Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight
Nancy Jo Johnson
story for a dying friend
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.