Author Q&A: James Rollins

The only guarantee you get when you pick up a James Rollins novel is that almost any crazy thing can happen inside.

It’s mind-boggling the way the bestselling author shoehorns so many disparate elements into one coherent story.

The author, best known for his series of “Sigma Force” thrillers, is notorious for mixing cliffhanger action and hard-core science with history, theology, mythology and crackpot conspiracy theory.

But Rollins’ latest, The Bone Labyrinth (out Tuesday), might be his craziest patchwork quilt of ideas yet.

His Sigma team of elite scientist soldiers goes on an adventure that involves research into the origins of human intelligence, the disturbing use of great apes as scientific lab animals and efforts to create an army of DNA-altered super soldiers.

The wild ride takes team members to Croatia, Italy, China and Ecuador and connects the discovery of Adam and Eve’s skeletal remains (in Eastern Europe) to a search for the lost civilization of Atlantis (in South America) to an out-of-this-world conspiracy theory involving the Apollo 11 moon landing!

We chatted with Rollins about The Bone Labyrinth, in an effort to figure out how his mind works.

How do you come up with these out-there story ideas?

I’m a collector of odd little facts. I’ve got my antennae up for little-known historical mysteries, the kind of story that often ends with a question mark. I’m also on the lookout for new developments in the world of science.

If I come across anything that makes me wonder “What if?” I put it in my idea box. Then, when I’m building a story, it’s fun to see how many of these interesting tidbits I can connect in a satisfying way.

Can you cite a specific example from The Bone Labyrinth?

I wanted to explore one of the big anthropological mysteries: How come, even though the human brain has remained about the same size for the past 200,000 years, there was a sudden explosion of ingenuity and creativity about 50,000 years ago?

Anthropologists call it the Great Leap Forward and it has baffled them as to what exactly the trigger for it was. Why did human intelligence suddenly surge ahead?

I also had a file on Neanderthals. I found it curious that, at roughly the same time, 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals and modern man started to interact and breed, passing Neanderthal DNA into our lineage. No one has addressed the possibility that maybe this was the trigger.

I have a background as a veterinarian, so I’m familiar with the fact that, if you cross a donkey and a horse to get a mule, the mule has been shown to be a more intelligent animal than the donkey or the horse. I started thinking, “What if this kind of cross-breeding is the source of the Great Leap Forward?”

That’s how my stories build. I ponder these different concepts, I blend the science and the history, and the stories begin to layer like an onion, one layer upon another upon another.

One of those layers of this story involves the little-known fact that Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, led an expedition of the system of tunnels and caves in Ecuador and Peru in the 1970s.

Exactly. How strange is that? That this reclusive astronaut — who rarely gave interviews after his return from the moon, and there are some who believe it’s because something extraordinary happened on the moon that no one was willing to talk about — would lead this archeological expedition?

What’s more, he was going to do a followup expedition, but two weeks before he was to leave, the gentleman who had knowledge of these caves was assassinated. When I found this out, the word “conspiracy” started blinking in my head.

This main storyline goes to Joe Kowalski, the Sigma Force member who usually provides the muscle, demolitions expertise and comic relief. Is it true he’s one of your most popular characters?

He has a huge fan base.

As a matter of fact, the impetus for having a book that features Kowalski so prominently came from a book signing I did. One question that came up in the Q&A was, “How come we never get Kowalski’s point of view? We’re never in his head. We don’t know his full backstory.”

It was true. He first appeared in Ice Hunt, one of my stand-alones, and I loved him so much that, once I started building Sigma, I brought him aboard. He’s not exactly the perfect fit for Sigma, this team of genius soldiers. After all, he’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

But I wanted to write for him. So I recruited him into Sigma and he’s always been sort of a support team member until now. But I realized, “Hey, this book is about Neanderthals. When will there ever be a better time for Kowalski to get his chance to shine?” 

The Bone Labyrinth

  • By James Rollins
  • William Morrow, $27.99