American literature is not rife with successful partnerships. Unlike screenplays, which are often composed in collaboration, novels usually spring from the mind of a solitary author. Or so we tend to think; in truth, many authors receive a helping hand from their editors. Raymond Carver, for instance, had a famously controversial collaboration with his editor, Gordon Lish. To this day, critics question how much of Carver's writing was Carver and how much of it was Lish.
Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child forgo any questions about the author/editor relationship by sharing credit on all of their titles. Their ten-year partnership has resulted in a slew of international bestsellers, including Riptide, Reliquary, Mount Dragon, and the novel that started it all, 1995's Relic.
The two were first brought together in the early '80s through a mutual love of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Child, an editor at St. Martin's Press, commissioned Preston, a museum worker, to write a history of the museum entitled Dinosaurs in the Attic. When the book was finished, Preston gave Child a private midnight tour of the museum. With its unlimited supply of hidden nooks and crannies and its fascinating history, Child realized that the famous museum would make a perfect setting for a horror/suspense novel; thus, Relic was born.
The novel did not magically come together after the tour, however. It took a full ten years for Relic to get off the ground, during which time Child left St. Martin's and Preston moved to Santa Fe. The writers established a set of ground rules to make their unique cross-country partnership work, rules that they still follow to this day.
First, Preston & Child create the overall plot and framework of the novel through a series of discussions. Then, Child sends an outline of the initial chapters to Preston. Preston writes the first draft, Child rewrites the chapters, and so forth, until they have a completed draft of the novel. Subsequently, the entire novel is edited back and forth, until they have a draft with which both authors are happy. "That's what gives the novels a relatively seamless surface," Preston & Child write on their web site, "All four hands have found their way into practically every sentence, at one time or another."
Relic marked the first appearance of FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast, a character who would return in six of the duo's later novels, including 2005's Dance of Death. In fact, many of the characters from Relic would return in their later novels, a phenomenon that Preston & Child refer to as "The Preston-Child Pangea." With the exception of 1998's Riptide, all of the Preston-Child novels exist within the same universe. Although the novels are all self-contained, longtime readers will pick up on references to characters and events that connect the novels. On their web site, Child writes: "When we were beginning work on [their fourth novel] Thunderhead... we realized that somebody else needed to be added to the group we were forming. I said to Doug, ‘What if we send Bill Smithback along on the dig?' He said, ‘Yeah, that's good, the expedition could use a journalist.' And I replied, ‘No, not just a journalist -- Smithback himself!' We'd just bring him onstage without winks or nudges to our readers, without obvious allusions to the fact that he'd already featured in two of our previous novels. Readers of Relic and Reliquary would know who he was -- other people wouldn't. But it gave us a ‘pre-rolled' character, so to speak: somebody we already knew and felt comfortable writing about."
The pair's latest offering, Dance of Death, is a veritable class reunion for Preston & Child's creations, with a treasure trove of cameos and guest appearances by characters that longtime fans will recognize. The novel was released in the summer of 2005 to positive reviews and brisk sales. Booklist called it "an ambitious novel" with "an exhilarating finale" in which "the story soars." Luckily for Preston-Child fans, the ending lines of Dance of Death make it clear that there are bigger and better adventures to come.
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In our interviews, Preston and Child shared some fun and fascinating personal anecdotes.
"My first job was washing dishes in the basement of a nursing home for $2.10 an hour, and I learned as much about the value of hard work there as I ever did later."
"I need to write in a small room -- the smaller the better. I can't write in a big room where someone might sneak up behind my back."
"My hobbies are mountain biking, horseback riding and packing, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, camping, cooking, and skiing."
"I try to write about things, places, events, and phenomena I know about personally. That helps make the novels more genuine. My grandmother, Nora Kubie, who was herself a published novelist, always gave me that advice. And it's probably the best I've received, or for that matter given. I even try to make use of my personal eccentricities and quirks. I hate subways, for example, and in such works as Reliquary I tried to instill -- or at least convey -- that groundless but persistent fear."
"My first job out of college was as an editorial assistant in a New York publishing house. Being an editorial assistant is the purgatory would-be editors must endure before they can ascend the ladder and begin acquiring books on their own. I spent a year filing paperwork, writing copy, and typing rejection letters."
"For me, writing never gets easier. It's always hard work. It doesn't matter how many words you wrote the day before, or how many novels you've completed in the last decade: every day you start fresh again with that same blank page, or that same blank screen. As long as the work, and the finished product, remains fresh and important to a writer -- and the day it stops being important to me is the day I'll lay down my pen -- said writer can never allow himself to coast, or go soft, or recycle old material, or take the easy way out."
"I like exotic parrots, motorcycles, wine from Pauillac, playing the piano and the banjo, the poetry of John Keats, the music of Fats Waller, collecting old books and new guitars, computer FPS and RPG games, and preparing dishes like caneton a l'Orange and desserts like soufflé au chocolat."
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In the summer of 2005, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child took some time out to talk with us about some of their favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I would have to say the novel War and Peace influenced me more than any other book. This greatest of novels demonstrated to me the enormous power of literature and fired me up with a desire to become a writer, to participate in what I considered then to be the greatest of all endeavors.
Probably the essays of E. B. White. Nobody has influenced my love for words and wordplay as much as White has. In his hands, essays become poetry, and poetry becomes music. I've wanted to be a writer from a very young age, but it was such essays in this book as "Farewell, My Lovely!'" and "Death of a Pig" and "Here Is New York" that fueled my resolve, kept me determined despite setbacks and wrong turns, and ultimately helped turn a fond dream into reality.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins -- This vast and haunting novel, published in the 19th century, is one of the greatest mystery novels ever written. The character of Count Fosco was so marvelously drawn by Collins that we stole it for our novel Brimstone.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- This is a novel that has everything in it, everything. It creates a world so real, with people so vivid and alive, that anyone who reads this novel will never, ever forget the experience.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway -- This is one of the greatest war novels ever written, by a writer who influenced American prose more than any other American writer. A beautiful and sad novel.
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton -- This was the first and still the best technothriller ever written. Crichton is a master storyteller.
The Odysseyby Homer -- I hope I'm not starting to sound like a dusty old English professor here, but The Odyssey (I recommend the Fagles translation) was the first novel and the first thriller. It has everything a good thriller requires: love, hatred, monsters, magic, revenge, graphic violence, bloodshed, mystery, and a wily, unforgettable hero.
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov -- These three novels form the greatest science fiction opus ever written, in my humble opinion. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card comes in a close second, along with Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan, and Dune by Frank Herbert. You read these science fiction novels and everything else seems tepid by comparison.
The Hot Zone by my brother, Richard Preston -- I read this book when I was recovering from the flu, and it damn near gave me a relapse. This is one of the most frightening books I've ever read.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- Getting past the sex business, this is an extraordinary American novel, a strange and haunting portrait of our country.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger -- Once a classic, always a classic. This story of the painful coming-of-age of Holden Caulfield will speak to every new young generation for a long, long time.
This is hard. Ask me tomorrow, and you'd probably get some different titles. But these are the ones that spring immediately to mind:
Bleak House by Charles Dickens -- I love all of Dickens's novels, but Bleak House seems to me to be particularly dense, profound, and passionate.
The Complete Plays by William Shakespeare -- What need I say? Shakespeare's plays are rich enough to reward many lifetimes of study: just ask Constance Greene.
Paradise Lost by John Milton -- Music for the ear, grist for the mind, manna for the soul.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville -- Vast, sprawling, eccentric, self-absorbed. Tristram Shandy meets Finnegan's Wake. It would take a dozen readings to plumb Melville's full intent here -- and even that might not be enough.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad -- A wonderfully moody, haunting, and thought-provoking book. Of the many journeys it recounts, the internal journey is by far the most fascinating and rewarding to me, at least.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Third Edition) -- This anthology has probably been the single most important reading resource in my life.
The Outsider & Others by H. P. Lovecraft -- The author's first (albeit posthumous) and biggest collection, containing almost all his best work. Impossible to find now, of course, so pick up any of the new Arkham House collections, particularly Colour out of Space or At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft is in my opinion the greatest writer of supernatural fiction ever and was hugely influential for me from grade school on.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris -- Sleek, stylish, and wonderfully written. This is not just a great modern thriller: it is a great modern novel.
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton -- When it comes to technothrillers, Crichton was there first, and he showed us all how it should be done.
The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber -- As playful, luminous, and mesmerizing a story as I've ever read. Charming for both children and adults. If, alas, you can find it.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King -- Books just don't get much scarier than this.
What are some of your favorite films?
The Wizard of Oz -- A story of almost mythic power and delight.
Back to the Future -- A quintessential American story.
The Empire of the Sun -- Spielberg's most extraordinary film, utterly mesmerizing.
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
Little Big Man
Dances with Wolves
North by Northwest
The Third Man
The Man in the White Suit and any movie with Alec Guinness
I love everything from drawing-room comedies to modern thrillers to art-house films. My favorites include, in no particular order:
It Happened One Night
Green for Danger -- Pendergast owes a lot to the detective in this movie, but good luck finding it.
The Man Who Came to Dinner
The Philadelphia Story
The Seven Samurai
The Third Man
Woman in the Dunes
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I can't write and listen to music. I have eclectic tastes -- classical, jazz, bluegrass, folk, Celtic, Italian popular music, among others.
Again, I love many types of music: classical music, R&B, soul, rock, bluegrass, jazz. Of the last five categories, I'm particularly partial to music composed and performed between 1940 and 1970. I can't listen to music while writing -- any such distraction would have dreadful consequences.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
It would be reading Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts, because it's a wonderfully meaty book, a great American historical novel.
Probably great works of English, Russian, and French literature. There are still many important novels in the canon that have to date eluded me -- the formal structure of a book club would help give me the discipline necessary to pick them up at last.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Blank books and poetry books. From those whose taste I respect, I like to get novels from authors I've never heard of.
I'm very hard to buy for. As a collector, my favorite books to receive are obviously collectible titles: rare first editions, very old books, and the like.
As for giving books to others, any book that has had a profound effect on me, or that I think the recipient will truly enjoy, is a delight to pass on or recommend. I recently gave Doug a copy of Kenneth Roberts's Northwest Passage, and it helped him get through a grueling period of touring in support of our latest joint book. I think most readers would agree that recommending books to people can be almost as rewarding as discovering the book for yourself.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
No. I work nine to five, just like any good bank clerk.
My desk is cluttered with computers, phones, fax machines, printers, network storage devices, keyboards, and flat panel displays -- all sorts of technological flotsam and jetsam.
As for writing rituals, I find that late morning through early afternoon is the best time for me to do creative writing. I can only do so many hours of that per day, however, both from standpoints of creative energy and simple logistics: there are numerous other chores that demand a writer's time, such as answering email, doing publicity....
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been writing for 25 years. Sure, I've got plenty of rejection slip horror stories. No so much from book publishers, but from magazines. Magazines in general treat writers horribly, despicably -- although there are exceptions, like The New Yorker, National Geographic, and a few other top magazines. Most (especially men's fashion magazines like GQ) generally treat writers like dirt.
As a former book editor, I had contacts in the industry among agents and publishers. That guaranteed that our first novel, Relic, would at least be given a sympathetic reading -- but it certainly didn't guarantee success. Our agent showed that manuscript to a long, long list of publishers over many months, and he was very patient, keeping hope alive when both Doug Preston and I began to despair of the book ever being published. In the end, Tor Books took a chance on us.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
The Irish writer Flann O'Brien needs to be rediscovered.
That's just the problem. Undiscovered writers are just that: undiscovered.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep working. It's a career, not a book. If your first manuscript doesn't sell, quit messing with it and move on quickly to the next novel.
Be patient, and have fun -- it sounds like a truism, but the act of writing should be, in part, its own reward. Doug and I tried to have fun while we wrote Relic, and we also tried hard to make it the kind of book that we ourselves would like to read. Readers are very intelligent people, and they are quick to spot the difference between a book that was written with the genuine intent of pleasing the author and his/her readers, and a book written with the cynical intention of simply selling a lot of copies.
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