Douglas Preston on old museums and co-authoring bestselling thrillers…
In 1988, Douglas Preston—then editor, writer and manager of publications for the American Museum of Natural History in New York—received a letter from St. Martin’s editor Lincoln Child asking him if he was interested in writing a book detailing the history of the museum. The result was Preston’s first nonfiction book, Dinosaurs in the Attic (1986), and the launch of an unexpected career as a thriller writer.
According to Preston: “After the book was published, I gave Linc 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 Linc turned to me and said, ‘Doug, this is the scariest building in the world. Let’s write a thriller set in here.’”
Little did both men know that the midnight tour of the museum would result in one of the most successful thrillers of the nineties, Relic (1995), and the birth of one of most exceptional literary teams in the last decade. With Relic, Preston and Child introduced readers to eccentric and brilliant Aloysius X. L. Pendergast, who has since appeared in eight other novels including Reliquary (1997), The Diogenes Trilogy—comprised of Brimstone (2004), Dance of Death (2005) and The Book of the Dead (2006)—and The Wheel of Darkness (2007).
In addition to the Pendergast series, the duo has written six stand-alone novels, all of which have hit The New York Times Bestsellers lists. Over the years they have won acclaim for their meticulous research and vivid settings, as well as for their fast-paced plots.
In 2006, Douglas Preston found himself in a real-life situation that might well have come out of one of his thrillers. In 2000, Preston had temporarily relocated with his family to Florence, Italy, to research a novel. In the course of his research, he was introduced to Mario Spezi, an investigative journalist who told him of a grizzly crime that had occurred on the property where Preston and his family were living. The crime had been linked to a serial killer known as the Monster of Florence. The two men spent the next four years investigating the case. Eventually, Preston moved back to the U.S., but returned to Florence when he heard that there might be a breakthrough in the case. Shortly thereafter, he was briefly detained and interrogated by Italian authorities and then accused of covering up crimes attributed to the serial killer. The details of the case are chronicled by Preston and Spezi in the recently released bestselling true crime book, The Monster of Florence.
Douglas Preston’s latest novel, Blasphemy, was released by Tor books last January.
AFG: I really enjoyed reading The Monster of Florence.
DP: Well thank you. I can’t say it’s an experience I’d want to go through again but at least I was able to turn it to some use.
AFG: Why did you initially move to Italy?
DP: I’d always wanted to live there ever since that summer we spent in Italy when I was thirteen. I just thought, what a wonderful country. I loved the sun, I loved the food, I loved the people and their enthusiasm. I always thought it would be great to live in Italy. Also I wanted to take my children there while they were still young to help them become bi-lingual. I think it’s real easy for five and six year olds to become bi-lingual but by the time you’re twenty, it’s impossible. So I thought it would be a great opportunity for my kids. As a writer I can live anywhere so I thought, well, we’ll live in Italy for a year. Then the year became two years and then four years.
AFG: And then why did you decide to come back to the States?
DP: After four years we felt our time had reached fulfillment; we’d kind of extracted everything that we wanted to and we were faced with the question of, are we going to raise our kids in Italy? They’re going to be kind of Italian if we do! You know, I love this country and there are wonderful things about America that I didn’t want our kids to miss. I wanted them to be with their grandparents, to be with the rest of their family so we came back.
AFG: So how did you cope with the cultural differences when you were there?
DP: You have to adjust your thinking. You can’t go over there with militant American ideas about no smoking in restaurants. Or as I mentioned in the book, the nuns spanked the five year old kids and we thought that was terrible but it’s the cultural norm there. You have to accept the way people drive, accept the way people think, you have to accept meal times. I mean, dinner parties in Italy don’t even begin until nine o’clock at night so you have to be prepared to stay up till two or three in the morning which was very difficult for us at first—we tend to be early risers.
AFG: And I’m sure you learned to take a long nap in the afternoon of course.
DP: Yes, all the stores close at one and re-open at four. That was one thing: we couldn’t adjust our physiology to take a nap in the afternoon.
AFG: I lived in Athens from age two to age twelve. It was a wonderful experience for me. It was something I’ll never forget.
DP: Do you speak Greek?
AFG: When I left Greece I could speak Greek but now it’s a bit of a struggle for me. But when I go back there and visit my friends, it all starts coming back.
DP: What caused you to move to Athens?
AFG: Well because of his work, my Dad had a choice to move to Paris, Geneva, London or Athens and my parents fell in love with Athens while on holiday. It was a great decision—it’s a wonderful place.
DP: That’s really interesting. You know, we thought a lot about Greece too. One thing I don’t mention in the book is when I was young I was hugely influenced by Gerald Durrell’s book, My Family and Other Animals. His family moved from London to Greece when he was a kid. I just thought that was the best thing to do with your family. They didn’t go to school; Gerald and his brother had tutors. His brother is Lawrence Durrell, the novelist. That was really an enriching experience for both him and his brother. They both became famous writers and I thought, that’s something I can do for my kids because I’m a writer and I can live anywhere. So we were kind of hoping it would influence them positively. Of course, the kids are kind of still too young to know, so who knows! You never can tell—maybe it was a bad experience for them!
AFG: I think an international experience always helps. Because of the way I grew up, I tend to be very comfortable in any foreign country. And now when I go back to Athens, I feel more at home walking around there, with the pollution and noise, the drivers honking their horns than I do over here. It’s a great formative experience for kids, so I think they’re going to thank you for it.
DP: I hope so. You know, they were both really fluent in Italian but when we got back to the United States, they didn’t have anyone to speak to except for us. But the funny thing is, the language of our family has always been English, so it was very uncomfortable for them to speak Italian with us. They didn’t like it and really didn’t want to do it. We tried to have an Italian evening when we’d all speak Italian, or an Italian day once a week when we’d only speak Italian but they just said: “No way!”
AFG: I know in Greece so many of the people speak English and go out of their way to speak English to you so my parents found it difficult to learn Greek. Did you have the same situation in Italy?
DP: Well the thing was, we were determined to learn Italian so we both took crash courses in the language and then we said to our Italian friends, very politely because they all wanted to speak English, “We’re here to learn your beautiful language and we would consider it a favor if you would never speak English to us, only Italian.” And they loved that, they all accepted it and so we spoke Italian even among friends who spoke English better than we spoke Italian. They were very patient with us. And even when a waiter would speak to us in English we would, in a very polite way, say, “Would it displease you if we spoke Italian, we’re trying to learn the language?” “No of course not, of course not.” And then they’d switch to Italian. And then of course, there are a lot of people who don’t speak English. There were plenty of friends—even my friend Mario Spezi, I never spoke English with him ever, our conversations were strictly in Italian. Although when he came to America recently, we did speak English with other crowds of people who didn’t speak Italian.