Recently I had the pleasure of meeting James Rollins, a New York Times bestselling author, at a book event at my local library. Anytime I can learn how someone has made it as an author, I’m all ears.
Born James Paul Czajkowski, he is a colossal success, having written 26 novels, in the international thriller, fantasy, and young adult genres. Among that list are his Sigma Force Series Novels, a huge draw for his fans, where history meets science and a lot of stuff is blown up in between. For fantasy novels he writes under the name James Clemens. His novels have been translated in more than 40 languages.
I might have expected someone of such caliber to be intimidating or arrogant. Instead Jim was warm, funny, enthusiastic, and humble. He was there at the book event to meet with fans and offer encouragement to aspiring writers. I thought to myself how delightful it must be as an author to see your fans show up at event with a stack of your books.
His own path to becoming a writer was a circuitous one. In fact, he started out as a veterinarian. He explained that while he knew he had a scientific mind, his warped, right brain also competed for his attention. Always a voracious reader, he practiced his storytelling abilities in his childhood with tales that scared and tricked his brother. Growing up in a big family with six kids, I imagine the opportunities were endless.
He wrote short stories in the beginning and attended a writing group. Only one of his short stories was published, but it was this one achievement that gave him the push he needed to keep going. When he completed his novel and set out to get an agent, he was rejected almost 50 times, even to the tune of “This is unpublishable.” But on the fiftieth attempt, his work was accepted.
He is still active in the veterinarian community and joked he can spay or neuter a cat in thirty seconds. Animals appear in many of his books. In his latest novel, Bloodline, he examines the relationship between a war dog and his handler. In the story, the dog assumes a character role. Additionally, he actively supports veterans in a project called Authors United for Veterans and travels overseas for USO tours. It is heart-warming to see someone giving back to his community.
Although he mentioned that many of his books have been optioned in Hollywood, none have been given the green light until recently. Jim explained his interaction with Hollywood directors had previously been unlucky. He described one meeting with a certain director at his first writing conference in Maui. (By the way, he recommends this conference. Hey, sign me up!) He turned to him, thinking it was a person he knew from his home town, and said, “What are you doing here?” It so happened that this person was Ron Howard, who replied, “I was invited.”
He also described accidently hitting Quentin Tarantino in the gut at the San Diego Comic Convention. It seems Mr. Tarantino would be the last person you would want to hit, anywhere.
His advice to writers is to never give up and to keep writing. While Jim writes one novel, he is also researching for the next. In his own writing practice, he writes five pages, fives days a week. At night, he gets his reading in. He also prominently displays a post-it note on his computer that says, “You have permission to write the worst crap in the Universe.” He admits that many of his pages are polished and ready to be inserted into his story, which is often loosely outlined before writing.
He also had tips for authenticating historical events. To the laughter of the audience, he mentioned if you can get a few facts correct, like the actual location of a corner Starbucks, people will believe everything that you write. A little trick! In fact, many of his readers confuse fact from fiction. They swear the fiction is actually truthful, and the truth, all made up. I’d say that is clever writing.
As I presented my newly purchased The Devil Colony to be signed, he said to me, “If I can a write a novel, anyone can.” I left feeling a little giddy, and quite hopeful.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get to work on that short story.
Photo credit: David Sylvian