Minutes to Burn
by Gregg Hurwitz
The scientific charge of The Hot Zone and the epic thrill of Jurassic Park converge in MINUTES TO BURN—an exhilarating new eco-thriller about a team of scientists and Navy SEALs stranded on an island in the Galápagos and fighting to survive an evolutionary catastrophe.
The year is 2007. Through widening holes of ozone depletion, the tropical sun burns human skin to a crisp. Powerful earthquakes and monstrous hurricanes wrack South America, exploding Ecuador’s already anarchic instability.
Cameron Kates, a hard-hitting Navy SEAL hiding the secret of her early pregnancy, gets pulled begrudgingly into a mission with her husband, Justin. Along with a ragtag squad of soldiers, ordered on the babysitting mission against their will, she must escort Dr. Rex Williams, a renowned ecotectonicist, to the chaotic continent. Rex is forced to brave the extreme and unprecedented dangers of such an expedition for one reason alone — so he can position critical seismic equipment on Sangre de Dios, a desolate and depopulated island in Galápagos. Others have recently vanished from the island without a trace.
Cameron’s platoonmates — a crackpot demolition expert, a chief who wears her brawn over her considerable intelligence, an unhinged lieutenant recovering from a personal tragedy — are an erratic but expert crew. Yet ultimately it is the newcomer, William Savage, a brooding Vietnam vet with raging warrior instincts, from whom Cameron must learn when the straightforward mission escalates into a battle for survival.
In the forest of the island awaits a scientific phenomenon the likes of which man has never witnessed. As the stunned scientists and soldiers furiously unravel the threads of the ecological mystery they’ve encountered, they discover that they’re trapped within a lethal, predatory battle where only the fittest survive. And the fate of the world is hanging in the balance.
A riveting and spine-tingling thriller, MINUTES TO BURN takes you on a terrifying, unforgettable expedition through an ecological disaster in the not too distant future. This of-the-moment story of daring and terror in Darwin’s backyard is one of today’s most compelling and unrelenting reads.
15 NOV 07
A faint cry carried into the house, distracting Ramon Lopez Estrada from the plate of fried pork. He froze, fork raised halfway to his mouth. The noise had probably come from the livestock pens at the edge of his property, across the rows of crops. It was slightly different than the usual, restless mooing of the cows — it was more like a frightened whinny. Dismissing it to the wind, he took a bite and loaded up another generous forkful. He ate hungrily; he’d worked on his farm from sunup until dusk, clearing another section of forest to free the volcanic soil for crops.
Soil was a rarity in Galapagos, islands formed of basaltic lava. It took hundreds of years for the barren rock to soften, turning to brick-red clay as its iron oxidized, then to topsoil as roots and rain intervened. Over millennia, dense Scalesia pedunculata forests emerged and flourished, the trees stretching as high as twenty meters in the air. Only the most elevated regions of the highest islands had undergone the process in its entirety, catching clouds that passed aloof and withholding over the scorched lowlands.
Floreana, her belly rounded beneath her apron, stopped behind Ramon and rubbed his aching shoulders. She paused to pluck a twig from his hair and tickled his cheek with it until he lovingly shooed her away.
They’d had one child already, a boy whom Ramon had sent to Puerto Ayora to find work and play. Ramon had chosen his boy’s happiness over his own need for a second pair of hands around the farm, permitting him to discover life in the small port town on Santa Cruz. However, that meant more time for Ramon in the fields, clearing the forest, building pens for his livestock, planting his crops with a meticulousness based on the seasons and his own islander’s sense.
Because of the earthquakes, the supply ship had stopped passing by last month. Without any gasoline or oil, the town had slowed down, like a wind-up toy losing steam. The chainsaws no longer roared in the mornings, the gas stoves were used only as countertops, the houses fell dark after dusk-even Ramon prize tiller sat in the field collecting rust while he worked the ground with a spading fork.
Sangre de Dios had been a sparsely populated island to begin with, and the new conditions had driven the other farming families away. Though few had admitted it, many had also fled because of the strange things that had been happening around the island. Dogs and goats missing, changes in the behavior of the wildlife. The girls who used to live one farm over told stories about the tree monster with glistening fangs. And then Marco’s little girl had gone missing. After a week of frantic searching, they’d given her up for dead, and Marco had taken his family and moved to the continent.
Ramon and Floreana were now living on a deserted island. In their haste to leave, one of the families had stolen their boat. But it didn’t matter — Floreana was too pregnant to travel anywhere until she delivered, and an oil tanker still passed by the island every other month.
Ramon finished his meal and pulled his wife into his lap. He groaned, pretending to be crushed by her weight. She laughed and pointed to her stomach. “This is your fault, you know,” she said. Her voice was high and lively; she spoke a rapid, chattering Spanish with the accent of the Oriente, though she’s been born in Galapagos. She’d been named for the island of her birth.
Ramon raised a hand to her cheek and leaned forward to kiss her, but Floreana playfully pushed him away, wiping a smudge of ajÍ from his lip with her thumb and clearing his plate. She pointed to the stack of logs in the corner of the humble box of a house. Built of porous concrete blocks cemented with a thick, messy mortar, the walls were cracked and skewed by the numerous earthquakes that wracked the small island. A cooking fire danced in the hearth, which was little more than two absent blocks backed with plywood and opened to the Pacific air above.
Ramon groaned, lowering his head to the table with a thump. His fork and knife jangled. With a sigh, he rose and crossed to the fireplace. Picking up the ax, he twirled it as he stood a log on end on the dirt floor. Suddenly, a loud bleating split the air. Floreana dropped the plate, which shattered across the counter, and the ax slipped through Ramon hand, giving his index finger a deep nick. The bleating rounded out into a moan, and Ramon realized it was an animal bellowing in pain. The cry, an intensified version of the one he’d heard minutes before, was rife with panic. Instinctively, Floreana circled the table toward her husband, her eyes on the small hole of the window.
The sound was coming from the livestock pens, across the rows of crops. Ramon squeezed his wife reassuringly, but his hand was trembling. He stepped for the door, ax swinging by his side, blood curling around his finger and dripping to the floor.
The nights were growing warmer and the air outside was thick and moist. The garúa was settling into the peaks of the forest, crowning it with ribbons of mist. The cry came again, this time with more urgency, and Ramon imagined he felt it rattling through his bones. He passed through the low castor oil plants, the wide-leafed flowering guavas, the tall stands of placutetanos. Beside him hung the bunches of fruit, hard-sheathed and ridged. He thought of the panicked looks in the eyes of his neighbors who had fled, the foolish stories that had been told around the village. The tall tales seemed more real in the darkness.
The cry elevated into an almost human scream, undulating unnaturally, Eke the wail of a child seized and shaken. Its pitch, except when wrenched high with pain, was low and broad, issuing from some large creature. There was more bleating, more sounds of struggle. Though the air was cool, Ramon felt his shirt clinging to his body, moist and limp. He tightened his grip on the ax, thinking of his over-under shotgun in the small house and cursing the ammunition shortage, and reached a hand out cautiously to part the fronds.
Something lay up ahead, wheezing in the tall grass of the westernmost livestock pen. A large creature, lost in the shadows, the darkness, and Ramon’s own intoxicating fear, was retreating slowly to the brink of the forest. At least three meters tall, it seemed to walk upright like a man, the grass shushing around its swollen body. Unhurried, it reached the edge of the Scalesia forest and faded from sight.
A renewed cry brought Ramon’s attention back to the injured beast. It was one of Ramon’s favorites, a thick brown-and-white spotted cow. He stepped forward, trying to focus on her, but his mind was slow and unresponsive, having followed the thick majestic creature through the mist and into the forest.
The cow bleated again, but its cries had none of the fearful edge of before. Its side was raked open in two diagonal strips, the torn flesh revealing a crushed tangle of ribs and tissue. Her breath rattled through the holes, fluttering the fur surrounding the gashes. Her hind leg was snapped back under her body, and her head rested at a painful angle to her neck, as if she’d been raised and dropped, or thrown a short distance in frustration.
As if something had bitten off more than it could chew.
Ramon lowered the ax to his side, breathing hard. There were no bears here, no large cats or crocodiles. As far as he knew, the largest natural predator in the entire archipelago was the Galapagos hawk.
The cow moaned and Ramon crouched over her, caressing her flank. Her mouth was sprayed with froth. He noticed that the back of her neck had been attacked, scraped or gnawed through to the thick plate of the scapula. The flesh was ribboned across the wound, glistening with blood and a foreign, clear, viscid liquid that looked like saliva. Ramón reached out and touched the wound, drawing his hand back sharply as pain shot through the cut on his index finger. He wiped the excess blood on his jeans and instinctively put his finger in his mouth to clear the wound. He spit into the grass, a red-lined glob thick with mucus, and rose.
The cow rustled in the grass, her head trembling above the ground. Ramón picked up the ax, again cursing the fact that there were no shells for his shotgun. With a nervous glance at the band of forest into which the large creature had vanished, he raised the ax back over one shoulder and swung downward at the cow’s neck.
The foregoing is excerpted from Minutes to Burn by Gregg Hurwitz. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
Awards & Accolades
#1 LA Times Bestseller
“…Vivid cast, engrossing story… Hurwitz demonstrates once again that he’s a thriller writer to be reckoned with.”
“Part Michael Crichton techno-thriller, part James Cameron monster movie, and all Gregg Hurwitz page-turner, MINUTES TO BURN is a great good time of a read! The science is fascinating, the story is exciting, and the plot moves with the unstoppable precision of a SEAL team mounting an assault. Buy this book and bring it to the beach…but read it in the shade.”
“Get ready to stay up all night–Gregg Hurwitz is about to take you on a rollercoaster ride to a fierce and unforgiving near future. Action-adventure and thriller fans, take note–if you want to read someone who writes with the intelligence of Crichton, the military tech know-how of Clancy, and the spine-tingling intensity of Koontz, allow me to introduce you to Gregg Hurwitz–you’re going to love MINUTES TO BURN.”
“Gripping…Hurwitz has engineered a deft recombinant blend of a thriller, tossing in lots of scientific speculation … a la Crichton in Jurassic Park mode, a ragtag Navy SEAL crew reminiscent of the Aliens heroes, some Predator and a dash of Rambo. [A] jam-packed tale.”
“Hurwitz’s crew in Minutes to Burn are the hardest, orneriest, funniest soldiers since The Dirty Dozen. The novel has a breakneck drive, chilling realism, and graveyard tension. Hang on to your hat.”
“Gregg Hurwitz captures the warrior spirit of the past and takes us to a future where science unleashes discoveries that society has yet to comprehend. This “new breed” of SEALs overcome their personal vulnerabilities to do what has always been and will always be paramount…COMPLETE THE MISSION!”
RICHARD MARCINKO, author of Rogue Warrior
MINUTES TO BURN is a broad-ranging novel that incorporates numerous genres and fields. How would you label it?
Well, that’s the problem, really. The book has a strong military component, but it’s certainly not a straightforward military thriller. A virus plays a key role in the plot, but I’m not focused exclusively on that either. One of my aims in writing this book was to incorporate those aspects of thrillers I like — the military thriller, the Crichton science thriller, travel-adventure books in the tradition of Into Thin Air — and create something wholly new. MINUTES TO BURN is really an eco-thriller because it’s not about the location alone, or the virus, or the animals of Galápagos, but rather the way all these things come together at a particular time within a specific environment, to form a stressful and dangerous series of events. Ozone depletion, scorching sunlight, earth-shattering quakes — these aren’t even the main concerns our protagonists have to contend with, they’re merely the backdrop of this mission on which they embark.
And though it features a creature, it’s not a “creature book.”
No, it’s not. Most projects of this type with which we’re familiar — Them or Aliens, for instance — feature these horrifying creatures that we know immediately are trouble. We know the right decision is for the protagonists to kill them. Here, I wanted to present a conflict closer to how it might occur in the real world. If a new species of animal was discovered in the Galápagos, one of the most important protected parks in the world, how would events really proceed? How would we treat this scientific phenomenon? I wanted to capture some of that excitement. Now what if you hypothesized that this animal might grow predatory, and what if you were alone on an island with it? That’s a real problem with no easy solution. There’s a legitimate environmentalist argument to be made, but also a legitimate protect-your-ass argument. If you were an ardent preservationist, but you were stuck alone in a room with a gun and a hungry panther, all of a sudden your options and convictions change. Perhaps.
And the debate between the group on the mission — a squad of Navy SEALs and several scientists — progresses from there.
Yes, but I would hope in an unpredictable fashion. I wanted to portray a sufficiently ambiguous scenario so that members of both camps — the SEALs and the scientists — could make arguments for either side. So we have some unusual allegiances and some instances of perceived betrayal.
There seems to be a variety of personalities among the Navy SEALs alone.
I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with a broad range of team members, from old-school guys who’d been in for twenty years, to younger members who’d done a three-year stint, then gone into another line of work. The differences and occasional friction among old- and new-school was really interesting to me, and I made a point of representing it in the book. William Savage is a hardcore, old-school, un-PC, take-no-prisoners warrior, yet he finds himself under the command of a younger, more politically aware, perhaps less operationally gifted crew.
You portray the SEALs and the military-relevant aspects of the mission very convincingly. Do you have a military background?
Not at all. I have the opposite background in some regards. I’m from a very liberal family and community and grew up having very little exposure to the military. And all of a sudden, I was immersed in this other world, eating MREs [meals, ready-to-eat], shooting MP5s on SWAT ranges, and practicing hand-to-hand combat — much to the derisive amusement of my SEALs friends.
How’d you do at the hand-to-hand?
I got my ass kicked convincingly. [Laughter]
How’d you get access to the SEALs, by the way? Did you just phone them up and say you wanted to write a novel in which SEALs featured?
Well, the first SEAL with whom I worked was a friend of a friend, so that was easy enough. I took him to dinner and laid out what I was trying to do and he thought it sufficiently interesting to help. Then, as various issues arose during my writing, he introduced me to a sniper, who introduced me to a breacher, who introduced me to a 60-gunner. These guys are notorious for being protectively silent to the media — like most high-trained operators in secretive fields, they don’t like to talk. I was fortunate to be brought into the loop by a friend, but I still had to earn the trust of every new frogman whom I interviewed. It took months for some of the old school guys to really open up, and then I had an agreement with them so they could talk on-the-record or off-the-record.
In the book, several of your characters are female Navy SEALs. In real life, are there female Navy SEALs?
Besides Demi Moore? No — no there aren’t. And this was cause for an argument between me and one of my old-school SEAL friends, who was irate that I’d put females in my fictional squad. I took care not to make the material preachy, and I also took care to portray the other mentality but I wanted to have these strong women present in the narrative. They’re tough and physical, but they’re also flawed, just like any other soldier.
Cameron is really the center of the book, in certain regards.
Yes, she is. More than anyone else, she’s the active protagonist, trying to process all these arguments and perspectives and assimilate them into a course of action. She’s got Savage, bloodthirsty and perennially combat-ready on the one hand; Diego, the Galápagos ecologist, advocating an apparently more sophisticated argument on the other hand; and the rest of the crew falling somewhere in between. When the extremists are banging heads, Cameron’s the one gathering information, and eventually she has to come into her own and start making the kinds of decisions she was previously unable to.
And she’s pregnant going into the mission.
Yes, though she’s only just found out, and she’s unsure if she wants the baby. So she carries this burden into the mission, and it adds another level of concern and tension to her actions and decisions. Since her husband, Justin, is also present, she’s feeling pressure from all angles.
It seems you take an unusual amount of care when dealing with characterization for a book that’s so plot-driven.
This book really came alive for me with my characters. In my conceptualizing stage, I deal with characters first, and let the plot follow. MINUTES TO BURN really started coming together when my characters reached a level of development that the scenes became about them as much as about what they were facing. That’s when you’re hooked into a character, as an author — when your character acts distinctively in the face of a dilemma. Authentic fiction, to me, is about a particular character acting in a distinctive way in the face of a particular conflict. And so each scene in Minutes was about Cameron — or Savage, or Samantha — in a particular conflict. The scenes weren’t just about the conflicts themselves.
You’ve created this array of locations, all of them vividly rendered. Though the majority of the book is set in the Galápagos, we also get taken through earthquake-rent Guayaquil, the Fort Detrick virus labs in Maryland, and the New Center for Ecotectonic Studies in Sacramento. Was it difficult keeping all these balls in the air?
It was, first of all from a pacing perspective, because I didn’t want us to fall out of any one world when we enter another. I wanted to check in occasionally on these other locations at key moments, when I could keep ratcheting up the action and suspense, and bring greater tension to the narrative. Guayaquil in particular was rewarding to write about, because I spent the better part of a week there, and it’s a simultaneously an appealing and off-putting city — dirty, humid, overcrowded, and magical all at once. I remember the first time I saw La Ciudad Blanca [a vast cemetery, filled with white marble monuments], I was blown away. You cross this foot bridge from a run-down part of town and all of a sudden, you’re in this incredible white marble world that’s a testament to the losses the country has endured through its history. And at once, my imagination started going. There were so many possibilities here, if major earthquakes struck this city. And I knew I’d have to take my squad through here.
How about the other two locations? Fort Detrick and the New Center?
It took a lot of research to get down the realities and specifics of the Biosafety Level Four labs at Fort Detrick. That location really came together for me around a character, the Chief of the Disease Assessment Division, Samantha Everett, this 5’2″ pistol, who is competent and brilliant and slightly off-kilter. She was one of the easiest characters to write because she was so distinctive when she first came to me. The New Center for Ecotectonic Studies is entirely fictional — both the New Center itself, and the actual field of study. I spoke to several geologists and marine biologists, and started to see some possibilities in the direction contemporary research is moving in both fields. If the type of environmental crisis I write about in Minutes to Burn actually occurred, there would be a need for a field such as ecotectonics. And even without a crisis, I think there’s a decent possibility that ecotectonics will be a real field in the future, though probably under a different name.
Do you have natural proclivities toward science?
No. I spent much of high school chemistry and physics trying desperately not to make eye contact with the teacher. But I always had an interest in biology, particularly evolutionary biology, so I was drawn to narratives that play with related ideas. When I started thinking about writing a book such as this, I figured what better place to set it than in Darwin’s backyard? So I read everything related I could get my hands on, loaded up on notepads and pens, and headed down to Galápagos. But the science — the science was definitely a challenge for me. I had to gird my loins before some of those conversations with my scientist consultants, and do double-time on my own reading and research to make sure I could keep up with the answers to my questions. I worked with everyone from a geologist out of Berkeley to an entomologist stationed in the heart of the Amazon basin, so it took a lot of effort to stay on top of things.
But maybe that provided you with an advantage, not being totally up-to-speed on the science.
I’d like to think so. Even though I get into some pretty in-depth science here, I think I was able to convey it clearly and concisely, because I’m not steeped in years of scientific argot. And I tried to deploy the information dramatically, through action, so I never subject the reader to blocks of regurgitated research. No one wants to read an extensive treatise on the waved albatross courtship dance in the middle of an adventure thriller.
It’s clear from the book that you fell in love with the Galápagos.
It’s almost impossible not to. It’s a completely bizarre, entirely unique place. You swim with turtles and penguins and sharks, then walk up on these barren lava plains covered with marine iguanas. As you move upslope, you cross through distinct ecological zones — literally distinct, in color even — each with their own individual environment and forms of life. And since there’s such a dearth of life, birds fly up and land on your head. It’s like being in a Disney cartoon.
I wasn’t aware that the Galápagos had dense forests, like the Scalesia forest where you set much of the book’s action.
Only at two to six hundred meters elevation. And most of the islands don’t reach that altitude — you really have to go to Isabela, Santa Cruz, or San Cristóbal to see the Scalesias. Santiago used to have a more extensive Scalesia zone, but most of it has been destroyed by goats.
The Scalesia forest is a haunted place in your book.
Well, the Scalesias are up at this higher altitude, away from the sounds of the waves and the tourists, and there’s a real quiet to them. A garúa mist sort of settles over the trees like a shroud. And there are lava tunnels beneath the ground, and dead vines twisting around branches, and the occasional whistle of a hidden bird, and you really start to think that this is not somewhere you’d like to spend the night alone.
You mentioned that goats have destroyed much of the Scalesia forest on Santiago. You really tackle the issue of introduced species in the book.
Well, it’s an essential concern to Galápagos. All sorts of foreign plants and animals have been brought over, and they’ve begun to aggressively out-compete some of the endemic species. The balance of the islands’ ecology is immensely fragile — life took hold there in tiny, measured steps. Turtles floated out, aided by the pocket of air beneath their shell, light spores of plants blew out from the continent, birds brought plant seeds out caked on the mud on their feet. Spiders even got sucked up in wind currents and were carried out there from the mainland. The short of it is, you can’t all of a sudden have a bunch of settlers bring pigs and goats and elephant grass. Because there’s very little in the islands’ ecology system to oppose such introduced species, or halt their proliferation. At one time, there were 80,000 goats on Santiago. They just kept reproducing and reproducing, and there was nothing there to stop them. They chewed the island’s vegetation down to the lava. Park officials finally had to go out and just start shooting them. In the 1970s, a pack of wild dogs attacked a land iguana colony on Santa Cruz and killed over five hundred of them. Five hundred! The bodies were just lying around rotting. And that’s because the species has never — through natural selection — had traits selected that would allow them to contend with a predator such as a dog. So they just lie there and get slaughtered.
And these issues are all brought to bear, in MINUTES TO BURN, when a new species is discovered.
Exactly. You have this fragile place, preserved by scientists and ecologists, and then all of a sudden there are massive earthquakes and skin-blistering UV rays, and Navy SEALs tromping around, and just when things are most tentative, this new animal is discovered.
And there are cultural tensions as well.
To capture this struggle, this debate, I really had to spend a lot of time down in Galápagos and learn the unique culture of the islands–it’s its own world, not really Ecuador, not really its own country. Fishermen and ecologists are at war with each other, one group trying to subside, the other trying to preserve. Just this year, a group of fishermen stormed the Darwin Station and kidnapped the turtle hatchlings scientists had been cultivating to revive the dwindling population. It’s really nuts. There’s corruption and tourism and frustrated locals, and in the middle of it, these ecologists hard at work trying to preserve everything.
Tourism is kind of a sticky issue, isn’t it? You were a tourist, so the question is: does tourism take more than it gives? Should “tourism” be limited to the people who can, either through their money (donations) or their work (e.g., writing a popular eco-thriller), account for their having tromped around the Galápagos?
Well, tourism accounts for so much of the money that goes into maintaining and preserving the archipelago (in fact, Galapagos tourism is the leading source of money for all of Ecuador), so it is this double-edged sword. And, aside from the town of Puerto Ayora, tourists can’t set foot anywhere on the islands without a qualified ecologist guide, who is very careful to keep everyone on the trails, limiting the number of people on any island at a given time, etc. So there are responsible ways to be a tourist, and irresponsible ways. Because of some of the contacts I’d made in Puerto Ayora and at the Darwin Station, I was sort of half-tourist, half researcher, which gave me a bit more flexibility, and attuned me to responsible standards of behavior.
What about the tensions between Americans and Ecuadorians?
We’re not known to be the most environmentally considerate nation on earth, so there is a lot of resentment on the islands for what is perceived as a bunch of gringos taking snapshots and buying black coral trinkets. Then here’s this squad of hard-hitting Navy SEALs coming down saying, “I’m supposed to wash the mud from my boots before leaving each island?”
So they don’t accidentally transport seeds or insect eggs from one island to another.
Exactly. This type of thing — “Dispose of apple cores carefully” is not in the list of operational concerns for high-demand operators. It’s not like, “Clear and safe weapons.” “Jam extra magazines.”
Would you like to see this book turned into a movie?
Did you write it with that in mind?
You can’t write a book with an eye to a film, or else all you’ll wind up with is a fleshed-out screenplay. The rules and demands of the forms are so different that you can’t try to accomplish both within one context. I think my writing style is visual, and inherently suited to film, but that’s different than saying that I write with the movie in mind. Does that make sense?
Yes. Why do you think your writing style is so visual?
Well, to begin with, plot-driven fiction, as a general rule, tends to be more visually oriented because you have more action and less musing. But I also grew up on and love movies, so film forms a large part of my aesthetic. So even when I’m working on a novel, I’d prefer to have a clue represented in a dynamic action — which tends to be visual — rather than have it become illuminated through a character’s exposition or thought. This doesn’t mean that it will be carried over in the script or movie. So much changes from book to film, it would be foolish to try to predict and write toward that.
And you’re currently working on the adaptation for Richard Marcinko’s Rogue Warrior for Jerry Bruckheimer films?
I’m rewriting it, yes. There have been writers before me, and there will probably be writers after. [Laughs]
Rogue Warrior is, of course, the archetypal Navy SEALs project. Did MINUTES TO BURN land you the job?
It was a number of things, but, yes, I think the level of my research on MINUTES TO BURN was essential.
Do you have a preference for writing novels or screenplays?
Definitely. I’m first and foremost a novelist. I only work on scripts occasionally to take a break, clear my palate. I love writing screenplays — they present an entirely new set of challenges and rewards — but I think novels will always come first for me.
What percent of your time is spent working on novels versus screenplays?
I’d say ninety percent of my time is spent on novels.
This book represents a pretty marked departure from your first novel. THE TOWER is a psychological thriller, and this book is all the things we’ve been discussing, but it’s certainly not a psychological thriller. Why did you decide to jump from one type of thriller to another?
Because what I love best about writing novels is that it’s a perennial education. In the course of writing this book, I got to explore all these fields that were of interest to me — it was an education in and of itself. And I wanted to explore new areas and, in this case, new parts of the world. I think that’s what will keep my fiction fresh. If it’s being written on the cutting edge of my interest and investigations, I think I can bring more excitement to it.
Forgive the standard question, but who are your favorite authors?
My reading is pretty evenly split between — what people refer to as — commercial and literary fiction. I’m a big Faulkner fanatic, and I’ve recently been getting into Mailer and Tim O’Brien. And on the other hand, I think Thomas Harris is unparalleled. And I love Lehane, Michael Connolly, T. Jefferson Parker. Guys who bring more to the form, who elevate their fiction above it. I also have a real appreciation for Peter Benchley, since I think Jaws really reinvented the science/creature narrative. Plus, he recently wrote a great National Geographic article on Galápagos.
Is there an author on whose career you would model your own?
I don’t think so. Not across the board. But in terms of range, I would say Crichton. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Crichton because of his energy, and the range of his skill and knowledge. I mean, he’s taken us from dinosaurs to Japanese business to emergency rooms to viruses to sexual harassment cases. It’s amazing how effectively he’s been able to tap into the zeitgeist and open up new worlds and new discussions to people. Stephen King is another one — I’ve read every single novel. Some people view him exclusively as a horror writer, but the range of topics he’s actually tackled is staggering. And some of his works have a depth that one would not be strained to call brilliant.
I notice earlier you said “what people refer to as commercial and literary fiction.” Is that not a distinction you find valid?
I think it’s useful but extremely limited. Thomas Harris writes with a depth of character and grace of language you’d be hard-pressed to find in ten percent of writers considered “literary.” And the terms “commercial” and “literary” have come to be diluted. People forget that Dickens was a bestseller in his day, as was Faulkner. And even recently, Tom Wolfe and Toni Morrison have little trouble finding their way onto the bestseller list. It’s not a particularly original sentiment, but I think the most essential difference is between good fiction and bad fiction.
And there’s generally no shortage of either.
Do you have any advice for people who read MINUTES TO BURN and are inspired to visit the Galápagos?