James Rollins opened the door to his spectacular El Dorado Hills house, which overlooks distant hills and a stretch of the south fork of the American River. But before he could welcome in his guests, three Labrador retrievers beat him to it. Shimmying from head to tail, Penny, Echo and Duncan led us inside the castle, then spent the next three hours jumping into and climbing out of the swimming pool.
Rollins was a Sacramento veterinarian when he started writing a sci-fi/adventure story that would become his first novel, “Subterranean” (1999). Now he’s a New York Times best-selling author of 32 novels in six series that encompass thriller, fantasy and adventure. “There’s a little bit of Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton in my novels, and a little Conan the barbarian in me,” he has said. He’s a scuba diver who has swum with sharks, and a caver who is planning a spelunking trip in Vietnam and Cambodia. He has hiked in the Amazon rainforest and ventured alone into remote villages in China.
“Blood Infernal,” the conclusion of his “Order of the Sanguines” trilogy (authored with Rebecca Cantrell), is the Bee Book Club’s choice for July (it can be read as a stand-alone). In it, archaeologist Erin Granger, military forensics expert Jordan Stone and Vatican priest Father Rhun Korza search for a “treasure” that will save humankind from the apocalypse. As in all of Rollins’ novels, it mixes science and history with mythology and the phantasmagorical.
“My goal was to ground the story in historical reality and make it look like an archaeological thriller, then all of a sudden the next shoe drops and we’re in a different story,” Rollins said. “It’s been quite shocking for a lot of readers.”
Rollins’ spacious writing room is accented with wood and stone, memorabilia and mementos. High on one wall is a mounted 100,000-year-old mammoth tusk. On other walls are framed covers of his best-sellers. Crammed bookcases include novels by some of his favorite authors – Steve Berry, Brad Thor, Anne Rice, George R.R. Martin, Stephen King.
Rollins’ “Sanguines” collaboration with best-selling author and longtime friend Cantrell was a first for each of them. “I had an idea percolating for a story about an alternate history of Catholicism, but it needed a gothic touch,” he said. “I thought together we could each write half a book, but it turned into a trilogy by committee. Every Monday we Skyped for hours. We went back and forth, fleshing out and outlining the story, figuring would who had the strongest talent for which section. It was challenging.”
Rollins – whose given name is Jim Czajkowski – has another identity, too. He has written seven fantasy novels in two series under the pseudonym James Clemens. Also, as James Rollins, he wrote the novelization of the 2008 blockbuster movie “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
His real thunder, though, is “Sigma Force,” a 10-title thriller series starring a covert team of elite ex-Special Forces officers with expertise in many fields, including science, medicine, black ops and weaponry. Last summer, he inked a $14 million-plus deal with William Morrow for four more “Sigma” books. Compare that to the $25,000 the publisher paid for “Subterranean.”
When the paperback edition of the 2014 “Sigma” novel “The Sixth Extinction” arrived in June, it went straight to The New York Times best-seller list. The next “Sigma” will be “The Bone Labyrinth,” due in December and “spanning 50,000 years of human history,” Rollins said. “I want to convince you that Atlantis was real and the moon is fake.”
William Morrow executive editor Lyssa Keusch signed Rollins in 1996 and has worked one on one with him ever since. “Jim has added many more layers of sophistication to his books over the years, but the thing that has always struck me is the speculative science he brings to his writing,” she said. “He always puts together something unique and fascinating in ways that only he can do.”
What’s the genesis of his fantastic tales? “I grew up with three brothers and three sisters, the first victims of my storytelling,” he said. “I would try to get them to believe outlandish things, and the more tears, the better. That’s still what I’m doing today – telling outlandish stories and tying to get you to believe them.”
Fans so far have waited in vain for movie treatments of Rollins’ adventures. “Almost every book has been optioned, but nothing has been green-lighted,” he said. “I make my set pieces as gigantic as I want, without worrying about a special-effects budget. They would be hard to convert into movies.”
Rollins came to writing through reading. “I was at the library at a young age,” he recalled. “In middle school I read (teen adventure series) and moved on to ‘Doc Savage.’ Doc was a mixture of science and brawn, and ‘Sigma Force’ is pretty much scientists with guns, a modern spin on the ‘Doc Savage’ pulp novels of the ’30s and ’40s.”
Rollins had none of the “formal training” many writers seek out, such as fellowships to university programs. “My writing education came from reading books and going to little conferences,” he said. “There’s no greater thrill than to walk into a bookstore and see your book on a shelf.”
As for the day to day, “I’m a slow writer who is very structured,” he said. “I write five pages a day, five days a week. I’ll know the beginning and the end of a book, but one of the joys is the discovery of finding out where the story is going.”
Rollins paused for a moment, rose from his desk and stood, looking out a window. “My main goal is to entertain and incite wonder,” he mused. “I’m not here to educate, but I think stories are more powerful when you’re left with something to think about after you turn the last page. Hopefully, I’ve whetted your appetite enough to make you want to go out and explore.”
Bee Book Club
James Rollins will appear for the Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento (doors open at 5:15 p.m.). It’s a free event, but tickets are required. They are available now (limited to two per person) at www.beebuzzpoints.com. Information: 916-321-1128.
“Blood Infernal” (William Morrow, $28, 416 pages) is offered at a 30 percent discount through Thursday at these bookstores: Barnes & Noble; Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento; Avid Reader in Davis; Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills; Time Tested Books; Underground Books; Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento; the UC Davis Bookstore; and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.