Giving It Up – A Writer Trades Pen for Paintbrush


A Conversation With Richard North Patterson

There’s nothing bad about being a best-selling writer . . . It’s a very pleasant form of recognition, and I’m no more immune to it than anybody else. But I think you have to be willing to let that all go; I think that’s the way of mental health.

Best-selling novelist Richard North Patterson’s twenty-second novel, Eden in Winter, was published in July of this year. When the author first told me, perhaps a year ago, that this novel would likely be his last, I didn’t believe him. How could he simply stop doing something he did so well and enjoyed doing for decades? How could he disappoint his millions of fans? And what would Patterson — a disciplined individual who always put in a full workday as a writer — do with himself if he weren’t writing? Once I finally grew to believe that his decision was real, it occurred to me that others might be interested in how he would answer questions like these. I visited Patterson at his home in West Tisbury, and we sat and talked in his sunny, second-floor office. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Laura Roosevelt: You’ve let it be known that Eden in Winter, the novel that came out in July, will be your last. Why have you decided to stop writing?

Richard North Patterson: I feel I have done what I wanted to do. I’ve written twenty-two novels, and in them I tried to realize every ambition you could think of. I’ve written suspense novels, psychological novels, even a coming-of-age novel about a young woman. I’ve written novels about law, politics, geopolitics — very wide-ranging subjects.

LR: When did you decide to stop writing?

RNP: I’ve been thinking about this for some years. I want to go out on a good note — one that pleases me and hopefully will please others. I have a desire to leave gracefully, when I’m still writing well. You see people — athletes, entertainers — hanging on when they’re not good anymore, because they can’t let go. I think you need to let go. The greatest hitter of all time was Ted Williams. At 42, when he was still a fine baseball player, Williams came up late in the season at Fenway Park, hit a long home run to right field, ran the bases, and disappeared; he was never seen on a baseball field again. I don’t know that I’m going out with a home run, but I do want to exit while I’ll still be missed, rather than when people are starting to ask, “Why hasn’t he left the party yet? He’s been here way too long.”

LR: Isn’t it hard to leave the party when you’re still having a good time?

RNP: I don’t want to be writing novels because I want to cling onto whatever notoriety one gets from these things. Yes, I got used to being what I call a “Grade B celebrity.” There’s nothing bad about being a best-selling writer. People treat you nicely, and they have an exaggerated sense of how intelligent and interesting you are. It’s a very pleasant form of recognition, and I’m no more immune to it than anybody else. But I think you have to be willing to let that all go; I think that’s the way of mental health.

LR: From what I hear about the changes in the world of publishing, the business end of being a writer may not be so hard to leave behind.

RNP: True. The business is kind of crummy compared to what it used to be. Publishers are more desperate, less profitable, and that affects writers negatively. Kindle cuts our income by as much as seventy percent compared to hardback sales. And now there’s a lot of pressure to email fans, and tweet, and a lot of other nonsense. If I’m not writing, I want to be doing something else of value, like spending time with my family. I communicate with my readers through what I write. And while I’ve answered every piece of fan mail I’ve ever received, I don’t want to be involved in this trivialization of communication by going to Twitter camp. I have a friend — a very distinguished literary novelist — who, when someone asked him whether he tweeted, replied, “For twenty-five bucks, you get my book; you don’t get a relationship with me.”

LR: Will you miss writing itself?

RNP: I don’t feel a driving need to write. I’ve heard more about writing as a personal pleasure, as something that just possesses one, than I’d ever care to hear. I loved writing, and it was a perfect job for me. But writing is work. Sometimes you have to do it when you don’t want to. But you keep on doing it, because writing is showing up, just as with anything else. But the idea that I’m somehow a vessel for moonbeams that I’m helpless to resist? That’s just crazy.

I’m doing my last appearance in connection with any book of mine in August, at the Chilmark Writers’ Series [This occurred on August 14]. I’ll be talking about my new novel, Eden in Winter, and about writing in general. And that’s going to be fun, because I can say anything I want and not have to worry about it.

LR: The trilogy of which Eden in Winter is the third and final book is a departure from what readers might consider your typical genre: the legal or political thriller. What led you to break type and write psychologically oriented family drama?

RNP: Publishers have made a real effort to tell people I only do one thing. Once you’re perceived as a commercial writer, the expectation is that you will do again and again that which your publishers, concerned with sales, think you’re good for. I pushed that boulder long enough. I wrote these last three books because I wanted to, and because I’d already made the money I needed to make to take care of my family. It meant more to me to write these last books than it did to try to please publishers; these books spoke to me personally on a profound level, and I was proud to do them. That’s a nice way to end.

LR: Why would these last books not please publishers?

RNP: The idea that I was writing a coming-of-age novel about a twenty-one-year-old woman just horrified them. It wasn’t even that they thought I couldn’t do it; it was that they felt, “Even if these novels are great, we can’t sell you like this. This is not who you are.” I knew that I was writing my own epitaph by going beyond where anybody wanted me to go, but I was at the point where I didn’t have to care anymore. When I sat down to write Eden in Winter, I thought that very likely, this would be my last book. And when I finished it, I thought, “Very likely, this is my last sentence.” And that wasn’t an entirely happy feeling.

LR: Why is that?

RNP: Because I’ve been very happy being a best-selling novelist, being a writer. It’s sad when you come to the end of anything, especially something that’s been the source of incredible pleasure. Endings are always bittersweet. When I walked out of my law firm to become a full-time writer, writing was definitely what I wanted to do, yet I’d liked being a lawyer in a big-name firm. I’d liked my partners, my interesting clients, my office’s view of the San Francisco Bay. When I left, I felt a real moment of nostalgia that I still feel now thinking about it, but there is no way in the world that I wasn’t happier writing novels. I just think that endings are like that.

LR: Maybe it’s the awareness that with every ending, we move closer to the inevitable final ending.

RNP: I’m the most scared-of-death person on the planet this side of Woody Allen. And I always say the thing about death is that there’s no future in it. I’m acutely aware of that, so endings always carry that resonance.

LR: And perhaps beginnings always feel hopeful. So let’s talk about your new pursuit. How did you decide to start painting?

RNP: When I decided not to get to the point where I was hanging on to writing by my fingernails, I realized that I needed to find something else enriching to do. I’ve been involved in public affairs for a long time. I was chairman of the board of Common Cause, I served on several other boards, I’ve written op-ed pieces and given speeches on various political and social issues. I’ve done all that, and I don’t now have a driving desire to go to meetings, or to live in one place so I can be a useful citizen. Writing was perfect for me because I like the business of working alone. I like being accountable to myself and to my own standards of performance. I like the process of creating without having to collaborate, having something that — however good it is — is distinctively mine. I guess that’s how I happened upon painting.

LR: Do you have any background in painting?

RNP: I have no known talent for painting that anybody ever identified. The last time I painted I think I was in the fourth grade. But I started again last summer, and now I’m taking lessons. All I’m doing right now is attempting to make the natural world look more or less like itself when I paint it. I’ve joked that I’m a born Impressionist — which is to say that all I can do is create an impression of something.

LR: Where do you see it going?

RNP: There are very accomplished painters on this Island, and I have to laugh, because I think, “What combination of unbelievable innocence and colossal arrogance made you think you could ever do what they do so very well?” But all you can do is measure yourself against yourself and be as good as you can be. I never worried about how good other novelists were; I knew that I was good enough. What anybody else did was irrelevant. It wasn’t like one guy was going to get to be President of writers, and I was going to get fired.

The commitment I’ve made to myself is to get as good as I can at painting, which is why I don’t mind talking about it, even at the risk of embarrassing myself. There’s something to be said for making yourself accountable to ambition.

LDR: You used to write all day long. How much time do you spend painting?

RNP: I paint for several hours most days. It’s a commitment I make. This isn’t a hobby; it’s a pursuit. It’s great to aspire to something new. I’m humbled by how much room I’ve got to get better; it’s almost infinite, given that I started with almost no experience at all, but it’s kind of inspiring, too, because you know that if you work really hard at it, you can improve. And although becoming as good as I can at it means a great deal to me, nothing else is riding on it. My kids’ college is paid for, my retirement doesn’t depend on it. It’s a complete free throw.  It’s strictly a matter of enjoying it, and finding out how much I can bring to it.

My immediate effort is to learn technique, to challenge myself by making each painting somewhat more difficult than the last one, to keep tackling new problems. It’s a process of arming yourself with basic ability; once you have that, then you can start thinking about what you can paint that is pleasing and distinctive. I’m not there yet, whereas as a writer, I was distinctive from sentence one. There’s nothing to suggest I’ll be even remotely as successful a painter as I am a writer, but I don’t even know if that matters.

LR: If you don’t achieve that kind of success with painting, what do you think you will have gotten from it?

RNP: If in two years, I’m still painting like a fourth grader, I will at least have gained a greater appreciation of what it is to be an artist, and an appreciation of how artists see the world. Already I’m finding that when I look out a window, instead of seeing a tree, I see a bunch of different shapes and colors, shadows and light peeking through the branches; it’s so much more interesting than I ever stopped to notice before.

If I don’t achieve some level of proficiency, I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t regret having tried. And painting is engaging in and of itself. When I’m traveling and can’t paint for a couple of days, it bothers me.

LR: When you are painting, what’s going on in your head?

RNP: I don’t think about anything else — just about how to create a shadow, or suggest proximity. It’s just like when I was writing: I was completely in that world, and not in the world that actually surrounded me. It’s great to be able to replicate that. Nancy has said that she could be naked and on fire when I was writing, and I wouldn’t notice. I’ve always been able to be absorbed like that. Time just vanishes, but at the end, you have something to show for it.

LR: Do you think you’re the sort of person who needs to have a project — who needs to be working toward something?

RNP: No, I don’t. I never wrote in the summertime, even if it meant stopping in the middle of a novel and not picking it up again until the fall. I didn’t do anything for three months but read, float on my raft in the pool, and play golf badly. And that was fine. I don’t get bored; I have a large capacity for self-entertainment.

It’s not that I need a project; it’s that I’m grateful to have found a pursuit that speaks to an aspect of me that is probably fundamental, which is the desire to create things. If I can do this with any level of competence, then I’m very lucky. I remarked to Nancy recently that the woods are full of accountants and lawyers, and I was one of them. So what? But if in the end I can say that I’ve been an accomplished lawyer, and an accomplished novelist, and an accomplished painter? If I manage to do all three, I’ll have gotten my money’s worth. Then I’ll figure that, whatever talents I may possess, I’ll have wrung all that’s possible out of life.

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