By J. H. Bográn
Agent Pendergast’s last case left him in Florida, where he intended to spend some vacation time—if only severed feet encased in generic footwear hadn’t washed up off the coast of Florida. Reluctant to cut his vacation short, Pendergast agrees to just “take a look at the case,” but quickly enough the mystery captures him as he delves into what could be the most challenging of his career.
The Big Thrill caught up with Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child to talk about CROOKED RIVER, number 19 in their beloved long-running series.
How did the idea of the feet washing up on the beach originate?
Douglas Preston: Some years ago I read a few scattered articles on a mystery plaguing the coastline of British Columbia—shoes washing up on beaches with feet still inside. There was much speculation at the time about where these feet could have come from, but the mystery remains unsolved. I loved the idea of this and called Linc and suggested a first chapter of a novel: a bunch of similar feet washing up on a beach in Florida and the panic and terror it would cause. Linc responded: Very good, so what happens next? And I said: I’ve no idea! But we brainstormed it, and Linc soon came up with a most amazing and compelling explanation, which I can’t tell you because it would spoil the story. That became the novel.
Several of your books take place in Florida. Any particular reason for that?
Lincoln Child: It’s at least in part because a few years ago, Florida became my primary residence. This was why we situated portions of The Obsidian Chamber in Florida, but it really came into its own with Verses for the Dead. We always try to write about places we know about personally, and we’ve also found that readers enjoy seeing Pendergast forced to solve cases outside of his New York City comfort zone. When Doug lived in Florence for a couple years, for example, we set a good portion of Brimstone in Italy.
It wasn’t our initial intention for the follow-up, CROOKED RIVER, to be set in Florida as well—but when “washing up on shore” became an important element of the developing story, it seemed like a natural segue.
DP: Florida makes for a very interesting and complex setting. And as Linc said, Pendergast on the whole despises Florida.
As usual with the Pendergast series, there is a large ensemble of characters. How do you design them without them looking like cardboard stand-ins?
DP: We spend a lot of time fleshing out our characters. One mistake many rookie authors make, as well as many screenwriters, is to confuse backstory with character. We create a backstory for each character, but we also spend a great deal of time working out how our characters react, think, speak, look, dress, and feel. This is more important than backstory.
Speaking of characters, most of the scenes seem to be set with other people’s point of view, and when on Pendergast’s, the POV is so far back it almost feels omniscient. Is this by design?
LC: That’s a shrewd observation. We don’t want to get into Pendergast’s head too deeply—that’s quite intentional on our part. Whenever possible, or practicable, we’ll write a scene in which he appears from somebody else’s point of view. When we are forced to view things through his eyes, we try to maintain a certain distance, which might come across to readers as approaching the omniscient. But this is primarily because spending too much time in Pendergast’s thoughts would spoil the mystery—not to mention traumatize us as authors.
Is it becoming easier or more difficult to come up with new cases for Pendergast?
LC: It’s certainly not becoming harder. We don’t have much trouble coming up with cases for him to solve—the more his universe expands, the more we have to work with. The trick lies in making sure, as best we can, that each new story is fresh and surprising, and that it advances Pendergast himself—in one way or another—over the course of the novel.
DP: We have a mortal fear of falling into a rut, as some writers do with a long series involving a single character.
What is the hardest part of writing a Pendergast adventure?
DP: The middle part is always the hardest. We’ve generally worked out the opening and the denouement before we begin, but there is a vast wilderness to cross that is the middle portion of the book, and that we work out as we write.
What are you currently working on?
LC: As far as joint projects go, we are hard at work on the second novel in our new Nora Kelly/Corrie Swanson series of thrillers. We were very pleased with how the first book in the series, Old Bones, was received, and we’re finding that these two intelligent and capable women make an excellent team—although there are times that they may not agree with us on that.
Why Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child and not the way around?
LC: When we first began writing together, there was a real concern that jointly-written novels might be unfairly stigmatized. (“How can two people possibly write a satisfactory work of fiction together?”) There was some initial talk of using a single pseudonym for us. Ultimately, our wish that our actual names be used prevailed. At the time, Doug had a greater measure of visibility than I did when it came to published works, which may have played into the decision of his name coming first. I don’t recall there ever being a discussion about it, at least one I was privy to. It was just presented to us ultimately as “Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.” To be honest, to me that sounds better than Child & Preston—or perhaps I’ve just gotten used to it. In any case, if Arthur Sullivan, Oscar Hammerstein, and Oliver Hardy could stand it, who am I to complain?
DP: My name is first because I’m better looking, more charming, and wittier. Just kidding. In the beginning of our partnership, I wrote almost all of the first draft and Linc then rewrote extensively, so that was another reason why my name might have come first. Gradually that has changed so that we pretty much divide up the first-drafting and rewriting equally. At first we used both our names, but at a certain point we decided to become “Preston & Child” as a more succinct form of authorship.