Don't call his work "ripped from the headlines." Novelist Richard North Patterson may write about some very timely themes, but he is generally ahead of the headlines.
His latest novel, "Eclipse," his fifteenth to date, was inspired by some historic events in Nigeria, but its implications will reach far into the future.
We had a chance to chat with him via email and telephone.
Q. You are not one to shy away from controversial subjects in your novels. You've written about abortion, gun control, the conflict in the Middle East – just about everything they tell us not to talk about at dinner parties! What inspired you to write about oil in Africa?
A. The genesis of "Eclipse" lies in tragic events that occurred in Nigeria almost fifteen years ago, when a courageous environmental activist, Kent Saro-Wiwa, was hanged by General Sani Abacha, the country's brutal and corrupt dictator. The crime of which Saro-Wiwa stood accused, on flimsy evidence, was ordering the murder of four local chiefs who were his political rivals within the Ogoni, Sari-Wiwa's ethnic group. The tribunal that tried him was summoned into existence by Abacha and answerable to him alone; its arbitrary proceedings had little in common with courts as we know them, or with other courts in Nigeria. In the minds of most observers, Saro-Wiwa's true crime was to protest the excesses of the government and petroleum companies in the Niger Delta, and to seek for the Ogoni and others at least some of the benefits accruing to the oil companies and the kleptocratic regime of General Abacha. To this day, the facts surrounding the deaths of the Ogoni chiefs remain obscure.
I was involved with PEN, in a modest and ancillary way, in protesting Saro-Wiwa's prosecution. More recently, the explosion of violence in Nigeria, centering on battles between the government and armed militia groups over the spoils of oil, have become critical to the world's post-9/11 competition for petroleum. I felt that "Eclipse" presented an opportunity to tell a dramatic story that has serious implications for the way that all of us live.
The tragedy of Saro-Wiwa is piercingly salient today. In the years since his death, the industrialized nations have become more desperate for oil to preserve their own power and wealth. Petro-autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and the Saudis use oil as a shield. Rising gas prices are choking our economy. Human rights are trumped by self-interest. Central to my story is that the oil rich Niger Delta is ever more despoiled, and the protest movement of Saro-Wiwa has been replaced by predatory militia who steal oil and siphon it to the black market, while spreading violence throughout the region and maintaining corrupt but shadowy alliances with the government. And our addiction to oil wholly marginalizes any concern we have with the injustices Saro-Wiwa sacrificed his life to fight.
Finally, the courtroom drama that climaxes "Eclipse" is based on the show trial in which Saro-Wiwa was condemned – a Kafkaesque perversion of the forms of justice.
Q. While researching "Eclipse," you spent time in Nigeria. It's a nation of such extreme contrasts, from its plentiful natural resources to the violence, kidnappings and bloodshed. How is Luandia, the fictional nation you created in the novel, different from Nigeria?
A. I invented Luandia rather than claim I was creating a comprehensive portrayal of Nigeria, a country of 150,000,000 people divided into 250 ethnic groups. It is a country of staggering complexity – even Americans who know a lot about Nigeria don't pretend to fully understand it. Thus I worried about doing a serious injustice to Nigeria and its people, even after doing a great deal of work. So I based Luandia on the central aspects of Nigeria without being a complete depiction of an actual place. But the essence of the novel is faithful to the realities of Lagos, its principal city; Abuja, its capital; the strife-torn Niger Delta, site of the nation's oil riches; and the violence, treachery and corruption spawned by oil.
My trip to Nigeria was essential. My research focused in Lagos, its dystopian major city, and its capital, Abuja. During that time I interviewed political and human rights leaders, government officials, businessmen, security personnel for oil companies, human rights lawyers, and others.
Lagos, the basis for my fictional city of Waro, defies easy description. A city built on islands, its uncontrolled growth has raised its population to over fifteen million. Several million residents live in makeshift boats, floating slums without electricity or potable water that fester with crime, disease and prostitution. Traffic is so congested that one can be trapped for hours; vendors sell SIM cards so that people stuck in traffic can use cell hones to tell those expecting to seem them where they are. The roads are rutted, often marked by open sewers, and pass by homes surrounded by walls topped with barbed wire or embedded shards of glass to repel intruders. What is so sad is that this Hobbesian environment is populated by smart and energetic people for whom survival becomes a daily struggle.
Among the bleakest features of Lagos which I portray were expatriate bars where young Nigerian woman, many of whom have fled village life, compete to sell themselves to American oil workers and other white businessmen – a scene at once desperate and melancholy. For all the billions of dollars generated by the oil industry, very little of it dribbles down to the average Nigerian: the effect of oil has been to obliterate farming, fishing and other industries while leaving most citizens poorer than before.
Nonetheless, one can sympathize with the oil industry and its employees. Preyed on by a government that delivers few meaningful services to the people of the delta, the oil companies cannot, by themselves, build or maintain schools, hospitals, treatment plants, or roads. The government, insulated by oil wealth from the necessity to please its people, too often exists to serve itself – reformers in Nigeria face a road blocked by treachery and corruption. As for the employees of oil companies, they often live in gated compounds, fearful of their surroundings, serving out their time for excess pay. In the end, this environment lessens Nigerians and foreigners alike.
An illustrative story: As part of my itinerary, I arranged to meet an expatriate American – living in the Niger Delta – a long-time Nigerian citizen who, among other things, could take me into the maze of creeks to meet armed military groups. Shortly before my arrival, my security advisors implored me not to go, asserting that conditions in the delta were violent and anarchic; that they could not protect me from kidnapping, a virtual industry that focuses on oil company employees; and that the Nigerian Security Services might view my mission with suspicion. After some argument, I acquiesced. Two weeks later, those security services arrested my putative guide with two German documentary filmmakers, all of whom were jailed. Only after three months in a Nigerian prison my contact was expelled from Nigeria.
Nonetheless, my description of the Luandian Delta is based upon the Niger Delta. Among other things, I relied on interviews, films which included the scenes of massacres, reading, trips to similar terrain, and researching human rights lawsuits stemming from slaughters in Nigerian villages. The incidents of violence and massive oil theft are real, as any regular reader of the New York Times can attest. I have no doubt at all that I got this right; I consider it my responsibility to do so.
Q. Has the situation in Nigeria improved at all since the tragedy?
A. Conditions are worse. The government continues to be a kleptocracy, stealing or distributing oil revenues among its members – the chief incentive to seek political power. Years of uncontrolled oil exploration have led to the ruin of land and water, destroying agriculture, fishing, and sources of drinking water. An aging system of above-ground pipes hemorrhages oil and facilitates a system of oil theft by "militias" sustained by a blatant web of bribery that includes the army, navy, customs officers, state and federal officials, and oil company employees who often facilitate the theft.
In short, oil has shriveled the promise and stained the soul of an entire country, empowering autocrats who disdain human rights and are oblivious to the misery of its people. And the industrialized countries desperate for oil – including America, China, and the Europeans – help sustain this tragedy. There is a compelling argument that Nigeria would be far better off if oil had never been discovered.
Q. If there's a moral to the story of "Eclipse," it certainly has something to do with U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But what viable energy alternatives would you propose?
A. We need a national Marshall Plan: a concerted effort to gradually replace petroleum with power sources such as wind, solar, natural gas, and biofuels, while reinvigorating our mass transit, re-engineering our vehicles to cut oil consumption, and placing conservation practices at the center of our consciousness. This is a daunting task that requires decades, and a long-term focus for which our impatient country is not noted (which is why politicians endorse the delusional idea that more drilling will fix our problems). But the alternative is to help doom our economy, erode our security, and insure our national decline.
Q. Why not expand drilling domestically, like in Alaska?
A. Domestic drilling is a chimera. It would take years to make any difference, and then it would not make much difference in light of our consumption. We need to drastically cut our dependence on oil, foreign and domestic.
Q. You approach your books like a reporter and pull themes straight from the headlines, but you certainly come at your subject matter with strong opinions. Are you making a political statement in your novels?
A. One of my purposes is to make people think. I can't know what impact a book may have. I can only write a novel as if it matters, hopeful that if I care about a subject, others will as well. I do know that I've changed individual minds, and caused readers to look at some of our most visceral controversies in a different way. I also believe that when any individual speaks out – including a novelist – it sends ripples throughout a society. But in a country as complex and contentious as ours, there's simply no way to measure the effect of an individual book.
In writing issue-oriented fiction, I try to present different points of view, set out the complexity of a problem, and acknowledge the emotional and psychological aspects of public controversies, whether abortion, capital punishment, or the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. Our media frequently simplify and vulgarize issues, turning what should be reasoned and compassionate analysis into vituperation which demeans the other side. While I have my own point of view, I try to make fairness a value of my fiction.
Q. You wrote a novel called "The Race" about an ugly battle for the Republican nomination in a presidential primary. Did you see any shades of your story play out in the real 2008 election in either party?
A. The parallels of "The Race," published in 2007, and the 2008 campaign are plain. A central preoccupation of that novel, which culminates in the nomination of a black presidential candidate, is the role of race and appeals to social bias in American politics. From the Reverend Wright controversy to vituperative emails castigating Senator Obama, we lived my fiction in real life. Thank God decency prevailed.
In 2008, some of the other themes of "The Race" came to life: the uneasiness of the alliance between business interests and religious conservatives; the politicization of science; the adverse impact of political polarization on governance and public policy; the corruption of our system of campaign finance; the erosion of America's social compact by a politics of self-concern; and the domination of our political dialogue by a marketing mentality so cynical it invites contempt and disbelief. Other themes, including the consolidation of the media, are becoming more salient by the day.
In the end, the 2008 election made one thing clear: millions of Americans want common-sense solutions to our common problems, not more division, distrust, and disdain. Even clearer is the central theme of "The Race" – our craving for authentic leaders who tell the truth as they perceive it, and care more about the country than themselves. That is what Americans hope for in President-elect Obama.
Q. Writing 15 novels is no small task. Do you have a writing routine? Do you write everyday?
A. Monday through Friday, I get up at five, read The New York Times and begin writing by seven. I work with an outline of the chapter or scenes fro each day and typically finish with original writing by noon. Throughout the afternoon my assistant, Alison, and I work the draft over until it's as good as it can be. Typically we're not happy until late afternoon.
Q. What inspires you to write? Is it an issue you want to explore or is it a headline that gets your imagination going?
A. It can be anything, from a compelling issue to a great story. There is a wonderful freedom to being a novelist – it's self assigned work. For someone who's curious by nature, it's a perfect job. If I can deeply engross a reader with a dramatic story and vivid characters, then perhaps I can enrich their experience by exploring issues they may not have considered.
In the last decade, I've written about such issues as the viciousness of presidential politics, the law ands politics of abortion, gun violence and the gun lobby, capital punishment, the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and, in "Eclipse," the geopolitics of oil, where the addictive needs of superpowers tramples any concern for human rights. What is gratifying to me is the volume of appreciative letters I get from readers, many of whom thank me for changing their mind or opening their eyes with respect to the most contentious subjects. While I don't compare myself to these great writers, the wonderful tradition of such fiction includes novelists like Emile Zola and Upton Sinclair.
I think a novelist is free to write about whatever subject he or she cares about. I also believe that to combine the values of good fiction with a hard and realistic exploration of the challenges that face us is one of the finer expressions of the fictional art.
That said, I have just completed a novel a psychological suspense, "The Spire," set on the campus of a small Midwestern college. Having not written a flat-out suspense novel -- one exclusively focused on narrative, character, and plot – in about ten years, I found this a tremendous pleasure. It also enabled me to drill down into the characters and story with, I hope, real depth and richness. So I truly enjoy the craft of fiction for its own sake.
Q. Who are your favorite authors?
A. There are many, from Philip Roth to Dorothy Dunnet, whose historical sequence "The Lymond Chronicles" I deeply enjoy. A particular favorite is Scott Turow, a gifted novelist whose exploration of the darker precincts of the law paved the way for my own career.