Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

Richard Preston

Photograph by
Nancy Jo Johnson

February 11, 2004:

A story for a dying friend
Richard Preston *83 writes an uplifting Christmas story

Richard Preston *83 is best known for his Dark Biology trilogy, a series of books on gruesome viruses like smallpox and the horrors of bioterrorism, including The Hot Zone, a nonfiction thriller about the outbreak of the Ebola virus in a Virginia laboratory. A few years ago, Preston turned to a different genre: he wrote his first children's story for a life-long friend who was battling breast cancer. The Boat of Dreams is a Christmas story about two young children in Maine dealing with the loss of their father, who was killed in Vietnam. Despite its serious theme, the book was meant to cheer up his friend, with its comical portrait of the two children and an unlikely, bad body-odor-ridden ghost they meet named Dexter. Initially Preston published the book privately after his friend died in December 2000, but in November Touchstone published The Boat of Dreams and Preston is donating the proceeds of the book to breast cancer research. Preston, who earned his doctorate in English and lives near Princeton, talked about his book and his friend with Maurice Timothy Reidy '97.

Who was your friend who died of cancer?

She was a high school and college friend, whose name was Robin Bloksberg. Robin and I were buddies. We maintained a good friendship over the years. She got married, and had a wonderful husband and a five-year-old daughter. She went through a long struggle, a ten-year battle, with breast cancer. Toward the end, when it looked likely that she was going to lose her battle, I wanted to give her something. Sometimes in life, we reach a point where we want to give but we have nothing left to give. That's actually the message of The Boat of Dreams. And so I gave her the only thing I really had to give, which was a story. I'm a writer and that's what I do. So I began writing The Boat of Dreams very rapidly because her health wasn't good.... What I wanted to do was help her laugh and give her a sense of vitality and love.

Were you able to give the book to her?

I lost the race. She lived in New Hampshire and when I went to see her I brought the manuscript with me. But then we had this spectacularly wonderful visit, in which we had a lot of catching up to do, and I never had the time to read the story to her out loud. I chose not to leave the manuscript with her because she seemed to be doing very well and I'm a perfectionist and I like my friends only to see my best work. So I thought, Well I've got more time to work on this. And then, the heartbreaking news came that she had passed away very suddenly. So it was very upsetting but at the same it strengthened my determination to make The Boats of Dreams the very best story it could be, in her memory.

This story takes place among lobster fishermen in Maine. Is any of it drawn from your experiences growing up in New England?

It is very much drawn from my own childhood experiences. New Harbor [where the story takes place] is a real town. Some of the minor characters in the story are people who really lived. The Boat of Dreams has been read widely in that area. It's wonderful to hear from Mainers that I got it right.

There are so many Christmas stories out there. Was it difficult to write one in a different way?

The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of Christmas stories out there and I didn't read any of them. The only ones I read in preparation for The Boat of Dreams was Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote, which is a beautiful book.

And, you know my degree from Princeton is a doctorate in English, so I can't help but be slightly academic. There are a lot of references to all forms of Western literature in The Boat of Dreams. For example, Will, the narrator, is Telemachus in The Odyssey. He loses his father and his mother is Penelope. All those lobstermen who make offers for her boat and she refuses them are Penelope's suitors. Probably the principal literary source for The Boats of Dreams is the Book of Job.

But you've said the story is a comedy.

It begins on a very sad note — you're practically crying after page three. But then when this peculiar, stout, BO-ridden ghost who calls himself Dexter makes an appearance, who turns out to be the true spirit of Santa Claus, the story turns out to be quite funny. And the little girl Lila is a firecracker. She gives Dexter a really hard time. Lila came into the composition of The Boat of Dreams late. She does not really exist in the first version, the privately published version. But as I was rewriting The Boat of Dreams, Lila came to life.

Sometimes your characters come out of nowhere when you're writing fiction. Lila talked to me. I'm a journalist and when I'm writing fiction I tend to imagine myself interviewing my characters, asking them questions and sometimes they give very surprising answers. And as I was rewriting The Boat of Dreams, Lila began talking back to Dexter and giving him a really hard time and making him mad and giving him lip...and that sharpened the identity of Dexter for me. I remembered how in the Bible the original figure of God was subject to fits of temper and then remorse, rather like Dexter.

Talk a bit about the portrait of Santa Claus in this book.

You know, The Boat of Dreams is a children's story for adults or an adult's story for children. The story had to cross over from the child's perspective of Santa Claus to the adult perspective. You know how children, when they reach a certain age, they begin to doubt the existence of Santa Claus and we adults say to them, "Well Santa Claus is the spirit of Christmas." I thought, how interesting it would be if in fact Santa Claus is the true spirit of Christmas and is thoroughly believable to adults as well as to children. And that's where the character of Dexter comes from, a Santa Claus than an adult can completely believe in.

This book is told from a child's point of view. Did your children help you with it?

Oh yeah. For years they've been asking me to write a story that isn't about gruesome viruses. So I read portions of The Boat of Dreams out loud to them. Children are wonderful because they have zero tolerance for boredom. When they're bored they let you know it immediately and when they're entertained they let you know it immediately. In addition to that, there are little scraps and pieces of our children's lives in the book. For example, our middle child Laura has a white stuffed baby seal that she named Chicken Bones [just like Lila]. We gave it to her when she was about three-and-a-half and she yelled, "It's Chicken Bones!" And we cracked up, and we said, "Where did you get a name like that?" And she said, "It's his name don't ask me why." So [Lila's stuffed seal in the book] is Chicken Bones Don't-Ask-Me-Why.

You take on some big issues in this book: death, the mystery of love, the problem of evil.

I did pack a lot into The Boat of Dreams. Part of it is that the Dark Biology series didn't provide doorways into other areas of human experience that I really wanted to write about, such as love; deep questions of mortality; the identity and nature of God; and the love that can exist inside a family and the power of that love to transform human existence. Love is a very powerful force, but it is very hard to write about love when you're writing about the Ebola virus. Ebola is rather a powerful character that stalks the stage of history in my Dark Biology series. The longing to write a simple story about love and about magic and about big issues such as war — all those desires focused in on writing this one story for this friend of mine. And it won't be the last. I'm sure I'll write more stories like it.

Maurice Timothy Reidy '97 is an associate editor at Commonweal magazine in New York.