WRITERS' Journal March/April 2000 by Jack Carroll
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.
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?
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!
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?
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.
WJ: Staying on the subject of films for a moment, do you generally sell an option or the rights to your books?
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.
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?
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.
WJ: What would you consider some of your major strengths as a fiction writer?
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
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?
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.
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?
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
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.