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Best-selling thriller author Douglas Preston talks about paleontology

Douglas Preston at Book Expo 2014 in New York
Grace Lichtenstein

Douglas Preston loped into the Book Expo 2014 booth for Tor, one of his current publishers, this week in New York with the easy gait and tousled good looks of a gracefully aging polo player. In fact, he is quite a horseman, having made several long trail rides on horseback for nonfiction books such as “Cities of Gold.”

Preston is known by millions of readers less for those books than for the best-selling thrillers written with Lincoln Child featuring the quirky FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast, including “Relic,” “Cemetery Dance” and last year’s “White Fire.” He has also written thrillers by himself, including the current best-seller “The Kraken Project” and my favorite, “Tyrannosaur Canyon,” which, like “Cities of Gold,” is set in the Southwest.

A native of the Boston area, Preston worked for some years at the Museum of Natural History in New York. He developed his equestrian skills after he moved to Santa Fe, N.M. decades ago. In “Cities of Gold,” the then-inexperienced Preston and a buddy traveled on horseback to follow the trail of the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century from Mexico through Arizona and New Mexico. It has been reissued as an ebook with some great photos never seen before of him and the photographer Walter Nelson, looking like true desperados.

His millions of thriller fans might not realize that Preston has a decidedly Indiana Jones-like scholarly side, in which he fulfills his interest in paleontology and archaeology by helping to unearth lost worlds. A while back he wrote in the New Yorker of the search for a hidden city deep in the rain forest of Honduras.

Upcoming, he told me, are new articles - one for the New Yorker about a paleontology discovery in North Dakota, and another for Smithsonian Magazine about the riddle of Kennewick Man. The latter involves controversial remains of an ancient human found in the mud of eastern Washington state. According to Preston, the latest research suggests he most closely resembles the Moriori, a Polynesian people in the Chatham Islands, near New Zealand, rather than any Native Americans.

As for the North Dakota piece, it is a “front page of the New York Times type of discovery, but I can’t talk about it,” Preston said. However, it’s so exciting he might return to nonfiction to write an entire book about it

Preston tries to be careful when he writes fiction about places in the mountain west. “White Fire” is a thriller about arson and other nastiness in a certain ski resort. “I’m an avid skier & I spent a lot of time climbing mountains” in Colorado, he said. He saw Aspen as an ideal setting for a Pendergast thriller because it’s the kind of town his protagonist “would absolutely despise.”

However, Preston realized how negative a picture he and Child had drawn of a place clearly based on Aspen, so they changed its geography a bit and renamed the town Roaring Fork. “I’d like to be able to go back to Aspen. I didn’t want to get into any trouble.” He needn’t have worried. Aspenites he knows have told him it is “absolutely hilarious,” he laughed.

“They say, ‘boy, did you nail it!’ I’m a little relieved,” he confessed.

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