By J. H. Bográn
In The Flock, by James Robert Smith, a remote Florida wilderness has been targeted for theme-park development, and the swamp’s inhabitants are none too happy. It doesn’t help that the residents are a colony of intelligent, prehistoric, dinosaur-like birds. This flock of beasts has escaped the Pleistocene extinction, relying on stealth, cunning, and killer instinct. The creatures have been living in secret, just outside our developed world.
As the developers push to have the recently-discovered animals exterminated, a billionaire rogue environmentalist step in to protect these rare, predatory creatures. A naïve young Fish and Wildlife officer finds himself caught in between these two incredibly powerful forces, and may find out the hard way that man is the most dangerous predator of them all . . .
The Flock is a contemporary eco-thriller about what can happen when man violates nature, and when nature fights back. I had the opportunity to pose some questions about his debut novel to James Robert Smith.
What inspired the premise?
I’ve been a paleontology buff since I was a kid. I was always interested in the various species of predator ground birds that picked up the basic form of the extinct theropods. Some years back I heard some speculation that the North American version of the Terror birds of South America may have even re-evolved arms in place of wings. If this was so, then, to paraphrase a certain film, Nature really did find a way. In this case, a way to all but bring back the theropod predators.
Please define the protagonists of the novel.
The principal protagonist is a Fish & Wildlife officer named Ron Riggs. Despite his unique line of work, I wanted to show him as an everyman. Not the toughest guy around, and not the smartest fellow in the room, but nobody’s fool. He’s someone with whom every reader can readily identify. His partner in the adventure is Mary Nichols, Ron’s sometime romantic interest. She was a lot of fun to write…a woman who makes her living trapping problem alligators, snakes, raccoons, and other varmints in my fictional Florida locale. In some ways she’s tougher than Ron!
How about the antagonists?
The antagonists are many in the novel. There’s a vast corporation (Berg Brothers–a movie studio) vying for the land where The Flock lives. It is probably the main villain of the novel. A violent militia group is also part of the bad guy wave. In addition, things as mundane as urban sprawl are a threat to the book’s protagonists. Uniquely, the “monsters” of my book–the Terror birds–are hardly the villains. They are active and sympathetic characters throughout the novel–even the ones who want to eat people.
What kind of research did you do?
I did a lot of reading on various bird species, including the extinct Phorusrhacids, modern ratites (to which they’re related), and I also did quite a bit of research on US Army small arms and the way military bases are decommissioned. There was a surprising group of facts that I had to straighten out to create the tale. Of course we have the Internet these days, so that was a heck of a boon.
I see some artwork for the Flock on your website, is that how you envisioned them?
Pretty much. A few artists have gotten it right. The sculptor Max Salas who specializes in dinosaur figures did the best version of Titanis walleri that I’ve so far seen. My friend Mark Masztal, an extremely talented artist, also did a great job of putting form to my vision. I’ll have some of Mark’s work up on the site soon.
How about the ecosystem? Did The Flock survive because they found a balance with the environment?
The Terror birds in my novel are survivors from the Pleistocene. I love the idea of cryptids–unknown animals that live on the edges of civilization. One of the first things that occurred to me was how a cryptid could exist without being discovered, and without being forced into extinction. Where would they live? Where could they live? If they had a place to thrive, how could they remain hidden? This was where I really had fun with the premise, because initially I decided that if there were such large creatures who had remained undiscovered, then they would have to be intelligent on a human or near-human level to pull this off. In some ways, they might even be more resourceful than Homo sapiens. This is what sets my novel apart from other books that may have the premise of featuring undiscovered creatures. My Terror birds–my monsters–are fully fleshed characters with complicated reasons for doing what they do.
Givien the novel’s an eco-thriller, do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
Yes, I do consider myself an environmentalist. I enjoy the outdoors and I spend most of my free (non-writing) time hiking, backpacking, camping, and kayaking in our great National Parks and Forests. That said, the book’s goal is to entertain. I think that novels that set a political or philosophical agenda and try to preach ultimately fail in just about every way. First and foremost I want to tell a good story and entertain the readers. Any subtexts that may be there are just that–purely subconscious and subliminal.
What are you currently working on?
I’m almost finished with the sequel to THE FLOCK, a novel called THE CLAN which will appear from Tor-Forge in late 2011. I’ve pitched a third book in the series called THE TRIBE–which would be the last in my cryptozoological cycle. My next project is a horror novel entitled THE REZ, which I’m chipping away at. And my agent (Robert L. Fleck) currently has several other of my unpublished novels under his wing (including BEAUTIFUL BOY–a ghost story, THE LIVING END–an apocalyptic novel, and HISSMELINA–a Lovecraftian horror novel). Yeah, I stay pretty busy.
“This book has everything a crypto fan could want; prehistoric beasts with near human intelligence; a large corporate entity intent on turning the last wild areas of Florida into suburbia; a self made billionaire ecologist intent on preserving these same areas; and a retired Marine colonel with his own militia and a desire for mayhem. Smith does a wonderful job of brewing these disparate ingredients into a tasty story. And the fact that the hero is not much of a hero leaves a pleasant after taste on the palate.”–Cryptozoology.com
“Take one part Seventies disaster film, one part modern day environmental crisis and mix them well with some good old fashioned state of the art action and you have THE FLOCK, an exciting, all too real adventure that you need to read immediately. I can’t wait for the sequel!” Don Murphy (producer of TRANSFORMERS and NATURAL BORN KILLERS).
JAMES ROBERT SMITH lives with his wife, son, and two requisite cats near Charlotte, NC. He has made more than sixty short story sales, has had his comic scripts published by Marvel Comics, Kitchen Sink, Spyderbabies Grafix, and others. He is co-editor of the Arkham House anthology, Evermore. The Flock is his first novel.