Unwinding With Richard North Patterson

Novelist Richard North Patterson spends most of the year researching and writing, then enjoys his well-earned summers relaxing on Martha’s Vineyard.

richard north patterson
Richard North Patterson, here at his rural West Tisbury home, has been spending summers on the Vineyard for the past twenty years.

The best-selling author’s next book, Loss of Innocence (the second in a trilogy set on Martha’s Vineyard), will be released in October. Writer Laura D. Roosevelt interviewed him about his career and his life on the Island, where he lives when he’s not in San Francisco or Cabo San Lucas. Following are excerpts from their conversation.

LDR: As a writer, you could live anywhere. Why Martha’s Vineyard?

RNP: I think it’s the nicest combination of natural beauty and a community of really interesting people. People always say it’s a wonderful place to write, but that’s why it’s a wonderful place not to write. There are so many other things to do here. I love the outdoors. We go to the beach at night, watch the sun go down, drink some wine, have some dinner. [My wife] Nancy and I can’t imagine our lives without Martha’s Vineyard, and particularly without our friends from here.

LDR: So you don’t write when you’re here?

RNP: I don’t. It’s always been my reward for good behavior. It’s the organizing principle of my year: If I work really hard during the non-summer months, I can come here and not work. The Vineyard has served as a spur to me to keep after things during the year, so I can reserve this special place for enjoying myself and my friends and family. I can’t imagine sitting here and writing on a glorious day. It would be awful. This, to me, is too precious to throw away on work.

LDR: Can you describe your writing process? How do you go about attacking a book?

RNP: In the beginning, I’ll sit down in the morning with a journal of blank pages and make notes about what might become a book. I’ll do this for a month or two. It’s luxurious, because everything is flexible and malleable; nothing is set yet. After that, I’ll use those notes to develop a basic story and characters. And then there’s research, sometimes a lot of research, about how my premise would actually work in the real world. When I wrote about the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, for example, I interviewed about a hundred people. I traveled extensively in Israel, talking to everybody from victims of a suicide bombing to Shimon Peres. I went to the West Bank and visited numerous Palestinians, including someone who was on the run from the Israelis.

Next I organize my notes. I outline scene by scene and make a folder for every chapter, including notes on what’s going to happen, and the research notes that I need to inform what I’m doing. Every day when I sit down to write, there’s a new folder on my desk, so I’m not lost. I think architecture is very important. The ending should resonate back to the beginning, the narrative should cohere, and the characterization of the people should be not only deep, but also consistent, which is to say that people shouldn’t start behaving in odd ways.

I start writing at 7:30 in the morning, and I stop at about noon. Then I revise through the afternoon until the chapter is as good as I can make it that day – I mean every word. And then I quit and have a martini.

LDR: How has your legal training affected your work as a writer?

RNP: Being a lawyer in complicated cases, you have to do a lot of writing for the courts. It’s like being a journalist. I used to say I was writing for America’s most tired and cynical audience – judges and their law clerks. You had to be clear and concise and engage them with the first couple of paragraphs. I got very good at that. Some of my openings were unusual fora lawyer. I remember writing once that the other side treated an inconvenient fact like a dead mouse on the kitchen floor: Maybe if they pretend not to notice it, the guests won’t see it either. I won that case.

Also, as a lawyer you have to organize messy facts into a narrative. You have to do research. You have to explain the psychology and the imperative of your client. You have to figure out what satisfies a judge. A lot of that is very similar to what fiction writers do. If I’d not been a lawyer, I don’t know that I’d have become a writer. It gave me a way of approaching writing professionally, and it also gave me stories. By no means have all my books been about lawyers, but a few have been.

LDR: How did you make the decision to stop practicing law and start being a full-time writer?

RNP: As a partner in a large law firm, I had a piece of the rock. I also had kids – many kids – for whom I had sole financial responsibility. So I was very leery about giving that up, even when I had a best-selling book. But when I got offered a considerable chunk of money to write two more, I felt safe. That may not sound artistic, but as I reflect upon it, as much as I have internalized my identity as a writer, I have a far stronger self-identification as a father. The first time I tried writing, I wrote four books that sold all right but not great, and I couldn’t see any way in which I was going to put these kids through college securely, or have a home in which they could all live. So I went back to law and didn’t write anything for eight years until I wrote a best seller more or less by accident. People always asked me whether I was miserable being a lawyer, and I said no. My law career was good and enjoyable, and I was taking care of the people I care about. Was I thrilled to be able to become a full-time writer again? Sure. Most of us have inbox jobs, but writing is self-generated, and for someone like me, that’s heaven. But I wouldn’t have thrown away my kids’ security to do it.

LDR: How did you write a best seller by accident?

RNP: My law firm gave partners three months off with pay every five years, on the theory that you’d go insane if they didn’t. I tacked a month of vacation onto that. Most of my partners went to Europe, but I was a single dad at the time, and I wasn’t going to pull up stakes. I owed the IRS more than I had provided for that year, so I thought I’d see if I could still write a book, and maybe sell it for enough money to satisfy the IRS.

I wrote about a quarter of the book and showed it to my agent, and he said, “This is really good. Right now, with an outline, I think I could get X for it.” And “X” was comfortably more than I’d been paid for the first four books combined. I said, “I don’t need the money right now; why don’t I just keep writing until my four months are up?” So I did about three-quarters of the book and an outline of the rest and gave it to him, and he came back to me with an advance that was four times what he’d named earlier.

And then Knopf took the book and ran with it. On publication day, my book, Degree of Guilt, was in the window of every bookstore I passed. I felt embarrassed and worried that no one was going to buy it, so I went into a store and bought a couple of copies myself. But then I realized that this was a bigger problem than I could comfortably clean up on my own, because there were 200,000 copies out across America. It became a best seller, and also an NBC mini-series. It was like being hit by a moon rock; I didn’t set out to write a best seller; I wouldn’t have known how. But for that accident, I’d now be a guy on Social Security, about to be thrown out of my law firm for being too old. But instead this wonderful thing happened from which my entire life flowed. I wouldn’t have the freedom to live here in the summer, as I have for the last twenty years. Everything changed for me.

LDR: How did you deal with your sudden fame?

RNP: I didn’t shy from public recognition. I found the form of recognition that a writer gets extremely pleasant. It’s not like you’re face-famous, and you walk into a restaurant and everyone is staring at you. You’re being recognized for something you’re proud of, and you want it to be a public act, to have it read. If you’re a recognized writer, people are more likely to put up with you, and tell you what you need to know if you’re seeking information. There is a presumption that because you’ve written a book, you’re actually interesting. This may or may not be true, but it’s always nice to have that presumption operate in your favor.

I’ve known the last four presidents, and I never would have met any of them but for the fact that I’m a writer. The first president I met was George H.W. Bush, who’s a lovely man. He wrote me a fan letter about Degree of Guilt. I interviewed him when I was researching No Safe Place and became friends with him and Barbara after that.

One has to recognize that if you succeed in this business – whatever level of talent you have – there’s also a real element of just good fortune. There are a lot of talented writers who don’t succeed. I’m just lucky that I won the lottery.

LDR: What inspired you to start on that series of politically based novels?

RNP: I always cared about politics a lot. I had always admired Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, the classic twentieth-century American political novel, and wondered if I could do something like that. So when I realized I had the novelistic tools and the means to understand that world, and people who would help me, it all came together.

I remember one remarkable day when I was writing a book about the abortion wars. It imagined the first woman to be nominated to the post of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. She gets in trouble over a very dicey abortion ruling that she issues against her interests in being confirmed by the Senate. So it’s about senatorial politics, presidential politics, the Supreme Court. I needed to learn a lot, so I went to Washington and I sat down with Bob Dole, whom I’d gotten to know, and I asked him if he were going to take down my nominee, how would he do it? He told me what he’d do, and it prefigured a lot of what’s happened in judicial nominations since then.

I went home, and I was dictating my notes from our meeting when I got a call from the White House saying, “The President will see you tonight. Do you have time to come over?” I said I thought I could make some time. President Clinton was wonderful. Together we imagined how we would save the nominee – we wrote ads, we traded seats on commissions for senatorial votes. We had a wonderful time. I walked out of there and I thought, “What a remarkable day. I have the coolest job on the planet.”

loss of innocence richard north patterson

LDR: What occasioned the switch from political novels to Martha’s Vineyard–based novels?

RNP: I felt I’d said what I had to say about politics. Also, I like family dramas, and family runs through a lot of what I write. Family is what I think about, parents and children, how the generations affect each other. Researching Fall From Grace, I did a lot of talking to psychiatrists, including two Vineyarders – Charlie Silberstein and the wonderful Bill Glazer, who died recently, and whom I dearly miss. I find family dramas very rewarding to do, and as I get older, the idea of running around the world and beating my brains out appeals to me less and less. Also, as you get older, you become more reflective. These books are the kind of books that reward reflection.

Fall From Grace is the first of a trilogy set on Martha’s Vineyard. The next book, Loss of Innocence [a prequel], is a coming-of-age novel, written from the point of view of a young woman in 1968. It’s very different for me, and I’m proud of it because I think I successfully impersonated this twenty-one-year-old woman. I have nice book jacket endorsements from Gloria Steinem, among others.

Publishers are always looking for a label to put on you, but I never wanted to be the master of the psychological novel, the family novel, the legal drama, whatever. I just wanted to be a novelist. Loss of Innocence makes the point that I can do a variety of things. I stay interested by doing a variety of things.

LDR: Are there any drawbacks or benefits to writing about the Vineyard?

RNP: I can’t see any drawbacks. I know the Vineyard very well, I have a set of experiences, and a set of people I can easily ask about things. I have observations of various kinds about the summer social life here, some of which are kinder than others. But I essentially love this place, so writing about it has been fun. If I never write another line, concluding a career of twenty-two novels with a trilogy about Martha’s Vineyard is not a bad way to wind things up.

LDR: What are some of your less kind observations about the summer social life here?

RNP: First of all, there are wonderful people here, and you don’t have to get involved in gossip and backbiting. [But] there are segments of this Island that are sort of like high school for rich people. Some people seem more interested in tidbits about the lives of other people than broader things, ideas, enthusiasms, concerns about the society we live in, or our passion for a pursuit of some kind. It can get nasty in ways that I haven’t seen elsewhere outside of high school, and I graduated from high school a long time ago. I have a problem with an attitude I see here sometimes: “We’re so special because we come here.”

It’s better to just appreciate this place. I sit on my porch every morning, just enjoying the beauty. We’re surrounded by trees and nature – no water view, unless you count what Nancy calls our “cement pond” – and it’s just lovely.

And there is a collection of really interesting people here, both year-round and seasonally. Whether or not they have some sort of public profile, people here are doing some really interesting stuff. It makes for a very stimulating environment. It’s pretty hard not to have a good dinner party here.

LDR: Have you got another novel brewing?

RNP: I don’t know whether I’m going to write anymore. But that’s not a confirmed decision. What I do know is that I’m taking a year off. I think there’s such a thing as being overdrawn at the bank; you need to let things come in. I’ve been putting out at a great rate. As the market got tougher, I was writing faster and faster just to keep up. But once I felt I’d taken care of everyone, set aside money for education, etc., I took a big breath in. I’d been dancing as fast as I could for so long. People think that artists work when they’re hit by moonlight, but it’s not true. We’re living real lives. So when I realized that the only reason to write a book was because I wanted to, I wrote Loss of Innocence and Eden in Winter [the third and upcoming novel in his Vineyard trilogy], because I wanted to. But now I’m taking a year off to let stuff marinate. I’m trying to learn to be a terrible painter, and I’m playing golf badly. I’ve got more time to be with my family. I think that’s what we all work toward. The work in itself has to have meaning, but if you’re just working to kill time, what does that say about the rest of your life? What richness and depth are you getting out of that? I love my life, most of all because I love the people in it.