Q&A with THE WHEEL OF DARKNESS’ Douglas Preston

wheel darkness reviewHonestly, Douglas Preston could not have picked a nicer day to come to Oklahoma City. In any other year, a mid-September morning here would be unbearably thick by breakfast, but blessed weather instead made it a cool, crisp, unnatural 66 degrees – granting us a perfect excuse to take a short walk from his hotel room to the Borders across the street for a friendly interview. On the way over, he admitted seeing his work on bookstore shelves doesn’t do anything for him anymore; though he’s still grateful, it’s become “old hat.”

Yes, BOOKGASM interviewed Preston before – just last summer, in fact – but with a new book in THE WHEEL OF DARKNESS comes a whole new set of questions, including ones on future projects. Get settled, folks – this one’s lengthy.

BOOKGASM: With the new book, personally where it does it fit in for you, in terms of how you feel about it? Are you satisfied with the way it turned out?

PRESTON: Yeah, I’m very satisfied with it. The idea, Lincoln and I had been knocking around for some time. The way the book opens, Special Agent Pendergast goes off to a monastery in Tibet, and he learns from the monks that a very valuable object they’ve been keeping has been stolen. But the monks don’t even know what it is, because it was impressed to them a thousand years ago for safekeeping.

So Pendergast traces this thing across Europe, and ends up on the maiden voyage of a giant cruise ship: the Britannia, actually the world’s largest and most luxuriant ocean liner.

But Lincoln and I have always been interested in Tibet and mysticism and meditative practices. I mean, we’re not Buddhists, but we’ve always been fascinated by that. And I’ve spent a lot of time with Tibetians in Santa Fe – there’s a Tibetian community there – and I spent a week with the Dalai Lama once. That was a very extraordinary experience. I mean, it’s really beyond words what kind of experience that was. I always wanted to work it into a book in some way.

preston child reviewBOOKGASM: After doing three in a row comprising an unofficial trilogy, was it nice to getting back to doing one that stands on its own?

PRESTON: Yeah, it was very nice. Actually, it was a little intimidating. Writing the trilogy was such an intense experience. That was one story that went over three books. And we also felt that it was the most successful thing we’ve ever written: a big, huge, complex story. And we thought, “How are going to beat this one? How are going to do something beyond what we’ve just done?” So we really wanted to write a book that would have a big impact, and I think we’ve achieved it.

Actually, it’s kind of a funny story. Originally, this novel was set in a fictitious town called Wellesport. I grew up in Wellesley, Mass., and Linc grew up in Westport, Conn., and we decided to merge the two towns. I don’t know, we were like three or four months into writing this book and Lincoln turned to me and said, “Doug, I hate to tell you this, but this is boring. I mean, this is a boring setting. What were we thinking? You know, the towns we grew up in were boring suburban towns.” And I said, “Yeah, Linc, you’re right.”

I hated to admit it. Our original conception was murder and mayhem in a boring suburban town, but unfortunately, it turned to be a really boring town, and all the characters were sort of boring. So we decided to throw all that out and start all over again, which is something we don’t normally do. Usually, we’re very clear about where we’re going.

And we were really in a state – our deadline was six months away, we had all these chapters that we were gonna have to throw out, and we were looking for a new setting. And we were going over every possible setting and then one day, Linc was driving back from Long Island and he was taking the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. And as he was driving along, a shadow fell across his car. And he looked over and it was the Queen Mary II heading out to sea. He looked and he said, “That’s it. That’s the setting.” He called me up and I said, “Linc, it’s brilliant.”

And then we had a huge argument: either the real Queen Mary II or should we make up our own cruise ship. We finally decided to make up our own cruise ship, because we didn’t want to get sued.

But we had a lot of fun writing that book. We had a lot of fun researching the setting. That was really interesting.

BOOKGASM: Did you actually go on a cruise?

PRESTON: Well, Lincoln did. I’m not a cruise person myself, but I’m a seafaring person. I know a lot about boats and a lot about the sea and I have my own fishing boat. I knew a lot about the kind of electronics a boat has, the navigation, the chart plotters and all that stuff, the lingo.

BOOKGASM: Even though it’s a standalone and doesn’t end with a cliffhanger, it has sort of a door that can be opened for the future. Was it your intent to plant this so, “next book we will continue this” or “we’ll pick this up in the future sometime” or “we won’t touch it again”? It really could just stand as at is.

PRESTON: It could. And you’re very clever to see it that way. We did leave it open in a way that we might do something with it and we might not, and we’re not saying. Lincoln and I have learned that we better not talk about anything in the future, because we’ve gotten ourselves into trouble. Like last year, we told everyone, “Oh, we’re writing this novel set in Wellesport,” and it comes out, and all these people are e-mailing us, saying, “Where’s Wellesport? It didn’t appear in the book.” And it’s never going to appear! So we’re very cagey about future plans.

BOOKGASM: But I’ve noticed is the first jacket in a while where it doesn’t say, “They are at work on their next novel, titled…”

cabinet of curiosities reviewPRESTON: Well, we are at work on our next novel, and it’s titled THE REVENANT. That’s an old, archaic word referring to a particular type of spectre or ghost – a phantom. And I’ll say about it is it’s set in New York City and it harkens back to the world of THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES. We’ve long wanted to get back to that.

BOOKGASM: Oh, cool. That is still my favorite one.

PRESTON: Is it? Yeah, I’d say it’s one of our best. It really worked out. It’s one of our favorites, too. I hate to pick favorites, but I’d have to say that’s definitely up there. And I know it’s Lincoln’s favorite.

The book deals with obeah. It’s a type of religion that came to the United States from West Africa, brought to the new world by slaves, and it’s still practiced in very obscure, very small communities. Very interesting religion.

BOOKGASM: Do you have non-favorites? Are there ones where you think, “ugh”?

reliquary reviewPRESTON: Yeah, there is one that I really dislike, but I normally don’t tell people which one it is. But I’ll tell you anyway: RELIQUARY.

BOOKGASM: Why is that? The pressure to follow up?

PRESTON: We hadn’t intended on writing a sequel to RELIC, and our publisher really wanted a sequel, and we did see a nice way to write a sequel where it didn’t look like it was just because our publisher told us to. But I think writing a sequel is very difficult. And I also feel very strongly that a sequel has to be as good as the original. I mean, it’s such a truism – in movies and in books – that sequels just stink. And Lincoln and I never want to write a book that stinks. We have a mortal fear of it – it’s almost like a phobia, going downhill as so many writers do. And I felt with RELIQUARY, we maybe went downhill a bit.

BOOKGASM: But yet, by returning to the same characters as you do, you’re kind of writing sequels all the time.

PRESTON: Yeah, yeah. But they aren’t really sequels; they’re really standalone books. And they’re also books we feel passionate about. It may seem like BRIMSTONE, DANCE OF DEATH and THE BOOK OF THE DEAD were sequels, but in fact, we plotted all three of those books together. And we actually intended to write one book, and then as we got into it, we realized, “Wow, we’ve really bit off far more than we can chew here,” so we broke it up into three books.

BOOKGASM: Which probably made your publisher happy anyway.

PRESTON: It did. They liked that. Although sometimes our fans would say, “Oh, you’re just trying to sell more books by leaving us hanging,” but we didn’t intend that at all. We just had more than we could say in one book.

BOOKGASM: Didn’t the numbers go up as far as debuting on the best-seller list? Didn’t they rise with each one?

book of the dead preston child reviewPRESTON: They did. Each one rose dramatically. BRIMSTONE was No. 11. DANCE OF DEATH … I’ve forgotten what that was, but THE BOOK OF THE DEAD was No. 4, and this one is debuting at No. 2.

BOOKGASM: Congratulations.

PRESTON: Oh, well, thank you. No. 2 on the Times list, but No. 1 on Publishers Weekly.

BOOKGASM: And how much does that matter to you?

PRESTON: Well, I’d like to say it doesn’t matter at all and I could care less, but no, it matters. It’s a measure of how many people you’re reaching. The money doesn’t matter to me, but the testament that it is – what it means for the size of our audience – matters. Every writer wants to be read by somebody other than his mother, so No. 2 is pretty good.

BOOKGASM: What about reviews? Do you pay much attention to them?

PRESTON: Generally, we do. Curiously enough, we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve almost always had very good reviews. Once in a while we get a bad review, and we have a section on our website called “Rogue’s Gallery,” where we gather all of them, and we really have a hard time finding fresh reviews for that. I wish I could say there were lots of them, but they’re not.

BOOKGASM: Well, when they do hit, do they sting?

PRESTON: They don’t generally sting because they’re off-base. However, once in a while, a reviewer will say something negative and it will sting and I’ll think, “You’ll know: point taken. It’s a good point.” It stings if I feel there’s some truth in it. But if I feel it’s just some cranky reviewer or some critic – there are certain people who just like being nasty – then I think, “That’s cool.” They’re doing their thing; it doesn’t bother me.

BOOKGASM: You guys throw a lot of different genres in your book – there’s the horror element, the mystery, the adventure, the thriller. Do you have a preferred spot for them? Do you go into thinking, “This book is a …”?

PRESTON: It’s funny, I don’t ever think what genre a book is. In a sense, I don’t like the idea that a book has to be in a genre. And I think the categorization of genres is more a marketing thing than a reality. I mean, what is Shakespeare? Is he a thriller writer? In his plays, he has murder, he has torture, he has ghosts, he has obscenities – so where does he fall? Is he a thriller writer, a horror writer? And I’m not comparing us to Shakespeare, but I just think we live in an age where everyone wants to put a label on something, and Linc and I just don’t like to pay attention to that.

BOOKGASM: So you just want to have fun and whatever it is, it is.

PRESTON: Exactly. We just want to write the book and have fun. Some booksellers will put it in thrillers, some in horror, some put it in literature and some in science fiction! You know, I don’t know what to make of that.

douglas prestonBOOKGASM: Do you find that your fan base comes from one area or another?

PRESTON: It seems to come from two areas. One are the younger readers who are very technologically sophisticated and many of them come from science fiction and horror – those are two genres they really like. And then the other section of our readers are older people – generally retired or in their middle age – who just really love mystery books, thrillers. And those readers don’t come from a highly sophisticated technological background – they just like a good story. So we seem to get two different types of readers. We just write the books and hope we satisfy them. If you think too much about who you’re going to satisfy or who you’re writing for, you start choking up.

BOOKGASM: When I interviewed you last year, we talked about the writing process that you guys go through, but what I didn’t ask was what strengths do you think you bring to the partnership?

PRESTON: I think I’m very good with characters, creating characters. I think that I’m good with settings as well, and I’m also really good with finding the overall MacGuffin of the plot and where it’s headed. And the twist – there’s always a twist in our books toward the end, and I’m really big on twists. I really hate it when readers guess where we’re going. I love to surprise them.

It’s hard to say, because it’s very hard to separate what Lincoln does from what I do. But, our minds work in very similar, devious, twisted ways.

BOOKGASM: Do you guys work just one book ahead, or do you talk about ideas several books ahead?

PRESTON: We talk about many, many books ahead. In fact, we have ideas we’ve been mulling over for 10 or 15 years sometimes. I think THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES was something we had the idea for right at the beginning of our partnership, and it took us, what? Six books before we figured that one out.

BOOKGASM: Do you intend to continue the partnership indefinitely?

PRESTON: We do, we do, yeah. We really enjoy it. It’s a great thing. We also intend to continue writing solo novels. It’s different when you write a book with a writing partner – it’s a lot more fun, less stressful, easier. Writing is generally a very lonely business. With a writing partner, it’s not so lonely. And with Lincoln – when I write a chapter, Lincoln can call me up and say, “Doug, this really stinks.” And while it stings and I don’t like it … believe me, in the end, it saves so much trouble. In the end, when I’m writing solo novels, I could write five or six chapters that all stink before I realize I’m going in the wrong direction and have to throw it all out. And it’s great to have someone who can say, “Hey, Doug, this is not working. You’ve gotta do something else.”

BOOKGASM: Do you critique each other’s solo novels during the process or after the fact?

PRESTON: During, after and even before! Right now, Lincoln is working on his next solo novel, just dreaming up what it’s going to be about. And I’ve been throwing a lot of ideas at him. He sends me chapter outlines and I say, “Hey, Linc, what about this? What about that?”

tyrannosaur canyon reviewMy last book, TYRANNOSAUR CANYON by Douglas Preston – the opening chapter, which I’m very proud of, that was Linc’s idea. I opened the book with the second chapter. And Linc read the whole manuscript and he said, “You know, Doug, why don’t you open the book 30 years before, on the moon?” And I said, “Wow! What an idea!” And it was a brilliant idea. And then with his book DEEP STORM – I don’t want to give away the ending, but what they find out at the end, what they discover, is partially my idea.

We’ve long ago lost the prickly idea that we are artistes. I mean, we do care a lot about what we’re doing, but we also recognize that we can each add something.

BOOKGASM: Going back to things in the future, do you ever intend to step away from your established cast of characters and maybe start another?

PRESTON: Yes, we have thought of that, and we’d like to do that, to create a completely fresh character. The trouble is, almost all of our books take place in a single world, so it’s very hard to keep our old characters away. They always want to walk on. As we’re writing, these characters show up uninvited and unwanted, and they say, “Here I am!” and we have to put them in the book somehow.

BOOKGASM: That brings up another point: In this book, you pick up some threads that were planted a long ago. Is it hard to keep track where you’ve left off with people – what you have introduced and what you haven’t?

PRESTON: It’s very hard to keep track of. And once in a while, a very clever reader will point out an inconsistency. Luckily these inconsistencies are extremely minor, but Lincoln and I do have to keep track. Sometimes it means going back and reading our earlier books, because we wrote RELIC 15 years ago, and I really can’t remember what’s in that book. I have to read it again – Lincoln just re-read it, and now it’s my turn to re-read it – so that we can remember what we said.

BOOKGASM: How often do you have to do that?

PRESTON: As little as possible. The thing is, you read it and think, “Ah, why did I do that?” or “What a terrible sentence! How could I have written that sentence?” So it’s always a painful process to read an old book.

BOOKGASM: Since we talked last year, has there been any new movement on the movie front?

riptide reviewPRESTON: Yes, as a matter of fact, there has. Long ago, 20th Century Fox optioned RIPTIDE, and we saw a script years ago. It was terrible – the worst script I’ve ever read. And we thought that was the end of it. But then they hired a script doctor named Paul Attanasio, who makes $200,000 a week to work on scripts, to work on it. I haven’t seen what he did, but that was a good sign that they were still interested in it. And every year for 10 years, they were renewing the option on it, which was like getting free money – it was unbelievable. But last year, they came and they said, “We’re making this movie,” and they exercised their option and bought out the rights. In fact, that was the money that I used to buy my fishing boat.

And then we’ve got other books that have been optioned, like STILL LIFE WITH CROWS, THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES. The producers who optioned them are trying to work out a deal with Paramount to get the rights back to Pendergast (who was a character in RELIC, which Paramount made). They’ve already talked to Paramount, and Paramount seems willing to negotiate. It may cost a little money, but I have high hopes for Pendergast eventually reaching the silver screen.

BOOKGASM: But who could play him, really?

PRESTON: With Pendergast, he’s so vividly real to me. I mean, he’s more real to me than many real people I know. So I have a very hard time thinking how I could cast him. I don’t really see a good … maybe Johnny Depp. He’s such a good actor. He’s pretty cool. I think he has the range to create Pendergast. I think he could pull it off.

blasphemy reviewBOOKGASM: Your next solo novel, BLASPHEMY: Has the plot changed at all since you last told us about it last summer?

PRESTON: No, it hasn’t. The ending is a big surprise. It appears to be a techno-thriller about a particle accelerator where some really strange scientific things go awry in a really bizarre and dangerous way. But it turns out to be something completely different.

BOOKGASM: Do you know what you’re going to write next on your own?

PRESTON: I do. I’m working on a novel called THE MOBIUS CRATER. It starts off with an astronomy student who observes a meteorite fall, and she decides to go find it.

BOOKGASM: Are you now at the rate of doing two books a year?

PRESTON: No, it’s been about a book and a quarter a year. That’s been very tough to keep up doing one book a year (with Child) and keep doing solo novels on the side. I guess the pressure comes from us. We realize that our readers do expect a novel in the summertime, and we do like to deliver that, and our publisher is very happy that we see that a novel a year is a good idea.

We had a lot of fun writing WHEEL OF DARKNESS, but we intend to write a number of standalone novels now. The idea of doing a novel that leaves you with a cliffhanger and then leads to another is very difficult to sustain. At least our intention is that all our novels with Pendergast in the future will be standalone books. Here and there, threads will come through, though.

BOOKGASM: My problem is that in 12 months between books, I’ve read 100 others, so I don’t remember everything that happened.

PRESTON: In like a series on television, you only have a week in between, but with a novel, it’s a whole year. I’m like you: I read millions of books, so I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Our publisher is working on an Agent Pendergast website, as written by Corrie. It was meant to come out in time for this book, but it’s a lot of work. These things take time. Sometimes we have to consult a very astute female reader of ours who knows Pendergast better than we do and ask questions like, “Does he like opera or does he not like opera?” And she’ll write back, “No, he doesn’t like opera, but he does like symphonic music.” So that’s in the near future. –Rod Lott

Buy it at Amazon.

THE BOOK OF THE DEAD by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
DANCE OF DEATH by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
DEEP STORM by Lincoln Child
THE WHEEL OF DARKNESS by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

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Comment by Doug Bentin
2007-09-14 09:21:53

Very nice interview. It sounds as if Preston is a no bullshit kind of guy, which is how he comes across on the Preston/Child website. Funny that he should single out Johnny Depp as a possible Pendergast for the movies as I see Depp in the role as well. Maybe Robt. Downey, Jr. as well.

Again, thanks for a good interview with a popular writer.

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Comment by admin
2007-09-14 09:42:41

Robert Downey Jr. is an excellent choice, too. Actually, I think he’d probably work even better than Depp.

2007-09-15 09:26:43

So far “Mount Dragon” is the only book of theirs I’ve read, but I really enjoyed it. Must pick up more sometime…

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Comment by Andy
2007-09-17 11:27:32

“So far “Mount Dragon” is the only book of theirs I’ve read, but I really enjoyed it. Must pick up more sometime…”

If you liked Mount Dragon I think you’ll like their other stuff as I think Mount Dragon is one of their weaker efforts.

Comment by cody
2008-09-15 17:27:05

Weaker efforts!? how could you say that? Mount Dragon was such an amazing book. Ill admit it did kinda have a sorta rushed ending feel to it (i myself expected an amazing fight seen) but not to give anything away felt that the Levine Scopes part at the end was one of the single best literary creations of all time.

Comment by jmp
2007-09-16 13:38:13

Great interview, thanks! I love these guys.

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Comment by Tom
2007-10-16 19:25:49

William Fichtner “The Perfect Storm,” “Go,” “Contact” and “What’s The Worse That could Happen” is perfect for Pendergast. Watch “What’s The Worse That could Happen” and the detective he plays is just as different as Pendergast is. I’ve read all the Pendergast novels and this actor was born to play this part. I love the novels both as a team and the solo efforts.

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Comment by admin
2007-10-16 20:17:41

William Fichtner? I’d totally buy that. He could do the character justice.

Comment by Gary Williams
2007-10-30 10:08:28

Rod, great interview. Preston & Child were my inspiration to begin writing novels six years ago. Although I wasn’t enamored with the storyline for “Wheel of Darkness,” nonetheless, the writing is exceptional, as always. And it’s good to hear that they have plenty of ideas on the shelf waiting to be put into words.

Gary Williams

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2008-06-25 06:53:59


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Comment by John Alvarez
2008-07-14 15:18:35

This summer has been the summer of Pendergast for my wife & I, gobbling up all of the novels we happily discovered at the local library. We too bounced around the idea of who would play Pendergast in a movie, and thought of Depp, but then I argued against it. He’s a great actor. But I have trouble seeing Depp inhabit Pendergast’s soul in a satisfactory way. Honestly, I have trouble with any actor. So far, the one that appears in my imagination is near uncastable. But I’m sure there’s someone. Jude Law comes closest, but I dunno. But whoever it is had better be good!

John Alvarez

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Comment by Roger Abbenbroek
2011-06-12 23:54:45

Sorry gang, but the perfect actor to play Pendergast is Guy Pearce from L.A. Confidential. The perfect look. great actor, think of the slicked back hair dyed the right color in a suit…perfect.

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