Richard Preston, 47, is the bestselling author of four books, including The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University. Preston has won numerous awards for his writing, including the American Institute of Physics Award and the National Magazine Award. He is the only non-physician ever to receive the Centers for Disease Control's Champion of Prevention Award. An asteroid is named "Preston" in his honor. An asteroid is named Preston in his honor.
Richard Preston tells his story

My life today

Writing takes up a large part of my life. Apart from my writing, what I enjoy most is spending time with my wife and children, and exploring the world with them. I also like outdoors sports, including kayaking, backpacking, whitewater canoeing, and camping.

Writing technique

My books take a very long time to write. Accurate details in writing are incredibly important. They make a piece of writing come alive and endure. I conduct large numbers of interviews with people while I'm writing a book. Interviewing interesting people is one of the great pleasures of my life. I rewrite everything, again and again. The first ten pages of every book I've written normally go through more than twenty drafts. Meanwhile, I do fact-checking. I call my sources on the telephone and read passages of the draft out loud. I ask the person to tell me if I've gotten facts wrong and to correct me. Then I rewrite everything, and I read the rewritten version out loud back to the person. My telephone bills can hit $1500 a month when I'm fact-checking a book. In the end, the book is much improved.

Childhood

I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1954. When I was five, my parents moved us to Wellesley, a suburb of Boston. I'm the oldest of three brothers (no sisters). We're a very close family. My brother Douglas Preston is also a bestselling author. He has written eleven books, including Relic, which was made into a hit movie of the same name. Our youngest brother, David, is a medical doctor who practices in Maine and in West Africa. I consider myself a New Englander, even though I haven't lived there since I was in high school.

As a boy, I was very shy. I was small for my age, with blue eyes, brown hair (it's now going gray), freckles. I had a chipped front tooth that I thought made me look piratical and handsome to the girls, so I refused to let any dentist put a cap on my tooth. In first grade, I was slow to learn how to read. I eventually taught myself how to read by reading comic books. My mother is an art historian and a painter. She taught me and my brothers how to use our eyes to see the world, and how to be sensitive to the beauty of objects of art.

In about fourth grade I discovered books. Books became a permanent love. At the age of about nine, I began reading everything I could get my hands on, including adult books—science fiction, mystery novels, and classics. The sci-fi novels of Robert Heinlein were popular then, and I read them, along with the novels of Isaac Asimov. Books changed my life. It's hard to explain why books are so powerful, but they can transform a person.

High school

I attended the Wellesley High School, where I had mediocre grades and a poor disciplinary record that included an assault on a teacher (I didn't hurt the guy, but I pushed him, and that's morally and legally an assault). The incident resulted in my being suspended from school and nearly expelled. I was rejected from every single college I applied to.

Even so, I had some wonderful teachers in high school. Their names are: Gerry Murphy, Jeanie and Brooks Goddard, and Wilbury A. Crockett. (We remain good friends to this day, except for Dr. Crockett, who died a few years ago.) If you are a high school student and you are reading this, I urge you to tell your favorite teachers that you appreciate them. They don't hear it all the time, and it will not only make their day, you may help remind the teacher how important his or her work really is.

College

One of the colleges that rejected me was Pomona College, a liberal arts college in southern California near Los Angeles. I really wanted to go to college in California, principally because it was a long way from Boston. So I called the dean of admissions at Pomona—I didn't have any money so I called him collect—and I said to him, "Do you, like, ever change your mind?" Pomona College had no such policy of changing its mind, the dean informed me, and he said that when you get a rejection from a college, that's firm. But I really wanted to go to college, so I started telephoning the dean at Pomona once a week, always making my calls collect—the telephone operator would say to him, "Richard Preston is calling. Will you accept the charges?" The dean kept accepting my collect calls. I thought this was a positive sign. Maybe he got tired of paying for all the phone calls from me, but he put me on the waiting list, and I was admitted in the middle of the year.

While I was at Pomona, something happened. It's hard to explain, but I became interested in the whole world, the universe, everything, and what I wanted to do was to learn. I majored in English, and I graduated from Pomona College summa cum laude, at the top of my class. Certain professors there affected my life deeply. Their names are: Martha Andresen, Ed Copeland, and the late Darcy O'Brien, who was a distinguished novelist.

While I was in college I found myself fascinated with civilization, art, and science all at the same time. I became hungry to explore the limits of human knowledge. Today, when I write about science—or about anything—I try to capture the feeling of excitement that comes from opening the boundaries of mystery, whether it be about viruses or stars or anything else. Science is about mystery and about not knowing.

Princeton University

From Pomona, I went to Princeton University, where I got a Ph.D. in English. While I was at Princeton I began to harbor thoughts of becoming a writer. I took a well-known writing course at Princeton taught by the author John McPhee, called "The Literature of Fact." McPhee is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and he's author who's written some twenty-two books, all of them nonfiction. About two thirds of John McPhee's students have turned pro, that is to say, they've gone on to become professional writers or editors. This is a record in teaching that is virtually unheard of. Three of McPhee's former students, so far, have won the Pulitzer Prize, as he himself has.

John McPhee taught us precision in shaping words and sentences. He taught us absolute respect for facts. He taught us to go to great lengths, extreme lengths, to make sure our facts are straight, and to make that we have expressed ourselves with simplicity and clarity, because power and beauty emerge most often from things that are simple and clear. He taught us about structure, about how to tell a story, about how to arrange the pieces of a story into a work of art. I became fascinated with these things, and with he idea that nonfiction writing can be extremely powerful literature.

Writing Career

After I got my Ph.D., in 1983, I went into freelance magazine writing. Then I managed to get an advance from a publisher for my first book, First Light , which is a nonfiction book about astronomy, which was published in 1987 and won the American Institute of Physics Award. It is still in print and is considered a sort of cult classic about science. I then wrote a nonfiction book about the building of a steel mill, American Steel . This book also won awards, and had a respectable sale.

Around 1992, I became very interested in viruses and emerging infectious diseases (part of my curiosity about nature and science). The result was a New Yorker article, " Crisis in the Hot Zone," which was published in the fall of 1992 to much acclaim (and attention from Hollywood producers). I then set out to write a book based on the article, and that was The Hot Zone , which ended up a number 1 bestseller, and has now been published in some 26 languages. It also inspired the movie "Outbreak," with Dustin Hoffman and Renee Russo. Then I decided to try a novel, and I got to know some people in the F.B.I., and I wrote a fact-based thriller, The Cobra Event , which is about biological weapons and terrorism. It alarmed President Bill Clinton—kept him awake reading all night—and upset various government intelligence officials when it was published, because at the time, many people in government felt that there should not be any public discussion of bioweapons and bioterrorism. Now there's been a change of heart, particularly because of the recent anthrax terrorism, and The Cobra Event is now seen as prescient, scary, and entertaining.

I then wrote two New Yorker articles on biological weapons, " The Bioweaponeers ," and " The Demon in the Freezer ," and an long article on Craig Venter and the human genome, " The Genome Warrior ."

I'm currently at work on a new nonfiction book about biological weapons. I wish I could talk more about this book, but it isn't finished, and I like to work quietly until a book is done.


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