West Tisbusy: Over four decades and nearly two dozen thrillers, novelist Richard North Patterson has used current events as scaffolding for his imagination. Late-stage abortion, conflict in the Middle East, genocide in Africa, gun control, the death penalty — the thornier the issue, the better.
But nothing he has addressed in his novels, Patterson said, is as urgent or scary as the events taking place right now in real life. Now 72 years old, he has put thrillers behind him — the high-wire stories set in courtrooms, in the White House, in countries torn by civil strife — and embarked on something else entirely: writing about politics in the age of President Donald Trump.
In long articles in The Bulwark, a digital current-affairs magazine that seeks to find middle ground between Trumpian Republican and left-wing Democratic politics, Patterson writes about topics like American culpability in Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria; what the Democrats should do to win the election; and how the United States’ foreign policy is being driven by Trump’s particular psychology.
Truth feels more resonant, more vivid and more direct to him than fiction, the author said recently. Also, how could you write a believable novel about a character as unbelievable as Trump?
“People suggested that I might want to write fiction with a Trumpified main character, but I couldn’t imagine living inside him, and I wouldn’t want to,” Patterson said in the airy living room of his house. “I don’t want to occupy the guy’s psyche.”
There was a president whose psyche he did want to occupy in his fiction: President Kerry Kilcannon, the liberal fantasy of what Robert F. Kennedy might have been if he had lived to become president. The hunky, blue-eyed (with flecks of green) Kilcannon stars in a trilogy of Patterson books, overcoming childhood trauma to become a senator and then president, battling the gun lobby, following his conscience, marrying the woman he loves.
The policy discussion in the novels is wrapped in an adventure and a love story. As Patterson writes in “Balance of Power,” the third book in the trilogy: “This aspect of his worldview — that good fortune was an accident — was, in Lara’s mind, fortified by his certainty that gunfire had made him president: first by killing James, the deserving brother; then by wounding Kerry, causing the wave of sympathy which, last November, had helped elect him by the narrowest of margins.”
But now Patterson is coming straight to the point, in writing about the actual president. “Trump’s self-absorption is total,” he wrote recently. “His inability to accurately perceive external reality is profound. Because this renders our president deeply anti-social and anti-historical, his worldview begins and ends with 'Trump.'”
Patterson wrote his last fictional paragraph more than seven years ago, when he put the finishing touches on “Eden in Winter,” the final volume in a trilogy about a powerful New England family harboring dark secrets. He had been feeling restless for some time. Some of the social and political issues he wanted to include in his books were getting harder to sell to editors worried about competition and bottom lines in the shrinking publishing industry.
The 2016 presidential campaign, and the startling rise of Trump as a viable candidate, brought Patterson back to political writing, an early passion that he had put aside to work first as a lawyer and then as a novelist. (He began life as a “ferocious conservative Republican,” he said, before moving to the left. Among his earlier political-adjacent jobs were being assigned to work with the Watergate special prosecutor while a young trial attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission. More recently, he was chairman of the nonpartisan government accountability group Common Cause.)
He wrote a series of articles for HuffPost about the 2016 campaign; his first nonfiction book, “Swamp Fever,” a compilation of his articles, was published in 2017; he also wrote a column for The Boston Globe.
At The Bulwark, he writes alongside contributors like Jeff Greenfield, Molly Jong-Fast and Stuart Stevens. The magazine does not release circulation figures, but it’s fair to say that its audience is smaller than that for Patterson’s novels.
Novelists have always used fiction as a way to process and reorder reality, to make sense of the world and provide a better version of it. Let’s say you did want to write a novel about Trump that was both believable — within the realm of possibility — and clearly fictional.
That is what many authors are doing with novels set in futures ravaged by climate change, for instance; it is what Margaret Atwood did (kind of) in “The Testaments,” her sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” published this year. That is what the CBS legal drama “The Good Fight” does, with lawyers who engage with Trump administration policies. (Trump is a character of sorts on the show, albeit offstage.)
But the things that have actually occurred during the Trump administration seem improbable enough without trying to turn the dial up to 11 in an invented story, Patterson said. “I don’t want to be trying to come up with fiction that is a dramatic leap forward from what we already have,” he said. “It would be almost impossible. It would lapse into parody.”
As a novelist, Patterson prided himself on the deep, almost journalistic-level research he did for his books. He conducted more than 100 interviews, for instance, for “Exile,” which delved into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For “Protect and Defend,” which concerns the confirmation battle of a Supreme Court nominee who supports late-stage abortion, he sought advice from Sen. Bob Dole, a former Republican Senate majority leader, about how he would go about stopping the nominee, and from Bill Clinton, then the president, about what he would do to get her confirmed.
Patterson’s job put him in proximity to power, and he was especially close to President George H.W. Bush and to Sens. Ted Kennedy and John McCain. (Signed letters from them, and from a few other politicians, decorate the walls of his guest bathroom.) “I knew those three men very well,” he said. “No one is perfect, but I knew what they cared about and knew they were good and serious people.”
Trump is something else entirely, Patterson said: both author and star of a fictional narrative that he invents off the cuff — and that then becomes its own truth. With such a confusion between what is real and what is not, fiction itself has lost the ring of authenticity it once had.
The president “is operating on the basis that he is the hero of his own drama,” Patterson said. “What he’s done is turn American politics into this metafiction in which he’s the star, and he’s going to spell out all the things that people resent. The connection between his reality, and the facts, is coincidental.”
Patterson was finishing up a recent piece, in which he argues that Trump’s narcissism and lack of empathy has gravely damaged U.S. foreign policy. It is a theme he returns to often: the importance of understanding the psychology of those who would run the U.S. As a novelist, he often consulted psychologists to get inside the head of his characters.
Perhaps one day, Patterson said, he will return to fiction. But it does not feel like the right time. As a novelist, he said, “I would enter my fictional world every day, and I would absolutely believe in it. The characters and the situations were very real to me — I could feel and visualize them — but when I left that world, I would reenter the world of reality.”
That is no longer possible, he said.
“The problem with Trump is that his fiction is all-enveloping,” he went on. “Reality — his own extreme reality — is whatever he needs it to be. The fiction, the story he’s telling, never stops.”
Sarah Lyall c.2019 The New York Times Company