From Wags to Riches
It’s a pretty safe bet that Jim Czajkowski, aka James Rollins, is the only licensed veterinarian in El Dorado Hills whose books routinely land on The New York Times best-seller list. With his newest thriller out June 21, the multi-named author discusses his connection with Indiana Jones, Dan Brown and how, after eight novels, his biweekly writers’ group at Coco’s is still kicking his ass.
Author Jim Czajkowski, better known as James Rollins, at his home in El Dorado Hills
Photos by Marc Thomas Kallweit
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TThe best-selling thriller writer studied the iMac’s 27-inch screen with his face tight, his eyes hard pieces of blue ice. Outside, rain fell from an angry sky. He ignored the clamor. He had a novel to write.
His immaculate home office in El Dorado Hills revealed a devotee of the written word. Hundreds of titles by his contemporaries lined the mahogany shelves two-deep: Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Clive Barker and dozens more.
Then there were his own books.
Twenty-three in all, published under a pair of pen names: James Rollins, whose artery-bursting adventure yarns draw comparisons to The Da Vinci Code and include the 2008 novelization of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; and James Clemens, author of two fantasy series, The Banned and the Banished and Godslayer. Eight of his novels had reached The New York Times best-seller list.
But none of his success mattered to the screen’s cursor.
It throbbed pitilessly, awaiting the next letter.
If Rollins could complete the manuscript, The Devil Colony would mark the seventh entry in his hugely popular Sigma Force series that tracks the heroic exploits of an elite group of special ops military scientists. The previous installment, 2009’s The Doomsday Key, peaked at No. 2 on the Times list. Topping that personal best could happen only one way: He had to finish.
He stared at the monitor. The font was set to Times New Roman, point size 14. His fingers hovered over the silver keys.
The sky blackened as the rain roared louder.
Would the words come?
Relax, Rollins fans—and forgive the opening line above that paraphrases a sentence from The Doomsday Key. After a year delay, The Devil Colony finally goes on sale June 21. On this mission, Sigma Force races to avert a “geological meltdown” of the western United States triggered by the discovery of hundreds of mummified bodies in the Rocky Mountains. The novel abounds with trademark Rollins touches, stitching religious, scientific and historical facts into the latest saga of Sigma, led by Director Painter Crowe and Commander Gray Pierce, as the team risks life and limb to thwart unseen dark forces.
If his past novels are prologue, the new book figures to be an addictive page-turner. Yet for Jim Czajkowski—better known by his pen names James Rollins and James Clemens (his adventure and fantasy guises, respectively)—the creative process remains as inscrutable as The Guild, the shadowy crime syndicate that Sigma Force battles around the world. “When I sit down, I have no idea how hard or easy that day is going to be for writing,” says the 49-year-old Czajkowski (pronounced chuh-KOW-ski), taking a break from his iMac on a stormy spring afternoon. Indeed, for an author who has published more than a million words since the 1998 release of Wit’ch Fire, his debut fantasy novel, the mystery of the muse endures. “Some days it does go really fast. Other days it’s like pulling teeth, and I don’t know how to make those days change, not even after writing 23 books.”p
What delayed the release of The Devil Colony from its original publication date last summer, however, wasn’t a struggle at the keyboard so much as finding time to sit at it. Czajkowski’s work on the book coincided with moving to El Dorado Hills from his home in Sacramento’s Pocket neighborhood, where he lived for 18 years, and helping his parents search for and settle into an assisted-living facility in Sacramento. (Three of his six siblings also live here.) Then there was the trip to Iraq with five other Times best-selling suspense writers, among them Steve Berry and Douglas Preston, to visit U.S. troops as part of a USO tour dubbed “Operation Thriller.”
The disruption of his writing routine meant that after producing nearly two books a year for the preceding decade, Czajkowski saw his 2010 output limited to a short story he contributed to an anthology co-edited by renowned fantasy writers George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. The drop-off occurred after he had churned out a finger-aching three titles in 2009. In addition to The Doomsday Key, he published a stand-alone thriller, Altar of Eden, which reached No. 6 on the Times best-seller list, and Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow, the first book in a young adult series he writes under his Rollins alias.
He will perform another trifecta in 2011, with a follow-up Jake Ransom adventure published in May and The Blood Gospel—a novel due out toward year’s end that, while keeping details to himself, he predicts could be “very controversial”—bracketing The Devil Colony. The Sigma Force tale hews to Czajkowski’s popular formula: a densely plotted story line, spiked with abstruse-but-true details, in which characters attempt to decode ancient mysteries in far-flung locales and prevent the planet’s demise. An insatiable book and magazine reader who clips articles from periodicals as diverse as New Scientist, National Geographic and Entertainment Weekly to stoke his imagination, Czajkowski spins narratives that lead book critics to liken him to Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol. He views the appraisal with equanimity.
“What’s that clichéd phrase? ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’ ” he says. “Once word-of-mouth spread—‘His books are like Dan Brown’s books’—all of a sudden it was a cattle run and my sales shot up. In no way has it been a bad thing.” Nonetheless, he is not bereft of artistic pride. “Eventually, I want people to go, ‘[Brown’s] book is just like James Rollins’ book.’ ”
Czajkowski’s raised profile helped him reel in the Indiana Jones novelization, a natural pairing of author and subject considering that online reviewers described Map of Bones, his 2005 Sigma Force novel, as Indiana Jones meets The Da Vinci Code. He talked with George Lucas to learn details about the story line and visited the filmmaker’s Presidio studio complex in San Francisco to read an early version of the script. Since the movie and book would share the same release date, he watched dailies of unedited footage on a secure Web site during filming, tracking changes so he could tweak the novel’s narrative.
But while he’s a fan of the franchise and happens to write novels shot through with remarkably violent and inventive deaths, huge explosions and skin-of-their-teeth escapes, Czajkowski resists the tag of author-slash-action hero. “My publicist has tried to position me as the Indiana Jones of thriller writing—obnoxiously so,” he says, recounting his refusal to skydive to a book signing in Anchorage, Alaska, to promote his 2003 novel Ice Hunt. Though an avid hiker and scuba diver, he prefers to avoid potential bodily harm. The exotic artifacts that decorate his home—a woolly mammoth tusk from China, a boomerang from Australia, a Mayan calendar from Mexico, a crystal skull from Hawaii—were picked up during leisure trips, not on covert assignments to foil The Guild. “I wouldn’t want to be a member of Sigma Force,” Czajkowski says. “It’d be too much work.”