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In the Danger Zone : Richard Preston Was Born to Tell the True Story of a Deadly Virus Outbreak

October 18, 1994|D.T. MAX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Preston has a knack for getting into wherever he wants and coaxing information from whomever he wants.

"I don't believe that I'm a gifted writer, but I believe I am a gifted listener," says the 40-year-old author, who is in fact both. "When I talk to someone, I just keep hearing their sentences over and over in my head even when I'm asleep. And when you get fascinated by something, people open up."

His just-published bestseller, "The Hot Zone" (Random House), is a mesmerizing real-life variation on "Andromeda Strain" about a near-catastrophic outbreak of a tropical virus called Ebola Reston in suburban Virginia in 1989. To bring the story to life, Preston needed to persuade the Army--not exactly dying to rehash biological threats--to cooperate extensively.

For instance, Preston wanted to experience a "Level 4" virus hot room. Level 4 viruses such as Ebola Reston are by definition lethal, highly contagious, have no cure and no vaccine. (By comparison, anthrax is a Level 2 virus; HIV, a Level 3.)

Because a terrorist who obtained a test tube of Level 4 virus could hold a city hostage, there are only two containment labs that work with them--both highly secure and open only to a handful of specially trained epidemiologists clad in spacesuits.

But in 1993, when Preston asked USAMRIID (pronounced "You Sam Rid"), the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., to let him take a peek at theirs, they obliged.

"Actually they were reluctant to let me in less for security reasons than because people tend to panic in there," Preston says. "An earlier visitor suffered an attack of claustrophobia and ripped his helmet off and they had to give him an emergency decon (decontamination) shower."

Born in Cambridge, Mass., to a lawyer father and a mother who taught art history, Preston graduated in 1977 from Pomona College, which he loved, majoring in English.

Stuck on what to do next, he went east to Princeton University as a graduate student. There he met his wife, Michelle, and settled down. Today they have three children, ages 6 months to 5 years.

Since then, all Preston has done for a living is write, beginning in Princeton's development office, ignominiously "ghost-writing letters to corporations and wealthy people begging for money," a task one can imagine him excelling at.

"What I learned about people I learned from my mother. She was like the unofficial caseworker of Wellesley, Mass., where we lived. She would get deeply involved in people's lives and become deeply sympathetic to them. I learned that skill of being able to lose oneself, wash away oneself, enter into the mind of someone else. You project into their mind and see the world as they see it."

Moving on to more substantial game, Preston brought his ingenuous smile, his permanent look of sympathy crossbred with enthusiasm, and his perpetually ready memo pads to astronomers working on Caltech's Hale telescope in "First Light" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987) and then to metalworkers looking for a new way to pour sheet steel in "American Steel" in 1991.

"First Light" earned him $45,000. "American Steel," published by a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. then in the process of dissolving, made more than $100,000, but there were still times, he says, when he didn't have mortgage money.

"The advance comes in and for a while you're living pretty well," he says. "And then the money runs out."

So nothing prepared him for the enthusiasm that would race through the literary world and Hollywood beginning in the fall of 1992, when the New Yorker published the article that would grow into "The Hot Zone."


Now he sits in the house that "The Hot Zone" built--six bedrooms in suburban Princeton, N.J. The living room is large with a stone fireplace and extensive collections of John McPhee and A.J. Liebling, both nonfiction writers whom, along with Henry Thoreau, Preston particularly admires.

Dressed in a gray shirt, blue jeans, brown loafers and white socks a la perennial grad student, hair tousled and prematurely gray, the boyish Preston wolfs down a piece of pizza, drinks a glass of wine and seems unfazed by the piece of animal spleen loaded with deadly Ebola virus particles--sterilized and shielded by acrylic plastic to be sure--that sits nearby as a souvenir from an Army friend.

On his oak mantelpiece are a drinking bowl from Lake Turkana and an East African gourd, both of which he bought in Nairobi where he went in the fall of 1993 to visit Kitum Cave, the suspected host site for the Marburg virus, which is closely related to Ebola. He dressed in a portable spacesuit, entered the caves and found . . . nothing.

"I admit the book would have had a better ending if I'd blown up with the virus," he says. Instead, "my heart just pounded."

The long route that led Preston, dressed like the Michelin man, to an obscure Kenyan cave likely carved by the tusks of salt-seeking elephants has a complex beginning.

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