Interview with Douglas Preston
Interview by Rod Lott
With writing partner Lincoln Child, Douglas Preston is a New York Times best-selling author on a string of thrillers, most recently with the new The Book of the Dead, the conclusion to a trilogy of novels that began with Brimstone and Dance of Death, all showcasing their popular FBI Agent Pendergast character. In this conversation with Bookgasm's Rod Lott, Preston talks about whatís in store for that character, for future books (with and without Child) and-- fingers crossed, folks-- for the silver screen.
How would you characterize your working relationship with Lincoln Child? What is it that makes what the two of you guys do something that lots of people canít wait to read?
I think that book writing partnerships are often extremely difficult and fraught with problems. Iíve seen many of them fail. But Lincoln and I, we both have similarly twisted minds. We both see the world in the same way, and have absolute faith and trust in each otherís judgment. I can write the most perfect turn of phrase, so good itís Shakespearean, and I can think itís the best thing Iíve ever written, and Lincoln will say, ďThat stinks,Ē and cut it out. And Iíll be heartbroken, but I trust him, and it works vice versa.
So who has the final say?
Neither one of us has the final say. When weíve found ourselves at loggerheads, which happened early on, when we were both absolutely unyielding in our beliefs, we said, ďThereís obviously a problem with both our approaches, so letís throw them both out and find a third way.Ē And that third way has always worked better.
I think it was the writer Lawrence Block who said you have to learn to massacre your little darlings in order to become a good writer. And by ďlittle darlings,Ē he means those paragraphs of purple prose so exquisite that it pains you to cut. And thatís what Lincoln does for me and I do for him. We massacre each otherís little darlings.
When either one of you comes up with an idea for a new novel, how do you decide whether itís something youíre going to tackle together or on your own?
Iíll tell you, it really hasnít been a problem so far. When he came up with the idea for Utopia, he originally brought it to the partnership and said, ďWouldnít it great to do a thriller set in a theme park?Ē and I just had no interest in it. I donít like theme parks. I was just a personal thing. So I said, ďThatís a really good idea for a novel, but itís not for me.Ē I just didnít want to spend a year of my life in this theme park. So he went off on his own and created this magnificent theme park as only he could do, and I didnít feel disgruntled or anything when the book came out and say, ďOh, why wasnít I a part of this?Ē
The same is true for my first solo novel, The Codex, where the subject didnít interest him much. There are subjects heís interested in, and subjects Iím interested in, and subjects weíre both interested in, so itís worked out nicely.
In the past few years, you guys have concentrated on your Agent Pendergast character. Even though you have this criss-crossing world thing going on with your books, the early thrillers were stand-alones. Are you going to continue just writing Pendergast novels or do you think you will do something else totally unrelated?
Thatís a very good question, because Lincoln and I have a mortal fear of going downhill or falling into formulaic stuff. We see it happening all around us to other writers, and a lot of that has to do with using the same series characters over and over. Eventually the characters get tired, the authors get tired and the readers get tired, and we never want that to happen! The benefit of writing solo novels on the side is that we havenít felt that way. Weíre always excited to return to Pendergast. However, weíre well aware that at some point, we could fall into a pattern of formula and weíll have to give Pendergast a vacation. Weíre fine with that.
The book weíre writing now is another Pendergast novel, but itís completely removed from his milieu, with the museum and Smithback and DíAgosta and all that. We donít have a title for it yet, but it starts out at a remote monestery in Tibet and then moves quickly into a dull suburb in Connecticut Ö which doesnít remain dull for long! And weíre bringing Corrie back for this one, because we love that character. So itís a stand-alone Pendergast/Corrie adventure.
Will that be out next summer as well? It seems like youíve been hitting the one-a-summer rate quite well.
I think so. At least I hope itís out next summer. Weíve been trying to keep that rhythm going.
Speaking of The Codex, do you have any plans for Tom Broadbent, who also was in the follow-up, Tyrannosaur Canyon?
I do. But in my next one, which is called Blasphemy, he doesnít appear. But Wyman Ford, the CIA operative who joined the monastery, is. He decides he wasnít cut out to be a monk and he hangs up his shingle as a high-level investigator. And the government taps him about a scientific experiment in the desert in Arizona. Thereís a particle accelerator there that scientists are trying to calibrate and something goes terribly wrong and nobodyís talking about it, so they send Ford there to find out whatís going on. And thatís where the book starts. I think it will be published in May.
But what the bookís really about-- and this is a spoiler-- you know L. Ron Hubbard?
These days, who doesnít?
Right. Well, he was a very good science fiction writer and a very bright guy, but two years before he founded Scientology, he told an interviewer, ďThis writing for 10 cents a word is bull. If you really want to make money and have power, you have to start your own religion.Ē And thatís what he did and thatís what the book is about: a man who starts his own religion.
Sounds great. You know, I hope you donít take offense at this, but whether Iím reading one of your books or Lincolnís books, solo or together, I canít detect a difference in the writing style.
You know, Iím glad to hear that because Iíve worried whether weíre not as compelling separately as we are together. Certainly we like our style-- otherwise, we wouldnít be doing it-- so itís nice to hear we can sustain that.
What about movie adaptations? We had The Relic and thatís it. Is there any movement to get these books on the screen?
Thatís a very good question. Unfortunately, Pendergast is owned by Paramount Pictures. Even though he didnít appear in The Relic, when they bought the novel, they bought the character rights. So the only one who can make a Pendergast movie is Paramount, which has had a chilling effect on any progress. The people at Paramount havenít been paying attention. Itís a huge bureaucracy out there and most of Hollywood doesnít read books, but until someone there says, ďOh, these books are great! Oh, we own this character?,Ē it wonít happen.
However, we finally have a producer whoís a really smart guy Ė and actually reads books Ė who wants to get Pendergast on the screen. He wants to make a movie of Still Life with Crows. And heís a high-level producer and he went to Paramount and said, ďIf I come up with a good Pendergast project and you can be fairly compensated, will you let me have the character?Ē And Paramount said yes. So heís been working on it for about a year, and weíre very hopeful.
And 20th Century Fox has had Riptide under option for ten years now. We get a check from them every year, but I donít know what theyíre doing with it. I do know theyíve already spent $3 million on script development. They were having a problem coming up with an ending. They didnít like our ending because they thought it was too over the top. So they came with their own that I thought was even more over the top, and thatís cool, because movies are supposed to be over the top. And we said, ďHey, weíll come up with an ending for you,Ē and they said, ďOh, no. Thereís a rule: Never let the writers work on the script. Never.Ē
I wouldíve even done it for free, but they would rather pay Paul Attanasio $300 thousand a week to doctor the script. Thatís a lot of money, but I wouldnít want to work in Hollywood. I wouldnít do it for a million dollars a week, because youíre not in charge of your own creative work. Very little of what you see on the screen involves the writer.
You know, when we publish a book, itís put out there and people can choose whether they buy it or not. Thereís no coercion, thereís no heavy marketing-- itís just, if you like it, read it. If you donít, fine. You can read Michael Crichton or something.
How does it feel to be one of the lucky few who gets to write fiction full-time and make a living out of it?
It feels really good. I went into this never expecting to make any money. And I feel very fortunate to be in this company and have people other than my mother want to read my books.
Last question: What should we be reading?
I read a lot of non-fiction, and the best one Iíve read lately wonít be out until October, but itís called Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. Itís about the Navajo long walk.
But as far as fiction, I just discovered Lee Child. Not Lincoln Child, but Lee Child, who is great. I just discovered Harlan Coben, who is terrific. I like Nelson DeMille a lot. I used to like Michael Crichton, but his last few havenít thrilled me as much. I think he takes a hot-button topic and a controversial stance just to get people riled up, and I think thatís manipulative. However, I will say that The Andromeda Strain is one of the great novels. I mean it. If he had never written anything else, heíd still be thought of as a great writer.
Rod Lott is the creator and editor of Bookgasm.com, a daily genre book reviews/news site. In his "spare time," he is the editor of Hitch Magazine: The Journal of Pop Culture Absurdity, and some of his humor essays have appeared in the anthologies 101 Damnations (St. Martin's Press), More Mirth of a Nation (HarperCollins) and May Contain Nuts (HarperCollins). He also adapts classic short stories to comic book form for the ongoing Graphic Classics series of graphic novels from Eureka Publishing (graphicclassics.com). He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife and their three kids.