Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have been writing novels together for nearly 20 years. To date, they have published 19 novels together, most placing high on the New York Times Bestseller list. This doesn’t count their independent projects, which are just as expansive.
They recently took some time out of their busy schedules to chat with us about their lives, their novels (and even hints about a future project!), and their personal musings about what it takes to be a successful novelist.
Q: How did the two of you meet, and what led to the decision to co-write a novel?
Linc: I was an editor at St. Martin’s Press during much of the 1980s, and in the course of that job I tapped Doug—who worked at the American Museum of Natural History—to write a non-fiction book about the museum. Over the course of that book’s creation, we became friends. We both loved the “real” museum, with its dark gothic atmosphere and eccentric history, and gradually we decided it would be fun to write a thriller set in a fictitious natural history museum.
Q: Being that you live on different ends of the country, what is the process that you go through when you guys set out to write a novel?
Doug: One of us starts with a crazy idea and calls the other. Then we discuss it, argue, and spin out various plots. Sometimes this goes nowhere and sometimes it ends up becoming our next book. We then write a short narrative outline, and then start outlining chapters. I’ll take one set and Linc will take the other, and then we swap and rewrite each other and argue all over again. But the end is a tightly written novel, we hope, from which we have purged each other’s bad ideas and infelicitous phraseology.
Q: You both have released solo projects in addition to the ones that you have collaborated on. What is the most difficult part of being co-author as opposed to writing a solo novel?
Linc: That’s easy. Splitting the money!
Doug: Especially when one writing partner is a transcendental genius and the other is intellectually pedestrian…
Q: One of the classic lines often heard after walking out of a movie theater is, “Wow, the book was SO much better!” Having been victims yourself of having one of your novels turned in to what is generally thought of as a subpar film, do you think you guys will demand a greater involvement the next time one of your ideas is turned into a screenplay?
Doug: We would certainly like to assert ourselves in the process. That can be quite difficult to accomplish with a large Hollywood studio. It is the rare writer who can command final approval of a script made from his novel.
Q: It has been nearly 20 years since you guys released your first novel, Relic. As authors, what are the biggest lessons that you have learned since then?
Linc: Well, as a co-author at least, I’ve learned that you have to check your ego at the door. Not everything is going to go the way you want it to—nor should it. Another thing I’ve learned is that you have to respect and trust your writing partner. It’s easy for a writer to become very subjective about his or her material, and you can’t get defensive over criticism. Our joint books are much the better for having four hands at work.
Doug: I for one am very grateful for Linc’s contribution to our partnership. I have learned a great deal from working with him.
Q: Your novels as of late have become a series focused on the exploits of the fan favorite character, FBI Special Agent Pendergast. Do you guys have any plans to go back to focusing on the stories of any other of your characters from your earlier novels?
Doug: As a matter of fact, yes. We are beginning work on a novel entitled BEYOND THE ICE LIMIT. No more need be said…
Q: All of your novels have come to be part of a large cohesive universe which is inhabited by all the characters you have created. How did the initial idea to bring all your characters together under one sun come about?
Linc: It wasn’t intended to become a cohesive universe. That was a happy accident. Back when we were writing Thunderhead, we needed to flesh out a cast of characters for the novel’s archaeological expedition. We had posited a brand-new character—a graduate student, I believe—who would basically become cannon fodder over the course of the story. Then I had an idea out of left field. I said to Doug: “Let’s put Bill Smithback [who had starred in Relic and its sequel, Reliquary] in the book instead of this grad student.” And Doug replied: “Good idea. We could use a journalist on the expedition.” And I said: “No. I mean, let’s actually plop Smithback down in this book, without any explanation or reference to his past.” And so we did. At the time, it just seemed like a slightly eccentric and novel (so to speak) thing to do. But then he ended up falling in love with the book’s heroine! After that experience, we started to think of populating this “metaverse” more aggressively. And we’ve been cross-pollinating characters ever since.
Q: A few years ago you created a new main character, Gideon Crew, to star in his own series that is set within the same universe as all your previous novels. Do you foresee a storyline where he may co-star in a novel with Special Agent Pendergast?
Doug: I am fairly sure Pendergast and Crew would not get along – at all. They may end up being antagonists. We don’t rule out anything
Q: Which one of your characters do you feel that you identify with the most, and why?
Linc: I identified most with Bill Smithback. Requiescat in pace!
Doug: Funny, I did too. Maybe that’s why we had to kill him off…
Q: Your newest novel, White Fire, is set in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Do you travel to the places where your novels are set in order to get a better feel for the environment that you are writing about?
Doug: I do most of the traveling for research, and yes, I did quite a lot of traveling for that novel. Readers who have been to Aspen will recognize it immediately from the description of “Roaring Fork,” although we did change the history and some of the geography. I also went to Leadville and climbed and skied in the area.
Q: What personal advice do you have for any aspiring authors that you wish someone had told you back when you guys were writing your first novel?
Linc: Initially, I don’t think Doug or I ever really thought Relic would get published. We wrote it mostly as a lark, to amuse ourselves. Of course, we wanted it to be published, but I’m not sure at the time we thought we’d even finish the project. I’d started lots of other novels, on my own and with others, that never left the station. But to answer your question, I’d say: write something you’d enjoy reading yourself, rather than what you think will sell the best. Have fun. Be careful to avoid clichés in your descriptions of places and people. Keep the dialogue realistic. Let the journey be its own end—because it will probably be a long one.
Doug: The best piece of advice I ever heard was that each chapter must advance the plot—regardless of what else occurs in the chapter. And an editor once told me, when I expressed disappointment in the lackluster sales of one of my early books, “It’s not a book, it’s a career.”
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s newest novel, White Fire, is available wherever books are sold.
Check out their website!