It only looks peaceful in the light-filled, woodsy aerie in suburban central New Jersey where Richard Preston spins his chilling tales of killer viruses and ecoterrorism.
If you knew what Preston knows — especially after the research he did for his new book, The Cobra Event, or his last best-seller, The Hot Zone — you’d worry too that maybe, just maybe, virus-infected monkeys are hiding outside in the trees or deadly toxins are lurking in the chicken parmigiana he serves for lunch. Don’t forget, as Preston reminds us in The Cobra Event, ”a brain virus can take a person from apparent good health to a fatal coma in a matter of hours.”
Sound a little paranoid? Well, spend a few hours with Preston, 43, and you’ll find his sense of doom more than a little…er, contagious. It was scary enough when he investigated an Ebola outbreak among monkeys at a Reston, Va., lab and turned it into a 1992 New Yorker article and then 1994’s The Hot Zone. Coming virtually out of nowhere (Preston had written only two previous books, one on astronomy and one about a steel mill), the nonfiction book rocketed up the best-seller list — right before an epidemic of the virus broke out in Zaire.
Now Preston, who has a Ph.D. in English from Princeton but never studied science, is looking eerily prescient again. Cobra, a bioterrorism thriller, is coming out just as Iraq seems willing to risk war to protect its own cache of bioweapons. ”People probably think I’m just trying to scare them,” says Preston, a boyish-looking father of three who speaks in low, ominous tones. ”I’m not. All the issues are real. It’s not a question of if biological terrorism takes place, it’s a question of when.” Says his Random House editor, Sharon DeLano: ”Richard was afraid he’d be criticized for sensationalizing biological weapons in Cobra, but just as it comes out we’re hearing about the real thing.”
In fact, Preston takes the issue so seriously that The Cobra Event — a novel about a comely medical pathologist and an FBI agent involved in a counter-bioterrorism operation — is laced with long scholarly tutorials told in the author’s own voice. Preston interviewed more than 50 people for Cobra, some of them retired government agents who lived through the top secret biological-warfare tests the U.S. conducted off Polynesian atolls from 1964 to 1969. ”Files were destroyed,” Preston says. ”The intelligence community doesn’t know that much about it anymore.”
He also talks of FBI investigations of ”near bioterrorism” on U.S. soil, including the discovery of petri dishes containing suspicious substances at a B’nai B’rith temple in Washington, D.C., last spring, and letters mailed from New Orleans last year that were saturated with potentially harmful bacterial stains. According to news reports, both incidents turned out to be innocuous, but Preston says there’s a similar case about every six weeks.
His passion for such scientific misdeeds was sparked when he first learned of Ebola’s horrifying effects on humans. ”The processes and methods he describes in his books are real,” says Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. ”He’s gone a long way toward raising awareness about new and emerging infectious diseases.”