'Blood Infernal:' A Talk With James Rollins

With his books published in more than 40 languages, James Rollins is known to millions of readers. A true Renaissance man, he's much more than an author of explosive thrillers.
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Photo: James Rollins

With his books published in more than 40 languages, James Rollins is known to millions of readers. A true Renaissance man, he's much more than an author of explosive thrillers. He's a veterinarian, man of science, and the author of bestselling novels evocative of the works of Michael Crichton and Isaac Asimov. His novels are rich with history, scientific fact, ecologic perils, and threats of global destruction, woven tightly with fantasy and suspense. His thrillers transcend all genres.

Written with Rebecca Cantrell, James has broken new ground in this epic-sized, action-packed trilogy known as The Order of the Sanguines series. Blood Infernal is the final book in the trilogy. The first two, The Blood Gospel and Innocent Blood set Sergeant Jordan Stone, Father Rhun Korza, a Vatican priest, and Dr. Erin Granger, an archeologist, on a quest for the revelation of a secret history about a shadowy order known as the Sanguines.

In Blood Infernal, past and present collide. It is a Gothic novel of supernatural mystery and an apocalyptic prophesy. A scourge of grisly murders sweeps the globe, and Erin Granger must decipher the truth behind an immortal prophecy that was found in the first book, The Blood Gospel. This final installment once again combines science, myth, history and religion in an adrenaline-juiced quest for human salvation.

You've collaborated with authors, both in this trilogy and the Sigma Force series. What are the advantages of collaboration?
Rebecca was the first author with whom I collaborated. I'd been thinking of the story for about six months, but wasn't sure I could write it as effectively as possible. I was very busy and knew it would be an enormous time commitment. I was reading Rebecca's last Hannah Vogel novel. She writes historical mysteries set during World Wars I and II, using a Gothic style as opposed to my more staccato thriller writing style. She's great at evoking time and place, using rich, textural prose with only a few strokes of her pen. That was what I wanted for this series.

So, I proposed the story to her. I knew I could bring the blood, monsters, action, and military elements to the project, and felt she could bring rich characterizations in a historical setting. Neither of us had ever collaborated before, so it was something of an experiment. We went back and forth, writing, revising, making changes, and we brought this story to fruition. It was great fun.

Writing is such a solitary profession. Every decision is your own, and every problem you encounter must be solved by that one brain of yours. But here, it was different. We'd talk on Skype for six to eight hours every Monday. The collaboration tapped each of our respective skills. Ultimately, the writing was a compromise between my staccato pacing and Rebecca's richer prose. I then collaborated with Grant Blackwood on The Kill Switch. Grant and I operated a bit differently. So, each collaborative process is unique.

What about Dr. Erin Granger makes her such a good protagonist?
In exploring a clandestine world with a secret history, we were taking our readers to a fantastical place. We needed a guide for that storyline and its world. We wanted someone to whom the readers could attach themselves while travelling into that world. Since we'd be going back to the past, we felt an archeologist would be ideal. We decided on a female lead character. We kept layering aspects of her into the story. What's her own past? What mood does she project? What's her character's arc? It took us a while to develop Erin. We didn't start writing anything for two or three months. Some time was spent working on a plotline, but lots of it was spent searching for Erin's voice. We tried different voices and different pacing for the story.

In an interview, you said you were inspired to begin writing The Order of the Sanguines series after having viewed Rembrandt's "The Raising of Lazarus." Will you talk about that?
I was at the L.A. County Museum of Art, and saw the painting. I've always loved Rembrandt's use of light and shadow. I kept coming back to that painting; eventually, the curator asked if I had any questions about it. He probably thought I was going to steal it (Laughter).

I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and know a good deal of biblical history. Something about the painting seemed odd. It depicts a miracle. Here's Christ returning a loved one to the embrace of his family, but rather than looking joyous, Rembrandt painted the family members as looking horrified. Lazarus was a money-lender, a banker. I wondered why Rembrandt chose to paint a bow and arrow, a shield and a cross of swords above Lazarus's grave. It seemed so odd that weapons would be painted above the grave of a banker.

I learned there are three versions of the painting. One of them initially had blood dribbling from Lazarus's lips. You could see it with special lighting. My mind began churning. The painting conveyed a body rising out of a grave; looks of horror on the faces of the family; and blood. And of course, during a Catholic Mass, wine is viewed as the physical embodiment of Christ's blood. It all had a feeling of vampirism. It made me wonder if vampire myths existed at the time of Christ.

If so, how might Christ have dealt with vampires? Would he try to save them, or damn them? That got me thinking. What if Christ offered them a path to salvation? Looking into the history of Roman Catholicism, I wondered about patterns of vampiric mythology. The question stayed in my mind, and it grew. I had trouble focusing on other stories. I needed a pathway out of my own head. And that pathway was with Rebecca.

The Order of the Sanguines series merges mythology, religion, history and science, doesn't it?
It does. That was our goal. We wanted it to be somewhat similar to the Sigma Force books, where we blend historical mystery, adventure, and weird science; but in this series, we also set a layer of dark fantasy into the books.

The entire series--especially Blood Infernal--seems to explore, among other things, the line between faith and science. Do you see a conflict between them?
There's a similar thematic exploration in the Sigma novels, where we have the scientist versus the figure of faith. I love exploring that conflict, especially during the last decade where a fractious division has developed between faith and science. One of the themes of my books is the search for common ground between science and faith. Science deals with who we are, where we came from, and where we're headed. For me, the fun part of science is the question of how it challenges us. Whether it's cloning, stem cell research, or animal experimentation, science challenges us as spiritual beings, as much as it challenges us intellectually.

Blood Infernal explores the concepts of redemption and salvation. At first blush, this seems like a departure for you, but I see a pattern in your novels about saving the earth from future ecologic disasters through science and spirituality. Is that a reasonable conclusion?
Oh yes, definitely. What intrigues me about the exploration of science is not only where we're headed, but the question of how science is going to change and challenge us. Yes, in Blood Infernal, we're dealing with redemption and salvation. One of the challenging questions posed in the book is: what line would you cross to save the world? What sin would you be willing to commit for the greater good?

You're an immensely popular bestselling author. What about the writing life has surprised you?
When I first started writing, I didn't think of becoming a writer. My goal was to write one novel. I just wanted to be able to walk into a bookstore and see my book on the shelf. Now, thirty-two books into this career, I'm surprised that every novel is still a struggle. Whenever I get to the middle of writing a novel, I'm sure the book is awful; that I've lost all talent; and don't know what I'm doing. Then, I get to a certain point where the train seems to be back on the track, and I'm very happy with the novel. I keep thinking, 'Well, with the next novel, I won't fall into that trap.' But, I'm in the middle of my next novel--thirty-two novels later--and I'm there again. It never gets easier. (Laughter).

What advice would you give someone starting out writing?
You should be writing every day. You should expect to write a million words before you ever get published. You have to sit in that chair and work on your prose. You should also be reading every night. Whatever problem you have during your writing day--whether it's with character, or dialogue, and a knot forms in the back of your head from the struggle--when you're reading another author, that knot begins unravelling. If you write every day and read every night, your prose will get stronger; your plotting will become better.

I listen to audio books when I'm driving, and have a book on my bedside table. Because of reading, I'm always finding a new tool for my writerly toolbox. I try to incorporate that new tool as soon as I discover it in another author's work. I challenge myself. That's what I find so compelling about the Order of the Sanguines series. It's new for me. It's a challenge.

What do you love about the writing life?
Nothing gets me more excited than writing. Each morning, I cannot get to my chair fast enough. Overnight, I'll have a new idea, maybe from reading another author, or something just popped into my head. I have a bedside pad for jotting things down. To me, one of the joys is simply being able to tell good stories. Writing is so much fun, even though on some days, it's like pulling teeth.

What's coming next from James Rollins?
The next Sigma book is called The Bone Labyrinth. There's another Tucker and Kane adventure coming, called War Hawk.

Congratulations on completing the Order of the Sanguines trilogy with Blood Infernal, an epic thriller merging myth, history, science, and religion, all combining for a great read.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of Mad Dog House and Mad Dog Justice

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