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Mastering the Genre Mash-Up

By J. H. Bográn

In a curious mix, OLD BONES, the new novel from bestselling writing partners Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, combines the excitement of a treasure hunt adventure with the mystery, and almost police procedural, of a mind-boggling FBI case.

Nora Kelly, a young curator at the Santa Fe Institute of Archaeology, is approached by historian Clive Benton with a once-in-a-lifetime proposal: to lead a team in search of the so-called “Lost Camp” of the tragic Donner Party. This was a group of pioneers who earned a terrible place in American history when they became snow-bound in the California Mountains in 1847, their fate unknown until the first skeletonized survivors stumbled out of the wilderness, raving about starvation, murder, and cannibalism.

Once in the mountains, however, they learn that discovering the camp is only the first step in a mounting journey of fear. For as they uncover old bones, they expose the real truth of what happened, one that is far more shocking and bizarre than mere cannibalism. And when those ancient horrors lead to present-day violence on a grand scale, rookie FBI agent Corrie Swanson is assigned the case…only to find that her first investigation might very well be her last.

Preston and Child are both accomplished authors with plenty of bestselling titles on their own, but as the Pendergast Series has proved, they work well together.

OLD BONES is the first entry into a new series, although the main characters are not exactly unknown to the readers. Nora Kelly and Corrie Swanson have both been in the Pendergast books. However, they’ve never met each other—until now. Nora Kelly first appeared in Thunderhead, an archaeological mystery, and then in The Cabinet of Curiosities.

Preston and Child at the Mark Twain house.

“We’ve always loved Nora Kelly and the idea of an archaeological series, so it just seemed natural,” says Preston. “And then we realized that Corrie Swanson as a newly minted FBI agent might be involved in the investigative side of any archaeological mystery, if it involved crime and murder. The two of them together struck us as an interesting and uneasy partnership, as they are so different. Finally, the Donner Party has long fascinated me and I’ve been interested in the archaeology of those cannibal campsites for some time.”

Nora Kelly is an archaeologist who lives in Santa Fe, where one of the authors lives. “That’s not a coincidence at all!” Preston says. “Lincoln and I always set our books in places we know well. Santa Fe is a great place for an archaeologist to live and a fascinating little town all of its own.”

Preston and Child
Photo credit: Deborah Feingold

As for her chosen profession, well, we could say it runs in the blood. “Both Lincoln and I come from families of archaeologists. His grandmother was an accomplished archaeologist and my aunt was a famous underwater archaeologist. My father studied anthropology with Clyde Kluckhohn at Harvard, and my mother had an advanced degree in Pre-Columbian art.”

There’s no Lone Ranger without Tonto, or Batman without Robin—at least not for long. And thus, Nora Kelly’s sort of partner in crime comes in the form of Corrie Swanson.

“She’s one of our most, shall I say, controversial characters,” Preston says. “We first met her as a rebellious, foul-mouthed Goth high school student. Pendergast took her under his arm, recognizing her qualities. He paid for her education, put her through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she graduated with honors with a degree in physical anthropology. She then worked in law enforcement, went to the FBI Academy, and is now a newly minted FBI agent working out of the Albuquerque office. She has managed to tame, but not completely, her rebellious nature. She is a most intriguing and different character.”

Working together for so long, it’s sometimes hard to see where one ends and the other begins—such is the wonder of collaborative work, but the two have a system that works.

“We don’t keep a tally of who had what ideas,” Preston says. “That’s not a good way to go into a partnership, since in most cases the ideas were the result of brainstorming and it’s impossible to say who came up with what. There are some characters who are more Lincoln’s creation or mine.”

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Mr. Preston’s recent book The Lost City of the Monkey God introduced readers to a state-of-the-art technology called “Lidar” that uses laser to determine distance and range in hard-to-reach places. However, the authors decided to step away from it, instead going into the Donner Party hunt with an expedition.

“The Donner Party is, in fact, a very real event—one of the most horrific stories in the history of the Western settlement of America. The novel is almost entirely based on real, actual history. That said, Lidar technology would not have worked in this particularly situation, because the Donner campsite they were looking for was buried. Lidar cannot penetrate the ground. This was a case where old-fashioned archaeology, with some new tools like a ground penetrating proton magnetometer, was necessary.”

Preston was recently appointed president of The Author’s Guild, the oldest and largest author’s organization in the country.

“Every Nobel Laureate—except for Dylan!—was or is a member, along with authors from all genres, journalists, and poets,” he says. “Members of the Guild receive many excellent benefits, including free legal advice and contract reviews, prestigious journalism credentials, access to insurance programs, webinars, and many opportunities for professional growth. Being a member of the Guild is also a way to meet fellow authors through our community forums and regional chapters. The Guild, in my view, can be a great help to an author in terms of career opportunities, growth, and networking. But more than that, the Guild fights for authors’ rights and advocates in Washington for authors and their interests, protecting freedom of speech, copyright, fighting piracy, and striving to ensure that authors can make a decent living from their creative efforts. The Authors Guild is an organization with serious power and influence in the country. Now, more than ever, it’s important for authors to join together to stand up for our interests.”

Preston & Child are currently working on the next Nora Kelly book. It takes place in and around Carrizozo, New Mexico, an isolated town just east of the White Sands Missile Range.

In Preston’s words, “It’s a very strange story indeed!”


José H. Bográn
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