James Rollins is back with another action packed science thriller, KINGDOM OF BONES: A Thriller (Harper Collins) Set in Africa, a United Nations relief team in a small village in the Congo makes an alarming discovery. An unknown force is leveling the evolutionary playing field.
Men, women, and children have been reduced to a dull, catatonic state. The environment surrounding them—plants and animals—has grown more cunning and predatory, evolving at an exponential pace. The insidious phenomenon is spreading from a cursed site in the jungle — known to locals as the Kingdom of Bones —and sweeping across Africa, threatening the rest of the world.
James Rollins set aside some time to discuss his thrilling new book, Kingdom of Bones, with SCINQ.
Can you introduce this latest installment to your Sigma Force series?
I describe it as a sprawling jungle epic. It starts when all hell breaks loose at a relief camp deep in the African Congo. Men, women, and children are found in this dull catatonic state, while the environment around them – plants and animals – is evolving at an exponential rate, turning more predatory and dangerous. Whatever’s going on seems to be sweeping across Africa and threatening the rest of the world. It’s up to our team’s heroes to head off this global catastrophe by uncovering the secret at the heart of the African continent that occurs in a cursed place known as the Kingdom of Bones.
Which of these characters do you identify with the most?
I wish I could say that I was most like Gray, you know, sort of the team leader, but if anything, I’m probably more like Kowalski, the bumbling comic relief of the book. I also attached it to Tucker and Cane. Tucker is the former Army Ranger and his military War Dog Cane. I’ve written with them in the past in a couple of different books and even spun them off into their own standalone series. Maybe it’s because I’m a veterinarian.
I got to write from the dog’s point of view. I didn’t want to do sort of a Disney version of a dog that breaks off, for example, a song halfway through the novel. I wanted to make it authentic. I went to Lackland Air Force Base and saw how they were raising and training these dogs. I talked to a lot of handlers. I went to Iraq and Kuwait during the end of the last Iraq War, as part of a USO tour of authors and got to see men and women working with their dogs in the field, and trying to capture the type of relationships they shared.
I didn’t want to just write from one end of the leash. I wanted to write from both sides, that of the two-legged warrior and that of the four-legged warrior. I wanted to make those key points of views as authentic as I possibly could. They were very fun to write.
I guess there’s a little bit of you in your characters. Can you discuss the origins of Kingdom of Bones? What kind of research do you do before you start writing a book?
Basically, I’m always looking for two ideas. I have always got my antenna up. I’m searching through different magazines. I have subscribed to 24 different magazines, both in print and online versions. I’m always looking for two things. I’m looking for either a historical mystery that’s a piece of history and ends in a question mark or something I can solve within the pages of the novel. I’m also looking for that bit of science that makes me ask “Where is this headed? How might it be a threat?” And then I just collect them.
For this book, I came across an article in the middle of 2019, in New Scientist magazine. The title of the article was “When is the next global pandemic due?” which is a rather prophetic article that came out in 2019. I was intrigued by the article, not so much because of the pandemic nature but because I’ve done pandemic novels in the past such as The Sixth Extinction and The Seventh Plague. I didn’t really want to tackle that again. What intrigued me and that article was talking about virus hunters, you know, these men and women that were going out into the wild up to the field, sampling different types of animals to try to figure out, you know, what might be the next pandemic pathogen that could threaten the world.
I found out that a lot of those virus hunters were veterinarians. They were wildlife veterinarians. Again, it piqued my own curiosity as a veterinarian. I started working on that idea: were these virus hunters looking for the virus? What’s the threat? It just begins to unfold from there. In my idea box, I had this information about two historical figures out of Africa. It was William Henry Shepard, a black American missionary, and also the mythic Prester John, this black Christian king, who was believed to rule the vast African empire. I began tooling all that together.
I spent about a week, typically it’s about 90 days of research on a novel, I’ll spend about 90 days prior pre-researching the novel. Then the 91st day I have to write otherwise, I just keep researching. I’ve convinced myself to put words on paper on the 91st day, but still, of course, just constant research throughout the writing of the novel. That’s basically my typical method and how this book came about.
What was it like writing about a zoonotic event and virus hunting during an actual pandemic?
It was definitely, definitely a challenge. I pitched this book idea to my editor shortly after I had this idea in the middle of 2019. I began working on the novel and was about three quarters of the way through the novel when March 2020 happened. Then of course COVID began to spread and became more widely known.
What virologists were telling me was frightening in and of itself by the weird biology of viruses and the threat they pose. But at the same time, it was intriguing to be in a position where I’m hearing from the government and from public health officials certain information that they were releasing, but in my other ear, I’m hearing what these virologists were telling me. Oftentimes they were diametrically opposed. For example, I remember early in the COVID crisis, public health people were saying, Don’t worry about wearing masks, save those masks for the doctors and nurses who need them. In my other ear, I’m hearing from the virologist saying, I would recommend that you wear a biohazard level four BioSuit, before you go out.
At that point, they were worried that COVID could be this pathogen known as Disease X which is the proverbial end of humanity. It’s a virus that spreads very rapidly, usually through the air and is a pathogen that can mutate very quickly into something that we have no known cure for. To people I spoke with, those were the hallmarks of COVID at the beginning, and they were worried that this could possibly mutate into a form that could decimate the human population. So I’m hearing this from the virologists, but at the same time, I’m hearing “Don’t wear masks, go back to normal life.” from the world at large.
Just writing a novel during the pandemic was challenging. I almost tossed aside this book. I thought, maybe I shouldn’t do a pandemic virus related novel during the middle of a pandemic. My books are typically sort of popcorn entertainment, their roller coaster rides. We have doctors and nurses battling on the front line, we have families dealing with the loss of loved ones, and here I’m storing the popcorn book about viruses. So I thought about throwing it away and then just maybe starting with a new idea,
At the same time I’m hearing a lot of information from these were ologists that was not hearing From the world at large, and I thought, well, they’re telling me things I think are important to hear, you know, not only about the COVID crisis about but also about what might come next, what’s on the horizon and if so, what what can we do to stem that from becoming repeating what we’re experiencing right now?
I thought I’m going to finish this book because, yes, I do want my books to entertain and to keep people late at night reading, but I’m hoping at the end of the book that they pass on some information. At the end of my book, I have a what’s true what’s not section. I strip aside the curtain and lay out where all this information came from, how much is true, how much isn’t and so if there’s any aspects of the book that intrigues you I’m going to leave you some bread crumbs to follow up.
One thing I really liked about the book was the fact that you captured the fact that a lot of times NGOs often go into conflict zones where there’s a lot of danger, not just from the virus itself. They go into really, really dodgy situations. You actually made that central to the entire plot. Can you discuss that?
Oddly enough, one of my fellow classmates from veterinary school works for Veterinarians Without Borders. I was hearing stories from him. I was able to relate the fact that a lot of times, we’re throwing people into situations when they don’t know much about the area where they’re going, the conflicts that are happening there, or the culture that’s out there. I was trying to incorporate some of that in this book by throwing in this young French pediatrician into the midst of this jungle.
The Congo has an awful history of brutality. The colonial era was quite harsh and brutal. Even today, we’re still seeing echoes of that occurring with the fact that China is now infiltrating the Congo, orchestrating all these different types of treaties and basically another version of the Congolese people being abused. And so again, I’m just trying to capture some of that.
When you think about the Congo, in its fictionalized form, at least, it’s hard to escape Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It casts a pretty long shadow. Did that ever cross your mind? Did it ever make you think, well, maybe, you know, I can choose another location?
Definitely. I mean, we actually had this book reviewed by a sensitivity reader to make sure that you know, that there’s some of my bias wasn’t occurring into this book that I was trying to make it as, as realistic as possible use not to show warts in the hall when it comes to the, the good things, the bad things.
I did my research intensely. I spoke to some of the Eco-warriors out there, the Eco-guards out there and in the Congo, to find out their firsthand experience of some wounds going on. Some of that became incorporated into the books from personal personal experience. specifically finding out that some of the poachers actually work for the military.
It was details like that, that you just aren’t going to find in an article; you’re gonna find them talking to people. I tried to be as authentic as possible so that I wasn’t just bringing my own biases, my own Western view of the Congo. I wanted to bring a boots-on-the-ground authenticity to the book.
In this book, you deal with a lot of real life science? At the same time, you also find yourself fictionalizing a lot of the scientific parts, I found that fascinating as well. Can you discuss that?
What I love to do when I write my books is to extrapolate science and see where it might be headed. I was trying to figure out where the next pandemic would come from? What virus might be the disease X virus.?
I was worrying about these giant viruses which appear in this book. They were discovered in 1992. Scientists thought it was a bacterium. It’s only in 2003 that they decided no, that’s not a bacteria that’s actually a virus. They are called giant viruses because they’re huge. Typically rabies has five genes. The flu typically has eight genes, and these giant viruses have thousands of genes.
They’re strange. There’s a virus called a Pandora virus and 90% of its genes don’t resemble anything else found on Earth. I think it’s like over 2000 genes. Then there’s one called the Yarra virus where every single gene in this virus we’ve never seen before. These viruses are almost like genetic pickpockets, they spread around the keep grabbing different, different genes from different organisms. That is a great engine for creating a virus that we’re going to have a challenge dealing with. You would have enough challenging COVID, which only has a handful of genes. If we find a pathogenic giant virus, it could be a disaster.
I like sort of blending, blurring those lines between fact and fiction to the point where it’s hard to tell them apart, but also, possibly the fiction part might come true. I’ve seen that with a lot of my books, where I’ll be writing about a subject and then two or three months later, we find out that that it becomes real. That happens not because I’m prophetic, but because I love talking to scientists. I do my research really intensely.
How did you transition from being a full time?
I love animals, I love medicine, love science, but that’s just one side of my brain. The other side of my brain was a little more twisted, a little weirder. I grew up with three brothers and three sisters – a large family. To me, my younger brothers and sisters were my early audience, you know, for my storytelling. My mom called it lying, I called it storytelling. My goal was to terrorize my younger brothers and sisters with wild outlandish stories. If tears were involved, all the better.
I read a lot growing up, and that’s like throwing gasoline on that side of my brain. But I never thought you could make a profession out of that.
So I took the path through becoming a veterinarian. But I kept reading and that kept nudging me, encouraging me. Wouldn’t it be really cool to walk into a Barnes and Nobles, and see my book on a shelf one day? That was my only goal. When I began sort of as a hobby writing. I wrote a bunch of short fiction that’s now buried in my backyard, did it for four years, and then finally felt sort of competent enough to tackle my first novel and begin working on that during my lunch hour.
I had, you know, receptionist interrupting had dogs barking cats meowing, just crank out a couple pages every day. Eventually the book was finished and took a while to get published. It wasn’t an instant success. I got a lot of rejections for that first book, but eventually did find a home. Then one book became two and two became four. My clients became suspicious mostly because of the poster in the lobby, “Get your cat spayed, get a free book.” They would ask me, “Jim, do you have this successful veterinary hospital? You know, what’s this writing business you’re doing? What’s your long term goal in life?” I’d reply, “That’s, uh, well, you know, while I drain your dog’s anal glands, I’ll try my best to answer that question.”
For the past 15 years, veterinary medicine was my paycheck and a way of living. Writing was just a hobby. I didn’t get much for that first book but it was fun so I kept doing it.
I thought maybe down the line it’d be really cool to see those roles reversed where veterinary medicine becomes my hobby and writing becomes my paycheck. I still do some volunteer work now. I resent when someone says “former veterinarian” because I am still licensed. I still work with a group that traps feral cat wild cats and they bring them to the shelter. Pre-COVID I spent one Sunday a month spaying and neutering them. Roughly that’s the thumbnail version of how a veterinarian became an author.
Okay, last question. How are you so prolific? What is your secret?
I told you before I used to write in my, in my during my lunch hour at the clinic. It took me a while to figure out how to accommodate writing in my life as a veterinarian because I was working seven days a week, oftentimes, 8-10-12 hours a day.
My lunch break was my time to decompress and when I would write. I committed to myself that I was going to write three double spaced pages a day – so basically a page and a half. Maybe not every day of the week… I’ll do it five to seven days of the week.
I found that level of commitment comfortable. I could do it without feeling like it was a burden. I thought if I ever get rid of the day job, I’ll be much more productive. Now I write five double-spaced pages a day. I hit a wall at about the fifth page. It takes me an hour to write a page.
So five new pages equals about five hours of new writing. The rest of the day is research, talking to people on the phone – the business side of writing. I found that if I just do that five to seven days a week, five double spaced pages a day, I can easily accommodate basically two books a year and I’ve typically done two books a year for most of my career. Today, I’m working on working on my 40th novel.
IMAGE CREDIT: (ENTER NAMES)