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Higgins flying high
By Grania McFadden
Article Date - 29 April 2000

No airport anywhere in the world is complete without the latest Jack Higgins on display. The Belfast-born writer, whose real name is Harry Patterson, has penned 50 novels and sold more than 300 million copies since his first blockbuster, The Eagle Has Landed, hit the bookshelves. But success wasn't always on the card for Higgins. As a young lad, he was beaten by his headmaster, and told: "You're useless. You'll never amount to anything." Like the man who turned down the Beatles, that teacher has had plenty of time to regret his words. Born in 1927, Harry Patterson grew up in Newcastle and Belfast. He left Northern Ireland at the age of 12, when his family settled in Leeds. Forced to leave school at 15, the young Harry worked as a messenger boy, tram conductor, circus tent hand and commercial surveyor before undertaking a two-year stint of National Service. He won a place a teacher training college and supported himself by working as a waiter at night, until he was qualified to run adult education classes. Later, teaching by day and writing by night, with a wife and young family to support, he published his first novel at the age of 30. But success was still a long way off. As the public ignored his literary efforts, a chance encounter with an old - more understanding - teacher helped thrust him into the big time. His former English tutor told him to change the structure of his novels. "Instead of devising ingenious plots and fitting my characters into them, he suggested I begin with a strong, deeply-felt human situation and let my plot develop from real characters." It worked straight away. Harry Patterson quit his day job to become a full-time writer when he was 41. He ditched his real name, too, reincarnating himself as Jack Higgins - combining his mother's maiden name with that of a favourite uncle. In 1975, all Harry's hard work paid off when he wrote The Eagle Has Landed, with its gripping storyline of German troops landing on the Norfolk coast in a bid to capture Churchill. Higgins said: "It was a reversal of the usual story. This was good guys fighting for a rotten cause and no one liked it at first. Not my publishers, who said it was the worst idea they'd ever heard, and not my agent either. "But it's sold 50 million copies in 50 languages, so someone must like it." Higgins recalls the moment of his first publishing success. "Here was I, aged 45, a kid from the streets who'd hit the jackpot in middle age. "I thought maybe I'd never do it again but it's just gone on, like an impossible dream." Ever since then, he's been one of a handful of authors who can measure sales and earnings in millions. Higgins writes two books a year. In a good year, he earns bsp;3 million and, even if he never wrote another word, he receives more than bsp;500,000 from royalties annually. But, as he says, you can only live in so many houses and drive so many cars. The rest is paper. Now a tax exile in the Channel Islands, Higgins is as happy to tuck into bacon and eggs as he is to order a five course meal. The Protestant work ethic is as ingrained as ever and he starts work at 11pm, writing with a felt-tip pen on foolscap, until daybreak. That he sets great store by historical research and authenticity is clear in his new novel, Day of Reckoning. This is vintage Higgins and heralds the long-awaited return of his most popular creation, the enigmatic Sean Dillon, former IRA gunman turned British government enforcer. Here, Dillon and his secret intelligence colleagues help an American White House security advisor avenge the death of a reporter. Dillon risks everything in London, Beirut and Ireland, as he tries to thwart the ambitions of Mafia frontman, Jack Fox. This is the eighth outing for Dillon, who was created after the IRA's attempt to mortar bomb John Major's Cabinet in Downing Street. "I was in a car nearby when the attack happened," said Higgins. "The question was, how had it been planned? I stayed in London putting it all together and that's how Sean Dillon came into being." Higgins reveals that he originally planned to kill Dillon off after his first appearance. "But my wife insisted he was such a charismatic character that readers wouldn't want him to die, so I rewrote the last chapter and let him slip away into the night..." Dillon's still here, and ready to fight another day. A bit like his creator, he'll keep on going. Day of Reckoning by Jack Higgins is published by HarperCollins, price bsp;16.99. [A