Jack Higgins Profile in The Sunday Telegraph - June 1993
Jack Higgins should not be confused with Jack Hawkins. However, it would not be an inexcusable error for anyone who had only a nodding acquaintance with the name. Some of the characters in the works of Jack Higgins, thriller writer, are brave, honorable men that Jack Hawkins, actor, might have played. Nevertheless, they are often different in one respect from the unforgettable hero of The Cruel Sea: they tend to be brave, honorable Germans or IRA men. Thus has the world of British popular fiction changed over the past 50 years.
Jack Higgins is probably the most successful British writer in his genre, a multi -millionaire whose thrillers are on sale at every airport bookstall in the world.
"Jack Higgins" is in fact a pseudonym for a man of complex attachments, a 63-year-old Irish -Scots Yorkshire-man called Harry Patterson. Higgins was the maiden name of his Irish mother; Jack was the name of a tough, Irish Loyalist uncle. Higgins (which we might as well call him now) was born in Belfast in 1929, but came to Leeds as a small boy when his Scottish bookmaker father and his mother parted, and she married again.
He is 63, slim and fit -looking, with tinted glasses he has worn since receiving a skull injury as a child. Perhaps his undiminished vitality is due to the fact that he must be one of the hardest -working men in Britain. He left school at 14 and got a job as a messenger boy in the cleansing department in the canal docks. He did National Service in the Horse Guards and became a corporal. He won a place at a teacher -training college and worked all night as a waiter to keep himself. He became a teacher, and worked all night to get a degree by correspondence, so that he could go on to do teacher-training at an adult education college. He still works at night, writing - but now he does it lying on a sofa in his mansion in Jersey, over -looking the lights in St Aubin's Bay ("like Monte Carlo," he says). When dawn breaks over the bay he has some champagne and a bacon sandwich, and goes to bed.
This transformation in his way of life took a long time, spectacular though it has been. The big time began with The Eagle Has Landed in 1975, when he was already 45. Since then he has had 12 best-sellers and made millions of pounds; his paperbacks sell a steady 50,000 copies a month, and he has been translated into 42 languages, with four titles currently in the Polish Top Ten, and pirated editions flooding communist China.
However, with a storyteller's instinct, he picks out earlier important turning points in his career. He actually began publishing novels when he was 30, and while still teaching brought out 15 thrillers and other novels under his own name and various pseudonyms. He was then married with a growing family, and these books helped the budget without making him rich.
One day he bumped into his old English teacher from elementary school, who said: "Why don't you write your novels another way? I think you just devise ingenious plots and fit your characters into them. Why not start with some really strong, deeply-felt human situation and carry your story on from that?"
Higgins thinks that is when he really started writing good novels, and with books like East of Desolation, which grew from the idea of a crashed plane on an ice -cap, his real success began.
Another chance encounter of a very novelish kind took place when he was 40, and becoming anguished over the question of whether to give up his job and become a full-time writer. On holiday in Devon in 1970 he met an elderly clergyman in a churchyard. The clergyman looked at Higgins and asked if anything was the matter. Higgins was drawn to tell him what his problem was.
The clergyman did not give him any religious instruction but cited a practice of Churchill's when he was in a dilemma: "Write down all the reasons you can think of for following one course of action, and then in a facing column write down all the reasons for following the other. Choose the one with the longer list." Higgins did this, and gave up his job.
Yet there was still another important moment in his career before the Eagle landed and took off. This was a resolution made by Higgins himself, unaided by any "deus ex machina", and it followed hard on his decision to go it alone. He wanted not only to write more convincing books, as he had started to do since the meeting with his old schoolmaster, but also books that had "themes of importance" - "Civilized thrillers, adventures that made the reader think".
It might, one feels, have been a disastrous decision. But it wasn't. In 1972 he brought out The Savage Day, the first of his novels in what was to be his new, really triumphant vein. An Ulster thriller, it introduced the first of his provocative Irish heroes, and Higgins still thinks that the book tells a truth about the Irish, with its suggestion that the conflict is for them like a theater of the street, which they do not want to come to an end.
From there it was only a step to The Eagle Has Landed, with its squad of Germans landing on the Norfolk coast during the war to kidnap Churchill, led by a deep-down good German commander, later played by Michael Caine in the film.
Higgins attributes his success largely to his development of characters like that - not stereotyped heroes and villains, but fighters on whom we are drawn into making a complex judgement. The thoroughness of his historical research and the authenticity it lends to his stories are also important, he believes. (When writing Solo, about a pianist who is a terrorist, he jumped 10 feet off the Albert Hall stage to see if it could be done.) He is also very topical and quick off the mark: he was the first thriller writer to build a novel around Exocet missiles after the Falklands war. But there is more to it than any of that, a quality of which he is perhaps himself not fully aware. It is the same thing that makes Jilly Cooper so much more successful than her shopping-and-bedding rivals: a natural gift for luring the reader on, constantly provoking curiosity, and in the act of satisfying it, provoking fresh curiosity. It is the storyteller's art, just as it is found in much greater writers like Dickens and Trollope - possible to analyze, impossible to teach.
Since he made his fortune, Higgins moved to Jersey and married again - his second wife was his literary agent's assistant. But is he happy? He himself has said he is not. He is very proud of his popularity and not ashamed to boast of his money, but he does not particularly enjoy luxury, and would be quite glad to leave Jersey again. He went there in a rage when he found, after The Eagle, that the Inland Revenue was taking 83 per cent of most of his earnings, and he still gets angry about that.
But he seems fated now to success and all that it brings.