pages turning. It boggles the mind how he can keep track of so many details.

Here, Rollins chats with The Big Thrill about his research and how he has interwoven history and myth, causing readers to consider how much of ancient folklore could be real.

Tell us more about how reading Underland: A Deep Time Journey was your major inspiration for writing THE LAST ODYSSEY.

As an amateur spelunker for going on 40 years, how could I not read a book all about the secrets buried under the earth? Underland is not only a poetic ode to our human fascination with all things underground, but it’s chock-full of eye-opening and jaw-dropping insights. At that time, I had already been contemplating sending Sigma Force to hell—literally. I had been exploring the various mythologies of the netherworld throughout the ages and had contemplated sending Sigma in search of the source behind such stories of a subterranean realm of human suffering. I had already accumulated volumes of information and recorded interviews, but was finally inspired to write this story by Underland. Clearly, I was not the only one intrigued by the mysteries beneath our feet and how they speak to the human condition.

How did you come about including ancient technology into the story?

One of my pet peeves about the blinders of modern society is how little respect we give to the science and knowledge of earlier civilizations. I studied the Antikythera Mechanism at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, a Greek device dated to the first century BC. It was discovered aboard a shipwreck in 1901, but it would take until we were developing our own computers that the mechanism’s purpose and design became known. Many now accept that it is the first known analog computer. Likewise, historians and archaeologists have documented countless designs of self-operating mechanisms and cunning automatons built by the Greeks and Romans, several of which were written about in Homer’s work. THE LAST ODYSSEY also reveals a little-known connection between Leonardo da Vinci and a school of Arab scholars from centuries earlier, shining a light on how knowledge passes from one culture to another—and how nothing is buried forever.

Rollins takes a break from writing to spend a few hours on the trails near his home.

What led you to explore whether The Iliad and The Odyssey were based on fact, and to make this a central concept in the novel?

Many of my past Sigma novels explored the truth hidden in mythologies—and is there any greater mythic story than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey? I became fascinated by how much truth was woven into these twin epics. For centuries, historians had dismissed even the existence of Troy—a great city besieged by the Greeks and brought low by the trickery of the Trojan horse. Troy was believed to be a mythical place, a fantasy brought to life by Homer. Then in the late 19th century, a German amateur archaeologist dug into a large hill on the Turkish coast and exposed the ruins of a great city. It would take many years, but eventually this buried complex was indeed identified as the lost city of Troy.

And just like that, myth became history.

Then, a little over a decade ago, a British management consultant used modern-day geological tools to identify the site of Odysseus’s hometown of Ithaca, where the great warrior would return at the end of his epic journey. Thus, we have proof that the events recounted in The Odyssey have a true historical starting point (the city of Troy) and an end point (Ithaca). Such discoveries begged the question: What about everything in between? How much of Homer’s epic poems of gods and monsters could also be true? Addressing that mystery became the goal behind THE LAST ODYSSEY.

After a failed attempt at snowboarding, Rollins returned to the slopes…on skis.

Can you give us some insight into your trip to Iceland and how you incorporated your experiences into the novel?

Despite the globe-trotting adventures of Sigma, I actually seldom travel for the sake of research—but I do travel a lot. When abroad, I’m always looking for something that might make for an interesting part of a story, whether it’s some historical mystery or some intriguing locale. I love walking up to someone and asking them, “Tell me something about your town or village that no one knows about.” And perhaps because of the anonymity of such a question, they do. And such revelations often become seeds for a story.

When I visited Iceland, I traveled there merely for the fun and excitement of it, but once there I became enchanted by the country’s raw and rugged beauty, while also learning how climate change is altering its very landscape. As THE LAST ODYSSEY also touches upon climate change, I thought it would be the perfect place to start this epic tale.

Can you give us other interesting details about your research?

I certainly did extensive research, but I fear revealing too much might give away key story elements. Still, besides Iceland, I visited a set of ancient ruins alongside a necropolis on the island of Sardinia. I searched for days through museums in both Athens and Olympia. I pestered historians and archaeologists and anyone else willing to answer questions. Across the Mediterranean, I studied artifacts and ancient writings from a shadowy corner of the Bronze Age known as the Greek Dark Ages, a turbulent time that saw the collapse of three civilizations:  the Greek Mycenaeans, the Anatolian Hittites, and the Egyptians. The fighting was so widespread that some historians declared this to be the first great global war, even calling it World War Zero. Much of this dark struggle remains shrouded in mystery. In fact, one of the few historical accounts of this turbulent time is found in Homer’s epic poems. THE LAST ODYSSEY shines a brighter light into those shadows.

Are there any other interesting facts you’d like to mention?

Speaking of traveling for research, my Italian publisher was kind enough to invite me last year to speak in the small village of Velletri outside of Rome, a village with a long literary history. Velletri is also a short hop to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s Summer Palace. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I was able to tour the place and learned many intriguing tidbits about its history and scientific pursuits conducted there. THE LAST ODYSSEY also journeys there—where those secrets will be revealed, and much mayhem ensues.

Rollins took a white water rafting excursion through the Grand Canyon in 2018.

Besides “thrilling” entertainment, is there a message for readers in THE LAST ODYSSEY?

There are many, not only about climate change but also about life, death, and the human condition. For any book to have true resonance, I think it’s important to leave your reader with something to think about or to explore further after they turn the last page. In fact, at the end of all my novels, I have a “What’s True, What’s Not” afterword, where I divide fact from fiction and leave breadcrumbs for curious readers to follow.

Was there a particular thriller or mystery that inspired you to write thrillers?

I’d have to say Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. In fact, I had a copy of that book sitting above my desk when I wrote my first novel, Subterranean. As I’d never written a full-length book, that tome became my template on how to structure a story: on what page did the first character die, when do we see the first dinosaur, where does the villain step onto the stage? But before that, I’d also have to point to my love of the old pulp novels of the ’30s and ’40s, especially the adventures of Doc Savage that were reprinted as Bantam paperbacks in the ’70s and ’80s. That series concerns a crack team of scientists in various fields who must thwart nefarious world threats—which pretty much describes Sigma Force.

Since you’re a veterinarian, do you have a favorite animal? What is your favorite breed of dog?

As a veterinarian, I should plead the fifth. It’s like asking a parent which child is their favorite. That said, I can answer both of the above questions by picking “my kids.” I’ve got a pair of golden retrievers—Echo and Duncan—who not only keep me endlessly entertained, but who also keep moving when I don’t want to, and most importantly, who warm my feet when I’m writing. Just don’t ask me which of those kids is my favorite.

Rollins “failing miserably learning to snowboard.” (His words, not ours.)

Tell us something about yourself that your fans don’t already know.

I think after writing for two decades and being asked questions at countless book signings over this span, there is little unknown left on the table. But I will admit that I am way addicted to a TV series that I seem to watch over and over: Rick and Morty. Now you know everything. Oh, and I’m learning to snowboard (it’s going badly).

 

K. L. Romo
Latest posts by K. L. Romo (see all)
No Comments Yet

Comments are closed

MATCH UP: In stores now!

mu_footer

THRILLERFEST XIV: Register Today!

FOLLOW US ON

FACEOFF

One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!

fo_footer