Richard North Patterson is an attorney and best-selling author of 22 novels and, just recently, his firth non-fiction book, Fever Swamp, which is an account of the 2016 election (and which reads like a novel more bizarre than anything Stephen King could come up with). We spoke with him about his “grid” lifestyle system, why the polls got it wrong, and the “Comey effect” on the election.
Describe your morning routine.
I’ll get up about 5 o’clock. Drink coffee, look at the internet for news. Read the New York Times, watch a little Morning Joe, and get to work by 730. If I had a magic hat, I’d certainly wear it, but I like in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico in the winter, Martha’s Vineyard in the summer, and California in the fall. I’ve been peripatetic throughout my life, but the Vineyard house I’ve had for 22 years. Mexico for 9 and California for about 7. In each place I have a dedicated office which is really quiet and really light, so I’m in the best possible mood wherever I am.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I’m so relentlessly organized that I drive everyone else crazy. I call it “the grid.” When I get up in the morning, I map what I’ll do, hour by hour, over the course of the day. I think it makes me extremely productive, but others suggest that it makes me less than wholly spontaneous.
It’s entirely different between my new project, Fever Swamp, and my novels. Fever Swamp is a non-fiction narrative of the 2016 campaign and the rise of Donald Trump. Based on my articles for the Huffington Post during the campaign, with annotations, where I went right, where I went wrong. Obviously, I didn’t know the ending while I was writing. So it was a matter of keeping up with events that you can’t predict. But what made the book so fascinating was the sheer unpredictability of the campaign writ large, and the behavior and psychology of Trump. In common with the novel, it has the elements of a fascinating story with interesting characters. Different from a novel, I didn’t control those events. In terms of writing a novel, I begin with the ending, because I think the ending should resonate with the beginning. The behavior of the characters, do they make sense. Are you manipulating them just for the sake of it, or are they integrated human beings who react in a natural way. I always know how the book ends and I always plan who the narrative should go, so it flows as well as it can. That’s not to say that things can’t change in the process of writing, you always discover things, but they are very carefully thought out. Sometimes you read a book and the ending just falls off a cliff. You know the author just couldn’t figure out what to do. I don’t want to have anything like that.
I had a funny parallel to the campaign. I live in Slovenia—I guess I’m the first person in Slovenia to interview you.
Oh, gosh. That is fair to say.
I don’t follow politics particularly but I did write a column for a Slovene magazine trying to explain the election to Slovenes, over the last ten weeks. As confusing as it might be for an American it is even more confusing for foreigners.
That is a challenge. And if I recall, Melania is Slovenian. How have you found living there?
Oh, I love it. I tend to idealize it, but it’s got the best parts leftover of socialism, so it’s got a great balance of the government taking care of you for a low cost of living, but they aren’t intrusive. And of course it’s an incredibly beautiful country with all anyone could ask for.
You must have mastered the language by now.
Well, maybe not “mastered.” They decline nouns here and all my declension endings are wrong, but people seem to think it’s cute, at least for now. If I’m still doing it twenty years from now, it might seem less cute… Why do you think the polls were so wrong about the election?
Polling is harder now, with fewer people responding, more suspicion of institutions. It’s also the cell phone. It makes people harder to find. I would also argue that FBI Director James Comey’s intervention, writing the letter to congress about Hillary Clinton’s emails, even before he knew what was in them, really tilted the election. The polls changed three points in the last eleven days after the Comey letter. And the campaign changed. I think that there was a Comey effect. The letter reminded voters who were doubtful about Clinton about why they doubted her, and it rallied the Trump people. I’m not sure that the polls were that far off, though I grant you that most people thought that Clinton was going to win.
It seems from over here that Comey had done something inappropriate, if not illegal, and I was surprised that he has retained his position. Was there an investigation?
Funny you should ask. Today’s headline is that his actions will be investigated by the Justice Department. Not so much on the notion that he committed a crime, but that he used extremely poor judgment and violated department regulations about taking actions that could affect an election. I was appalled, and I think anyone supporting Clinton was appalled. It was a gross misjudgment, and whether he did it to pacify his restless troops in the FBI or because of reckless self-regard, I don’t know. But he has his little place in history.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
My wife, she’s very funny. She has a great sense of humor which is frequently directed at me. I guess she figures she has rich material.
Do you have any superstitions?
Not marked ones. I do genuinely feel that actions have consquences and there’s such a thing as karma. But I don’t worry about stepping on cracks.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
Oh, Bobby Kennedy. I would love to be able to talk to him about all sorts of things. He’s one of the rare politicians who is as interesting as a character in a novel. I was good friends with his brother, Ted, and I wish I’d gotten to know Bobby.
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
Thirteen rejections and three rewrites. I learned that writing is rewriting and if you think you have a book that is essential, never give up. I’ve written 22 novels, and every one of them has been published. And that’s because I keep after them until they are as good as they can be.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
One of my favorite rejection letters was headed “dear submitter,” which had alarming sado-masochistic overtunes… It had been used so often, that there was a wrinkle on the original from repeated Xeroxing, so there was a stripe down the middle of the letter. Later on became good friends with novelist Joe Kanon. I was reminded once, when I was laying out my old papers, that I got one of my first rejection letters from Joe, long before I met him. Not three days ago, in New York when he toasted me for my significant birthday, I reminded him how we had gotten to know each other before we’d gotten to know each other, since he rejected my first novel…
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
“He gave it all he had.”
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
I’m sort of sentimental. I think most people wouldn’t take me for someone who cries at romantic movies, but I always get teary. Sabrina always gets me, the original with Audrey Hepburn.