A conversation with Dave Edlund

Q: Where do your ideas come from for your novels?

A: I have a very active imagination; always have. So there are lots of story ideas rattling around in my head. For Crossing Savage, I wanted to weave the plot around the notion that a group of scientists were on the verge of an important energy discovery, but one not welcome by everyone. There is a certain amount of naiveté in the way scientific research is conducted, and this is a key part of the story. Energy is important to every person and every country. I still remember the oil embargoes of the 70s. The call for energy independence was loud and strong. But it occurred to me, given the geopolitical climate we live in, that not every government would look kindly on energy independence as it would mean declining oil exports. And when you cut into a government’s revenue, you’re messing with unpredictable forces.

Q: Do you feel you’ve taken a risk by basing your stories in Oregon rather than more familiar locations like New York, Washington, or LA?

A: When I began the Peter Savage series, I needed to establish the characters in a location I knew well, and so I selected Central Oregon—this has been my home for close to 30 years. It was easy to place Jim Nicolaou’s team in Sacramento as I grew up there. A benefit of these choices is that, to most readers, the locations will be new and fresh. It’s an opportunity for me to share the beautiful city of Bend, where I live, as well as the nearby mountains and lakes. Plus, two of Oregon’s principle universities are featured regularly in the stories—the University of Oregon and Oregon State University—so this is another opportunity to incorporate new surroundings into the stories.

Q: In Crossing Savage you depict political and military conflict between the U.S. and other governments, including Russia. Of course, that’s fiction, but do you see similarities to current events?

A: Certainly. One only needs to follow the events in Ukraine—the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and continued meddling in Eastern Ukraine—to see similar actions. There are plenty of historical examples of energy being used to exert influence over other countries, energy supply being used as a weapon. I won’t oversimplify the Ukrainian events, but I think there is ample evidence to support the Russian incursion and takeover as being driven by the desire to control the gas pipelines passing through the Ukraine to Eastern Europe. At the very least, we can be assured that Europe—and by extension the U.S.—will not intervene forcefully because the Russians would disrupt the gas flow and raise prices. More than one third of the gas imported to the EU and Turkey is supplied by Russia. It is likely that Putin will continue to annex additional real estate as long as he has the power of controlling energy supply.

Q: Many reviewers have specifically praised the action scenes in Crossing Savage. Why is that?

A: I approach the action scenes methodically, visualizing each part from several perspectives—I live these scenes in my mind. It is important to me that the actions and reactions of characters be realistic. So I replay the scenes over and over, asking myself if it could conceivably go down the way it is written—are the weapons and tactics accurate? What about the angles and distances, the terrain and obstacles, and no one ever has a gun that never needs reloading. This process can take days, sometimes a couple weeks, until I’m finally satisfied.

Q: The plot of Relentless Savage involves a rather surprising genetic transformation using Neanderthal DNA. That sounds like a huge leap from reality; is it?

A: I agree, it sounds outrageous. But through research aimed at sequencing the human genome and that of many other species, including Neanderthal, we know for a fact that Neanderthal DNA is mixed with human DNA. This result can only be explained if Neanderthals and Homo sapiens co-existed. Why Neanderthals became extinct as Homo sapiens were beginning to appear remains a mystery. Perhaps modern humans out competed Neanderthals, perhaps it was disease, perhaps the offspring of interbreeding were sterile—we just don’t know.

Q: Given your formal education in science and engineering, and your profession as an entrepreneur, what compelled you to write fiction stories?

A: Creativity is manifested in many ways. For some, it is drawing, painting, sculpting. It may be building (structures, machines), or cooking, or dance. To my thinking, science and engineering are also ways to express creativity. I am constantly amused by Albert Einstein who said, “If we knew what we were doing we wouldn’t call it research”. Writing is just another way for me to express my desire to create. I do incorporate cutting edge science into each story, but my goal is to firmly ground the science in fact and where necessary, extrapolate to the near-term plausible.

Q: You mention viruses as a means for changing DNA. Can viruses really alter human genetics?

A: Absolutely, and it happens all the time. One type of virus, called a retrovirus, reproduces itself by inserting its genes into the DNA of a host cell—a viral infection. The host cell is tricked into using the virus genes to replicate the virus, not the host cell. This is how HIV and certain cancer-causing viruses function. Occasionally, a retrovirus may infect a human egg. If that egg is fertilized and grows, the virus genes will be found in all of the human DNA of that new person. This has happened over and over throughout our existence, and the result is that the human genome now contains about 100,000 fragments of virus DNA, accounting for about 8% of human DNA.

Q: Of all the locations you could have selected for the plot to unfold, why did you pick Darfur in Western Sudan?

A: Darfur is one of those locations where the indigenous population has struggled to survive; sometimes against the elements, and other times against nomadic tribes acting as proxy soldiers for the government in Khartoum. A little over a decade ago, government-backed militias began a systematic campaign of terror and murder aimed at driving the population out of Darfur. Many hundreds of thousands were victims of murder, rape, and starvation because their food was destroyed. Countless villages were burned to the ground. What happened is horrible and almost incomprehensible.

In Relentless Savage, I needed a location where a madman could carry out his evil deeds against a population and be confident other nations, especially the West, would pay little attention. That sounds a lot like Darfur.

Q: Did you invent the abiogenic theory of oil formation as a plot tool, or is this real science?

It’s 100% real science. The abiogenic theory—or non-biological theory—describes how oil and gas might form through chemical reactions deep within the Earth. The biological theory describes oil formation as the decomposition of plant and animal remains. The abiogenic theory dates back to the 16th century, predating the biological theory, but it wasn’t until the 1950s when Russian and Ukrainian scientists developed the modern abiogenic theory that the idea took hold. The significance is this: the abiogenic theory predicts that oil and gas are constantly being formed within the Earth from water and minerals, perhaps supplemented by carbon that was present when the Earth was formed. This theory suggests that oil will be found at extreme depths and widely spread locations, in contradiction to the biological theory. In fact, some of the largest known oil reserves are too deep to have originated from decomposed biological material, and there is no evidence that we have ever reached peak oil production.

Q: Of all the possible characters you could have selected for your thrillers, why Peter Savage and James Nicolaou?

A: The Peter Savage character is a very real person. He is not a super spy, or a soldier with incredible strength and agility. I really wanted to make Peter a normal person and then insert him into abnormal circumstances. He is vulnerable, having been deeply scarred emotionally, but resourceful—perhaps even reckless. Most of all, he is stubborn and uncompromising in his sense of what is the right thing to do. Commander James Nicolaou shares many of those attributes, but he is also harder and disciplined; this being a result of his military training and culture. Jim is also a leader, and he is well respected by his team. Together I think they are a good yin and yang.

Q: Colonel Ming is the principle antagonist in Relentless Savage, and he seems like a mad scientist. Is that intentional?

A: Absolutely! Colonel Ming is both a brilliant genetic scientist and a psychopath. In the book, Ming is compared to Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor at Auschwitz who conducted heinous experiments on prisoners, and I think this is quite fitting given the work of Colonel Ming. For a writer, sculpting the antagonist is often as complex as creating the protagonist. Certainly, Ming is a key figure in Relentless Savage. One of my objectives with this character is to show how science can be used for good or evil—by its nature, science is amoral. It is people who must overlay morality onto science. This was also a message conveyed by Mary Shelley when she penned Frankenstein, and a fitting one to remember.

Q: A couple new characters, friends of Peter Savage, are introduced in Relentless Savage. Did you base these characters on anyone you know?

A: Peter embarks on his odyssey with two good friends, Gary Porter and Todd Steed, and these characters are very important to the story. Yes, they are based on people I have had the pleasure of knowing for many years. In particular, the character of Gary Porter is modeled after one of my dearest friends. It definitely helps if you can bring the personality of people you know into the characters you write about. There is a bond between me (as an author) and the fictional characters I create, and the closer that bond is, the more real the characters become.

Q: What part of writing your novels do you find the most enjoyable?

A: I really enjoy writing about personal challenges and struggles, especially if there are internal demons that a character is fighting. After all, isn’t that a primary part of what makes us human? How we deal with stressful situations—the tough decisions that we all make at some time in our lives and the scars those decisions leave—to me, that is an emotional and challenging part of the story. If done well, I consider it very rewarding. In the case of Peter Savage, how he manages his internal self-doubt intrigues me. I wanted to put him into incredibly difficult situation—impossible situations—and then “discover” how he would deal with it. I also like the action scenes, so that will always play an important role in my novels.

Q: What books do you like to read and why?

A: Some of my favorites are Jurassic Park and Time Line (Michael Crichton); Deep Six, Raise the Titanic, and Night Probe (Clive Cussler); Amazonia, Map of Bones, Black Order, and Judas Strain (James Rollins); Flight of the Old Dog (Dale Brown); Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown); Hunter and Cain by James Byron Huggins; and the Blaine McCracken novels by Jon Land. For different reasons all of these books had me riveted to each page, never wanting to stop and put the book down. They have strong protagonists and exciting plots, with lots of cliff hangers.

Q: If Crossing Savage was made into a movie, who would you want to see playing the roles of Peter Savage and Commander Nicolaou?

A: Wow, I haven’t given that much thought. Maybe Liam Neeson for Peter Savage. Mr. Neeson matches well the physical description of Peter Savage, and he has played characters that display a similar vulnerability as well as a hardness when pushed to the point of breaking. For Commander Nicolaou… maybe George Clooney. The challenge with this character is that he is Greek, so the actor must have a rugged handsomeness with thick black hair and bushy black mustache.

Q: Do you have any advice for readers who might want to write a fiction book?

A: Don’t fool yourself, it is hard work. For the overwhelming majority of authors, success does not come overnight. Set reasonable goals, and learn all you can. Plus, read, read, read. However, I’m a firm believer in the power of human drive. So if you truly have your heart set on writing, by all means do so. Pour every ounce of your existence into the task, embrace it, and, when you face rejection and adversity (you will), never, never, never give up.