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Interview: November 25, 2005

November 25, 2005

Douglas Preston has collaborated with Lincoln Child on such novels as BRIMSTONE, THE RELIC and STILL LIFE WITH CROWS. In this interview with's contributing writer Roberta O'Hara, Preston talks about his latest solo release, TYRANNOSAUR CANYON, which showcases his lifelong interest in paleontology and his experiences working at the American Museum of Natural History. He discusses his penchant for reusing characters from previous works, explains why he incorporates greed into his fiction, and touches upon how he decides which story ideas will be pursued individually and which should be developed into joint novels. TYRANNOSAUR CANYON is a wonderfully rich and intriguing story, replete with chase scenes, murder, dinosaurs, familial struggles, astronauts (!), etc. What inspired the plot?

Douglas Preston: The inspiration came from my days working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I was amazed by the vast dinosaur bone storage vaults in the museum's basement --- where bones were literally stacked up on shelves like cordwood, huge skulls parked in the corners, huge slabs tipped against the wall --- and I wondered who had assembled this greatest of all collections. So for my first book, DINOSAURS IN THE ATTIC, I researched the museum's early dinosaur hunters, people like Barnum Brown, Charles Sternberg, and Roy Chapman Andrews. They were a fascinating group, half-crazy adventurers, and ever since I'd wanted to write a novel about a dinosaur hunter on track of the ultimate fossil. On top of that, I read a fascinating article in Scientific American by Kring and Durda called "The Day the World Burned," about the Chicxulub asteroid strike that ended the age of the dinosaurs. I wanted to incorporate that into the novel --- and finally, after much thought, found a way to do it.

BRC: You have extensive knowledge of dinosaurs. Did you enjoy them as a child, or did you become interested in them as an adult?

DP: I always loved dinosaurs, and ever since kindergarten I wanted to be a paleontologist. I am a case of arrested development; while most kids grew out of their dinosaur phase, I never did.

BRC: What further research did you do for this particular novel, and what were your resources?

DP: Aside from the Scientific American article, I spoke to David Kring personally, who, with Alan Hildebrand, discovered the crater left by Chicxulub, buried in sediments under the Yucatan. I spent quite a bit of time in Abiquiu, New Mexico at Ghost Ranch, which is a few miles from where my novel is set, and where the famous discovery of hundreds of coelophysis dinosaurs was made. I read Edwin H. Colbert's charming book, THE LITTLE DINOSAURS OF GHOST RANCH, and many other books on dinosaur hunters, the early years of paleontology, and so forth. I also talked to paleontologists to learn the latest thinking about T. Rex behavior.

BRC: Why have you brought back characters from THE CODEX? Are you giving an appreciative insider wink to your faithful audience? I've noticed you've done this before; are there some characters whose lives just call out for further examination or definition?

DP: I become fond of my characters and hate to leave them. It's really that simple. Sometimes I'll start a book intending to populate it with new characters but after a few chapters I'll think, Wouldn't Tom Broadbent, or Wyman Ford, love to be in this story? And so I'll go fetch them and invite them in.

BRC: Your images of the desert are vivid. Have you spent extensive time exploring in the desert? If so, where?

DP: I lived in New Mexico for almost twenty years, and spent a great deal of time camping and riding in the desert. Among other adventures, I retraced Coronado's search for the Seven Cities of Gold, riding a thousand miles across the mountains and deserts of New Mexico, nearly killing myself in the process --- an adventure that earned me the honor of being named to the Long Rider's Guild and elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. (Yes, I am an F.R.G.S.!) I've ridden many thousands of miles on horseback around the Four Corners area, and I've been backpacking in the desert since I was a kid.

BRC: Your characters are always so well-drawn. Are there real-life inspirations for some of the people we meet in TYRANNOSAUR CANYON?

DP: Thank you. I pick and choose from some people I know, but I would never dare tell you who. No character is wholly based on a real person. I don't think I could do that... It would seem strange and perhaps a bit rude to stick someone I knew into a novel. I did base my character Bill Smithback on a friend, and when RELIC was published he called me up and said: "You can't fool me, Preston, I know what you're up to. I know who Smithback is.... It's you!" I was so relieved.

BRC: Greed, in one form or another, is a classic theme and one that often appears in your books. What is it about greed that brings you back to it so often?

DP: I'm a greedy bastard myself. Seriously, I think fiction writers are good at recognizing and understanding some of the baser impulses within themselves, which allows them to draw and motivate characters --- especially some of the evil characters. I believe that a novel isn't really good unless it has a really good, complex, well-rounded bad guy (or gal).

BRC: How do you decide which story ideas should be pursued by you and Lincoln Child, and which should remain yours alone?

DP: Linc is more attracted to high-tech stories, I'm more attracted to adventure stories. Our joint novels seem to swing back and forth between these extremes, but when we go off on our own, we have our own areas of interest. Linc actually proposed the idea of UTOPIA to me for a joint novel, but I wasn't that thrilled with it. (He did a magnificent job with it, far better than I could have done helping him.)

BRC: Who are your literary influences?

DP: The great Victorian novelists are my greatest influences --- especially Dickens, Le Fanu, Conan Doyle, and above all, Wilkie Collins. I love their intricate plots and complicated narrative structures. I also love M.R. James. Lovecraft was an early influence as well, along with John Buchan and H. Rider Haggard.

A second important influence would have to be the Russian novelists of the 19th century --- especially Tolstoy. WAR AND PEACE is the ultimate thriller.

More recently, I've enjoyed enormously the novels of Patrick O'Brian, and I've learned (or hope I've learned) from them a great deal about narrative structure.

BRC: Have you ever discussed doing a book with your brother Richard?

DP: Richard and I have been discussing writing a book together about growing up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, during the Vietnam War. Richard and I, by the way, were notable citizens of the town, remembered by all. If you look back through the Wellesley Townsman, the local paper, you will often find our names in the prominent "Police Notes" column. In truth, we were lucky to have survived our adolescence...

BRC: What's next --- another solo novel, or a collaborative effort with Lincoln Child?

DP: Linc and I are finishing up a novel for Warner called THE BOOK OF THE DEAD, which is due next month. And then I will start my next solo novel, BLASPHEMY...