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WRITERS' Journal March/April 2000 by Jack Carroll

Jack Higgins Has It Made
And Harry Patterson hasn't Fared Badly Either

Nothing ever came easy to Harry Patterson, including writing. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he grew up in Leeds, England. Entering the army at 17, he served as a corporal in Berlin at the height of the Cold War, while gathering research data that would serve him well in many books to come. He returned to Leeds after his army discharge, where he uot;knocked around a bit,uot; as he puts it, then entered Leeds University at the somewhat seasoned age of 28.
His first books was published in 1959, before graduation, for the princely sum of $150. Other books, under other names, followed while he managed to hold down a full-time teaching position. By any name uot;Martin Fallon, Hugh Marlow, Ken Graham, to name a few- sales were few and far between. But after adopting the name of an uncle, Jack Higgins, in 1969 (uot;It sounded like a thriller writer's name,uot;says Higgins.) his writing career took a decided upturn. One novel, Savage day, was serialized in major U.K. newspapers and an other, A Prayer For The Dying, was made into a movie.
In 1976, Higgins joined the roster of instant-millionaire writers then The Eagle Has Landed hit the best-sellers lists worldwide. And was made into a movie, starring Michael Caine. 1999 marked Higgins' 40th year as a published author and the publication of still another bestseller from Putnam , The White House Connection. Writing under his own name, Harry Patterson , he also produced bestsellers, The Valhalla Exchange and To Catch A King. Both novels, Storm Warning (Higgins) and The Valhalla Exchange (Patterson) appeared on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously.
Higgins fields questions with the practiced fluidity of one who has been on the best sellers promotional circuit for more then 25 years. Before returning to his tax-haven retreat on the Channel Island of Jersey, off the French Coast, he paused to deliver more then a few bons mots about the craft and business of writing, during interviews at his publisher in New York and via satellite link to his home in Jersey, Channel Islands. Read carefully, digest slowly.

Writers' Journal: What would you consider your first breakthrough in publishing?

Jack Higgins: When I was a poor young man, I wrote to a famous woman writer, asking for help. Maybe it was crazy, sort of nauml;ve thing to do, but it worked. She wrote back to me and suggested the names of two agents. I wrote to both, mentioning her name, and one, Paul Scott, replied and said he had read my book. After reviewing it, he concluded that, yes, I was a writer, He was quite interested in me but felt the book wasn't right for publication. Nevertheless, this was the first time any such thing had happened to me; that someone actually recognized my work.

WJ: What was your first book that was published?

JH: After I heard from Paul Scott, I wrote three more books and still got nowhere. None of them was uot;right,uot; it seemed. I was sick with the frustration that all my life since the age of 13- had been dedicated to writing and simply wasn't paying off; not even a penny!
It was almost the last throw of the dice when I decided to rewrite another book that I had in a drawer for years. It was Sad Wind From The Sea and this time my agent said uot;Yesuot; and found a publisher. But even back then it wasn't very good money. I was paid about $150 for an entire full length book.

WJ: Was that book published under the Jack Higgins name ?

JH: No, I used my own name, Harry Patterson. I carries on writing books like Sad Wind From The Sea and I suppose for the next ten years I must have written about thirty of these things. [Editors note: Harry Patterson wrote 38 books before publication of The Eagle Has Landed, using the names Martin Fallon, James Graham, and of course, Jack Higgins, among others. His first pay as a writer was the advance he received in 1958 for A Sad Wind From The Sea, which was published in 1959.]

WJ: Prior to your first published book, what do you consider your biggest disappointment?

JH: It came after I was published. Because far a number of years I kept waiting for my books to sell well and the simple truth is, they were not selling at all. It seemed that once I got into print , I also got into a rut. Nothing much was happening and things were definitely uot;low key,uot; to say the least.

WJ: Prior to The Eagle Has Landed , what was biggest financial success?

JH: Savage Day was serialized in major newspapers worldwide in 1973, partially because it had to do with Ireland, which was a very hot politically at the time. Then a James Graham book, The Wrath of God was made into a film starring Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth.

WJ: Did this take a bit of the financial pressure off?

JH: Definitely. I received quite a bit of money for that one, which gave me an assured income for the next three or four years.

WJ: As happen when a writer becomes the proverbial uot;overnight success,uot; many of your earlier works were reissued as paperbacks. Are you happy with there or do you feel that some of them were really just training vehicles?

JH: Some were training, I suppose, but others -the best of the lot- are still perfectly decent thrillers. Since I emerged as a known writer, quite a few of my early books have been reprinted several times over and I like to feel that perhaps they were undervalues originally. For instance, Toll For The Brave, had been reprinted at least 20 times and has sold more than a million copies through the first half of 1999.

WJ: Considering the prevalent World War II/Cold War time frame of many of your novels, I somehow can't avoid associating you with writers like John LeCarre, Len Deighton and Frederinck Forsyth. What's your take on this?

JH: I really don;t consider myself part of any group or genre. Actually, the only one I know is frederick Forsyth. I've not met LeCarre or Deighton so, no I don't find myself feeling any particular kinship. We're all totally different. I mean, if you'd given the idea for The Eagle Has Landed to any of these guys, they'd each have made excellent novels of it, and each would have been entirely different.

WJ: Have you developed any sort of writing formula?

JH: As far as I'm concerned, absolutely not. The connection with some of my bestsellers is tat they happen to have a World War II connection and are put together in similar fashion as well as having some basis in reality. But to answer your question, no; I genuinely have no feeling for formula. By formula, many writers feel that you must have certain amounts of violence, adventure, sex and so on. I never thought about my work that way. In fact it's my feeling that the setting of my stories force them to be varied and therefore eliminate the possibility of a formula approach.

WJ: Do you have a writing schedule as to how much you'll accomplish in, say a year?

JH: Not really. I'm quite happy if I can get a good book done each year. But sometimes I'm fortunate enough to do two. For instance, back in 1979 I did To Catch A King and Solo as well as a complete film script.

WJ: Your books of late seem to have become more succinct and fast moving and one can't help get the feeling that you might be thinking - at least subconsciously- about their future adaptation as movies. Is there anything to this?

JH: No, but I do wish more of my books were made into movies, simply because I'm a great buff. I love movies and am perfectly happy even watching the bad ones that come on after midnight. To get involved in more movies myself would be a great joy, indeed. That The Eagle Has Landed was made into a movie really surprised me. I thought at the time that the idea of anyone making a film about German soldiers -though relatively nice ones- their attempt to capture Winston Churchill was utterly preposterous.
I actually told my agent that for a film agent to read the read it would be a waste of time; that's how I felt. When he sold the film rights within a fortnight, I was totally amazed and even then I was convinced it would never make it to the screen. Because I had similar projects where you wait a year or more and , just when you think you're close, they suddenly fall through.

WJ: Staying on the subject of films for a moment, do you generally sell an option or the rights to your books?

JH: At my level of success, I'll got to sell the rights. If not the rights, then the options package must be exceptional. So let's say that if nine months nothings happens, then the party involved is going to be prepared to pay hundreds of thousands to keep his hands on the option. The idea here is that the more money people have lay out, the less the likelihood that the project will fall through.
If they've invested quite a bit, you hope they'll pass the point where it pays for them to keep the project going rather than drop it. But sometimes that doesn't work under the current tax laws, since the option or part of it may be allowed as a uot;write-offuot;.
This happened to me in a bit way with Storm Warning, which was a huge best seller. It was going to be a film spectacular; big stars, incredible budget, and all that. The project was about three weeks away and (snaps fingers), just like that, for any number of reasons, they completely dropped the whole idea! So that's why I don't believe in a film until the first day of production cinematography actually starts. But I must tell you; I still ended up with a small fortune from the canceled Storm Warning project.
From my point of view, books will always come first, and luckily, I've been so successful on the U.S. and U.K. best seller lists for many years now. I'm most fortunate in that whatever I'm doing in my writing seems to have universal appeal, and all my books have done well in translations. Naturally, I'd always like to have more films, but the lack of them can't make me or break me one way or another at this point.

WJ: Do you enjoy script writing?

JH: The initial writing, yes. But after that I find the whole process most unsatisfactory You'll write a perfectly good script and they'll always bring in other writers so that the whole thing becomes second, third and however many drafts to someone else. If I had it my way, if I had a dream come true, I'd love to write a really fine play and see it produced in the West End or even Broadway. You know, to stand at the back of the theater and see the lights go down and the curtain go up on your work -that would be really something.

WJ: Getting back to books, I know The Eagle Has Landed was something special for you and a major turning point in your career. Do you have any idea how many copies have been sold over the years?

JH: It was a special book indeed; one of those that comes along and all of a sudden is read by people who don't often read. It still sells continuously, and I reckon that it's now up to at least 50 million copies worldwide and counting. It has sold over five million copies in England alone.

WJ: There had always been an undercurrent of controversy about the story line. Can you tell our readers now, was it partially based on fact or was the entire Churchill kidnap plot a total work of fiction?

JH: It goes like this: I had heard a story that an attempt to capture Churchill had taken place in the vicinity of Norfolk, England. Years later, I went there on a holiday and was fascinated by the strange, foreboding atmosphere, marshes, mist and that sort of thing. I remembered the old Churchill tale and when later that evening I was in one of the pubs talking with the locals. To my astonishment, they started talking about Churchill's secret visit to the area in the Fall in 1943, and a supposes German plot to capture him! Later when I did some checking, I found out that Churchill was on his way to a conference with Stalin and Roosevelt at the time. But how could he be in both places at once? Then the whole thing began to assume real story possibilities for me.
I did a lot of digging, and a lot of fictionalizing as well, but that is how Eagle come to be. I should sat that the story has gone far beyond discussing whether it is true or not, because it appears that over the years the myth has become reality. I mean, tourists still go to Norfolk and stop at petrol stations and ask directions to uot;Studley Constable!uot; (uot;Studley Constableuot; does not exist, except as the fictional village depicted in The Eagle Has Landed)

WJ: What would you consider some of your major strengths as a fiction writer?

JH: I have an enormous capacity for facts. I'm quite good in the short haul to assimilate various facts to memory and bring them out within the body of a story. Which is the way to do it. I become an expert for a short period of time on a certain subject, and I use that expertise in the story, whether I'm describing a particular aircraft or how a tank operates. I remember in Day Of Judgment I had President Kennedy taking someone inside the White House at night. I described the door they went through, the route inside, and so on. Someone who had been inside couldn't understand how I got the uot;feeluot; for the place. He understood how I could do a description from layout, but not how I conveyed the atmosphere, since I had never been inside myself.
Pilots have made the same type of comments, assuming I'm a pilot, which I'm not. In Eagle, for example, a pilot said I described exactly how it was to control a crippled aircraft - as the German flying the Dakota cargo plane is trying to fly the aircraft after it's been hit by his own comrade. To me, it's not a great feat to describe the crash. I suppose that sounds arrogant, but I really don't know how I do it. I just thought if it now, but I used to be a keen amateur actor and maybe that's my secret. The writer, like a good actor, is able to to get under the skin of the character and play the part. Like a mild mannered actor is able to play a tough guy and do it convincingly. That's my flair in writing; to be able to get into the feeling, sense and smell of the thing, without actually having done it myself.

WJ: When did Jack Higgins the writer actually emerge?

JH: It all started when I was about 13 years old and in a very rough school where every one thought I was daft for saying I wanted to be a writer,. They didn't understand those sort of things at that school. Consequently, I'm not as helpful to would-be writers as I should be, because when they inevitably ask, uot;how do you do it?uot; I might well reply that if you decide to be a writer at the age of 13 and have sufficient desire to spend all your spare time at the craft - weekends and holidays included- for 16 or 17 years like I did, and then end up getting a first novel published for the sum of $150 then by all means I say, go for it

WJ: But you did publish magazine articles and plays before that first advance?

JH: I wrote scores of articles for magazines and never sold a single one. I wrote 12 plays and never saw one produced. And I wrote many, many radio plays and never sold one.

WJ: After all the early rejections, didn't you feel any self-doubt? And what kept you going?

JH: I suppose I did feel a measure of self-doubt and, looking back now, I really don't know how I did it. I guess the idea of making money at something I really liked fascinated me, so I think that was the motivation factor that got me through the rough spots.

WJ: Do you have a writing routine at all?

JH: I used to write exclusively at night, starting at around 11 o'clock until about six or seven the next morning. I developed that routine when I had terrible trouble with a story line. One night when the family went to bed, I had a cup of tea and started going through my notes and realized then what had to be done. I didn't want to use the typewriter because it would have awakened the children, so I found a pen and started writing on a legal pad.
Next thing I knew the light was coming thought the kitchen windows and I knew it was around five in the morning. I had written 15 or 16 pages, which where quite good, I thought. The next night I I did the same thing and finished the book that way. These days I vary my routine and write quite a bit during the day as well.

WJ: You still do all your writing longhand?

JH: Yes. As to writing longhand, I think it's a personal thing, like painting. The contact with the pen or pencil on paper is physical, personal; it's you.

WJ: What is your favorite way to procrastinate?

JH: Oh, I decide that my study is terribly untidy and go thorough the whole thing myself. I never have a maid in, but do it all myself - dust,shine,polish,Hoover(vacuum) the whole lot and that sort of thing.

WJ: When you travel around on promotional jaunts and so forth, do you keep notes on scenes or places that might be useful in future books?

JH: What I often do is follow the advice of Dennis Wheatley, who was a well-known English Writer. For years he developed the habit of keeping restaurant bills, bus tickets, airline tickets and any kind of documentation you can think of. He'd put them all in a folder after a trip and file them under, let's say, New York. Then, if he ever chanced to write about New York, he'd empty the file, examine the items, and everything would come back to him, plus he'd have excellent, accurate reference.

WJ: Can you tell our readers a bit about your research techniques for your novels?

JH: Some of my research is deliberately undertaken, and then there's that which is based on what you have already done. For instance, if I had to write about a pilot flying a German Junkers 88 in 1943, I know about that since I've approached the subject in other stories. In Solo, I had intimate knowledge of the Greek Island of Hydra, and I've rented the very same villa used by Mikali, the assassin my story. And all the details of flying to Athens, which ferry to take to get to Hydra, what the vegetation is like - what the people are like; I didn't have to look all that up. It was all there in my mind. Thinking back to Solo, for the climatic scene, which takes place in London's Royal Albert Hall, I persuades the people there to give me half a day inside the place so could make a thoroughly accurate presentation. It's quite important to me to get things right. Besides, if I don't, large numbers of people are going to keep writing my publisher to tell me I'm wrong.

WJ: Of all the books you've written, do you have a favorite?

JH: I suppose I have a warm spot for a novel called The Savage Day, because it's set in Belfast, where I was born. But after I've finished a book, I must tell you that I'm not alone among writers who seldom read their own works, just like many movie stars who rarely see their own films.

WJ: Are you still learning your craft ow are you up to the level you wish to be?

JH: I'm continually learning, because writing is a trade like anything else. You must never stop learning, but luck is important, too.

WJ: Would you explain?

JH: My career took off again in a spectacular way in 1991. It was February and I was being driven in a limo with my wife through the snow-covered streets of London by an ex-member of my Regiment, The Household Cavalry. The IRA had mortared
Downing Street that very morning and my wife happened to ask me - as an 'expert' - how I thought they'd done it. On the spot, I invented an ex-IRA informer turned mercenary - later named Sean Dillon - and we proceeded to drive around London as if he were putting the job together. From this, I developed The Eye of the Storm, where I had the good guys shoot Dillon at the end of the book. My wife threw the last chapter back at me and said, uot;Don't be stupid! Just let him fade into the night. He's such a charismatic character that your readers will hate you for killing him off.uot;
uot;But he's such a bad guy,uot; I replied lamely. uot;What's that got to do with it,uot; she said, uot;so was Richard the Third!uot; In the end, I took her sage advice and my new publisher, Putnam, took uot;The Eye of the Stormuot; into the top ten of The New York Times best seller list and it was selected by Reader's Digest and Book of the Month Club.
That was eight Dillon books ago. Every one was a main Book of the Month Club selection and three were picked up by Reader's Digest. The Dillon books have been translated into more than 35 languages, and three successful TV mini-series were produced; two starring Rob Lowe and one with Kyle McLachlan of Twin Peaks fame. Two more are in the works, with uot;Day of Reckoninguot; scheduled for 2000. My latest, uot;The White House Connectionuot;, (1999) is also a Reader's Digest and Book of the Month selection, with about a million copies in print.
So, if I'd killed Dillon off back in '91...? Yes, it would have been a bad move, indeed. Instead, he really has become a total cult figure, though now he's on the side of the uot;good guys,uot; working for the Prime Minister's private force in the U.K. (thoroughly hated by MI5 and 6) as well as the U.S. President's top-secret uot;Basementuot; organization.
All I can say after all this is there may be a lesson here for all writers: Don't ever kill off you leading man.

WJ: When you're having a tough day and don't feel like writing - but know you have to - what would you do? Do you have any special tricks or is it sheer discipline?

JH: Well, I recall a story about J.B. Priestly, for whom I had great admiration. His wife was dying and he'd travel many miles to see her, and then go home to support the children. He said it was the first time that he was in the pits of despair. He sat for a long time at his desk and then, quite fatigued, reached for a chapter of a book he'd been working on. He made a few corrections, then did a bit more rewriting, and when he next looked up three hours had passed. He finished the chapter and later said that it taught him a great lesson: Writing is the greatest refuge in the world, in good times as well as in bad times. uot;The thing to do,uot; he said, uot;is get into it, touch it, and even if you're tired and depressed, just push yourself hard enough and - quite magically- the words will come.uot;

WJ: What about plain old writer's block?

JH: At this stage of the game, I'm not at all worried about so-called uot;writer's block.uot; In fact, it's only happened to me once in 40 years.

WJ: Do you have any words of advice for all the potential best-selling authors among our readers?

JH: First and foremost, get an agent who knows the market and don't waste time sending a manuscript to a publisher who may send it back, possibly unread or without even giving a reason. Try all avenues and remembers, above all, there is no secret to success save persistence.

WJ: Thank you, Mr. Patterson.

JH: Higgins, if you please.