It was an intriguing opportunity for St. Martin's editor Lincoln Child. One of his writers, Douglas Preston, suggested that they combine their talents and use the American Museum of Natural History as backdrop for a tale of terror that would become Relic. ("We shared the same kind of sick, twisted view of the world," Preston recalls.) But early on Child had problems with how things were progressing. "Linc complained that we had two New York City cops who were exactly the same," Preston recalls.
Why don’t we come up with a character who is completely different, a fish out of water?” Child then proposed. “We followed that line of thinking, and almost immediately the rather idiosyncratic Aloysius Pendergast materialized.”
Amusingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, Child remembers Preston’s first response to being criticized as defensive and sarcastic. But despite their alternate versions about how their most famous creation originated, the two share a deep rapport, which is instantly obvious to an observer. They agree, half seriously, that disputes about their books’ direction will be settled by the one who yells the loudest.
And Preston doesn’t shy from tweaking Child’s prose: “Linc’s style is somewhat more baroque than mine. I have to cut back on his adverbs and adjectives quite a lot.” Yet he allows, “Somehow our writing styles have converged. I suppose that is natural.” Praising Child as a computer genius, Preston is skeptical when his colleague claims to “not know how to post and comment on Facebook.” Temperamentally, the men are almost polar opposites, with Preston being an avid outdoorsman, who “loves travel, mountain climbing, scuba diving, skiing, and other adventurous and risky activities,” he says. (To him, Child is more cautious, preferring “the combat of drawing room repartee.”)
A true Renaissance man, Preston serves as co-president of International Thriller Writers, a member of the board of governors of the Authors Guild, and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. And in 2000 he emulated his detective; after moving to Florence to write a fictional murder mystery, Preston got caught up in a real-life one. His 2008 nonfiction book, The Monster of Florence (coauthored with Italian journalist Mario Spezi), is a spellbinding account of his search for a serial killer whose butcher’s bill included 14 victims. Preston and Spezi’s advancing a theory other than that given by the Italian police placed both authors in legal jeopardy. (George Clooney will play Preston in a film version of the book.)
Preston attributes the contemporary fascination with serial killers to their symbolic importance; they represent “a profound negation of a culture’s values,” he says. His curiosity about the topic extends into the Pendergast books, which he says are all about exploring the nature of wickedness: “Evil is fascinating to us in a strange sort of way.” Adds Preston: The evil characters in our books are unusual. While they may be utterly depraved on a certain level, they also have many positive qualities, including intelligence, insight, and even kindness of a sort.”
His books, including his solo outings, also convey the message that “hubris and science are incompatible,” Preston says. “When science goes awry, as it often does in our books, it is often due to hubris, greed, overconfidence, and human weakness. There is nothing inherently wrong about science. It is in the application, the twisted, crazy things humans do, with science and technology that are often the subjects of our books… in short, the archetypal story of Dr. Faust, retold.”
It took Preston and Child four books until they trusted each other, but they long ago came to see the value of their partnership and appreciate the other’s capabilities. That perspective carries over into their approach to solo novels. “We have so many ideas that we’re not concerned about hoarding one idea or another,” Preston declares, crediting Child for the idea for the first chapter in his Tyrannosaur Canyon (Forge, 2005). That spirit of teamwork makes them “an editor’s dream, who have perfected the art of creating a single and singular narrative voice on the page,” says Grand Central’s executive editor, Mitch Hoffman. Which leaves Child comfortable to offer at times, “Gee, why don’t you write that chapter, Doug?”
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.