A.J. Colucci A.J. Colucci A.J. Colucci
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Author Q&A

Where did the idea for SEEDERS originate?

A: When I was eight years old I read a short story by Roald Dahl called The Sound Machine, about an engineer who invents a device that allows him to hear high-frequency sounds, like the scream of a rose as it's being cut. The story chilled me to the bone and changed the way I thought about nature. I had that story in mind when I was researching my next book and looked online to see what was going on with plants these days. I was astounded to learn about all the new breakthroughs in plant intelligence. In one day, I knew that was going to be my next book.

Is the island where SEEDERS is set based on a real place?

A: I always try to set my stories in real locations, and there are quite a lot of small islands around Nova Scotia that are cold and remote, but none of them really fit the description of Sparrow Island. I think the geography would more likely be found around the British Isles.

Is the scientist Jules in SEEDERS based on a real person?

A: He's an amalgamation of various scientists I've met and read about. His extreme height was sort of a nod to Michael Crichton, who also felt awkward about being 6' 9". Jules's passion for plants and interest in their signaling system was inspired by plant biologist Stefano Mancuso, who has been very out front on the subject.

The science in SEEDERS seems fantastical. Is it based in reality? How did you learn about it?

A: All of the information on plants—their ability to learn, remember, use all five senses, attack prey, signal each other—is based on fact. I did a lot of research online, but interviewed plant biologists to make sure all my facts were correct. Plant intelligence, or neurobiology, is a rather controversial topic and there have been a lot of articles written in the past decade.

Why do you write science thrillers?

A: I like to write about nature because it can be a brutal place—kill or be killed—but it's also filled with a sort of beauty and logic that makes you wonder which species are truly evolved. Most plants and animals have been around longer than Homo sapiens and are better at survival. Humans have a tendency to separate themselves from everything non-human. We consider ourselves above nature, not part of it. I think it's important to recognize what we have in common and gain a better understanding of all living creatures that share this planet.

Have you always been interested in science? Was it one of your favorite topics in school?

A: No, it wasn't. There's not a whole lot of interesting science being taught in schools, at least not from my perspective. Learning the periodic table of elements, names of cloud formations and layers of the earth did not get me excited. It wasn't until I was in my 20's and got hooked on science and nature shows. I was fascinated and amazed to learn about the hidden creatures that inhabit our world, how the universe was formed, the latest breakthroughs in quantum physics, all told in plain English, living color and breathtaking CGI. I think if our school system made science as interesting as PBS makes it, you'd have a lot more students going into the field.

What possessed you to write about ants in THE COLONY?

A: I was watching a documentary on African driver ants and was hooked. It wasn't just the visual aspect of 22 million insects pouring over a farmer's field and devouring everything in sight—although that's nice too—but I was awed by their organizational capabilities, their ability to run a whole city without anyone in charge, and their altruistic nature of putting the colony ahead of themselves. That's what makes these insects so scary, the fact that they can work as a group to take down prey. All of the ant behavior and capabilities described in The Colony are based on the true abilities of African Siafu and fire ants. Their victims, usually other insects, bugs or mammals, can be blinded, stung to death and dissolved from the inside out. Luckily, they don't often have people on their menu.

Are Paul and Kendra based on real people?

A: They are fictional characters with motives and personalities that sprang from my imagination. I've interviewed some amazing entomologists who study hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps and sawflies) and they are far more technical about their work. I had to simplify the characters, their jargon and how they conduct their research for the sake of clarity. In truth, if I had written a more accurate book about the scientifically complex world of insects, I doubt many people would be inclined to read it.

Why did you set the story in Manhattan?

A: A good rule of thumb when writing horror is always trap your victims in a remote, secluded place like a house, an amusement park or a space ship. Since these are ants, I chose an island, albeit a large one. Manhattan is my favorite place in the world and it's the only island I know inside and out. Although, I did live in Hawaii for a while and that would have been a good second choice.

Is there a basement level in the American Museum of Natural History like the one in the book?

A: There is—and it's incredible. I was lucky enough to get a tour years ago. Only about two percent of the museum artifacts are on display, the rest are located in places underground, on the roof level and in other areas off limits to the general public. There are quite a few brilliant scientists studying everything from cryogenic to meteorites, and there's a Big Bone Room full of—you guessed it—enormous dinosaur bones.

When did you start writing?

A: I don't remember a time when I wasn't writing. Growing up in the suburbs of New York, I had an overactive imagination and far more spare time than kids have today. I practically lived at the library and penciled my first book at the age of seven. During my college years, I interned as a reporter for Gannett and became features editor of the college newspaper. Of course, starting a career in fiction doesn't feed the fish, so after graduating I spent 15 years as a journalist, magazine editor, and public relations writer for large corporations. Eventually, I stayed home to raise a family and write full time.

Where do you get your ideas?

A: Like most writers, my problem is too many ideas. I can't pick up a magazine or watch the news without coming up with a story. Most people would read a headline about a serial killer or a kidnapping and be horrified, but I'm taking notes. For science geeks like me there's no shortage of cable channels devoted to the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, medicine and forensics. The internet is another good place to stumble across great ideas. When I'm doing research for one book, I'll often discover ideas for another.

How do you write such dark and violent scenes?

A: I was raised on a steady diet of sci-fi and horror films, classics like Day of the Trifids, The Fly, The Blob, Body Snatchers and THEM! I read stories by Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson and inhaled Alfred Hitchcock anthologies. I had to watch every episode of Twilight Zone, Star Trek and Chiller Theatre. My taste got bloodier in my teens with movies like Night of the Living Dead and books like Helter Skelter, The Exorcist and The Shining. Oddly enough, this addiction didn't continue into adulthood—until I started writing fiction and it all came back to me.

What is your writing process like?

A: I submerge myself in research for several months before I begin writing. I bounce the story around in my head and get to know the characters until they feel familiar, and then I put together a brief outline. I'll write some of the first draft in longhand. For some reason, creativity flows better on paper, so I keep notebooks and pens under my bed, in my car and all over the house, because ideas hit me at the strangest times. I transcribe everything onto my laptop and do all my editing in my home office.

How does someone get a novel published?

A: Write a great book. Yes, it sounds obvious, but I truly believe that a terrific book will eventually find a publisher, whereas knowing someone in publishing, being in the right place at the right time, or penning a perfect query letter will not get a mediocre book to the shelves. In terms of time, polish your manuscript first and market yourself second.

Find an avid reader willing to give constructive criticism. It's good to know what works in a story but it's more important to know what doesn't work. If you positively can't stand criticism, you may have to write as a hobby. I don't think The Colony would have ever been published if I hadn't told my readers to be brutal in their critiques.

Only query agents who are looking for books in your genre, and keep refining your manuscript until its publish-ready. How will you know if it's ready? If you're getting a ton of form rejection letters, as opposed to personal notes encouraging you to keep writing, it probably still needs work. However, if agents are giving you good feedback, requesting full manuscripts, you probably have something marketable. If you haven't found representation at that point, you should consider attending a conference and meeting agents face to face.