May 13 2009 12:00 AM

Best-selling authors put heads together for smart thrills


One of the most difficult tasks in publishing is for two authors to collaborate on a book. It’s often done for nonfiction, but seldom for fiction, which is what makes authors Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston so unusual, right along with their fictional thrillers.

The authors are known for mixing reality with a little of the paranormal for an entertaining stew, and in their ninth joint outing, “Cemetery Dance,” Preston and Child have woven the ever-popular zombie into their plot. The book’s title refers to the unusual gate of a B-movie zombie, and the terrifying creatures show up early on in this new book.

This book finds the authors’ primary characters, FBI Special Agent Pendergast and New York Police Detective D’Agosta, investigating a series of bizarre murders that, according to witnesses and video, were committed by dead men. It’s not long before the trail leads to an unusual religious cult that practices animal sacrifice and has occupied an outpost in the most rural part of Manhattan since the turn of the last century.

Readers have come to expect some unusual plot lines from Preston and Child, and the source of their ideas may stretch back to a quaint meeting the two had at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. At the time, Preston was writing a column for Natural History magazine, and an editor asked him if he would write a history of the museum. During a nocturnal meeting, Preston showed the editor around the museum. “I gave the editor a tour of the museum at midnight,” Preston said. “I showed him all the best places to which I had access: the dinosaur bone storage room, the collection of 30,000 rats in alcohol, the whale eyeball collection and a lot of other unusual things.”

At about 2 a.m., Preston said his editor turned to him and said, “‘Doug, this is the scariest building in the world. Let’s write a thriller set here.’”

That editor was, of course, Child. “We both discovered we shared the same kind of sick, twisted view of the world,” Preston said.

“Relic,” the first book in their shared series, grew out of that tour.

In addition to the unusual supporting cast of zombies, mythical beasts and aliens, the authors have created enigmatic protagonists, especially Pendergast, D’Agosta, archaeologist Nora Kelly and the everlast ing Constance Greene.

Child said he is partial to the eternally living Greene, who does not appear in “Cemetery Dance.” “I can almost promise you that there will be more novels featuring her and her unusual past,” he said.

In the novel they are working on now, Child said Pendergast’s unknown back-story would be explored. The obviously wealthy, lethal and cerebral detective shows up without any history or explanation. “The [next] book will deal extensively with a mystery that is central to Pendergast’s earlier life,” Child said.

The authors admit to drawing generously from characters like Sherlock Holmes in developing Pendergast, but Child said there are also “a half-dozen other fictional characters in him, too.”

Doing all this together is one mean feat, but the hyperkinetic imaginations of Child and Preston make it work. While writing, Preston said the authors first settle on a central theme, twist and idea at the center of the book. “In our current book, it revolves around a dark religious cult connected with the mysterious religion Obeah,” he said. The next step is finding a setting. In “Cemetery Dance,” it’s the last wild forest on Manhattan Island, complete with an old church, which houses the cult’s headquarters.

Preston said he usually takes the job of writing a rough outline, and then he writes “most of the first draft.” “Then Lincoln rewrites it, which makes me furious, and so I rewrite his work, which makes him furious, and we go back and forth,” Preston said. “In the end it’s a process that actually works.”

Another technique the duo uses is what Child calls “metaverse,” a means of populating their books with characters from their other works and giving them influence on each other. This technique keeps you on your toes, while maintaining some familiarity with all the interaction. T

he one obvious supernatural figure yet to appear in a Preston- Child novel is the ubiquitous-as-of-late vampire. Child said there could be a vampire-related thriller in the future, but he also reminded what anyone who has read a book by these New York Times best-sellers already knows: “Our books almost always end up with a scientific explanation for whatever mysterious or seemingly supernatural events that take place,” he said.

And they always keep you guessing, right up till the end.

Lincoln Child & Douglas Preston

of “Cemetery Dance” 5 p.m. Sunday, May 17 Schuler Books & Music,
Meridian Mall, Okemos FREE (517) 349-8840