In this summer of blockbusters, think of journalist Richard Preston as our Indiana Jones of science—willing to abandon his writing desk to join his characters in action, be they scientists locked in a Biosafety Level 4 lab working with lethal viruses or Russian brothers building a mail-order supercomputer in an apartment in order to calculate pi. Back in 1995, Preston's bestseller The Hot Zone, the true story of a near-outbreak of Ebola in the U.S., created a new generation of germophobes. In between articles for The New Yorker, he joined canopy explorers to climb the highest trees in the world for 2007's The Wild Trees. The title of his latest book, Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science, is as frank as the prose within; a sharp mix of experiential reporting and colorful characters operating on the knife's edge of science and/or sanity. One of the book's strongest stories captures the everyday hell of people living with Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that creates "self-cannibals" compelled to mutilate their own bodies and strike out at those they care about most. WW caught up with Preston before his Tuesday, June 10, appearance at Powell's at Cedar Hills Crossing. From his seat on an Amtrak train bound for Washington, D.C., the author snacked on potato chips and shared what human DNA tastes like.
WW: Level 4 deals with what you call the "invisible universe" of math and science. How do you explain concepts like pi or DNA to a general audience?
Richard Preston: It takes a kind of obsession; I have to become obsessed with pi myself. I have to love the grisly details of the Ebola virus in order to describe it to all. To try and put into words what molecular biology is all about, that's the biggest challenge because it's all about molecules we can't see. And it's all about people in the laboratory handling little tiny test tubes and putting them into giant machines the size of Sub-Zero refrigerators. I interviewed this guy Hamilton Smith, he has a Nobel Prize for his work with DNA, and I said, "Have you ever tasted it?" And he'd never tasted it. I found out you can order DNA in the mail, so I ordered some and it came in a little bottle of dried fluff. I told Hamilton it tasted like the earth's early ocean—a mildly salty taste and a little tiny hint of sweetness.
Do you think there's anything you do as a journalist while working with these people rubs off on them?
I'm just a guy who happens to be obsessed with this stuff, and I come into their world and start asking them a whole bunch of questions. Some of these questions are about their research and some are about what kind of socks they wear, what their hands look like…when you're in a space suit and are all alone in Level 4 and you're handling the Ebola virus, what goes through your mind? And it energizes them. It gives them a sense that they are doing this for a larger reason and that it is important to tell people, it's important for all of us. Science totally defines our world.
You write that you think journalists need to "climb into the soup" with their subjects to capture a story. What's the first time you jumped into the soup?
It was the very first article I ever wrote, for a [Vermont] magazine called Country Journal. In Vermont, $10 and a driver's license will get you a license to blast with dynamite. And there are these guys in Vermont who are professional dynamite artists. If you need a dynamite job done, you call a dynamite man, who charges you 100 bucks and blows something up for you. So I found a dynamite man and followed him around for a day watching him blow up all this stuff. At one point he said to me, "You do the plunger." It was so fun. [I got paid] $600 for the story. Seemed like a fortune.
How do you finance your articles these days?
My financial situation is cyclical. On average, once every five years I nearly go broke. There have been times at The New Yorker where I've been so broke that I had to ask them to pay me for the article before I wrote it.
Was there a time when the soup was not a good place to be?
Yeah, in the tree-climbing book: I got trapped in a super-tall tree in Australia. We got into a windstorm [with gusts] at 50 mph. The tree proved to be hollow and rotten. It began to make really weird noises, cycling and flagging in the wind. I'm up there, swinging on a rope 28 stories above the ground, and I asked myself, "What the eff am I doing up here?"
What would you be doing if you weren't a journalist?
I tried an office job for a couple of years and I absolutely hated it. I prefer self-employment and bankruptcy. I was a professional fundraiser for Princeton University. They raise millions of dollars all the time. My job was to ghostwrite letters from the president of Princeton to various corporations and wealthy individuals begging for money. It was called "development writing"—it's articulate beggary.
How were you introduced to Lesch-Nyhan syndrome?
In 2000 I made contact with William Nyhan, the doctor who co-discovered the disease. He [introduced] me to two patients [James Elrod and Jim Murphy]. It took a total of seven years to figure out how to write about them in a way that didn't make them seem like freaks. What is it really like to have a compulsion to bite off your extremities and pull your eyes out? It took a long, long time until I had my sea legs in that story. James Elrod and I still see each other whenever I'm in Santa Cruz. He only throws punches once in a while. When you spend enough time around Lesch-Nyhan people, the fact that this person is trying to attack you drops out of sight and you find yourself just dealing with another person. And the fact that this person has already cut his nose off with a fork and is in restraints and takes swings at you with Kevlar gloves becomes invisible.
What something that would surprise readers about you—given their impression of you from your books?
That I had a happy childhood. They read these descriptions of human beings exploding with Ebola virus and wonder.... I grew up in suburban Massachusetts with my two younger brothers, one of which is also an author, Douglas Preston. He writes these over-the-top, grisly thrillers. Doug and I, and our other brother, David, we had a sandbox and we played in it all through high school. We had explosives and incendiaries [in there]. One day a kid from the neighborhood was playing in the sandbox with us. He lit his clothes on fire; burned the clothes partially off his body. Fortunately he didn't burn his skin. We jumped up and put him out. He ran home and his mother began screaming, "What were you doing?" And he said, "I was playing in the sandbox with the Preston brothers."
Reading your novel The Cobra Event encouraged Bill Clinton to beef up funding for bioterrorism preparedness in the 1990s. What's on your radar that's not getting enough attention right now?
When I was a kid I read a lot of science-fiction and read all these predictions of how the world would be in the future. So I love to think about things that seem small now but could become enormous later.... Global climate change is driving [infectious disease] invaders from one ecosystem to another. Dengue virus, which is carried by the Asian tiger mosquito, has begun to appear in areas very close to the Southern United States—most people feel dengue is going to be in the U.S. before too long. Dengue can make people die of hemorrhages flowing from all orifices of their body. And it can look like Ebola virus. It's a grisly, scary disease for which there is currently no good vaccine.
You've got kids, right? Do you tell them about dengue and all the other terrifying diseases you write about?
Sure I do, but it's not the only thing we talk about at dinner.
Richard Preston reads from Panic in Level 4 at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651. 7 pm Tuesday, June 10. Free.