An artist, perhaps. A rebel with a cause? Possibly. But a writer? "Never!" says Richard Preston resoundingly when he looks back to his early years. "I was an indifferent student who never expected to write much of anything. My brother and I were on a first-name basis with the local police in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where we grew up."
That brother, Douglas Preston, ended up on the New York Times best-seller list in 1994 with his techno-thriller "Relic" the same week Richard Preston arrived on the list with his dark novel "The Hot Zone." It was an event that admittedly shocked their parents, even as it made them deliriously happy.
So much for the plans and predictions of young men.
Along with "The Hot Zone," which explored the near-catastrophe of an outbreak of Ebola Zaire virus in a critically-acclaimed 1994 novel, Richard Preston also wrote 1997’s "The Cobra Event," another thriller, this one focused on anthrax. "The Demon In the Freezer," a chilling look at the possibilities of a smallpox outbreak, came in 2002. Today he has added yet another book to his credits, this one a significant departure from his earlier works.
Preston will be at the Princeton University Store to sign his latest book, a family story entitled "The Boat of Dreams: A Christmas Story," on Tuesday, December 9, at 7 p.m. More on this story later.
So how did a kid who had tangles in high school, the oldest of three spirited brothers, find fame as a writer?
Preston, a Hopewell resident, the husband of Michelle Preston, an editor, and the father of three children, will insist that it took a mentor, a bit of pluck, and a dose of luck.
Back in Wellesley, the Preston household was anything but serene. "I can still remember our brotherly physical fights, which were epic," says Preston, whose father was a lawyer, his mother a professor of art history. "We got into a world of trouble, some of it the typical stuff, some of it not."
Richard Preston recalls one defining incident in his high school years that left an indelible impression. "At the tail end of the 1960s, when we were protesting everything, I got into a scuffle with my high school music teacher, and actually ended up shoving him. In my youthful anger, I thought I was justified."
Preston’s father sat him down and instead of punishing him, reasoned with his oldest son, explaining and defining, in legal terms, what constituted an assault.
"It was such a profound lesson — I had violated another human being’s basic rights — and that really hit home for me. I give my father great credit for knowing what approach would work with me. Despite my youthful excesses, I could respond to reason."
When Richard Preston, a New England kid, decided to go off to Pomona College in California, his parents didn’t stand in his way. But when his brother Doug decided to join him there two years later, when he was ready for college, it was a different story.
"They worried about the competition between us," recalled Preston. "We had some pretty fierce fights in our day, and I guess they thought we’d be in terrible shape if we were at the same college."
As it turned out, both brothers not only discovered their loyalty and affection for each other there; it was at Pomona that both discovered writing. "Our mentor was the late Darcy O’Brien. Darcy changed both our lives," says Preston. "He was a brilliant professor, and along with introducing us to James Joyce and works of modern literature, he got us involved in writing."
Richard Preston ended up as the editor of the college’s literary magazine, while his brother Doug became the editor of the campus newspaper. Those were exhilarating years for both brothers. The youngest Preston brother would ultimately take a different path. "He’s the black sheep of the family," quips Preston. "He’s a physician in rural Maine." Douglas Preston who writes fiction and non-fiction, lived in New York after college, but now lives with his wife and three children near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
After Pomona, Richard Preston took the advice of his mentor/professor, and applied to Princeton University for graduate work in English. He assumed he would stick to the academic life, and immerse himself in literary studies. But midway through his five-year doctoral program, Preston learned that writer John McPhee was teaching an undergraduate class, and petitioned, despite his graduate status, to become one of the students in that course.
"McPhee actually worried about taking on an `uptight’ grad student, but he took a chance on me. And that’s really where I began to understand that world of literary prose that isn’t fiction. The course focused me on the art and practice of journalistic writing."
That style of writing has given Preston a niche in the literary world. The kid who never imagined being a writer most definitely is. Now, along with what have been called Preston’s "dark biology" books, and frequent New Yorker contributions, comes a vastly different work.
Back in high school in Wellesley, Preston had a friend named Robin Bloksberg. They met while participating in a protest, and became fast friends. Not boyfriend and girlfriend — just friends. As their lives evolved, the friendship ebbed and flowed. But a solid core was always there. So when Robin, who ironically also became a writer, was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, Preston was part of her support network.
In the fall of 1999, during a long and rich phone conversation, Robin broke to the news to her old friend that the cancer was back. "I was stunned and sad, but gathered my resources and helped her get to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. After months of treatment, the prognosis was not good."
By early summer of 2000, friends were gathering. And Richard Preston knew he, too, needed to say a final goodbye. But he needed something more. "I wanted to give Robin something that would help her to laugh, something that might lift her spirits. I pulled a series of all-nighters before that last visit to frame a story for her that had some kind of message, one about how love is what makes a difference in life."
That simple but profound message took form as a story set on the coast of Maine in 1969, and focused on a mother and two children whose husband and father is lost in action in Vietnam. Christmas is approaching, and the family, living in a trailer overlooking the sea, faces a bleak holiday. Home from school alone on long, dark afternoons while their mother works, the children discover that the trailer is haunted by a smelly old ghost who is cantankerous and mean-spirited, and spends endless hours watching TV.
The ending? Preston won’t spoil his story by revealing it.
Although Robin Bloksberg knew about the project, and even knew the story line, "The Boat of Dreams: A Christmas Story" was a work in progress when she died at age 47 in November, 2000.
"The only thing I had to give her was my story, so at first, I printed just a few copies for Robin’s family and some friends," says the author. "Then I realized that I wanted to bring the story to more people. So I went back to it, doubled its length, and decided to use some of the proceeds to help medical researchers investigating the type of cancer that killed my dear friend Robin."
Preston has learned that each type of cancer has its own "Achilles heel," a special weakness that is the key to its treatment. His contributions to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s Women’s Cancer Program will, he hopes, help the scientific community identify the Achilles heel of Robin Bloksberg’s type of breast cancer.
"The Boat of Dreams: A Christmas Story," published by Touchstone Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, is Richard Preston’s way of joining the battle against the disease that it is believed will strike one out of four women in her lifetime. Its target market: as Richard Preston explains it, "The book is merely for people from 7 to 107 years old."
And the author’s crusade to donate some of the proceeds for cancer research is explained this way: "We don’t know how much it will cost, or how long it will take, but I believe it’s doable," says Preston in an author’s note. "This is a fitting memorial to one woman whose life ended too soon from breast cancer."
Richard Preston , Princeton University Store, 36 University Place, 609-921-8500. Signing for "Boat of Dreams: A Christmas Story." Free. Tuesday, December 9, 7 p.m.