Richard North Patterson: Thrillers with Issues
Richard North Patterson hit the big time in 1993, with the publication of Degree of Guilt
, his fifth novel, and one that appeared some eight years after his fourth, Private Screening. Since then, he's barely taken a break year to year and has sold many millions of books to readers eager to dig into driving thrillers that approach big events in a human manner.
"It took me four novels to learn how to do it," Patterson says. "About the fourth, I felt I had a command. Until then it was trial and error."
Still, after his fourth novel, Patterson went back to practicing law. His true calling lay only slightly buried, however. After his firm gave him a three-month sabbatical (which he stretched to four), Patterson wrote two-thirds of Degree of Guilt which, to his surprise, became a huge bestseller and changed his life. Since then he's written some 15 novels.
"I have had the privilege of refining what I learned and using what I have discovered is a gift for narrative to tell good stories and address all sorts of stuff: capital punishment, reproductive rights, gun violence, Israel and the Palestinians," Patterson says. "I've tried to combine narrative with good characters and real-life problems that are of inherent interest and that a lot of people might not read about except in a novel."
When Degree of Guilt hit it big, no one was more surprised than Patterson. "I had never seriously imagined doing that; I wouldn't have had a clue as to setting about doing it," he says. "I hit upon a compelling story, and it was at a time when readers and publishers were looking for somebody like Scott Turow or John Grisham and I realized there was a market."
In some ways Patterson's life didn't change at all, he says. He remained, and remains, a parent and friend and provider. But in other ways, it changed quite a bit: "I don't have to be anywhere, I can write anywhere, so I'm much more mobile. The second thing was when I became someone people knew, and I was looking to do research, I had a lot more freedom in terms of the people who were willing to talk to me." At this time, too, Patterson left his law practice to concentrate on his writing. "I realized I had a decision to make," he says. "I had a purchase on literary success - a rarre commodity - you're fortunate if you have that shot. It wasn't going to come
When he decided to write a thriller that featured the Israel-Palestinian dilemma, it might have been unthinkable before his bestseller status gave him access to the kinds of people who could provide insights that would make his novel more compelling and realistic. "I had this whole new life, where in a sense I was paid to learn things."
Patterson's newest novel, In the Name of Honor, is both a family story and one that addresses, like many of his other books, a compelling issue, in this case post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, especially concerning people who've served in the military.
"PTSD, I am told, is rapidly becoming a mental health tsunami among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan," Patterson says. The military there faces a similar situation to what the armed forces faced in Vietnam: not being able to tell civilian from enemy, the uncertainty about the sense of any mission, the ambiguity of it all."
For this novel, as with his others, Patterson did a great deal of research, which helps him decide whether his initial idea for the book will fly. This approach is how he manages to hold readers and keep himself interested in his craft. "What I try to do is keep myself fresh and write about a subject that interests me," Patterson says, "so the readers are going to feel that same sense of justice and excitement."
Here, in addition to having interviewed psychologists, military officials, veterans and families who have experienced the dilemma of PTSD, Patterson needed to become conversant with the military justice system, since the novel involves the trial of a returning veteran accused of murdering his former commanding officer in Iraq.
Like most of Patterson's novels, the plot is involved and compelling. But Patterson also works to create characters who speak to readers. "I really think a story requires a strong narrative," he says, "but also characters who have the complexity and surprise of people in real life. Character is fate
- so much that happens is dictated by experience, and who they are."
- who says his writing life is to treat his profession as if it were a civil service job, working eight-hour days five days a week -
says he was tremendously influenced by the writer Alan Drury, whose 1959 Advise and Consent was an enormous bestseller. "That was like a siren's song for me," Patterson says. "It was a suspense novel in a way, showing how compelling events combine with the characters of complicated men and women to create a drama that is potentially and dramatic moving and surprising. It taught me a lot about suspense, plotting and dramatic unity where the end of the book threads back to the beginning."
Making sure the ending reflects the beginning of a novel is important to Patterson. As is conveying the reality of the subjects at the heart of his novels. "If you're writing about serious subjects
- and PTSD is a serious subject - it's a disservice to everybody to make it a cheap plot device. One of the points I
want to make here is that PTSD is not the fault of the military or the people who suffer from it. It stems from the nature of war itself, and it's inherent. I expect that PTSD has been suffered by people ever since Achilles. I just want readers to understand it." And to be thrilled by the story, too.
With two novels written and waiting to be published - including one about a potential Al-Qaeda nuclear
threat - Patterson is at a point now where he wants to take some time to recharge the creative batteries.
"I think the subconscious ought to be unmolested now and then. My goal for this summer is that."
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