After completing Michael Crichton’s unfinished last novel, Micro, Richard Preston is at work on a nonfiction sequel to The Hot Zone, about Ebola virus.
Richard Preston in his own words
In case you’re interested (you don’t have to be), I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1954, and grew up in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston. I consider myself a New Englander with a splash of California, if that makes any sense. As a child, I was shy and quiet. When I grew up I wanted to be a starship colonist heading for Alpha Centauri.
At around age 9, in fourth grade, I got seriously into books. Books were an escape from shyness. More importantly, books opened doors leading into worlds richer and seemingly more wonder-filled than anything in my suburban New England town.
After school, I would often ride my bike to the town library, where I delved into Mark Twain, Robert Heinlein, Madeleine L’Engle, Ernest Hemingway, Freddy the Pig, Arthur C. Clarke, haiku by the Japanese poet Basho … and science books, especially astronomy. In those books I learned, at age 10, that the universe is an expanding near-void glittering with galaxies beyond counting.
I have been fascinated with the natural universe ever since.
One day at age 12, I was at my friend Norio Kushi’s house. We were in his living room building a model Mississippi steamboat and playing with little Corgi cars (similar to Hot Wheels). At school, some of the kids considered me and Norio to be tools (with our models and toy cars). That day, a man walked out of the kitchen. “Hey, Norio, how’ve you been?” he said, and he begin admiring the model steamboat.
The man was tall and thin, quiet, with round spectacles and a beak nose and long hair. Norio introduced him to me as his friend John. John hung out with us for a while, and then he had to go back into the kitchen to help Norio’s mother cook dinner. Norio then said to me, “That’s John Lennon.”
Lennon had been friends with Norio’s family for years.
The kids at school were a bit skeptical when I told them that Norio and I had been hanging out with John Lennon and discussing models with him.
This was an early experience with nonfiction storytelling. Some of the best true stories are those that join ordinary reality to things that seem completely unbelievable—and yet they are true.
At Wellesley High School, my record included indifferent grades and an assault on a teacher. I didn’t hurt him but I pushed him, and that’s an assault. Here’s my driver’s license, age 16.
We were the countercultural kids. We did a lot of aimless driving around Boston in my shitbox Ford Falcon, occasionally picking up a hitchhiker and gloriously driving the person to wherever they wanted to go. Some of my friends (not me) dropped acid and smoked hellish amounts of weed. (I soon discovered that I hated being stoned, and I was terrified of LSD).
We listened to music on vinyl and went to rock concerts, and we went camping in the woods of New Hampshire where we did nothing constructive. Regardless of that, I continued to love books, and I had some outstanding teachers in high school. They included Wilbury A. Crockett, the famous English teacher who inspired his student Sylvia Plath to write poetry. To the end of his days, Dr. Crockett took loving pride in his former students who’d gone on to achievements in teaching and writing in the English language, including me.
Applying to College
Every college I applied to rejected me. Right across the board. This was disconcerting. Around June of my senior year, after I’d gotten all my college rejections, I sent an application, super late, to Pomona College, in southern California. Pomona rejected me. My application was far too late, they said.
Then I made a collect call to the dean of admissions at Pomona. (A collect call was when you’d ask the operator reverse the charges to the person you were calling—you’d make the person pay for your call. It cost around $20.)
When I called the dean collect, he accepted the charges. I said to him, “I know you rejected me, but do you have a policy, like, where you change your mind?” No, he said politely. Then I asked, “What are the chances the policy could change?” Not happening.
After that I started calling the dean of admissions once a week, collect. It cost him twenty dollars each time. “Hi dean, it’s Dick Preston from Massachusetts,” I’d say. “Just checking to see if your policy has changed or could possibly change in the near-to-intermediate future.” (One can almost hear the dean saying to people, “Oh, no, it’s that Dick from Massachusetts calling again.”)
The college probably paid for a hundred dollars’ worth of my collect calls. Finally they “modified” their policy and put me on the waiting list, and I got in.
College and After
I graduated from Pomona College four years later, summa cum laude. Two things led to this. The first was that the dean of admissions decided to take a bet on me. The second was that I caught fire in college. This happens to many people. It’s why we need to be skeptical of the college admissions process. The admissions officers don’t know much, and they are just placing bets (and trying to figure out who would fit with their college). Gamblers know that you can’t predict the outcome of a bet. (If you happen to be a high school student reading this, just don’t give up faith in yourself and don’t let anybody give you the idea you can’t succeed in your secret dreams, the ones you don’t talk about.)
After that I went to graduate school at Princeton University, where I got a Ph.D. in English.
While I was studying at Princeton, I took a writing course, “The Literature of Fact,” taught by the distinguished author and New Yorker writer John McPhee. In McPhee’s course I became fascinated with the idea that nonfiction writing can be literature—stylish, technically advanced, illuminatory writing, equipped with tools and methods powerful enough to explore any and all aspects of human existence and the world around us.
I decided to try to become a nonfiction writer. The novel, it seemed to me then, is like a gorgeous cathedral. It took a long time to build and was created by masters. If you were to work on the cathedral of fiction maybe you could add some nice stained glass to a window, but most likely you would not be able to work on the architecture of a new wing.
Nonfiction narrative, on the other hand, was something that seemed mysteriously underexplored. Nonfiction was terra incognita for a writer who was interested in developing different ways of telling a story.
In 1984, I began my first book, a nonfiction book about astronomy — First Light. It came directly out of my childhood reading about galaxies in the town library. First Light was excerpted in The New Yorker, and it won the American Institute of Physics award. It is still in print and is considered a sort of cult classic about science.
This idea of becoming a writer … it actually worked, like those collect calls. I still can’t quite believe it.
I live in a small town outside New York City with my wife, Michelle Parham Preston, a person I deeply love and admire. We met at graduate school where she was also a PhD student in English. We have three children and we do rather like them.
Among the pleasures of my life today is climbing trees using ropes and climbing gear. When our children were younger I took them camping in the treetops. We slept in hammocks 60 feet above the ground and listened to birds singing all around us as the sun rose. These experiences evolved into my nonfiction book The Wild Trees, about climbing the redwoods of California, the world’s tallest trees. My children and I still climb trees together.
Currently, I’ve recently returned from Africa and am working on a nonfiction book about the recent Ebola outbreak—a sequel to The Hot Zone.
In the spring semester, 2016, I will be teaching writing in the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa.
Good luck in your collect calls, wherever they are aimed.
- For the record, my brother Douglas Preston is also a bestselling author. His books are great, do read them. Our other brother, David Preston, M.D., is a topnotch internist practicing in Waterville, Maine, and is the only one of us who saves lives on a routine basis.
Photocredit © Nancy Jo Johnson