Born August 5, 1954, in Cambridge, MA; son of Jerome, Jr. (a lawyer) and Dorothy (a painter and art historian; maiden name, McCann) Preston; married Michelle Parham (an editor), May 11, 1985; children: three. Education: Pomona College, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1977; Princeton University, Ph.D., 1983.
Agent—Sallie Gouverneur, 10 Bleecker St., Apt. 4-A, New York, NY 10012.
Novelist and journalist. Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, lecturer in English, 1983, staff writer, 1984-85; freelance writer, 1985—. Uriania, Inc., chief executive officer, 1986—.
Science-writing Award in Physics and Astronomy by a Professional Writer, American Institute of Physics, 1988, for First Light; Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1992; Westinghouse Award, American Association of Arts and Sciences, 1993; Champion of Prevention Award, Centers for Disease Control.
First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1987, revised edition, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.
American Steel: Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt, Prentice Hall (New York, NY), 1991.
The Hot Zone (nonfiction), Random House (New York, NY), 1994.
The Cobra Event (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1997.
The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
The Boat of Dreams: A Christmas Story (fiction), illustrated by George Henry Jennings, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to Harbrace College Handbook and Grolier Encyclopedia; contributor to periodicals, including New Yorker, Discover, National Geographic Traveler, Blair & Ketchum's Country Journal, and Science Illustrated.
Preston's works have been translated into over twenty-five languages.
The Hot Zone was adapted as an audiobook, read by Preston, Simon & Schuster Audio, 1994; film rights to The Cobra Event were sold to Fox 2000 in 1997.
Work in Progress
Nonfiction magazine articles, mostly for the New Yorker.
Richard Preston has discovered that scientific fact can be as fascinating—and sometimes as terrifying—as science fiction. A professional writer who is known for his ability to translate scientific topics of current interest into compelling and understandable prose fathomable to the general reader, Preston is well known as the author of The Hot Zone, an engrossing account of the deadly Ebola filovirus. With 1997's The Cobra Event Preston also proved that he can spin a good fictional tale. Joining the ranks of authors Michael Crichton and Robin Cook in penning science-based fiction, he differs from his writing colleagues due to his ability to inform readers where fact leaves off and fiction begins.
Preston's journalistic writing, as well as his fiction, is informed by the author's wide-ranging travels and his enjoyment of research. As an advanced student of writing—Preston earned a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University—his work is highly readable; the storyline propels readers along quickly, capturing interest with attention-grabbing subjects and dramatic, true-life scenarios. While several of his books focus on medical science—The Demon in the Freezer, like The Hot Zone, concerns man's battle with disease—Preston also tackles technology in American Steel: Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt. First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe reflects its author's interest in astronomy. Preston was the first non-physician to be awarded the Champion of Prevention Award given by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and his journalistic work has won him the respect of government policy-makers as well as readers and critics.
Off to a Rocky Start
The oldest of three brothers—Douglas Preston, a novelist, is the author of such thrillers as Relic, while David Preston is a medical doctor—Preston spent his early childhood in Africa. At age five, he and his family moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts. Admittedly shy because of his short stature, he did not take to reading until he was introduced to comic books. By the fourth grade Preston realized that reading was a great way to channel his curiosity, and science fiction became one of his favorite genres.
Preston graduated from Wellesley High School "with a highly visible academic record, which included spotty grades and two assaults on teachers," he once explained. After high school graduation, he worked for part of the year doing odd jobs. The experience, which was far less glamorous than the young man had imagined, instilled in him the importance of going to college. "My parents liked this idea," he recalled. But even with parental support, getting into college was not as easy for Preston as it was for many of his Wellesley High classmates: "Possibly because of my high school record, my applications for admission were rejected by every college I applied to."
Desiring to move to the West coast, Preston set his sights on attending Pomona College in Claremont, California. While at first rejected from Pomona, repeated collect calls to the school's dean of admissions eventually found him a place in the freshman class of 1977. "While I was at Pomona, something happened," the author recalled on his Web site. "It's hard to explain, but I became interested in the whole world, the universe, everything, and what I wanted to do was to learn." Working toward a major in English, he graduating summa cum laude and number one in his class.
With his graduate degree in hand, Preston immediately began working toward a doctorate in English at Princeton University. "In 1979 I happened to enroll in John McPhee's 'Literature of Fact' writing course," the author explained. "This was a formative intellectual experience for me, as it has been for a number of writers and editors who first encountered the possibilities of nonfiction writing when they were students in McPhee's class." The following year Preston took a break from graduate school and tried his hand at freelance writing, living in a basement apartment on Boston's Beacon Street, "where I wrote magazine articles on dynamite, antique thieves, and snowflakes, and I went completely broke." Returning to Princeton University, Preston wrote his dissertation, The Fabric of Fact, which focuses on nineteenth-century American authors of nonfiction, such as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville.
Trips to Observatory Inspire First Book
Upon getting his Ph.D. in 1983, Preston decided that a career in academia was not for him. "Jobs in that field were scarce, low paying, and, for younger scholars, often terribly exploitative," he once explained. Instead, he "took the easy way out and became a professional writer," joining the writing staff at his alma mater in 1984, before leaving the following year to devote his time to writing a book on astronomy. "During 1985 and 1986, I poured my savings into numerous trips to the two-hundred-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory in southern California," Preston explained. "I spent many nights there with the astronomers, taking notes in freezing cold and darkness, surviving on coffee and Oreos." The discomfort was well worth it, as it resulted in Preston's first full-length book, First Light.
Published in 1988, First Light introduces readers to the world of late-twentieth-century astronomy and the men and women who inhabit it in their search for such hard-to-imagine objects as quasars, the light of which began its trip to the earth millions of years ago. Preston portrays scientists and researchers as sensitive people possessing human qualities rather than as stereotypical un-emotive, white-coated technicians. His awe at the power of the Hale Telescope is diminished only by his awe of the universe, a sense he projects onto the reader. The award-winning First Light "beautifully depicts astronomers' deepening understanding of Earth as the merest speck in time and space," noted Howard P. Segal in the New York Times Book Review.
Preston followed his successful first work of nonfiction with American Steel: Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt, an examination of the Midwestern steel industry during the early 1990s. Focusing on Nucor Corp., a Crawford, Indiana-based steel mill that successfully gambled on an experimental technology to make flat-rolled steel through one continuous process, Preston follows Nucor's history from its start as a small mill to its status, by the late 1980s, as the ninth-largest steel company operating in the United States. Taking a gamble, the company turned an Indiana cornfield into a steel-manufacturing plant and started a resurgence in the country's steel trade, which had been steadily losing ground to competition from Korea, Japan, and Germany. Including a history of steel manufacturing and descriptions of how steel mills are designed, American Steel boasts an engaging style that makes it seem almost like fiction: dramatic, suspenseful, and with a happy ending. As John R. Alden noted in his Smithsonian review, Preston presents an inspiring story "about initiative, risk-taking and old-fashioned hard work," and does so by taking "a gigantic industrial process and expos[ing] its human face. He makes steel come alive."
Enters The Hot Zone
Much of Preston's writing is in the form of articles for periodicals such as Discover, Science Illustrated, and the New Yorker. It was one of his articles for the New Yorker, a 1992 investigative essay titled "Crisis in the Hot Zone," that inspired his third book, The Hot Zone. This 1994 work describes the deadly Marburg and Ebola viruses, the latter of which killed hundreds of people in the rain forests of Zaire and Sudan in the mid-1970s before finding its way to the United States in 1989. The virus was carried by one hundred monkeys shipped from the Philippines and quarantined in Reston, Virginia. The virus killed the monkeys by attacking and almost dissolving their intestinal systems. The government had to deploy Army troops to seal off the site from outsider access. Ironically, shortly afer the book's release, a new outbreak of Ebola was reported in Zaire.
Upon its release, The Hot Zone became an immediate best seller, and also inspired a popular Hollywood film, Outbreak, which stars Renee Russo and Dustin Hoffman. It also sparked a surge in interest and discussion about the steps needed to protect people against these diseases. As Preston noted in an interview with Newsweek, the popular outcry that followed his book was useful and justified; he views it as a "reflection of a kind of geological shift in scientific perceptions about what's happening biologically to the human species." In the many appearances and talks he has given, Preston has encouraged government and private groups to be pro-active with regard to bioterrorism; among his suggestions have been stockpiling antidotes for use in large population centers, and training National Guard and Army troops to deal with civilian quarantines. As Maclean's reviewer Mark Nichols remarked of Preston's book, "what makes it as riveting as most fictional thrillers is the premise that events at Reston could have had a very different ending."
While commenting on some inaccuracies in Preston's account, Frank Ryan praised The Hot Zone in the New York Times Book Review as "a tightly written, page-turning thriller" that contains "energy and sparkle." Preston "writes urgently and clearly," added Malcolm Gladwell in the Washington Post Book World, "and if his prose is sometimes a little overheated it can be forgiven because the tale he tells is so utterly engrossing." Malcolm Jones, Jr., also praised the narrative quality of Preston's chronicle of "how the decimated rain forests have unleashed a wave of murderous diseases on their human invaders," and called The Hot Zone a "top-drawer horror story" in his Newsweek review. The Hot Zone became a tremendous commercial success for its author and was responsible in part for transforming the public's understanding of the Ebola virus from an obscure African malady into a wellknown international killer.
Experiments with Fiction
With the popular success of The Hot Zone behind him, Preston began to toy with the idea of mixing science fact with fiction: creating an entertaining read that would also inform and alert readers about the potential threat posed by viruses such as Ebola. He began research on the potential for such viruses to be used as biological weapons, interviewing over fifty people, and eventually produced The Cobra Event. As he noted in an interview published online at Thresher.com, "Biological weapons are ultimately horrible. And for years the science community has been telling us that bioweapons are nothing to worry about. . . . And countries around the world have been violating the treaties. . . . What I did is draw the real picture of biological weapons, make it clear to readers how horrible they are."
Preston clearly succeeded in his goal of making the grim reality of bioterrorism understandable, according to critics. In The Cobra Event, which Newsweek reviewer Malcolm Jones, Jr., described as "a new hybrid of fact and fiction," when a New York City high school student dies a horrible and quick death, CDC officer Alice Austen is sent from Atlanta to investigate. While Austen is performing her autopsy, two other, similarly gruesome, deaths are reported, and all are ultimately linked to wooden boxes containing mechanized "jack-in-the-box"-type cobras that emit a puff of smallpox-contaminated dust. As Entertainment Weekly reviewer Tom De Haven noted, within his story, in which a crazed scientist looms large, Preston intermittently disengages his fictional tale, "stopping it cold, to present long, finger-pointing essays about the 'invisible history' of worldwide biological-weapons development."
While readers seemed captivated by Preston's novel, some critics were more reluctantly captured by the book. Noting that The Cobra Event left him both exhausted because he felt compelled to read it in one sitting and "scared out of my wits," Jones dubbed the novel "wretchedly told but wonderfully readable." De Haven agreed, noting that despite its unevenness, The Cobra Event "manages to grab you with the authenticity of its scientific detective work and haunt you with its sheer plausibility." People reviewer Pam Lambert praised the novel as "meticulously researched and as timely as today's headlines."
Points to Looming Spectre
The Cobra Event propelled Preston's name to the top of the bestseller charts once again; it also reportedly kept President Bill Clinton up a few nights and was credited with creating a heightened awareness of the potential of biological weapons both in government circles and among the American public. In his Thresher.com interview Preston recalled reporting to a meeting of the CDC in Atlanta following his book's publication. At this meeting, Preston "talked about the evidence—which is largely circumstantial, but it builds up—that genetic engineering of things like anthrax, botulism, Black Death, smallpox—is something that is now routine . . . for the development of new weapons. There are normal laboratory procedures now to do things like taking the plasmids for antibiotic resistance and putting them into anthrax so that you get anthrax that you can't cure." Ironically, he added, speaking of the political landscape of the late 1990s, "you've got this eerie situation where it takes a novel to influence politicians." Preston's work would indeed prove prescient; after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the fear of bioterrorism became a reality for many Americans.
Preston made a second foray into the science of bio-terrorism with his 2002 book, The Demon in the Freezer. Here he concentrates on the smallpox, or variola virus. Led by Indian leader Ram Dass, the virus was virtually eradicated by the 1970s. Since then, small quantities of the virus have been stored in both Russia and at the CDC. Maintaining that there is no reason to believe that smallpox does not exist at other locations, Preston discusses the potential horrors of a biological weapon incorporating the variola virus, and bases his account on numerous interviews with scientists, government officials, and others. Noting that Preston's prose is "simple and forceful," a Publishers Weekly contributor added that the author demonstrates, in this "exciting" read, "a flair for teasing out without overstatement the drama in his inherently compelling topics."
Maintains Journalistic Integrity
Preston puts a great deal of time into each one of his books, and much of that time is devoted to research. Interviews are of prime importance, for making the facts and details come alive for readers. "Interviewing interesting people is one of the great pleasures of my life," Preston noted on his Web site in describing his writing process. "I rewrite everything again and again. The first ten pages of every book I've written normally go through more than twenty drafts. Meanwhile, I do fact-checking. I call my sources on the telephone and read passages of the draft out loud. I ask the person to tell me if I've gotten facts wrong and to correct me. Then I rewrite everything, and I read the rewritten version back to the person. My telephone bills can hit $1,500 a month when I'm fact-checking a book," the author admitted, but noted that "in the end the book is much improved."
If you enjoy the works of Richard Preston
If you enjoy the works of Richard Preston, you may also want to check out the following books:
Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague, 1994.
Judith Miller, William Broad, and Stephen Engelberg, Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, 2001.
Michael Crichton, Prey, 2002.
"The term 'nonfiction' is hardly an elegant description of the type of writing I do," Preston once explained. "In nonfiction, one can experiment with a literary form that is still relatively unmapped. One can also explore the human condition as deeply as in fiction. The nonfiction writer, in ancient times, was called a historian. Thucydides, a great early historian whom I admire, once wrote, 'I have described nothing but what I saw myself, or learned from others of whom I made the most careful inquiry.' I try to see through people's faces into their minds, and listen through their words into their lives, and then I try to describe what I find there, which is usually beyond imagining." In Entertainment Weekly, Tom De Haven dubbed Preston "a science journalist with bogeyman instincts." Preston accepts De Haven's label, but notes that his motivation as a writer is not to give readers the willies. As he told Dana Kennedy in Entertainment Weekly, "Readers can't comfort themselves with my books. It's not just that I want to give them prickly skin. I want them to wake up and realize what could happen to them."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Economist, December 17, 1994, review of The HotZone, p. 91.
Entertainment Weekly, November 7, 1997, Tom DeHaven, review of The Cobra Event, p. 75; November 28, 1997, Dana Kennedy, "Snake Charmer," p. 40; December 19, 2003, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, review of The Boat of Dreams, p. 83.
Library Journal, December, 1997, Melissa Kuzma Rockicki, review of The Cobra Event, p. 155.
Maclean's, October 31, 1994, Mark Nichols, review of The Hot Zone, p. 63.
New Republic, November 24, 1997, Malcolm Jones, Jr., review of The Cobra Event, p. 74.
Newsweek, May 22, 1995, Geoffrey Cowley, "Outbreak of Fear" (includes interview with Preston), p. 48.
People, December 22, 1997, Pam Lambert, review of The Cobra Event, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, November 7, 1994, review of TheHot Zone (audiobook), p. 34; October 20, 1997, review of The Cobra Event, p. 55; September 23, 2002, review of The Demon in the Freezer, p. 63.
Sciences, January-February, 1995, Laurence A. Marschall, review of The Hot Zone, p. 46.
Smithsonian, June, 1992, John R. Alden, review of American Steel: Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt, p. 132; June, 1995, p. 145.
Washington Monthly, December, 1994, Timothy Noah, review of The Hot Zone, p. 59.
Richard Preston Web Site,http://www.richardpreston.net/ (July 7, 2004).
Thresher Web Site,http://www.thethresher.com/ (1998), "Richard Preston Gives Us the Horrors" (interview).*