The extremely talented author James Rollin is with me today to talk about his latest Sigma Force novel, the 7th in the series, The Devil Colony. Was America originally supposed to have 14 instead of 13 colonies? Who is a largely forgotten Founding Father whom you probably have never heard about in school? Did the Lost Tribes of Israel make it to America and settle here? From the dark secret origins of the United States to cutting edge nanotechnology, the action-packed and suspenseful novel The Devil Colony might be the best Sigma Force book yet!
I intend to get to the bottom of this and find out the answers to these and even more Burning Questions by water boarding–er, I mean interviewing James Rollins. Will there be any broken bones? I can’t promise that, for legal reasons. You’ll just have to read the following interview to find out for yourselves!
The only Sigma Force book prior to The Devil Colony that I’ve read and reviewed (elsewhere than this site) is The Judas Strain. It’s a great book, and offers an explanation of what may have happened to a couple of Christopher Columbus’ ships, when the sailors experienced craziness brought on by toxic algae. There are types of toxic algae around today. What would it take to have this type of algae become more prevalent around the world? What happens to the had of one of the Sigma Force members, Monk, in this novel?
James Rollins: That’s a lot of questions, Prof. First, as to the algae, large swaths of the ocean are already becoming toxic “dead zones,” where only deadly algae and poisonous jellyfish thrive. Estimates by oceanographers suggest that these hotspots will only grow worse. In fact, scientists are now saying that the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico will be the largest it’s ever been in history. As to Monk’s hand, well, he’s always misplacing it. That’s all I’ll say.
You’ve already conducted interviews to promote The Devil Colony, both in print and video ones that I’ve seen on the Internet. It might be difficult for me to come up with some questions about the book that you haven’t already been asked and answered, but I’ll sure give it a try! The Devil Colony has a prelude that’s set in the Kentucky Territory in August 1799. Some people, including the French scientist Archard Fortescue, are recovering Native artifacts from an effigy mound in the shape of a giant serpent. Though there are serpent shaped mounds in Kentucky, or at least one, you have mentioned somewhere that you are really referring to one in Ohio, I believe it was, but set the prelude in Kentucky for some reason. Why set it in the Kentucky Territory? What did they find while excavating the serpent’s head, and has what they found ever been used by Native people as a totem before?
I chose Kentucky because I needed the Indian burial mound to be relatively close to Virginia (as it’s the then-governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, who sent out this exploratory team of grave-diggers). What they find there is a buried, fossilized skull of a mastodon. It’s been altered to serve as a gold-lined vessel for a lost treasure. But I dare say no more, or I’ll ruin the fun.
I have read that you’re a Roman Catholic, James, but you became fascinated by the beliefs and stories you heard Mormon friends of yours relate about gold tablets and the Lost Tribes of Israel. One of the main characters early on in The Devil Colony is a Shoshone historian and naturalist, Professor Henry Kanosh, who has been raised a Mormon. Why don’t some Native people in Utah like it that some of them have become Mormons and consider Kanosh to be “an Indian Uncle Tom”? Why are there protests outside a cavern in Utah by some Native groups, and what is inside the cavern?To this day, there remains a constant friction between Mormons and Native American tribes. This goes back to the abuse—even slaughter—of the tribes at the hands of early settlers in Utah and surrounding territories. So conversion to Mormonism by a Native American would be tantamount, in some tribal eyes, to getting in bed with the enemy. This friction comes to a head in my story when a cavern in Utah is discovered full of ancient, mummified bodies. The mummies are wearing Native American garb, but the bodies appear to be Caucasian. This results in a battle over who has claim over the remains—and the treasure found inside.
What causes the Director of the Sigma Force, Painter Crowe, to travel to Utah with a fellow member, Joe Kowalski?
Ah, that would be at the behest of his niece. Painter is half-Indian, of the Mashantucket tribe. His niece, being a bit of a firebrand, has become embroiled in the above-mentioned battle and ends up being implicated in the death of an anthropologist—who dies in a strange explosion in full view of television cameras. Painter’s niece is also caught on camera, looking guilty of the terrorist act.
What happens to anthropology professor Margaret (Maggie) Gratham when an artifact is removed from the cavern? I wouldn’t ask, but it’s a pretty cool, though I’m sure painful and terrifying, way to go!
It wasn’t Painter’s niece (and her backpack full of plastic explosives) that killed the anthropologist. It was actually the object—a gold-encrusted skull of a saber-toothed tiger—that was the source of the blast. Inside that skull is an ancient, unstable compound. That explosion will trigger a worldwide hunt for the source of that material.
I really like that you incorporate both aspects of history and technology in your novels, James. What are many of the mummies inside the cavern holding in their hands, and in what way is Damascus steel from the past different from steel called that made today?
Those mummies are found holding daggers—knives they used to slit their own throats. But these are no ordinary blades. They appear to be made of Damascus steel, a metal so unique that it can’t be forged today, even with modern smelting techniques. Damascus steel has baffled historians for ages. The recipe to make this strong, yet resilient steel was lost during the Middle Ages. What’s so unique about this metal? Modern electron microscopy has shown this steel is held together with carbon nanotubules and nanowires. They show clear evidence of nanotechnology—a technology that we’re only beginning to dabble in today.
On a related note, in what way are the gold plates Painter’s niece Kai sees in the cavern different than today’s gold, and what is written on the plates?
Those plates also show fingerprints of ancient nanotechnology. And the language inscribed on the tablets appear to be an ancient form of Hebrew. How all that relates to the story, I’ll have to stay silent.
Painter Crowe faces in The Devil Colony Rafael (Rafe) Saint Germaine, a villain who is different than any other he’s battled before. How is he “different,” and why is he so interested in the events taking place in Utah?
Rafael works for a shadowy organization that has been hunting for this lost technology for centuries. He was picked because his family in France are major players in the nanotech industry. Unfortunately, Rafael also suffers from a debilitating illness called osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. But he’s turned that disability into an asset, honing his mind to a sharp and deadly edge.
The former Guild assassin, Seichan, is back in this novel and assists Commander Gray Pierce in many respects as he hunts down tantalizing clues about America’s past that still resonate strongly today. Why does she come back to America? Did Benjamin Franklin ever actually draw an eagle with fourteen arrows in one of its talons, or is the picture of it reproduced in the novel there mainly for the purpose of adding further drama to the plot?
Seichan arrives on Commander Gray’s doorstep with a satchel full of information about her former employers, the shadowy Guild. What she’s discovered is that the organization has been around for a long time, going back to the founding of America. As to that drawing of Benjamin Franklin, that’s a mystery I’ll leave to the readers.
What’s that, voices inside my head? Ask the nice author about America’s forgotten Founding Father even though you said you would try to just ask original questions? Okay, fine–you win–this time! James, you’ve mentioned before in interviews about a Native American who can be considered to be one of this nation’s Founding Fathers. Who is he, and why should more Americans know about him?
Who was this lost Founding Father? He was a tall, well-spoken, charismatic figure of that time, a regular rock star. His name was Chief Canasatego, an Iroquois leader. During that time, the Iroquois nation was a confederation of six warring tribes who had united together two centuries earlier for their common good.
At a treaty conference in 1744, Chief Canasatego met with the early colonists, including Benjamin Franklin. The chief approached Franklin and offered him a gift: a single feathered arrow. When Franklin expressed confusion at such an odd presentation, Canasatego took back the arrow and broke it across his knee and let the pieces drop to the floor. Next he offered Franklin a sheaf of thirteen arrows tied together. Before handing it over, the chief again attempted to break that bundle across his knee, but joined as one, they would not break. He presented that bundle to Franklin, the message plain to all. To survive and be strong, the thirteen colonies needed to band together, only then would the new nation be unbreakable.
Afterward, Franklin wrote extensively about that meeting with Chief Canasatego. Later, as a committee member who helped design the Great Seal of America, Franklin did not forget that profound moment with the Iroquois chief. It is why the bald eagle in the Great Seal holds a bundle of thirteen arrows in his claw….as a permanent—and secret—honor to Chief Canasatego.
But how many people know about any of this?
I noted in my review of The Devil Colony that in it, as with Steve Berry’s latest novel, The Jefferson Key, you write about President Thomas Jefferson a lot, and especially about his love of codes and ciphers, and his vast collection of American Indian artifacts. What was the coded message you mentioned elsewhere that Jefferson wrote that wasn’t cracked until 2007? Also, what did you learn from your research about the possibility that Meriwether Lewis, one of Jefferson’s best friends, could have been used as a spy?
Jefferson loved secret codes and had a circle of friends who shared various codes. One code was so complex and tricky that it wasn’t broken until 2007. When it was finally broken, the message ended up being a section of the Declaration of Independence. It was mostly a test of the code, not a globe-shattering secret. But what was a secret was that Meriwether Lewis was functioning as a spy for Jefferson—and Lewis was murdered for it. For centuries Lewis’s death was deemed a suicide, but newest evidence revealed it was murder. And this is just one of many secrets about early America.
Nanotechnology is the field of today and of the future. Michael Crichton wrote about it in his novel Prey. What are some of ways industries are using nanotechnology today, and what are some of the downsides to it?
It is estimated that this year alone $70 billion worth of nanotech products will be sold in the United States. Nano-goods are found everywhere: toothpaste, sunscreen, cosmetics, medicines. Currently close to ten thousand products contain nanoparticles. What’s the downside of such a growth industry? These nanoparticles can cause illness, even death. Nano-titantium oxide (found in children’s sunscreens and many other products) can trigger damage to animals at the genetic level. Carbon nanotubes (found in thousands of everyday products) have been shown to accumulate in the lungs and brains of rats. It’s a new and wild frontier. There is presently no requirement for the labeling of nano-goods, no required safety studies of products containing nanoparticles.
Why does Gray and Seichan travel to Iceland, and why was Ben Franklin so interested in the Laki eruption?
Gray and Seichan head to Iceland to look for a lost treasure, but trouble is brewing—the same trouble that caused a volcanic eruption during the colonial era. The Laki eruption in Iceland fascinated Benjamin Franklin. The eruption was so severe it killed a quarter of Iceland’s residents and caused such global changes that the Mississippi froze over as far south as New Orleans. Millions of deaths resulted from the famine that followed those drastic global climate changes.
You write about Painter improvising a way to detonate C4. How does he do this, and where did you learn or read about the method he thinks up?
I read about a cool new shotgun that shoots out TASER darts. It’s a real weapon. But as a thriller writer, it got me thinking: what if I added C-4 to it? Yes, I must admit that I like to blow things up.
Commander Gray’s father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, a devastating disease. My father-in-law’s mother had it before passing away. It is not something I’d wish on anyone. Has there been anyone you know who has had Alzheimer’s?
Unfortunately I do. Someone very close to me. Some of what Gray is going through is very autobiographical.
This question might reveal too much, so if you would like to pass on it, just tell me “pass.” A family you write about, the Ghents, figure prominently in The Devil Colony. Why do you mention them, and which of your characters is one of their descendants?
Ah, PASS (he said with an evil grin).
What are you currently working on, if anything? I have read that you have a series of YA novels, and one is due out soon.
Actually the second book in my kid’s series (Jake Ransom and the Howling Sphinx) came out about 3 weeks ago. I’m currently working on the third book, while researching the next Sigma novel, and developing a secret project that I’m not at liberty to talk about yet. Even under torture.