I was sent this book unsolicited, which is always cool – even if some books (not this one, though) turn out to fail the Butki 100 page test (if I hit page 100 and I have no interest in what happens next with the plot and/or the characters then I set that book aside.).
At first it reminded me of a rip-off of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code books since the title comes from the discovery of the real life Noah's Ark. I am not a fan of Dan Brown and wrote about our weird relationship in a prior Blogcritics piece.
But then I read the story about how this book come to be and I decided, if nothing else, I wanted to help publicize THAT story – how a book could be self-published, then a hit on Kindle and now is published by a big publishing company (thus the unsolicited mailings to writers like me.)
So this first part of this two-part interview focuses on that story. Fortunately, the book itself is also quite good, nothing like the shallow characters and predictable plot twists of Dan Brown's books.
I could say more but I'd rather just get to the interview.
First, can you tell the story – because it's a big part of why I wanted to do this interview – about how this book came about? Start please with the arrangement with your wife. She gave you time to work on the book and it was out of that that this book came about?
My wife and I had been married for a couple of years when she was looking for a career change and decided that she wanted to go to med school. I thought it was a great idea, but because she had been an English major in college, she had never taken a college-level science class. So including the pre-med courses she would need to take, it would be nine years before she would be a practicing physician.
Around that time I wrote my first thriller novel, The Adamas Blueprint. I didn't have success finding an agent for it, but I knew I wanted to take a crack at writing more novels. So my wife and I made a deal. I would put writing aside and work full-time to support her dream of becoming a doctor, and then when she was finished with her training, I would get to quit my job and try writing full-time with the goal of getting published in nine years. I'm happy to say I did it in five.
Then what happened next? The story about how it was self-published but is now being officially published is an inspiring story, I think, to all of aspiring novelists.
I quit my job at Microsoft right on time in 2005 when my wife became an internist, and I wrote my second book, a disaster thriller called The Palmyra Impact. No agent wanted it, so I moved on and in 2007 completed my third book, an action-adventure novel then called The Noah Covenant and now called The Ark. This time, I found an agent right away, Irene Goodman, and she began sending The Ark around to publishers in 2008.
We got what I call "rave rejections." Editors loved the premise, plot, and characters, but they didn't see how it would stand out in a crowded thriller market. So with Irene's blessing, in 2009 I put all three books onto the Kindle store. I really had nothing to lose. This was just as the Kindle 2 was coming out, and Amazon started letting unpublished authors self-publish their books electronically on the Kindle.
I did no advertising or promotion, but readers on various web discussion forums picked up on the books and started recommending them. Within a month, The Ark was the number one techno thriller on the Kindle, and all three books were in the top five in multiple genres. Within three months, I sold 7,500 copies of my books, and by that time they were selling at the rate of 4,000 books per month.
That sales rate got Simon and Schuster's attention. Their Touchstone imprint offered a two-book hardcover deal for The Ark and its sequel, and Pocket Book snapped up the mass market paperback rights to The Adamas Blueprint and The Palmyra Impact, which will be re-released in December 2010 under the title Rogue Wave. In addition, my foreign rights agent, Danny Baror, was able to sell The Ark into 15 foreign markets.
What was it like seeing the book becoming a hit via Kindle?
I was shocked and excited. A lot has changed in just a year. Back then, nobody really knew how well unpublished books could do on a platform like the Kindle, so I had no expectations. I just put them up there to see what would happen. Then when the sales started taking off so quickly and getting excellent reviews from readers, I knew I had something. It gave me confidence that there really were readers out there who would like my novels. And I think it also showed that when readers speak, they will be heard.
How do you describe the book to people? Where did you get the idea of using the ark as a major focus of the book?
One reviewer called The Ark a cross between Indiana Jones and MacGyver, both of which I loved. In The Ark, a relic from Noah's Ark gives a religious fanatic and his followers a weapon that will let them recreate the effects of the biblical flood, and a former combat engineer named Tyler Locke has seven days to find the Ark and the secret hidden inside before it's used to wipe out civilization again. I think The Ark would appeal to fans of Clive Cussler, James Rollins, and Steve Berry.
I was watching a documentary about the search for the remains of Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat, and being an engineer myself, I doubted that a six-thousand-year-old wooden vessel would still be intact. But then I thought, maybe the reason we haven't found the Ark is because it held a secret so deadly that its protectors didn't want it to be found. And maybe the true nature of the Ark and the Flood had been purposefully concealed for those six thousand years. When I figured out how and why that could have happened, I was off and running with the story.
I was reading this book the week it came out publicly (May 11) and what should be in the news but the oil rig accident. Bad timing? Did that coincidence occur to you? I won’t spoil anything by saying that there's also an oil rig early in book and there are problems and I thought, "Wow, what are the odds of that?"
That explosion was and is an ongoing tragedy, and very similar to a situation Tyler Locke is confronted with in The Ark, so I was stunned when it happened so close to publication. Remember, I completed this book in 2007, so the timing of this life-imitating-art coincidence is amazing.
Even stranger was another recent story. Two weeks ago, a Hong Kong-based evangelical group held a press conference claiming that they had found the remains of Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat! Now, someone seems to find Noah's Ark every five to ten years, but again the timing was uncanny.
What is your goal with this book?
Pure entertainment. I wanted to write a page-turner, something you could pick up on a flight from LA to New York so that you can forget you're crammed into an aluminum tube for five hours.
You will get, I think, compared to Dan Brown. So what do you think of his books, his popularity and what's your take on those inevitable comparisons? Are they a fair comparison?
Many people have already compared The Ark to Dan Brown's books, always in a favorable way, and I think I can't be anything other than flattered. After all, no matter what your personal views on The DaVinci Code are, a novel that sells 81 million copies is obviously connecting with a lot of readers. I think his books are page-turners, and if readers are looking for the same type of adventure, I'm happy to fill the gap while everyone is waiting for his next book.
What kind of research did you do this book?
Sometimes research can be tricky. A lot of red flags might go up if I call someone at an oil company and ask, "What do you think would be the best way to blow up an oil rig?" So I do a lot of my research silently on the Internet and with nonfiction books. I do know a lot of smart people, and I'm not afraid to call on their expertise when I need some info about ancient manuscripts or the treatment of traumatic injuries.
I do get to do some hands on research. A key chase scene in the book involves a Tesla electric sports car. When Tesla had their store's grand opening in Seattle where I live, I went down and got a test ride. It was the fastest car I had ever been in. Literally neck-snapping acceleration. When I ran the scene by my expert driver, he told me it could happen just the way I wrote it. That was pretty satisfying to know I'd gotten it right.
What are you working on next? A new stand alone? A book with some of the same characters?
Rogue Wave and The Adamas Blueprint (soon to be retitled) are both standalone thrillers, with Rogue Wave coming out this December and The Adamas Blueprint scheduled for December 2011. I'm now working on the sequel to The Ark, so Tyler Locke will definitely be back for more adventures next summer.
Did you go out of your way to make engineers look cool and break stereotypes with this book or was it coincidence that you've been an engineering student and the hero is an engineer?
No coincidence at all. I have a PhD in industrial engineering, so I noticed the slim track record of engineering heroes in thrillers. We've had thrillers with cops, spies, doctors, and lawyers, why not engineers? Let's face it, the reason is because we engineers are nerds. But we also are responsible for some pretty cool real-life adventures. In fact, many astronauts are engineers.
There's nothing cooler than an astronaut. And I've always had a soft spot for fictional engineers like Star Trek's Scotty, but Captain Kirk was the one who always got to do the heroic deeds while Scotty was down in the engine room. It wasn't fair. For The Ark, I just combined the hero and the engineer into one guy. I thought, Indiana Jones made archaeologists look cool, why can't someone do the same for engineers? So I did my small part and created Tyler Locke, a former army combat engineer whose specialties are bomb disposal and demolition. Tyler, with a PhD in mechanical engineering, is still a nerd at heart, but he's a nerd who kicks butt.