James M. Tabor is the author of The Deep Zone, an awesome new technothriller available in paperback next week. Check this out:
Burned by her own government in a trumped-up scandal, brilliant microbiologist Hallie Leland swore she’d never return to the world of cutting-edge science and dangerous secrets. But a shocking summons from the White House changes all that. A mysterious epidemic is killing American soldiers in Afghanistan—and poised for outbreak in the United States and beyond. Without the ultrarare organism needed to create an antidote, millions will die. Hallie knows more about “Moonmilk” than anyone—but it can be found only at the bottom of the deepest cave on Earth. To get there, she and her team of experts must brave a forbidding Mexican jungle crawling with drug cartels, federales, and murderous locals. And in the supercave await far greater terrors: flooded tunnels, acid lakes, bottomless chasms, mind-warping blackness—and a cunning assassin with orders to make the mission a journey of no return.
I was able to pull James away from his work for a few minutes today to talk about “Moonmilk”, plagues and the inspiration behind his kick-ass main character Dr. Hallie Leland!
You don’t see too many female action heroes in technothrillers, and I always wonder why. I like that you did this, and wonder what took you in that direction. What kind of person is she? Did anyone inspire you?
Here’s more history than you may want, but… My dad died when I was young and I was raised by my mom, with a lot of help from her five sisters. Talk about matriarchal extended family! So I came of age feeling very comfortable in the company of women. Put me in a roomful of them and I fit right in. Put me in a roomful of men and I get competitive. An alpha thing, I think. For better or worse, I’ve always been as comfortable writing from the female POV as from the male. Also, so many thrillers have protagonists who can punch, kick, or shoot their way out of dire straits. I thought it would be rewarding for readers–and me as a writer–to encounter a heroine who has to be more creative.
Hallie Leland is very smart, with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. She’s somewhat mercurial, easily bored, and drawn to adventure sports–climbing, caving, technical diving, hang gliding, etc. Her intelligence allows her to see solutions and conclusion much faster than most people, which is good, but she can be impatient with those a bit slower, which is not so good. Her dad was a career Army officer and she grew up with two older brothers, which produced a very competitive adult Hallie. All of which, plus her height–5′ 10″–have complicated her romantic life a good bit. Her friend and boss at BARDA, Don Barnard, thinks of her, in a word, as indomitable. One of those people who don’t have an off switch, and don’t find “quit” in their vocabulary
Hallie Leland is named for two people who helped inspire her. My mother’s first name was Hallie. She was nothing if not indomitable. For one thing, I came along when she was in her mid-forties, something almost unheard of for a woman of her generation. For another, my dad saw combat during WWII and served in the Korean War as well. He came back with what today we would call PTSD. He never was able to repair the damage, and life with him was tough, especially for her. Leland comes from Joyce Leland who, as a lieutenant, was my supervisor when I was on the street as an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C. Brilliant, brave, insightful, and sensitive, Lt. Leland went on to retire as the departments first female African American Deputy Chief. A truly remarkable woman in every way.
Adventures in caves have fascinated me all of my life. Chalk it up to decades of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Was it difficult capturing what it’s like in a cave? Have you done any spelunking?
Earlier in my life, I was an active caver, helping to explore some big, wild caves in the U.S. and Canada. I’ve negotiated 250-foot vertical drops, exhalation squeezes, chin-deep sumps, and other obstacles of the kind Hallie faces in Cueva de Luz. I’m also a technical diver, so familiar with that aspect of the book’s narrative. All of that experience helped create the cave environment realistically, I hope.
Epidemics are terrifying, and the world is at risk from a horrible one in your novel. Can you tell me about it? What are the symptoms?
Acinetobacter Baumanii (ACE) is one of a family of pathogens known as MDRABs–Multiple Drug Resistant Bacteria. ACE is a serious problem for hospitals because it is impossible to eradicate and is immune to virtually all our modern antibiotics. It is an opportunistic pathogen, meaning that it attacks, first of all, those with compromised immune systems: the elderly, very ill, burn victims, and wound victims. The latter group, of course, included warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. The symptoms depend on what part of the body ACE attacks. Skin, lung, catheter-spread, and wound infections are most common. ACE-induced pneumonia symptoms are fever, chills, and coughing Infected wounds become red, extremely painful, and discharge large volumes of pus. Because ACE is so drug resistant, once a wound is infected the spread of bacteria causes damage like that of flesh-eating bacteria.
Hallie Leland descends into the Earth in search of Moonmilk. What the heck is that?
Moonmilk is a real organism that cavers have found in wild caves.It looks rather like cottage cheese and grows in colonies on cave walls. The Moonmilk that Hallie goes searching for is the source of a new family of antibiotics which, she hopes, may work against ACE. Again, in real life, microbiologists have found life forms called extremophiles in caves that are indeed providing new antibiotics that may prove effective against ACE and other constantly evolving MDRABs.
You’ve gathered some awesome praise from authors like Steve Berry, David Morrell and Brad Thor. What’s it like to have these kinds of guys as peers?
I’ve revered David Morrell from afar since my graduate school days. To have him like my book–and to meet him in person–is an incredible honor. I came to Steve and Brad more recently, but they are grandmasters of their genres. For them to take notice, so generously and so positively, of a newcomer like myself was unbelievably rewarding.