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Prehistoric Secrets, International Politics, and an Unimaginable Cataclysm

By Millie Naylor Hast

It would be hard to conjure up a more deadly scenario than what James Rollins has burned into TIDES OF FIRE: a geological disaster of gargantuan proportions exacerbated by international politics and forces buried for millennia beneath the deepest trenches of the Pacific. Yet that is exactly what we encounter in the 17th Sigma Force thriller.

It started innocently enough when Commander William Byrd’s privately funded Titan Project discovers unusual life forms thriving in an otherwise dead subsea trench off the coast of Australia. But the Chinese want to prevent the discovery of a crashed nuclear sub in the trench, an old foe returns, and a geological disaster detonates the volcanic Ring of Fire throughout the region. Can Commander Gray Pierce and his Sigma Force compatriots save humanity from a fiery end?

To talk about this riveting story with Rollins, we had to catch our breath.

Every thriller you write is more amazing than the last. What’s the source of that fountain of creativity, and how do you keep it flowing?

I search for those seeds that could become stories. Usually, it involves three topics: a bit of science that makes me think “what if,” a historical mystery I can solve within the pages of a novel, and some exotic location. The last doesn’t have to be some remote island, just a cool location where I’d love to take a reader. I subscribe to a bunch of magazines (Scientific American, Smithsonian, National Geographic, New Scientist, etc.). Whenever an article shows promise to fit one of those three categories, I cut it out or print it up and store it away. Then, I mix and match until a storyline excites me.

James Rollins
© David Sylvian

In TIDES OF FIRE, you connect a prehistoric collision between Earth and a small planet to volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes. What’s your secret to making it all so believable we feel we are there with Gray and the gang?

It’s important to get those telling details correct. To add enough factual tidbits so it sounds like you know what you’re talking about. Then, it’s all about layering in all the senses. To draw your reader in, I believe it’s important to involve all the senses, not just visually laying out the action. You want the reader to hear the buzz of a bullet past an ear, the smell of burning sulfur of an eruption, feel the bone shaking of a quake. That will put your reader into the heart of the action.

What role do you feel private investment will play in future scientific research and exploration, and given the recent implosion of the Titan submersible, will it be safe?

I love to put characters into ethically challenging circumstances—to see how they cope, how they justify their actions, and how they find their footing after a choice is made.It’ll be a balancing act, for sure, to get it right. Private enterprise moves faster and looser, which can be both bad and good. My main concern is with the quality of research and the scientific standards that are maintained in a private setting. To use that old computer jargon: garbage in, garbage out. Without rigorous guidelines and vetting, I see the potential for junk science and potentially dangerous outcomes.

Your characters have to deal with hard choices and daunting dilemmas. For example, the Titan researcher Phoebe says that dying would be okay “if it would save millions.” Please comment.

I love to put characters into ethically challenging circumstances—to see how they cope, how they justify their actions, and how they find their footing after a choice is made. It’s great to put a character through the gristmill of a harrowing adventure, but if your reader is not invested in that character, then it all falls flat. As we all deal with hard ethical choices, to see a character struggling makes them more real and sympathetic.

The surprise at the end is something no one could possibly anticipate. Do you plan the twists and surprises, or do they happen organically?

I work from a loose outline. I know where the story starts, where it ends (often the very last line even), and several tent poles that will hold up the story. Usually, the latter are the big action set pieces. But I don’t necessarily know how A connects to B and leads to C. To me, the joy of everyday writing is discovering the surprises between those tent poles. Because if I’m surprised, I hope the reader will be, too.

Tell us about your research for this story. Did it lead you in any unexpected directions?

It always does. I often am asked, “Do you do your own research or hire an assistant?” That doesn’t work for me. Inevitably, when I’m researching a topic, looking for specific info, I find something far more interesting along the way. If I had assigned an assistant to feed me that tidbit, then I would have missed that exciting new tangent. Plus, I love to talk to scientists, which I need to do to make sure the science and tech in my story is as current as possible. But it’s also just fun to pick their brains.

When you first started writing, did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams where it would lead? How do you handle the fame and the pressure?

As a veterinarian, I had no intention of changing careers. I started writing as a hobby. My only aspiration was to one day walk into a bookshop and see my book on a shelf. That was it. I’m now writing my 44th novel, so when I walk into some stores, I have an entire shelf—which boggles the mind. And fame? The greatest thing about writing is I get to do it alone. Okay, maybe with a few dogs—who are very good at keeping me humble. You can’t go out and pick up dog poop and feel too full of yourself.

How do the headlines of today inform your work?

In my books, I always try to fold in talking points or subject matter that has some topicality to it, to create that “ripped from the headlines” feel to a novel. At the same time, I’m picky. If I’m too topical, then a story can become dated rather quickly. Ideally, I try to find that balance between topicality and timelessness.

Next for Rollins is A Dragon of Black Glass, the third Moonfall Saga, an epic fantasy set on a world that stopped turning ages ago, leaving one side forever sun-blasted and the other eternally frozen in darkness. He also just put the final touches on the next Sigma book, which picks up immediately after the explosive end to TIDES OF FIRE. It’s titled Arkangel and deals with lost continents, strange science, and two very tough military war dogs.

We can hardly wait for these next adventures!

Millie Naylor Hast
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