ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
And we continue our book series "Thrilled to Death," where we talk to some of the best thriller authors about their work.
Richard North Patterson is a master of the genre. He's written 16 books, many of them best-sellers. A few have even made their way to film. He wrote his first thriller novel back in 1979. At the time, he was well into a career as a high-profile lawyer. His recent novel is "In the Name of Honor," a legal thriller that revolves around post-traumatic stress disorder. And like many of his books, the subject matter springs straight from the news.
Richard North Patterson stopped by our studios, and I asked him about a recurring pattern we've seen in this series. Why do so many lawyers turn to fiction?
RICHARD NORTH PATTERSON: Well, they may be desperate to leave their current profession, for one thing. But aside from that, if you think about what lawyers do, clients tell you the damndest, most remarkable stories; that's the first thing. The second thing is, you're on a great intimacy with people you don't often achieve in - outside the law. Then there's arranging all these messy facts into a narrative which is pleasing and persuasive to a jury or a judge.
And if you're a writer, you have to make it as clear and concise as you can because judges and law clerks are America's most tired and cynical audience. So if you think about that - arrangement of narrative, writing clearly, telling stories, rearranging facts - it's a perfect training to be a novelist.
NORRIS: Okay. So you're describing when you talk to the jury. But anyone who has read a legal brief, or has spent any time plowing through any kind of legal document, knows that legal writing is something unto itself. It sometimes doesn't even resemble English.
So for someone who spent so many years writing legal briefs, how did you find your voice as a writer of fiction?
NORTH PATTERSON: Well, first of all, that's bad legal writing.
NORRIS: Oh, okay.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORTH PATTERSON: There are tons of it. There's tons of it out there, okay?
NORRIS: Maybe I just haven't been exposed to enough good legal writing.
NORTH PATTERSON: I once began a brief, Michele, something like this: Plaintiff's argument is like a dead mouse on the kitchen floor. If they pretend to ignore it, maybe the jury and judge won't notice it's there. And then I try to tell a story. Now, mind you, you're a little constrained by cases and facts and things like that. But I try to engage the reader in the first paragraph because there's lots of things that they have to read. You want them to keep on reading. So even as a laywer, I always worried about telling a narrative that made sense, or making an intellectual argument that was coherent and as vivid as I possibly could.
NORRIS: I want you to talk to us about your first book, "The Lasko Tangent," because...
NORTH PATTERSON: Oh, yes.
NORRIS: ...the first book is where you first are introduced to the character Christopher Paget...
NORTH PATTERSON: Right.
NORRIS: ...who then comes back and resurfaces later in books that had sort of wider circulation right out of the gate.
NORTH PATTERSON: Yes.
NORRIS: Tell me about how your writing has evolved over time, for instance, writing about Christopher Paget in "Lasko Tangent" and then later in "Degree of Guilt." How did your writing change...
NORTH PATTERSON: Well...
NORRIS: ...the more that you practice the craft?
NORTH PATTERSON: Yeah, those are very different books. "The Lasko Tangent" was a first-person novel, with a certain flavor that came from - sort of the sensibility of the protagonist. By the time I got to "Degree of Guilt," his second appearance, I was a very different person. I hadn't written for seven years. And now, I'm using a multiple narratives - where you're on all sorts of different places depending on the scene and the character. You're dealing with different sensibilities. It's a much wider canvas.
And that enabled me, and enables me, to do all sorts of things with fiction that I couldn't have done if I chucked the tools I had in "The Lasko Tangent."
NORRIS: You often write stories that ride the crest of some of the thorniest issues in the news cycle. Is that something that is particularly challenging, or is there some freedom in that because there are a particular set of facts that you can always fall back on? Or is it easier to create worlds entirely of your own making?
NORTH PATTERSON: It's more challenging to do some of the things I've done. As you know, I've written about things like abortion, the Israelis and Palestinians, most recently, PTSD. In order to do those books right, you not only have to do extensive research so you believe in the world that you're creating, but you have to arrange all of that in a narrative, which nonetheless entertains. You can't write about a sleeping pill where you just simply disgorge for pages all the things you learned about X, Y or Z.
NORRIS: Why did you decide to write about PTSD? Is this based on what you've learned about the experience of men and women who are returning from Iraq or Afghanistan? Or have you been wanting to tackle this for some time?
NORTH PATTERSON: Well, actually, the first time I tackled it was a quarter- century ago in a book called "Private Screening." I was just fascinated with the experience of veterans who would come home - because that was such a divisive war and really, so terrible for the people who were involved in it.
NORRIS: So that would have been veterans coming back from Vietnam.
NORTH PATTERSON: From Vietnam. I mean, they thought that the war was meaningless and murderous. The cause was frequently unpopular. And one of the most vivid encapsulations of the effect of unremitting combat in ambiguous circumstances was given to me by a Vietnam vet, who said to me 25 years ago: If you put your cat in the backyard in the morning and lob hand grenades all around him, at the end of the day, you'd have a different cat.
So I started seeing the effects of the Iraq War. I remembered very well my experiences among veterans of Vietnam. I thought, it's time to return to this subject.
NORRIS: And I'm looking at your book. At around page 352, there's the scene where someone is being almost interrogated about what is PTSD - what do you know about him? How well does he sleep? You know, in describing PTSD, it seems like there are many tools in your box that you can use to help people understand this.
NORTH PATTERSON: Yes. I mean, the first thing that needs to be said about PTSD is that it is not the, quote-unquote, fault of the military, or the people we send to fight. But it's inherent in the nature of war itself - and never more so than the nature of modern warfare that our folks who are experiencing now. We have 750,000 people suffering from PTSD to some extent, or traumatic brain injury. We have a hundred thousand people who are homeless. We have thousands of suicides.
And the reason is that people who are so shattered by their experience don't conduct their marriages in the same way, have difficulty sometimes retaining information or focusing, which affects the ability to hold a job or become further educated. All of it is terribly destructive to human personality and the ability of people to function in a society.
NORRIS: Since you write stories that are so often right on top of the news cycle, are you always looking for new plot devices? When there's a Toyota recall, you know, somewhere, do you start a file - that could be a great plot for a story. When there's an oil spill in the Gulf - oh, better start a file there, that could be a great plot device also.
NORTH PATTERSON: I certainly look at events, but I also look at how events affect people. I recently had the notion I'd write a book about cable news, which I think is becoming more and more horrific all the time. But unfortunately, the idea would verge on the parody. So I'm thinking more about a novel about a young CIA agent in Afghanistan who is on a mission - whatever that might be - which he perceives as doomed, but still goes ahead because that's his obligation. It's about one human being in that situation, but also about the nature of that war. That kind of works for me on two levels. It works for me on the level of Afghanistan as a fascinating place, but also works for me on a human level.
NORRIS: You know, you're - one way or another, you're making your way to Afghanistan. You hear that, don't you?
NORTH PATTERSON: Uh, yeah. Boy, what a good idea.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: Richard North Patterson, thanks so much for coming in.
NORTH PATTERSON: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: That's Richard North Patterson. His latest novel is called "In the Name of Honor."
And we want to hear from you about what novels you think belong on the list of the 100 most suspenseful books ever written. Tomorrow is the last day to weigh in on our Killer Thrillers audience poll. And to cast your vote, go to the Summer Books section of npr.org.