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May's FEATURED AUTHOR: How to Get in Trouble...

May 26, 2010
James Rollins, our May Featured Author, swings by today to share thoughts on how (not) to research... 

How to Get into Trouble
At the end of every one of my books, I lay out what’s true and what’s not about each novel. I love mixing fact and fiction until it’s hard to tell them apart, but to do that well involves lots of research: time spent in libraries, doing interviews, etc. But I also love to “get out into the field.” Because of that, my publishing house always likes to portray me as some sort of adventurous novelist in the vein of Hemingway. At one point, they suggested an author photo of me swinging on a vine. That never happened and will NEVER happen.

While I certainly would like to claim to be some adventurous novelist in the tradition of Hemingway, in reality my adventures as a novelist could be better described as MISadventures.

Case in point.

I've always been an avid cave explorer, from the vast systems in Missouri to the lava tubes of Hawaii to the tighter squeezes of the California foothills. Much of this past experience crept into Subterranean, a deep Earth adventure novel. But one of the most frightening episodes of my amateur experience also allowed me to better describe claustrophobia of such enclosed spaces. While climbing out of the fairly technical wild cavern, involving lots of rope work, I managed to jam myself midway up a narrow vertical chute. Hung up on my rappelling gear midway up the chute, I found myself unable to move up or down. My chest was squeezed between two walls, my left knee turned the wrong way. I could not maneuver, and there was not enough room to get a rescue climber to me. The ropes were too taut to haul. I was trapped. I remember the team leader, leaning down from above, shining his helmet lamp at me. “You either find a way to un-jam yourself, or you stay there forever.”

So much for a pep talk or confident reassurance. It was up to me. It was me against Nature (in this case two walls of rock that I was sure were slowly and inexorably pinching tighter and tighter). And I certainly did not want to “stay there forever.” So over the course of a long hour--wriggling, sweating, cursing, and clawing--I managed to creep a millimeter at a time out of the jam. After this event, I had a better understanding for claustrophobia, panic, and determination born of pure desperation.

But spelunking through caves was not my only practical lesson. Two decades ago, I also took up scuba diving and went on dive trips all around the world: Monterey Bay, Hawaii, South Pacific, Australia. It was on a trip to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia that my next misadventure occurred. I was informed by the dive master to beware of the many hazards found in the region. “On land, Australia has seven of the ten deadliest snakes. The seas are worse. Box jellyfish can kill in minutes. Local sea snakes are some of the most toxic. But worst of all is the stone fish. It looks like a stone, but its spines are loaded with paralytic poison. So be careful what you touch.”

And down we all went, buddied up in pairs, enthusiastic and excited. I dropped toward the reef and adjusted my buoyancy until I was floating just above the reef. All around spread amazing sights: giant clams, a flurry of colored fish, an astounding variety of coral. But I miscalculated my buoyancy, my weight shifted, and I planted a hand into the sand to stabilize my tumble, careful of the razor-sharp coral. Inches from my thumb, a jagged rock suddenly sprouted fins and swam away. I met the gaze of my buddy diver. His wide eyes firmed up the identification. The deadly stone fish. And I had almost slapped my hand on its back. As the fish scurried away, I understood at that exact moment how little Nature cared about the life of a scuba-diving novelist. Down here, Nature ruled. We were only visitors. This insight became incorporated in my nautical adventure, Deep Fathom.

But Nature was not done with me yet. While researching Amazonia, I spent a week in the Brazilian rainforest. Led by an Aussie naturalist, I spent a long hot day hiking through the jungle. The only relief that day came when we reached a small shaded pool, fed by a trickling creek. We were invited to swim with the usual caution of parasites and other dangers. The water was clear. Freshwater trout sparkled within the depths. Stripping to boxers, I dove into the water and spent a good quarter hour enjoying the cool relief. Finally called to climb out, I swam to the shore and hauled myself back into the heat.

“Did you see the caiman?” my guide asked as I toweled off.

“What?” I turned.

He pointed to the five-foot-long crocodilian carnivore, basking in the tall reeds on the far side. The shock on my face must have amused the guide. “No worry, mate. It's only a small one.”

Now perhaps there was no real danger from this predator, but it made my wonder how much I missed in the jungle, what hidden threats lay all around at any moment. This became the crux of the evolutionary nightmare that became the novel Amazonia. And believe me, the caimans certainly made an appearance in the book…of course, much larger caiman. I think the first one ate an Aussie guide.

And the misadventures continued. While taking a few photographs of a handsome door in Barcelona, I found myself suddenly surrounded by uniformed men, shouting and leveling rifles. The door was a side entrance to the Spanish equivalent of the CIA. They didn't appreciate the amateur “spying.” Then there was the taxi ride from hell through rural China--a solo trip--where the Peoples Republic Army decided it was necessary to search and question the lone American traveler. Then a trip to Rome's catacombs ended up with the lights going out. The tour group sat in the dark crypt for ten minutes, allowing all manner of ghosts to press against us (this mishap became incorporated into Map of Bones).

So I still continue to travel, to research, to journey into strange places. And with each new misadventure, I find new inspiration. That is, as long as I survive the adventure.

Well, James... I think I can say for quite a few people that we're glad you've survived so far. There must be a plan for more of your novels! *grin* Thank you for coming by this month, I hope you've enjoyed it. I certainly have enjoyed your posts, and your Q&A is one of my favorites.


Luanne said...

Great interview - Rollins is my son's fave author, wo we own every book~

Rhonda said...

Thanks for having JR as a guest interviewee - loved this! James, I grew up on caves in Missouri, dived the Barrier Reef and Red Sea and much more - so I can relate to all of your 'real' adventures. Even once found myself on the wrong side of the fence- entirely by accident -in a military installation with guns pointed at me just because I got lost while I was looking for Petroglyphs. So many of your mishaps - I have had too, so I love that you are sharing your true life's MISadventures with all these readers. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thoroughly entertaining, and so human. Mentoring of misadventures, great interview topic!

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