February 20, 2011

Authors Q&A: Fresh thrills

Round Pond's Douglas Preston and writing partner Lincoln Child introduce a new protagonist in their latest cliffhanger, 'Gideon's Sword.'

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Douglas Preston

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.

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