When it comes to mixing science and suspense, nobody is delivering must-read thrillers quite like James Rollins, who has proven to be a worthy heir to the throne once held by Michael Crichton.
In his latest novel, The Last Odyssey, Rollins is taking the gang from Sigma Force—a top-secret government program working under Darpa, aka scientists with guns—straight to hell and back . . . literally.
Sadly, Rollins’ book tour was canceled, like so many other writers, so while he won’t be making stops around the country to sign books this time around, he has partnered with bookstores like The Poisoned Pen (in Scottsdale, Arizona), where he flew—just before the COVID-19 outbreak here in America—to sign copies for readers to order. So, if you’re looking for a signed copy, they’re available, and you can get them here.
Thankfully, Rollins once again agreed to go on the record for our Five Questions segments, and this time, I asked him about everything from how he came up with the story idea for The Last Odyssey to what’s happening with the previously announced Sigma Force movie.
Read the full Q&A below, then make sure to order your copy of The Last Odyssey, the all-new Sigma Force adventure from James Rollins, now available wherever books are sold.
TRBS: I’ve been reading you a long time, and I just have to say, The Last Odyssey is my favorite Sigma Force book yet, and one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a long time. How did you come up with the plot idea for this one, and what sort of research did you have to do before actually sitting down to write?
Rollins: Thanks, Ryan! The germ of this story goes back ten years. It’s a poorly kept secret that I’m a big fan of the old pulp novels from the thirties and forties, especially the Doc Savage novels. In fact, I named the character Monk in my books after one of Doc’s own team. In one of the last of that pulp series, Doc and company go to Hell—literally. I knew at some point that I needed to do the same with Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma. But it took me until now to come up with a story to do this justice.
I had read how an armchair archaeologist Robert Bittlestone—following clues found in Homer’s Odyssey—discovered what he believed to be the true location of Ithaca, the hometown of Odysseus and where that determined warrior returned to at the end of the Odyssey. His findings were so convincing that many archaeologists now support his assessment.
Likewise, the city of Troy was considered to be a myth, a pure fabrication, until another armchair archaeologist in the late nineteenth century, uncovered the ruins to the city. And in a moment, myth became history. So I’m thinking: The starting place of Odysseus’s journey (Troy) was real, as was where he ended up (Ithaca), so what about everything in between? What else in this epic of gods and monsters, or curses and witchcraft, could be real? What I learned from pestering historians and archaeologists, from traveling through Greece and Italy, was exactly how much of this mythic tale was based on fact. So I sent Sigma into the mythic lands of Tartarus, the Greek version of Hell—all to save the world.
TRBS: Your first Sigma Force book, Sandstorm, came out, what, back in 2004, right? Did you ever think back then that you’d still be writing these characters today?
Rollins: It’s funny you should ask that. On GoodReads, I just posted a bunch of quotes from Sandstorm and wrote commentary with each. It was a way for me to look back at the origins of Sigma, but also to offer insight into the series’ genesis, into why I wrote that book, and some of the common themes that run throughout the novels. Here’s a link if anyone wants to check it out.
In regard to if I ever thought I’d be writing my 15th Sigma novel, nope. I’m grateful people have glommed onto the series, but I still find it surprising to be here debuting this fifteenth book. To me, it feels like the series just started a few years back versus a decade and a half. Then again, I’ve been breathing and living these characters for so long that they feel like flesh and blood. I expect to round a corner and see Gray and Kowalski standing there. All in all, it’s been a journey I feel blessed to have been able to take.
TRBS: What is your writing process like, and how (if at all) has it changed over time?
Rollins: It really hasn’t changed all that much. When I first started writing, I was still a full-time practicing veterinarian with my own successful clinic. I didn’t know where to fit writing into such a schedule. Then I made a commitment to write three pages a day, to bring structure to this process. Of course, I kept qualifying it: not three pages, three double-spaced pages, not every day, but 5 out of 7 days of the week. Once I came to this accommodation that fit comfortably into my schedule, pages started flowing, and before long I had a completed novel on my desk. At the time, I thought that if I ever gave up the day job that I’d be much more productive. And I am. I now write five double-spaced pages a day. I realized by the end of the fifth page I would hit a wall. It takes me about an hour to write one page. So, my typical day is 5 hours of new writing, with the remaining 3-4 hours doing research or addressing the business side of writing. And again: five out of seven days of the week.
TRBS: Back in November of last year, news broke that you had signed a new book deal with Tor Books to publish a new fantasy series that, apparently, you’ve been working on for some time now. Congrats, on the deal, first and foremost. Secondly, what can you tell readers about that forthcoming series?
Rollins: There’s very little I can tell you beyond the title of the first book (The Starless Crown). The series is a sprawling epic with a huge concept. No one’s dared to try what I’m attempting to pull off. Then again, I’ve been building this world for over a decade. I’ve got notes, maps, drawings. And I’m almost finished with the first book. It’s so very, very cool. I want to crow about it, but I must button my lips for now. That said, you might be wondering: What is a thriller writer doing tackling a fantasy series? Actually, this is not the first fantasy series I’ve written. It’s the third. When I first was published, I was writing two books a year: a thriller and a fantasy (under the pen name “James Clemens”). So basically, I’m returning to my roots. Doing a thriller and a fantasy each year. I couldn’t be happier.
TRBS: Lastly, any movie or TV show updates, and when can readers expect the next Sigma Force book?
Rollins: The entire Sigma series was optioned—and that option was recently renewed. Which I hope is an optimistic sign. Whether anything will get fully greenlit, I don’t know. I expect I’ll learn of it when I see the movie trailer or catch the commercial for the television series. Right now, I do know the production company is still looking down both paths: feature film and tv series. I’m encouraging them to do both.
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.