Preston, Richard (McCann) 1954-
PRESTON, Richard (McCann) 1954-
PERSONAL: 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. Hobbies and other interests: Whitewater canoeing, mountain biking, and wilderness backpacking.
CAREER: Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, lecturer in English, 1983, staff writer, 1984-85; freelance writer, 1985—; Uriania, Inc., chief executive officer, 1986—.
AWARDS, HONORS: 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 from the Centers for Disease Control; Whitman Basso Award, Overseas Press Club of America, for The Hot Zone; asteroid named after him.
First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1987.
American Steel: Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt, Prentice Hall (New York, NY), 1991.
The Hot Zone, 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, 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.
ADAPTATIONS: The Hot Zone has been adapted for audio cassette.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Nonfiction magazine articles, mostly for the New Yorker.
SIDELIGHTS: Author Richard Preston has written numerous articles and several book-length works of nonfiction that translate matters of broad scientific interest into interesting and understandable prose for the general reader. Among his books is his bestselling 1994 work, The Hot Zone, an engrossing account of the deadly Ebola virus. As a journalist, Preston's works are informed by a great deal of travel and research; as an advanced student of writing, his work is highly readable, concerning itself with attention-grabbing subjects and highly dramatic true-to-life scenarios. In addition to his science-based works on astronomy—First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe—and microbiology—The Hot Zone—he has also authored a book on the steel manufacturing business, approaching his subject from a technological as well as human point of view. Preston has also penned a novel about bioterrorism, The Cobra Event, which he followed up with a nonfiction volume on the same subject, The Demon in the Freezer.
After spending part of his childhood in Africa, Preston graduated from high school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, "with a highly visible academic record, which included spotty grades and two assaults on teachers," he once admitted to CA. "One of my favorite teachers (not assaulted) was Wilbury A. Crockett, an English teacher who taught Sylvia Plath when she attended Wellesley High School. Crockett is mentioned in Plath's autobiography The Bell Jar as the man who tried to help her regain her speech by playing Scrabble with her when she was in a mental hospital."
After high school graduation, Preston 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, except Pomona College in Claremont, California." Preston entered Pomona in 1973 and worked toward a major in English, graduating summa cum laude four years later.
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 he 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." After returning to Princeton, Preston wrote his dissertation. Called "The Fabric of Fact," it focused on nineteenth-century U.S. nonfiction writing, and included a discussion of the works of Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville.
"After receiving my doctorate in English, I concluded that I lacked the strength of character to become a professor of English," Preston admitted to CA. "Jobs in that field were scarce, low paying, and, for younger scholars, often terribly exploitative; and so I took the easy way out and became a professional writer." The young man joined the writing staff at Princeton University in 1984, but quit a year later 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. I spent many nights there with the astronomers, taking notes in freezing cold and darkness, surviving on coffee and Oreos. The result was the nonfiction book First Light."
Published in 1987, First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe introduces the reader to the world of the late twentieth-century astronomer, who searches for such hard-to-imagine objects as quasars, the light of which began its trip to the earth millions of years ago. Portraying scientists and researchers as possessing human qualities rather than as unemotive, white-coated technicians, Preston's awe at the power of the Hale Telescope is diminished only by his awe of the universe. 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, a 1991 examination of the Midwestern steel industry. Focusing on a steel mill using experimental technology and established by Nucor Corp. in Crawford, Indiana, Preston follows Nucor's history from a small mill to the ninth-largest steel company operating in the United States by the late 1980s. 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, Preston's work is written in an engaging style that makes it seem almost like fiction: dramatic, suspenseful, and with a happy ending.
In addition to writing books, Preston has written many articles for periodicals, including Discover, Science Illustrated, and the New Yorker. It would be one of his articles for the latter publication that would inspire his third book, 1994's The Hot Zone. The book describes the deadly Ebola virus, which killed hundreds of people in the rain forests of Zaire and Sudan in the mid-1970s before finding its way into the United States in 1989, carried by one hundred monkeys shipped from the Philippines and quarantined in Reston, Virginia. Killing off the monkeys within days by attacking and almost dissolving their intestinal system, the virus's spread was halted by the government's deployment of Army troops to seal off the site from outsider access. 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…. [possessing] an energy and sparkle that sustain the narrative." 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." And Malcolm Jones, Jr., praised the narrative quality of Preston's "account of how the decimated rain forests have unleashed a wave of murderous diseases on their human invaders" and called the book 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 Ebola virus from an obscure African malady into a well-known international killer.
Preston tried his hand at the novel form in 1997 with The Cobra Event. As a writer for AnnOnline reported, the story "centers on a young medical doctor who, working with a secret FBI team, thwarts a bio-terror event in progress in New York City." After this scenario became more real with the anthrax attacks that followed the terrorist destruction of the New York Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Preston explored the issue of bioterrorism further through nonfiction. His 2002 effort, The Demon in the Freezer, examines the possibilities of what might have happened if the anthrax sent through the U.S. Postal Service had been laced with a genetically engineered smallpox virus, or what might happen if terrorists manage to release virulent smallpox strains in the future. Daniel Fierman, reviewing The Demon in the Freezer in Entertainment Weekly, assured readers that "Preston's writing is as vivid as ever" and concluded that "what Preston has crafted here is another ripping real-life horror story."
"The term 'nonfiction' is hardly an elegant description of the type of writing I do," Preston once told CA, "but … 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."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 1988.
Commonweal, May 17, 1991, p. 338.
Economist, December 17, 1994, p. 91.
Entertainment Weekly, September 23, 1994, p. 64; October 11, 2002, Daniel Fierman, "The Virus Hunter: Richard Preston Tracks a Cold-Blooded Killer in His Latest Biological Thriller, The Demon in the Freezer,"p.74.
Fortune, December 12, 1994, p. 246.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2002, review of The Demon in the Freezer, p. 1451.
Kliatt, January 1993, p. 55.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 22, 1988.
Nature, February 18, 1988.
New Republic, July 17, 1995, p. 38.
Newsweek, September 19, 1994, p. 64.
New York Review of Books, April 6, 1995, p. 24.
New York Times, September 30, 1994, p. C29.
New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1988, p. 27; May 26, 1991, p. 13; October 30, 1994, p. 13; November 2, 1997, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, February 22, 1991, p. 203; June 27, 1994, p. 61; September 23, 2002, review of The Demon in the Freezer, p. 63.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 28, 1988.
School Library Journal, January, 1995, p. 149.
Scientific American, August, 1988; November, 1994, p. 114.
Sky and Telescope, May, 1988.
Smithsonian, June, 1992, p. 132; June, 1995, p. 145.
Technology Review, April, 1995, p. 77.
Time, September 5, 1994, p. 66.
Tribune Books (Chicago), July 5, 1992, p. 8.
Washington Monthly, December, 1994, p. 59.
Washington Post Book World, January 8, 1989; October 16, 1994, pp. 4-5.
AnnOnline, http://www.annonline.com/ (October 9, 2002), author biography.
MIT Web site, http://web.mit.edu/ (October 9, 2002), biographical information on author.*