By Jim McLauchlin
For James Rollins, the travel comes first, and the book comes later.
Rollins has 20 bestselling novels under his belt, with The Bone Labyrinth, which releases tomorrow, poised to make it 21. Rollins’ novels have taken readers to Mongolia, Antarctica, the Amazon basin, the Vatican, and more. And Rollins has visited most of these places.
“It’s very seldom that I actually travel specifically for research,” he says. “I usually just travel for the fun of it. But I journal when I travel, I take a bunch of pictures, then I kind of have a catalog of a place. And when I need an interesting locale for my characters to go to, I have ready-made research, already done.”
Beijing, Croatia, and the high Andes are the main settings in The Bone Labyrinth, Rollins’ latest thriller where cutting-edge science crashes into ancient myth.
“I’m notorious for walking up to locals and asking them, ‘Tell me something nobody knows about this place, something a little secret,’” he says. “Traveling is the source for many of my story ideas.”
There’s great adventure and occasional missteps all along the travel path – and for Rollins, risky travel can create its own drama.
“I was traveling in China, not looking to write about China, and I asked someone in Beijing to tell me something about the place. That’s where I learned about the underground city.”
During the Cold War the Chinese government built a series of tunnels under Beijing to be used as bomb shelters. No one knows just how far the tunnels extend or where they go, but they’re massive.
“The Chinese government even used them back in 1989 for troop movements during the Tiananmen Square protests to mask their movements from the protestors and the rest of the world,” Rollins says.
No one has been allowed in the tunnels since 2008, “but you ask enough people, and I was able to get a peek down in those areas,” he adds. “It became a major setting for The Bone Labyrinth.”
“When I was in Shanghai, they warned about a very active Chinese mafia that would roll tourists on a regular basis,” Rollins says. “So you have to be careful where you go. I had a little card with the name of my hotel and where I wanted to go so when I hired a taxi, I could at least get there and back.”
But Rollins says the Chinese government has become very secretive in recent years. Sometimes even riding in a taxi arouses suspicion.
“I went out into the countryside, and when you leave Shanghai, it’s like you enter another world. There are rice paddies and plows being pulled by oxen. But my taxi got pulled over by a People’s Republic Army Jeep, and the driver was questioned as to why this lone American traveler was going out to a non-tourist area. Maybe not the smartest thing for me to do.”
“I was in Barcelona once, and I saw this really cool door, a giant wooden door with giant metal spikes in it, and … well, it was a handsome door. So I took a picture of it,” Rollins says. “And I was immediately surrounded by these uniformed men yelling and pointing rifles at me. Turns out this door was the side entrance to the headquarters of the Spanish equivalent of the CIA, and they weren’t happy with me photographing it.”
Rollins was able to play the “I didn’t know, I’m just a tourist” card, and there were no further repercussions. “But it did teach me to be careful. This was the photo shoot that almost became a shooting.”
The capital of Mongolia sits at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet, and is known as the world’s coldest capital city.
“With that trip, I was conscious that Mongolia was in flux,” Rollins says. “It was one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, largely due to the mining of rare-earth elements, but there’s huge disparity in wealth. There’s some great modernity and riches in places, but it’s dirt-poor everywhere else. I’m always a little conscious when that’s the situation. You can get in trouble when you cross those lines. You have to keep your eyes open.”
Rollins kept his eyes open and found an entire community of street people living underground, staying close to the steam pipes that heated the city. “I encountered that community and that place became one of the settings for [Rollins’ 2013 novel] The Eye of God,” he says. “Sometimes the story is right under your feet.”
“My brother worked at the embassy in St. Petersburg, and I went there once,” Rollins says. “The new crime they warned me about there was just being mobbed in broad daylight. You might be crossing the street, and all of a sudden, you’re surrounded by 40 people and they just strip everything off you. And … they’re gone. They disperse in multiple directions. There’s no predicting it; you’re just waylaid in broad daylight in the middle of the street. Fortunately, this didn’t happen to me.”
Rest assured, the past has not scared Rollins off of the future.
“Antarctica is on my bucket list,” he says. “I’ve set my foot on every continent except that one. I might be on a cruise this winter that goes from Chile to Buenos Aires, and there’s an add-on you can do where you can take a trip to Antarctica.”
If so, Rollins plans to finally conquer his final frontier. But not before he packs his Dramamine. “I have to plan for seasickness. It’s notorious that the waters there are pretty rough, and I don’t have the strongest sea legs.”
On the other hand, if you’ve got an underground tunnel just lying around, Rollins is definitely your guy.
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