Douglas Preston is the author of a score of thrillers working solo on works featuring ex-CIA agent Wyman Ford, or collaborating with Lincoln Child on the books featuring FBI special agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast. He has also penned several nonfiction works, including the 2008 title, The Monster of Florence, a true crime story about a series of sensational murders in Italy. He is a contributing writer in archaeology for magazines from the Smithsonian to the New Yorker.
Preston and Child inaugurated a new series this year with Gideon’s Sword, featuring Gideon Crew, a freelancer for the CIA. “Gideon is undeniably a big-shouldered character, capable of supporting a series,” noted Booklist.
Douglas, it’s a pleasure to have you with us on Scene of the Crime. Could you introduce us to your crime scenes?
Most of our novels are partly or mainly set in New York City, often in and around the American Museum of Natural History. The story of how we came to write about the Museum is a curious one. I had been writing a column in the magazine Natural History, published by the Museum, where I worked. An editor from St. Martin’s Press, who had been reading my pieces, called me up and asked if I wanted to write a history of the Museum. I said yes — and that became my first book, Dinosaurs in the Attic. After the book was published, I gave the editor a tour of the Museum — at midnight. I showed him all the best places in the Museum to which I had access–the dinosaur bone storage room, the collection of 30,000 rats in jars of alcohol, the whale eyeball collection, the preserved mastodon stomach with its last meal inside, and a lot of other unusual things. We ended up in the Hall of Late Dinosaurs around 2:00 a.m., with only the emergency lights on, the great black skeletons looming in the darkness around us–and the editor turned to me and said: “Doug, this is the scariest damn building in the world. Let’s write a thriller set in here.” And that was the birth of Relic, which was, of course, a huge bestseller and eventually a number one box office hit movie. That editor was Lincoln Child. We both discovered we shared the same kind of sick, twisted view of the world. That was how our long and fruitful collaboration began.
What things about the Museum make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
The American Museum of Natural History is one of the truly unique places in the entire planet. It is one of the largest—perhaps the largest—museum in the world, consisting of 23 interconnected buildings, with the most fantastical, priceless, and even shocking collections any where—from gemstones the size of Cadillac headlights to monstrous dinosaurs to rare beetles so small you can only see them under a microscope. There are amazing places in the museum: a room, for example, crawling with live carnivorous beetles used to eat the flesh off animal carcasses to obtain their skeletons; huge maceration vats where zoo animals are rotted to obtain their bones; a collection of fossils so vast that a special building with reinforced steel walls and floors is necessary to hold their weight; the largest recovered meteorite in the world, discovered by Robert Peary on one of his attempts to reach the North Pole; thousands of skeletons and mummies; whale skeletons the size of city buses… The list goes on and on.
The Museum is the main character in our books. That and our eccentric FBI agent, A.X.L. Pendergast. I hasten to add that not all our books are set in the Museum and some not even in New York City. We’ve been all over the world, from Tierra del Fuego to Dubai.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
In writing, as in real estate, it’s location, location, location. Even when the setting in our books ranges far and wide—to the African savannah, an active volcano on the island of Stromboli, the moors of Scotland, the cafes of Florence, or the largest graveyard in the world on an island in Long Island Sound, I always go there to experience the place and do the research. Even if the readers know nothing about the place, they can tell if you’re winging it or are writing from actual experience. Linc and I pride ourselves on our realistic, vivid, and beautifully realizing settings.
How does Pendergast interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Pendergast?
Our protagonist, A.X.L. Pendergast, is a gentlemen from the old South, a native of New Orleans, and a man of another century. He dresses in somber suits. His speech, principles, and comportment belong to a vanished time. As a result, he is a fish shockingly out of water almost everywhere he goes—and especially in New York City, where his elegant, reserved, and astringent figure forms a stark contrast to the cops around him, particularly that of his long-time partner, Vincent D’Agosta, a street-smart NYPD cop, but one with overly sensitive feelings and a heart of gold.
Gideon’s Sword marks the start of a new series. How does Gideon differ from other characters you have created? What are the challenges he faces in the book?
Linc and I wanted to create a totally fresh, new, and appealing character. But also a person who was sketchy. We took the basic idea of him out of the Native American idea of the trickster, the coyote, who is not the strongest or bravest character around, but who gets what he wants with manipulation, trickery, cajolery, wit, and cleverness. Our character Gideon is a modern-day trickster, a master of disguise (both as a mimic and disguises), a person who has taken the contemporary art of ‘social engineering’ to a high pitch. He has a weakness for women, liquor, and minor works of art that, being unable to afford them, he ‘liberates’ from small historical societies.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
When Paramount Pictures shot the movie The Relic, they wanted to film in the American Museum of Natural History. They offered the Museum a seven figure fee. The Museum turned them down flat. The story I was told was that the president of the Museum said to Paramount that she hated the book Relic, that it was violent, gratuitous and outrageous, that it had no redeeming social value, that the author (me) had once been employed there and obviously had a grievance against the Museum, and that they wouldn’t dream of allowing a film made of that book to be shot in their nice, family museum for all the money in the world. So Paramount had to rewrite the script, moving the setting to Chicago, and shoot in the Field Museum of Natural History, which was very welcoming to the filmmakers.
Here’s a funny story. In the Relic, we moved the Museum from Central Park West to Riverside Drive, and renamed it the New York Museum of Natural History. We wanted to fictionalize it to a certain extent because we were afraid the Museum might take exception to our depiction of hidden Museum politics (which was wickedly accurate, at least from my experience). So we had people writing us, upset, that we were so ignorant, so stupid, so utterly moronic and dim-witted, that we had misplaced the world’s largest museum. We had a lot of fun responding to those people, insisting with great truculence that the Museum really was on Riverside Drive, not on Central Park West, and that they were wrong. It made them hysterical with rage.
We have made many mistakes, most of them minor, and it always amuses us how upset some people become. The worst—the positively most militant—group were the amateur astronomers. They savaged me for misplacing the Andromeda Galaxy in the night sky. I was informed that I was a congenital idiot, that never would they read another of my books, that when they reached that egregious, grossly inaccurate passage that misplaced an entire galaxy thousands of light years across that they threw the book across the room with words of vulgar language. I was told I should have my literary license revoked, be put in the stocks, etc., etc. Who would have dreamed that such an apparently mild-mannered group could be so umbrageous?
Of the Pendergast novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels
My favorite scene is in the novel Cabinet of Curiosities, where one of our main characters, a curator, is being pursued by a serial killer armed with a scalpel in one of the Museum’s vast storerooms. She hides inside the model of a woolly mammoth, climbing through a trapdoor in its belly.
We have many favorite writers. We are great fans of 19th century English literature, believe it or not, our favorites being Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Also on that list would have to be Poe and A. Conan Doyle, and H. Rider Haggard. As for more contemporary writers, the ones who have influenced us the most would be Michael Crichton, Patrick O’Brian, Hammond Innes, and Dennis Lehane.
What’s next for Pendergast?
Our next novel, Cold Vengeance, will be published in August. I have a superstitious dread of revealing information about an upcoming novel. I will only say that terrible things happen, awful, dreadful, frightening things…
You have two books out now that have been chosen to become major motion pictures. The film rights to Gideon’s Sword have been bought by Paramount and producer/director Michael Bay (Armageddon and The Rock) and The Monster of Florence which Fox 2000 has closed a deal on that turns this book into a star vehicle for George Clooney. How does it feel to have this excitement in your life? Did you ever envision this situation for yourself?
George Clooney will actually play me in The Monster of Florence. That book was not a novel, but a true story about a mysterious serial killer who was never caught. I began poking around and fell into the story and became part of it, much to my sorrow. To have George Clooney play me is, well, sort of surreal. All I can say is, he is one terrific actor, a star in the real, old-fashioned sense of the word, a man in the mold of Cary Grant or Gary Cooper. I am pleased, if a bit embarrassed, but I think my wife is even more thrilled.
In writing The Monster of Florence, a true story about the Italian Jack the Ripper, you came up against the prosecutor who is now involved in the Amanda Knox appeals case. What was your experience with this Italian prosecutor and with the Italian justice system?
This was the most shocking experience of my life. One day I was walking down the streets of Florence, Italy, where I lived, and got a phone call. “This is the police,” said a voice, “where are you? We are coming to get you, now.”
And so began the most bizarre experience of my life. Italy is a civilized, Western European country, but, as in the United States, there are people in positions of power who are corrupt, abusive, and, as in this case, obsessed with a sort of prosecutorial delirium. This prosecutor hauled me in for an interrogation, accused me of being an accessory to murder and trying to frame somebody for being a serial killer, and being involved with Satanic rituals. He demanded I confess or he would indict me for perjury.
When I heard this same prosecutor was in charge of the Amanda Knox csae, my heart sank. The case against her has been manufactured. It is a great tragedy.
You just returned from a trip to the Gulf which you took with four other major thriller writers to entertain our troops in a USO show called, “Operation Thriller” which marked the first time writers had banded together for this purpose. How did this trip affect you?
The USO had never before in its history sent authors on tour. We were guinea pigs of a sort. I had my doubts it would work. Would the troops in Iraq enjoy meeting a tweedy group of authors instead of, say, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders or Kid Rock? Instead of going on stage before thousands, the USO planned our tour to be different—friendlier and more personal. We mingled with the troops in small groups, meeting with them at their workplaces and recreation areas. We were welcomed with tremendous warmth.
We thriller writers create fictional heroes. On this tour I had the chance to meet the real heroes. It was a humbling and moving experience. Among the many powerful stories we heard, there is one I will never forget. A wounded soldier we visited in the hospital described being blown up by an IED in Afghanistan. They were receiving live fire from a house and went to surround it, taking cover behind a berm. But it was a trap. Insurgents had placed IEDs behind the berm, one of which went off, blowing the medic through the air and into a small irrigation canal. He regained consciousness on his back, submerged, looking up through the rippling greenish water. He described to us a lingering moment of infinite peace, serenity, and stillness—of religious intensity—before he realized that he had just been blown up and was now drowning. In that moment, he said, he felt the presence of God. And that gave him the will to survive.
Now that’s a powerful story.
Douglas, thanks again for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Douglas Preston, see his homepage. http://www.prestonchild.com/