SANTA FE, N.M. — Author and journalist Douglas Preston attributes his presence in Santa Fe to wanderlust, boredom and to where he and his girlfriend had dinner in Manhattan more than 25 years ago.
He has been here since 1986, and his re-location to the City Different seemed to spark a writing career that includes putting his latest in a series of 13 Aloysius Pendergast thrillers, “White Fire,” on the New York Times best seller list.
In a recent interview, Preston recalled his decision to leave New York for Santa Fe years ago. “We both just hated our jobs and probably had one too many margaritas,” said Preston. “We said, ‘Let’s just quit our jobs and get out of here.’ We were eating in a restaurant called Santa Fe, and we said, ‘OK, let’s go to Santa Fe.’ ”
Preston borrowed an aunt’s car, and the couple drove cross-country.
“I love Santa Fe, and she (the girlfriend) hated it,” he said.
The girlfriend moved on to Hollywood, and “I stayed in Santa Fe and was impoverished for years trying to make a living as a writer and finally it started to take.”
From 1978 until he bolted for the Southwest, Preston was a writer and editor for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It was there that the inspiration for his protagonist, the almost albino-looking special FBI agent Pendergast, sprang up.
Preston got a call from an editor “who bugged me and wanted to see all the areas of the museum that are closed to the public.” Preston told him, “I’ll give you a tour, but it’s going to be at midnight.” Preston took the curious editor, Lincoln Child, on an early morning tour of the museum’s Dinosaur Hall.
” ‘Oh, my God, this is the scariest place in the world. We’ve got to write a thriller set in this building,'” Preston remembers Child saying.
So Preston and Child sat down and wrote “Relic,” set in a fictional natural history museum.
For “Relic,” Preston and Child were kicking around the idea of writing a story featuring two cops, but Child suggested folding two characters into one to ” ‘come up with a strange and eccentric detective,’ ” said Preston, who facetiously responded, “Why don’t we make him an albino from New Orleans?”
The well-dressed wine connoisseur “could be mistaken for an undertaker or coroner,” and although “he is not an albino, he is very pale,” said Preston.
It was a best seller and “that’s when my luck changed financially,” said Preston. The book was made into a movie.
Preston said he was camping with his wife in the Bosque del Apache, and his Hollywood agent told him to get to a phone at a specific time, because he had only half an hour to respond to competing studio offers for screen rights. The agent called to tell him how much the offer was.
Preston let out a curse and told the agent “accept, accept, please, and then I went back out in the wilderness, and I didn’t sleep. My days of impoverishment were over.”
Ironically, the Pendergast character did not make it into the movie. “His character was just too eccentric, too bizarre – just not a Hollywood type. He would have presented casting difficulties,” said Preston.
Preston, 57, is married to Christine Douglas, a photographer, and is the father of three grown children. He enjoys hitting the local ski slopes and hiking.
During a recent interview over coffee, he was about to take his dog Manana on one of their regular hikes on the Dale Ball Trails and was asked what character traits he shares with his white-haired protagonist.
“Here’s the thing about Pendergast: He has a lot of qualities which I wish I had, but I don’t,” said Preston, himself white-haired and bespectacled these days.
Preston noted that many writers have that Walter Mitty desire to embody their characters with qualities they themselves would like to have.
“He (Pendergast) is intelligent. He’s tall and thin, he is in excessive control of himself and I am not a very disciplined person,” said Preston. “I have a temper and raise my voice, and he never does that … he has an extremely arcane knowledge, and I do share that to a certain extent.”
Preston has a large wooden tray in his office with an eclectic mix of arrowheads, fossils, his great uncle’s WW II medals and the like – many things he has gathered from around the world.
Co-creater Lincoln Child shares his Walter Mitty-like tendencies. “There’s wishful thinking on Lincoln’s part in Pendergast as well – – he is a character that both of us created.”
“Relic” was just one book, “but it was such a success,” said Preston. “I was embarrassed to be writing thrillers. This is not going to win the Nobel Prize I was going for.”
But the success of the first thriller was an epiphany. “I discovered I love it,” he said. “It supported me and allows me to write for the New Yorker, and I am not starving all the time.”
Preston is equally adept at non-fiction. In addition to writing for the New Yorker, Harper’s, Smithsonian and National Geographic, he has written books about a mass murderer in Italy and about Coronado’s search for the mythical seven cities of gold.
His 1,000 mile horseback journey across Arizona and New Mexico produced “Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwest.”
“I wanted to write about the first moment when Europeans and Native Americans first clashed.”
The Spanish version of those travels had been chronicled long ago, said Preston. “What I really needed to do was get on a horse and follow Coronado’s route through these pueblos and describe and get the Native American point of view.” Preston followed a lot of the conquistador’s circuitous route, including a stop at what remains of Pecos Pueblo, 25 miles east of Santa Fe.
“I got a lot of wonderful interviews with Zuni Indians,” he said. “They remembered the oral histories about the arrival of Coronado, and it was accurate. Their descriptions of what happened is really wonderfully congruent with the Spanish accounts.”
Which does he prefer, fiction or non-fiction? “They are both difficult. When I am writing non-fiction, I wish I wasn’t such a slave to the bloody facts, and when I am writing fiction, I always wish I had some structure, some facts.”
Clooney plays the writer
One of Preston’s non-fiction works “The Monster of Florence,” was researched in Italy after an unsolved murder involving a serial killer drew his scrutiny. That work is being made into a movie in which George Clooney will play Preston.
He is hoping next year to explore a newly discovered, formerly lost, city deep in the jungles of Honduras for a New Yorker article.
But getting back to the thrillers, which helped put bread on the table in those earlier days: Are they just a good read, or do they have message?
“They are pure entertainment, but the there is a moral underpinning. Pendergast himself is a very moral character … Pendergast sees very clearly what he is doing, which is to protect innocent people from predatory humans and to see that these people are punished so that the orderliness of society is preserved in a fair way.”
The latest Pendergast installment, “White Fire,” weaves a troika of plots that include a series of arson-murders in a high-mountain town closely resembling Aspen; Pendergast’s young protege, Corrie, trying to solve the 150-year-old murders of a group of miners; and Pendergast’s search for a connection between those killings and a long-lost Sherlock Holmes story. Preston spent time in Aspen doing research for the book.
Pendergast perhaps exemplifies the existential hero. “He is cold; he is forbidding,” said Preston. “He does have very strong feelings for people, but he can’t show them.”