James Rollins tends to “wing it” but, when it comes to writing a scientific thriller like The Eye of God, interviewing North Korean-prison escapees and particle acceleration physicists is just basic research.
James Rollins: I really wish I could work from a firm and detailed outline, but I find most of my inspiration (and joy) of writing while actually in the story, when I’m knee-deep in the thick of character and plot. But, yes, I do have to have some framework for a story this large and with plotlines running parallel to one another. So before writing, I spend 90 days researching and building a skeletal outline: where it starts, where it ends, and a few stepping stones in between. But on that 91st day, I commit to putting words on paper. I often don’t know how A connects to B connects to C, but for me that’s the fun of writing, to discover that path alongside my characters (and my readers).
Zola:The Eye of God partly takes place in North Korea, a highly secretive place on which public information is sparse. Did you get a chance to visit there? If not, how did you come to learn so much about it?
JR: I try to visit the places I write about, and I’m pretty determined to accomplish that, but in his case: NO. North Korea is a country where a thriller writer is likely to find some difficulty asking questions. Normally when I travel that’s exactly what I do. I love to approach locals and ask them, “Tell me something no one knows about this place, tell me a secret about your town…” Such questions asked in North Korea could likely get both the interviewer and interviewee in a great deal of trouble. Instead, I found someone who had escaped from North Korea, someone who had spent time in one of their infamous prisons, and interviewed him about details concerning the country, its people, and the government. From those answers, I crafted the story.
Zola: The novel also relies heavily on science–from military tech to time travel, from dark matter to alternate worlds and Bubble Theory. What was it like to research these complex notions?
JR: Again, it’s all about asking questions. In the case my latest book, The Eye of God, I was invited to tour Fermilab, the national particle accelerator lab outside of Chicago. Over lunch, I was seated with a group of physicists and I posed a question: “What about your research scares you? What keeps you up at night?” I’ve asked this question of scientists many times, and their answers often become the grist for one of my stories. In this particular case, my question triggered a roundtable discussion about the state of reality—or in this case, the lack of reality. The discussion centered on the theory that the universe may actually be just a hologram, a three-dimensional artificial construct. In fact, Fermilab was in the process of building a “holometer,” a device to test this very theory. But most disturbing of all, the general consensus of that group of physicists was that the device would prove this disturbing theory to be true.
Zola: The destruction of Earth isn’t a new theme in literature by any means—what do you think keeps sci-fi authors so interested in it?
JR: Global threats are great backdrops not only to create a popcorn thrill ride, but to also challenge the best and the worst of people. When I write my novels, I’m always trying to push the envelope, to dabble at the fringes of science or historical mysteries. It’s in those places where everything is in flux that great stories of the human condition can be explored. For me, it’s not the technological threats that so much interest me, as it is how such evolving technologies challenge the moral and spiritual compass of my characters. Yes, I love to build roller-coasters of action and suspense, but for a story to truly resonate with a reader, it always comes down to character and ideas.
JR: If it was end-times, then I think I’d want to read something diverting, something thrilling and fun. So I’d choose Watership Down by Richard Adams, a tale of rabbits facing their own doom. Then again, I am also a veterinarian, so of course, I’d choose a story about animals.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.