Best-selling thriller writer Douglas Preston likes living in Maine because people are not all that impressed when they find out who he is and what he does for a living.
“There are so many writers in Maine,” Preston said recently from his home in Round Pond, where he lives with his wife, Christine, a photographer. “It’s just a great place to work, I think.”
Preston and his longtime writing partner, Lincoln Child, are about to launch a fictional character, Gideon Crew, in their new book “Gideon’s Sword” (Grand Central Publishing, $26.99), which hits bookstores Tuesday. The movie rights have already been picked up by Paramount Pictures and producer/director Michael Bay (producer of “Armageddon” and other films).
Another Preston book, the true crime story “The Monster of Florence” (Grand Central Publishing, $25.99), is also being made into a movie, with George Clooney playing the author. It’s the story of Preston’s investigation into a series of murders by a real-life Italian Jack the Ripper between 1968 and 1985. During the course of his research, Preston wrangled with the same Italian district attorney who is now involved in the Amanda Knox case, and was thrown in jail for a time. (Knox is an American college student convicted of the 2007 murder of her British roommate while studying abroad in Italy.)
Preston recently spoke with the Maine Sunday Telegram about his life in Maine, his new book and his interest in the Knox case.
Q: How did you discover Round Pond?
A: Actually, it was discovered by my grandfather back in the ’30s, who bought a farmhouse in Round Pond, and he brought his family up there in the summertime. Then my grandparents retired to Round Pond, so we spent a lot of time up here as kids. And then my parents retired up here, and my brother lives in Waterville. He’s a doctor. So it seemed like a good place for us to live. I built a house in 2000 on family land. We moved here in 2004, and we live here year-round now.
Q: What’s your writing life like? Do you write every day?
A: I do. I treat it as a job, just like any other. Morning is my best time, so I usually get out to the office fairly early and put in a good eight-hour day, although I’m not writing all eight hours. Then I try to write a little bit early in the morning on weekends too, before the kids get up and things start happening. It’s not that romantic. It’s spending a lot of time alone staring at a computer screen. I suppose it’s not that much different from a bank clerk.
Q: It sounds like you have your own special place to go to.
A: I have a little writing shack in the woods which suits me very well. It’s 8-by-10, very small. You can only get here by hiking, so no one bothers me, and I’ve got everything I need here, so it’s perfect.
Q: Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I never realized that you and Richard Preston are brothers. I was a big fan of “The Hot Zone.” Does writing run in your family, or is it just coincidence that you two both became best-selling authors?
A: One of our ancestors was Emily Dickinson. She was like a great-great-great aunt or something, so that’s the only writer in our family that I know of. I don’t know where it comes from. I think it comes from telling tall tales at the dinner table when we were kids and trying to outdo each other with gross stories and getting sent away from the dining-room table. That happened often.
Q: Tell me a little about your new book, “Gideon’s Sword.” This book introduces a new character-based series, right?
A: It does. We’ve been writing a long series featuring an FBI agent named Pendergast, which is very popular, but we just wanted to do something fresh. And the idea for this series had a very curious beginning. I was doing research for another book, and I came across the most unbelievable fact. And that is, if you go to a hospital in New York City, and they amputate an arm or a leg — and this is a little gross, sorry — the amputation is not destroyed as medical waste. It’s put in a coffin and it’s buried in an island in Long Island Sound called Hart Island. It’s 110 acres, it’s uninhabited, and it’s the largest burial ground in the world. It’s New York City’s Potter’s Field.
There are almost a million burials there. It’s absolutely off-limits. The island is actually owned by the Department of Corrections, the prison system in New York, because the prisoners from Rikers Island — you know, murderers and so forth — are brought to the island to bury these bodies. They do it in mass graves with backhoes. So I thought wow, what an interesting idea for a novel, and what a great setting.
And I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I tried to get permission to go to the island because as a writer I really like to see firsthand the settings that we use. You can’t just make stuff up; you have to really be there. And there was no way. They just said there’s absolutely no way, you cannot go on that island. They don’t allow journalists. They don’t allow anybody. So my wife and I — she’s a professional photographer — we rented a boat in City Island the Bronx and we went out into Long Island Sound and we made a guerrilla landing on this island, and she took a whole bunch of pictures because we needed pictures for the novel. And darn, but we got caught. And it was scary. There was a bus full of Rikers Island inmates, and these prison guards saw us and they ran after us with their guns drawn. “Hands in sight! Hands in sight!” Oh my god, it was really terrifying.
They said “Look, we’re going to have to arrest you because you saw the signs.” The shore has these huge signs. Some of them are 100 feet long, saying “Do not land. Prison facilities.”
I happen to have a New Mexico drivers license because I also spend a lot of time in New Mexico, so I pretended to be a completely clueless tourist from New Mexico flashing my drivers license, like I don’t know, I didn’t see those signs, I don’t know anything.
Q: Your new book has a whole new character. How long does it take to develop a new character that you want to build a lot of stories around, and how do you do that?
A: We’ve been working on this character a long time. You know, it’s really hard to come up with a real person, someone who’s complicated and somewhat contradictory like real people are. It’s easy to come up with sort of a flat, Hollywood-like detective. That is what we did not want to do. So we spent an awful lot of time thinking about him, talking about him, his physical characteristics, who he is, his back story, what he looked like, what his likes and dislikes are in terms of music and how he dresses. Everything.
And in particular, his sketchy character. We wanted someone who was a bit of a rogue, sort of a charming rogue, whose morals, whose ethics were flexible in a way that might be a little disturbing. Who is compulsive and not really in control of himself. Is he James Bond? Not at all. James Bond was someone who was always in control of himself. This guy Gideon is based on the coyote trickster of Native American legend, really. A lot of Native American stories involve the trickster character, who sort of gets his way by tricks, maybe like a Br’er Rabbit type. He lies, he steals, he manipulates people. This is Gideon.
He’s a master of social engineering, which is a contemporary term for a person who breaks into computer systems not by hacking passwords and things like that but by socially engineering his way in. He’s a sketchy person, but he’s got a heart of gold. He does have his own moral code, it’s just that sometimes he’s weak or drinks too much and finds himself in trouble. Also, he has a back story. He’s got an illness which really affects him, but I don’t want to go into that.
Q: Your book “The Monster of Florence” is being made into a movie now. What did you think when you heard George Clooney would be playing you?
A: I think it’s wonderful. I think George Clooney is a wonderful actor. He’s a real star, to me anyway. I really like him as an actor, and I’m glad that it’s him and not somebody else.
Q: Would you ever want to get that close to a real murder case again?
A: Honestly, no. It was very disturbing. One of the things in the book that we explore is, “What is the nature of evil?” Because the Monster of Florence was truly evil. And just coming into contact with that, and thinking about it in a really big way I didn’t actually see the crime scenes, but I saw the photographs. I interviewed some of the relatives of the victims, and it was just really, really difficult and disturbing, and I just don’t think I’d ever want to go through that again.
Q: That book is based in part on your own experiences with the Italian prosecutor who went after Amanda Knox. How closely do you follow that case? You’ve spoken out about the Italian justice system, but have you just done that on your own, or are you in touch with the Knox family?
A: I’ve been doing it on my own. I am in touch with the Knox family, only in that we’ve communicated because they contacted me. I’m following the case very closely. I think that it’s a terrible travesty of justice.
But I think the appeals trial is going to exonerate her because of the manipulated nature of the evidence. They finally allowed the defense a chance to bring in their expert to look at the evidence, and that’s going to show that it’s all manipulated and fabricated, that scientific fraud was committed. And once that happens, I think she’ll be released.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: