RICHARD PRESTON has recently completed Michael Crichton’s unfinished last novel, MICRO.
Preston has written nine books, including The Hot Zone, The Demon in the Freezer, and The Wild Trees. His books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and most of them have first appeared as articles in The New Yorker. Preston has won numerous awards, including the American Institute of Physics Award and the National Magazine Award. He’s also the only person not a medical doctor ever to receive the Centers for Disease Control’s Champion of Prevention Award for public health. An asteroid is named “Preston” after him. (Asteroid Preston is a ball of rock three miles in diameter, traveling on a wild orbit near Mars.)
He’s the brother of bestselling author Douglas Preston.
Richard Preston lives outside New York City with his wife, Michelle. They have three children.
RICHARD PRESTON TELLS HIS STORY …
I’m a humanist, steeped in the humanities, but have loved science since childhood. In my writing, I explore and describe hidden worlds of nature, from viruses, to galaxies, to insects, to the labyrinth of the redwood canopy. The central subject of writing is human character, of course, and I tell nonfiction dramas about the struggles of people as they try to understand nature and themselves.
When I’m researching a book, I immerse myself in the lives of my subjects. I try to experience their worlds from within. I take extensive notes in small notebooks that I carry in my pocket. I use a digital camera, too. I am a compulsive fact-checker, calling people on the telephone, re-interviewing them, checking what I’ve written, doing my best to confirm verifiable details. (I once spent hours with Colonel Nancy Jaax at her kitchen table, inspecting her hands carefully so that I could describe her hands. At the same time, I was asking Colonel Jaax things like “What was going through your mind at the moment you discovered you had Ebola blood running around inside your space suit?”)
In breaking through the membrane of isolation that keeps our minds apart in rooms of separate consciousness, a reporter has to forget his own self and try to imagine another self. You try to open yourself to the Other. The Other is the world that is not you, and may have little or nothing to do with you. You watch, feel, listen, ask questions, try to keep yourself humble, and wait. Every now and then something wonderful occurs. It happens like a whale breaching, usually without warning. I whip out my notebook and start scribbling.
I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 5, 1954, and grew up in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston. As a child, I was shy. At age nine, I discovered books. I began reading adult books. It was an escape from shyness and a way of experiencing worlds almost beyond imagining. After school I would walk to the town library and dig into the science book section. That was where I read, at age ten, about astronomer Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the galaxies are moving away from one another, that the universe is expanding, and that it began with the Big Bang. It impressed me no end.
My brother the bestselling author Douglas Preston and I used to get into frequent fistfights in childhood. I once knocked out two of Doug’s front teeth with a punch to the mouth. (Luckily they were baby teeth.) I dedicated The Wild Trees to Doug. Our brother, David, is an accomplished medical doctor who practices in Waterville, Maine and in Cameroon, Africa. I dedicated The Cobra Event to David.
I attended Wellesley High School, where I had a poor disciplinary record, including an assault on a teacher. (I didn’t hurt the guy, but I shoved him.) However, I had some great high school teachers, including English teacher Wilbury A. Crockett, who inspired Sylvia Plath to become a poet while she was in his English class at Wellesley High. (See the essay on Wilbury Crockett in the Virginia Quarterly.) Other fantastic high school teachers were Jeanie and Brooks Goddard and Gerry Murphy.
Unfortunate, I was rejected by every college I applied to.
I really wanted to go to Pomona College, however, so I called the dean of admissions—collect—and asked if there was still time to apply. (This was in June, long after all the college acceptances had been mailed out.) The dean told me it was too late. I said, “Well, do you have a policy where you, like, change your mind?”
He had no such policy.
I sent in my application to Pomona College anyway. Then I started calling the dean once a week, collect. The operator would say: “Richard Preston is calling, will you accept the charges?” “Yes,” he’d say. “Hi,” I’d say, “I’m just checking in to see if your policy has changed.” He kept accepting my calls. Finally he evidently got tired of paying for them. They let me in.
At Pomona College, I caught fire intellectually. I found myself working harder than I’d ever worked in my life, and loving it. Also traveling back and forth across the U.S. in a beater car, and down into Mexico, and up to Oregon—just seeing the world in a beater, often with my brother Doug. In the end I graduated from Pomona summa cum laude, thus validating the dean’s payment of my collect calls. Doug also graduated from Pomona near the top of his class. (We both majored in English.)
From Pomona, I went to Princeton University, where I got a Ph.D. in English. I wrote my dissertation about nineteenth-century American narrative nonfiction writing. At the same time I took John McPhee‘s remarkable writing course, called “The Literature of Fact.” A distinguished New Yorker writer, John McPhee has published more than thirty books, all but one of them nonfiction. In McPhee’s course, I became fascinated with the idea that nonfiction writing can be stylish and powerful narrative literature. I decided to try to become a nonfiction writer rather than a professor of English.
Another thing happened: I met my wife, Michelle Parham Preston, in the Princeton English Department; we were fellow grad students (she also took McPhee’s writing course). We fell in love, got married, had three children, are still in love and happily married today. Read Michelle Preston’s piece in The New Yorker about her great-grandfather, the photographer Eugene de Salignac.
After getting my Ph.D., in 1983, I wrote First Light, a nonfiction book about astronomy (and the result of reading about galaxies at the public library as a child). It was published in 1987 and was excerpted in The New Yorker and won the American Institute of Physics Writing Award. It is still in print and is considered to be a sort of cult classic about science.
Next came a nonfiction book about the building of a steel mill, American Steel. It also an in The New Yorker and won awards.
Around 1992, I became interested in Ebola virus. The result was a New Yorker article which later became The Hot Zone, a #1 bestseller. It also inspired the movie “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Renée Russo. Then came a novel, The Cobra Event, which describes a fictional a bioterror attack on NYC with genetically-engineered virus.
A copy of The Cobra Event ended up in President Bill Clinton’s hands, and it supposedly kept him awake for two nights—the first night reading it, the second night thinking about it. According to The New York Times, Clinton discussed the book at a White House National Security Council meeting, where he asked “where Richard Preston got his information” and how credible the fictional plot was.
When the 2001 anthrax terror event happened, bioterrorism suddenly became real. I decided to write a nonfiction book about anthrax and smallpox virus (which is thought to be the most dangerous virus on the planet; far more threatening than Ebola). The Demon in the Freezer was published in 2002.
My three books about viruses (The Hot Zone, The Cobra Event, and The Demon in the Freezer) are a trio titled “Dark Biology.”
In 2003, I published The Boat of Dreams: A Christmas Story. It’s a children’s story, set in Maine, about two kids who meet a very odd Santa Claus in a flying lobster boat.
Then I started climbing giant redwoods in California. The result was The Wild Trees. After that, I got a chance to complete Michael Crichton’s last, unfinished novel and thought it would be interesting to try to finish it.
Photocredit © Nancy Jo Johnson