With writing partner Lincoln Child, Douglas Preston is a New York Times bestselling 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, Preston talks about what’s in store for that character, for future books (with and without Child) and – fingers crossed, folks – for the silver screen.
BOOKGASM: 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 can’t wait to read?
PRESTON: I think that book writing partnerships are often extremely difficult and fraught with problems. I’ve 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 other’s judgment. I can write the most perfect turn of phrase, so good it’s Shakespearean, and I can think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and Lincoln will say, “That stinks,” and cut it out. And I’ll be heartbroken, but I trust him, and it works vice versa.
BOOKGASM: So who has the final say?
PRESTON: Neither one of us has the final say. When we’ve found ourselves at loggerheads, which happened early on, when we were both absolutely unyielding in our beliefs, we said, “There’s obviously a problem with both our approaches, so let’s throw them both out and find a third way.” 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 “little darlings,” he means those paragraphs of purple prose so exquisite that it pains you to cut. And that’s what Lincoln does for me and I do for him. We massacre each other’s little darlings.
BOOKGASM: When either one of you comes up with an idea for a new novel, how do you decide whether it’s something you’re going to tackle together or on your own?
PRESTON: I’ll tell you, it really hasn’t been a problem so far. When he came up with the idea for UTOPIA, he originally brought it to the partnership and said, “Wouldn’t it great to do a thriller set in a theme park?” and I just had no interest in it. I don’t like theme parks. I was just a personal thing. So I said, “That’s a really good idea for a novel, but it’s not for me.” I just didn’t 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 didn’t feel disgruntled or anything when the book came out and say, “Oh, why wasn’t I a part of this?”
The same is true for my first solo novel, THE CODEX, where the subject didn’t interest him much. There are subjects he’s interested in, and subjects I’m interested in, and subjects we’re both interested in, so it’s worked out nicely.
BOOKGASM: 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?
PRESTON: That’s 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 haven’t felt that way. We’re always excited to return to Pendergast. However, we’re well aware that at some point, we could fall into a pattern of formula and we’ll have to give Pendergast a vacation. We’re fine with that.
The book we’re writing now is another Pendergast novel, but it’s completely removed from his milieu, with the museum and Smithback and D’Agosta and all that. We don’t have a title for it yet, but it starts out at a remote monestary in Tibet and then moves quickly into a dull suburb in Connecticut … which doesn’t remain dull for long! And we’re bringing Corrie back for this one, because we love that character. So it’s a stand-alone Pendergast/Corrie adventure.
BOOKGASM: Will that be out next summer as well? It seems like you’ve been hitting the one-a-summer rate quite well.
PRESTON: I think so. At least I hope it’s out next summer. We’ve been trying to keep that rhythm going.
BOOKGASM: Speaking of THE CODEX, do you have any plans for Tom Broadbent, who also was in the follow-up, TYRANNOSAUR CANYON?
PRESTON: I do. But in my next one, which is called BLASPHEMY, he doesn’t appear. But Wyman Ford, the CIA operative who joined the monastery, is. He decides he wasn’t 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. There’s a particle accelerator there that scientists are trying to calibrate and something goes terribly wrong and nobody’s talking about it, so they send Ford there to find out what’s going on. And that’s where the book starts. I think it will be published in May.
But what the book’s really about – and this is a spoiler – you know L. Ron Hubbard?
BOOKGASM: These days, who doesn’t?
PRESTON: 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, “This 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.” And that’s what he did and that’s what the book is about: a man who starts his own religion.
BOOKGASM: Sounds great. You know, I hope you don’t take offense at this, but whether I’m reading one of your books or Lincoln’s books, solo or together, I can’t detect a difference in the writing style.
PRESTON: You know, I’m glad to hear that because I’ve worried whether we’re not as compelling separately as we are together. Certainly we like our style – otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it – so it’s nice to hear we can sustain that.
BOOKGASM: What about movie adaptations? We had THE RELIC and that’s it. Is there any movement to get these books on the screen?
PRESTON: That’s a very good question. Unfortunately, Pendergast is owned by Paramount Pictures. Even though he didn’t 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 haven’t been paying attention. It’s a huge bureaucracy out there and most of Hollywood doesn’t read books, but until someone there says, “Oh, these books are great! Oh, we own this character?,” it won’t happen.
However, we finally have a producer who’s a really smart guy – and actually reads books – who wants to get Pendergast on the screen. He wants to make a movie of STILL LIFE WITH CROWS. And he’s a high-level producer and he went to Paramount and said, “If I come up with a good Pendergast project and you can be fairly compensated, will you let me have the character?” And Paramount said yes. So he’s been working on it for about a year, and we’re very hopeful.
And 20th Century Fox has had RIPTIDE under option for 10 years now. We get a check from them every year, but I don’t know what they’re doing with it. I do know they’ve already spent $3 million on script development. They were having a problem coming up with an ending. They didn’t 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 that’s cool, because movies are supposed to be over the top. And we said, “Hey, we’ll come up with an ending for you,” and they said, “Oh, no. There’s a rule: Never let the writers work on the script. Never.”
I would’ve even done it for free, but they would rather pay Paul Attanasio $300 thousand a week to doctor the script. That’s a lot of money, but I wouldn’t want to work in Hollywood. I wouldn’t do it for a million dollars a week, because you’re 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, it’s put out there and people can choose whether they buy it or not. There’s no coercion, there’s no heavy marketing – it’s just, if you like it, read it. If you don’t, fine. You can read Michael Crichton or something.
BOOKGASM: 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?
PRESTON: 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.
BOOKGASM: Last question: What should we be reading?
PRESTON: I read a lot of non-fiction, and the best one I’ve read lately won’t be out until October, but it’s called BLOOD AND THUNDER by Hampton Sides. It’s 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 haven’t 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 that’s 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, he’d still be thought of as a great writer. –Rod Lott