The Thriller-Writing Team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are a collaborative writing team with several bestsellers under their collective belts, including RIPTIDE, THUNDERHEAD, RELIC (made into a movie starring Linda Hunt), MOUNT DRAGON, and RELIQUARY. Their latest, THE ICE LIMIT, is about an unusual meteorite collected from an island off Chile. The massive object is to be transported via an oil tanker which comes under fire from a Chilean destroyer. The novel is read by Scott Brick for Warner Audio.

I spoke primarily with Lincoln Child, although Douglas Preston was called upon to answer my question about how the idea for The Ice Limit originated.

Jonathan Lowe: Many bestselling authors are teaming with lesser known writers in order to produce more books these days. This includes Clancy, Cussler, Clarke, and even Ludlum. You two are an exception, as you write all of your novels together, as equals. How did your partnership come about?

Lincoln Child: We met in the mid-80s, when I was an editor at St. Martin's Press in New York. I was fascinated by the American Museum of Natural History and was looking for someone to do an armchair tour / history of the place. I noticed that Doug Preston, who worked for the museum, wrote interesting historical columns for their magazine. So I took him to lunch at the Russian Tea Room and pitched the idea to him. He'd always wanted to write a full-length book and the project appealed to him. That was the beginning of a non-fiction title called DINOSAURS IN THE ATTIC, which he wrote and I edited. Over the course of the project, we became friends. Afterwards, he sent me an idea for a murder mystery, set in a museum. I responded that murder mysteries were hard to do well, and (in my opinion anyway) a dime a dozen. But why not a techno-thriller, set in a fictitious natural history museum? It seemed the ideal place for one. And why not write it with me? I was in the process of leaving the publishing industry by that time and my own nascent writing interests--which had more or less dried up while working so closely with other people's manuscripts--had begun to reassert themselves. That was how RELIC got started.

Lowe: How does the collaboration work in terms of outline, first draft, editing?

Child: Although there are exceptions, the way we have generally collaborated is this: first, we brainstorm extensively, sometimes over the phone, sometimes in the form of letters faxed or emailed back and forth. Next, I put together a rough outline of an upcoming series of chapters, based on our discussions. Sometimes we toss this outline back and forth, adding things, removing things, posing questions, pointing out problem points. Then Doug writes a rough draft of those upcoming chapters, based on the outline. I then revise those chapters. Sometimes my revisions are relatively light; other times, they significantly rework Doug's originals. At one time, I used to do a final pass over the entire manuscript--the literary equivalent of a Zamboni machine--to give the manuscript a uniform feel. But over time, I think our individual styles have really begun to approach each others--I've picked up traits from Doug, and Doug from me, and so when we're working together on a book that last pass of mine is no longer necessary. We both look at the finished manuscript, add our individual bits of polish, and that's it.

Lowe: Do you ever argue vigorously over which way to go?

Child: Of course we do! As Doug once put it in an interview, "sometimes we argue like an old married couple." In the early days, we were extremely diplomatic with each other. But now, we've worked together long enough that we can put forth our ideas, or critique what the other has done, in relatively blunt tones, without fearing (usually) for bruised egos. Our arguments and discussions are healthy things, however. With two minds at work, there are twice as many ideas to choose from. And with somebody else looking over your shoulder, you are less likely to slip unconsciously into self-indulgent writing, or to travel down some dead-end path in the story.

Lowe: The dust jacket says your background is in story anthology editing. Who are some of the writers you've published, and have you written short stories for magazines yourself?

Child: Actually, most of what I edited was novels, by both American and British authors. I edited several hundred books while an editor at St. Martin's, primarily mysteries, thrillers, and historical novels, but also non-fiction books as diverse as the notation of Western music and a certain armchair tour of the American Museum of Natural History by one Douglas Preston. I've been involved with the work of such authors as James Herriot (ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL) and M. M. Kaye (THE FAR PAVILIONS). I wrote several short stories in my callow youth, and submitted one or two for publication, but they were never printed. Since high school, I really haven't thought much about short story writing. I do have an idea for a really chilling short story, but I've been so involved with novels I haven't had time to put it on paper! Some day, I do hope to publish another anthology of ghost and horror stories. If that ever comes together, perhaps I'll write that story of mine for inclusion.

Lowe: What gave you the idea for THE ICE LIMIT?

Douglas Preston: I've always been interested in meteorites, and the story is actually based -- very loosely -- on a the true story of Admiral Robert E. Peary, who on one of his attempts to reach the North Pole back around the turn of the century found some Eskimos using iron tools, although they had no knowledge of iron smelting. He took some of the tools and had them analyzed, and they turned out to be of meteoritic origin. He bribed an Eskimo with a gun, who showed him the "mountain of iron" it came from -- the world's largest meteorite. At great effort Peary wrestled the meteorite aboard his ship and brought it to New York, where it is now visible in the American Museum of Natural History. Anyway, that story was the inspiration for THE ICE LIMIT.

Lowe: I seem to recall a movie about a freighter in the Arctic looking for a meteorite. Do you know the one I mean?

Preston: The movie you are probably thinking of was SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW, a mystery about a murdered boy and a woman who, in tracking down his murderers, stows away on a freighter that is going to Greenland to get a meteorite. That story, and to a certain extent THE ICE LIMIT, are both based on a true story of the recovery of the Ahnighito meteorite by Robert E. Peary. I wrote about that recovery in my first book, the non-fictional DINOSAURS IN THE ATTIC.

Lowe: Without giving away the ending, I can see where a sequel to THE ICE LIMIT might explain some things. Do you plan on writing a sequel, or is the ending a suggestion to the reader or listener to use his or her imagination for closure? Perhaps just a final chilling question mark?

Child: We are not planning to write a sequel to THE ICE LIMIT. With each book we write, Doug and I try to bring something fresh and new to our readers. That's what keeps things interesting for us, and hopefully for our readers as well. The one time we wrote a sequel -- RELIQUARY, the sequel to RELIC -- we found it very difficult. We refused to succumb to "sequelitis," the kind of tired retread of an original story that neither Doug nor myself can bear to read. We had to make sure RELIQUARY was a unique and interesting book on its own, and that was challenging. There were lots of technical problems, too, such as balancing the needs of returning RELIC readers with those readers who had not read RELIC -- how to bring them up to speed without boring the "old" readers? We also think, as you yourself suggest, the conclusion of THE ICE LIMIT is more effective if we leave that chilling question mark hanging for the reader/listener's own imagination to answer. However, I will say that, in a rather interesting if subtle way, what ultimately happens in THE ICE LIMIT has an impact on Nora Kelly, the hero of both THUNDERHEAD and our next novel, which we're now currently working on.

Lowe: Interesting, and I agree with you on sequels . . . I generally hate them too! Now, audiobooks are increasing in popularity as more people simply can't find the time to read print books. Do you ever get fan mail from people who've heard your audiobooks as opposed to having read your books in print?

Child: Yes, we get a lot of fan mail from listeners, as well as from readers. Personally, I think that audiobooks are a great way for people to enjoy "reading" -- whether it's popular fiction, literature, poetry, biography, or whatever. I have a friend who has listened to the complete works of Patrick O'Brien on tape, in unabridged form, while commuting to work. It makes so much sense: why just stare out the window of a train or car when you can be enjoying a book? But it goes far beyond commuting, of course. For someone who does not have the time to read, or for some other reason prefers tape to print, audiobooks are an invaluable resource.

Lowe: What's next for you two?

Child: As I alluded to above, we're now working on a seventh thriller. This one unites Nora Kelly, the heroine of THUNDERHEAD, with Agent Pendergast of RELIC and RELIQUARY, on a case in New York City. The situation they're investigating is grisly, highly mysterious, and deeply troubling . . . at least, we hope it is!

Lowe: As do we. Thanks much, and good luck.

For rent or sale of most audiobooks, visit Earful.com, or call 1-800-532-7385. Reviewer Jonathan Lowe is author of POSTAL, an Earphones award-winning suspense novel read by Frank Muller and endorsed by John Lutz and Clive Cussler, who called it "mystery at its best." Now BlueMurder's new audiobook director, Jonathan is hard at work on the upcoming and exciting premier BlueMurder audio CD project, SIX FOR THE ROAD, with award winning narrator Dick Hill and sound engineer Jeff Davis.


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