The greatest partnerships often have the simplest of beginnings. For Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, it all started around 1985, when Child, an editor at St. Martin’s Press, was interested in acquiring a book about the American Museum of Natural History. He contacted Preston, who worked at the museum writing articles about the institution. The two had lunch at New York City’s Russian Tea Room, and that meeting spurred Preston’s first nonfiction book, Dinosaurs in the Attic—and, ultimately, a friendship. A few years later, when Preston contacted Child to propose a mystery set in a natural history museum, Child had a better idea: Why not use the setting for a co-authored techno-thriller? The result, Relic, was published in 1995—and became both a bestseller and a major motion picture. The two have since co-authored 16 more thrillers, alongside thriving solo careers: Child has an additional five novels to his name; Preston, nine works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as the critically acclaimed The Monster of Florence (co-authored with journalist Mario Spezi).
Child lives in New Jersey; Preston splits his time between coastal Maine and New Mexico. The two live hundreds of miles apart, yet they work extraordinarily well together. They’re like the marriage everyone’s jealous of, the band that will never break up. When in the same room, they spend more time drinking martinis and talking than they do actually working. But back at their keyboards and connected by phone and Internet, they are a powerhouse, creating some of the most well-reviewed, riveting thrillers out today.
In an exclusive dual interview appearing in the February 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, Lincoln and Child share what we can all learn from what makes their partnership work—about writing only what really speaks to us, finding our path through the story, and learning the value of feedback we can trust. (To read the full interview, click here to buy a copy of the issue [coming soon]). In this bonus online-only Q&A, they talk more about why reaching out to readers is important, and how to balance all the many aspects of a successful writing career today.
PrestonChild.com is a treasure trove of background, insight and advice—it’s professional, smart and funny, an unexpected delight for many writers. Who is in charge of the site, and how much time do you spend keeping it updated?
LC: The site originally was built by me, years and years ago. It was atrociously ugly, although packed with information. After we got enough complaints we decided to have it done professionally. We have a Web mistress who maintains it for us and does a fantastic job and who has been doing it for several years now.
DP: Everything in the site is our own work. We don’t fob off the writing to other people or publicists or whatever. We want to keep our own touch. So, for example, I wrote [Rouges] Gallery, one of the most popular parts of the site. Basically it’s a compilation of really horrifically bad reviews of our books with our hopefully witty comments. It’s kind of us reviewing the reviewers.
The videos in which you answer reader questions are another popular feature. How are those produced?
DP: That’s done by our very excellent publicist at Grand Central who basically has a handheld video camera. She just films us and we talk and then we throw it up there. The whole idea is to avoid the slick professionalism that a lot of author websites sometimes have, where you don’t feel like you’re really in touch with the author.
How do you balance your time when it comes to writing and promotion, and what advice do you have for writers trying to find the right mix?
DP: I think we manage our time differently. I’m pretty much a 9-to-5 kind of guy. I usually get to work about 8 in the morning, and I work until 4 or 5, and sometimes I work on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Pretty much I keep the same hours as an accountant or clerk or whatever.
LC: The funny thing about writing is I think a lot of people assume that you’re sitting in a garret with a quill pen for hour after hour. The thing is, there are things that have to be done: there’s reading over page proofs, answering emails, doing promotion—these days there’s so much digital promotion that has to be done—you know, Facebook and Twitter, sending out newsletters. You could be working on writing a new novel—that could take up half the day—but at the same time you’re reading over the copy edit of the last novel, and you’re also planning the proposal for the novel you’re going to do next. You really have to manage your time very, very carefully.
One of the things that helps Doug and I is that there are two of us, we can keep each other on our toes. It doesn’t let us get stale or forget things. And because Doug and I have written solo books as well as joint books, we have a very acute understanding and awareness of what it’s like writing together and writing on your own. It’s a very different experience. Writing on your own is, in a way, a very lonely profession. There’s no one there to help you. And so even though you have to split the money with somebody else, it’s in many of ways a very enjoyable and rewarding way of writing.
DC: Yes, but it’s always painful when the royalty statement arrives and I see how much darn money Lincoln got. [Laughs.]
Some writers despise self-promotion and do just want to sit in that garret with their quill pen and write all day. What would you say to them?
DP: I would say that’s their right and I respect it. If they don’t want to promote themselves, that’s fine. But Lincoln and I kind of enjoy interacting with our readers. We like hearing feedback. We have a newsletter called the Pendergast File. It’s offbeat and kind of lackey and interesting—we have contests and all sorts of stuff like that—and we really enjoy it. And when we get feedback from it … I have a perfect example. We could not think of a title for our next Pendergast novel, and so Lincoln and I had an idea. Why don’t we send out a newsletter and ask, soliciting title ideas from our readers? We got 3,000 emails. We went through them and, my God—but we got an absolute fabulous title for our next book. It’s a title that we never would have thought of otherwise. That reader who gave us the idea is going to get a really wonderful present from us, and an acknowledgment in the book.
We like interacting with our readers, so I wouldn’t call it promotion. I’d call it sort of getting feedback and learning who they are. And sometimes we get readers who come to us and say, “Gee, that last book you wrote was not as good as your others, and here’s why.” Negative feedback is still valuable.
LC: There are some writers I think who love to go around and visit bookstores and just interact. With us it’s not an easy thing to do, to uproot yourself and travel around. But it gives us that time for two or three weeks out of the year to really meet the people who are making our careers possible, and to get feedback from them and shake their hand and hear them say, “I love your books,” or, “My son hated to read until he happened to pick up Relic,” or whatever. It’s the one time we really get to interact face-to-face with people. It’s not easy, but it’s hugely beneficial because we begin to hear from the people who are making this possible for us, and to learn what we can do better, and to learn what they like about our books and what they don’t like. It’s a learning experience as well as a chance to meet the people who are actually buying our books.
What’s your typical day like?
DP: Lincoln and I are on different schedules. I’m a morning person and he’s an evening person. Sometimes he writes until one or two in the morning, whereas I like to do my writing in the morning and wrap up by four. I like to cook, so I cook for the family and I do my other things at the end of the day. That’s sometimes difficult. When I was living in Italy and there was a six-hour time difference between Lincoln and I, we almost found ourselves on the same schedule. It was kind of funny.
LC: There is no such thing as a typical day because in February, Doug and I may be lodged into a schedule of writing where I’ll get a chapter from him to revise and I’ll send him some chapters to look at. But in July, we may find ourselves on a bus traveling around the county doing interviews [and] three or four book signings a day, and then no writing gets done. A lot of talking gets done. Sometimes we plan. We created the whole Gideon Crew series, the germ of it, sitting on this bus going across the country, but for the writing, nothing gets done while we’re on tour. We can’t tell you that this is the cut-and-dry way—most days are spent communicating with each other, writing, but other days they’re done working on promotion and publicity for your novels.
I think a lot of writers would be jealous of the relationship you have. It’s not common to have someone you can rely on, someone who knows you so well.
DP: The strange thing about it is that we live hundreds, and often thousands, miles apart. And whenever we actually get together, no work gets done. All we do is sit around and compliment each other and tell each other what fine fellows we are and complain and drink martinis or do something bad and no work gets done. The only time work gets done is when we’re a thousand miles apart.
Douglas, you write both fiction and nonfiction. Do you find it difficult to switch between the two, and do you prefer one over the other?
DP: Well, it’s kind of like winter and summer. When I’m writing fiction I’m thinking, God, this is so hard—I have to make all this stuff up! I wish I were writing a nonfiction book where all the facts are laid out and I don’t have to be so much at sea. When I’m writing nonfiction, I feel like a slave to these facts—if only I could just alter this or that, and of course you can’t. It’s like in wintertime you can’t wait for summer and in summertime you’re sweltering—you can’t wait for winter. As to which I prefer, both of them give me a great feeling of reward. It’s hard to say. I love writing them both. I think nonfiction is a little more stressful because of the journalistic requirement that you be absolutely accurate and get your facts straight. That really adds a level of stress to the writing process.
With that in mind, what’s your best advice for aspiring journalists?
DP: Get out there and get the story with no fear. Really, really do your research. There are so many journalists out there, I hate to say it, who are lazy and don’t do their research—and it shows. You need to know 10 times more about the subject when you’re writing it than ever goes into the story. Get out there and get the story and pound the pavement and be relentless.