A Writer’s Flashback: My 2005 Interview with Author Douglas Preston

Along with writing partner Lincoln Child, the prolific Douglas churns out bestseller after bestseller.

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“Do it when you’re young and single.” — Douglas Preston

I interviewed author Douglas Preston in 2005, along with nearly 75 other creatives, for a motivational non-fiction book, How to Survive a Day Job. My intent with the book was simple: I would interview a number of successful writers, actors, and others who have worked in a given creative arts field, to motivate those of us who had not yet attained our own artistic career goals.

The original introduction to Douglas’ interview follows:

According to the official Web site of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, www.prestonchild.com: In 1986, Douglas Preston piled everything he owned into the back of a Subaru and moved from New York City to Santa Fe to write full-time, following the advice of S.J. Perelman that “the dubious privilege of a freelance writer is he’s given the freedom to starve anywhere.”

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1956, Doug’s first published success was Cities of Gold, a non-fiction work about Coronado’s search for the Seven Cities of Cibola. He is perhaps best known in literary circles for his partnership with Lincoln Child, which produced such bestsellers as The Relic, Riptide, Thunderhead, The Cabinet of Curiosities Still Life With Crows and Brimstone. Dance of Death is scheduled for release in June 2005. Their novels regularly sell as theatrical and television features.

The partnership of Preston and Child is unique. They live two thousand miles apart (Doug on a hilltop outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, Lincoln in New Jersey) and write their books together via phone, fax, and the Internet.

Times have changed, and Preston and Child’s popularity has exponentially increased in the last 15 years. Please visit www.prestonchild.com for their latest news.

Douglas:

In 1978, fresh out of Pomona College, I got a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, answering phones and editing their newsletter. Eight years later I was manager of publications and managing editor of a deadly dull journal called Curator.

With the publication of my first book, a non-fiction history of the Museum called Dinosaurs in the Attic, I made just enough money to quit my job, stuff my old Subaru with junk, and move to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There I spent the next fifteen years writing nonfiction books and then the bestselling series of novels with Lincoln Child, of which The Relic was the first. (In The Relic, I had a lot of fun killing off some of the fossilized museum bureaucrats I had had to deal with at the museum — a cathartic experience if ever there was one …)

Since that time I have published ten bestselling novels, some with Lincoln Child and some on my own. Two were made into films (The Relic by Paramount and The Jennie Project by Disney). My latest novel is called The Codex, and it is being made into a film by Twentieth Century Fox. I also write for the New Yorker magazine, and I was co-executive producer for an ABC television film called Superfire.

In high school I wanted to be an artist. I failed utterly, due to a sad lack of talent. In college I toyed with the idea of being a physicist, but differential equations put a finger in my eye on that hope. I settled on writing when I was living in New York, working at the museum.

My jobs have always been somewhat connected to my writing — as an editor and publisher at the museum and later as a lecturer in English at Princeton University. I worked for a British publisher for two years as well. In some ways it might have been better to have held down a completely different day job — it would have exhausted different brain cells, leaving my writing cells fresh. As it was, I was writing and editing all day for someone else, and then I had to do it again at night for myself.

In the beginning, finding the time to write while working a day job was by far the greatest challenge. You’ve got to be young, single, and dedicated to survive that. Once I could make a living at writing, however slender, things were a lot easier, at least for a while. Beans and rice do not cost much. The next great challenge was making a living as a writer after I married and had children. It’s one thing to starve alone, quite another to starve with your family. I remember one year I made all of four thousand dollars with a pregnant wife and a child. That was scary.

The geographical distance is a plus, because we can’t punch each other in the nose. Linc and I have a unique collaboration. I know of no other writers who work as we do. We have complete trust in each other; we think alike, and together we write books that neither one of us could write separately.

And here is the strangest fact about our relationship of all: I haven’t seen Linc in five years. Probably in our entire collaboration I have met him a dozen times. It is almost entirely an online collaboration. We could never work “together” — that is, in the same room. When we get together, we tend to break open a bottle of single malt, toast our success, grouse about editors and reviews, and talk about what fine fellows we are. No work would ever get done.

I do not see any cons to our creative collaboration. It doesn’t prevent either one of us from writing novels on our own, or me from writing my pieces for the New Yorker. It’s a sheer pleasure to work with Linc. I have enormous respect for his integrity, his intellect, and his judgment.

And speaking of integrity, we have shared almost $10 million in royalties, option money, sub rights, foreign rights, and so forth, over the years, without ever having a written contract, all based on a handshake agreement fifteen years ago. We have never had a single disagreement about money — ever.

My advice is: do it when you’re young and single. It’s infinitely harder with a family. Or rather, it’s infinitely harder with children. If you have to do it with a family, try to find a balance in your life between your work and your family. Your creative work will be better for it. You will also need a very supportive spouse, and it’s important to talk to each other every day about real things and not let resentments fester. Find a really cheap place to live, and for God’s sake, avoid running up debt on credit cards or taking out a large mortgage. Debt kills the creative spirit.

I have the modest and utterly boring aspiration to have a number one bestseller.

That’s all. I’ve given up waiting by the phone all night for the Nobel Prize Committee to call … Charles Dickens once said that of all his books, David Copperfield was his favorite child. My book, Cities of Gold, is my favorite child. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a better book than that one.

Another inspiring interview from another inspiring writer. The reason I’ve been gathering these interviews for reprinting on the Medium platform is because “How to Survive a Day Job” has been out of print for over a decade, and I believe these interviews are far too valuable to be lost to the public.

I hope you feel the same.

Thank you for reading.

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Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

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