When novelist Jack Higgins first suggested a novel about a Nazi attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill, his publisher was very skeptical. “Who is interested in a bunch of bloody Krauts?” As it turned out, at least five million people were. The Eagle Has Landed became an international best-seller, earning Higgins more than a million dollars so far in royalties. The movie version, starring Michael Caine, which will be out in March, brought Higgins another $150,000, plus a percentage. Now his latest book, Storm Warning, the tale of a German ship in World War II, has been on the best-seller list for 16 weeks and has meant an additional $650,000 for paperback and film rights.
Born Henry (“Harry”) Patterson, the 47-year-old author grew up amid the sectarian violence of Belfast. His father, a bookmaker, left home before Harry was 1. When the boy was 12 his mother remarried, and the family moved to Leeds, England.
An only child, Harry amused himself by reading. “I had this freak ability to read down the center of a page.” Two books a night was the norm—Dickens, Kafka, Tolstoy. At 13, when he decided to become a writer, his hero was Hemingway. “Now I think he is the most overrated writer of this century.” (His new literary hero: Fitzgerald.)
A better storyteller than student, Harry left school at 15, took a job as a messenger and began scribbling short stories. At 17 he joined the army and during a tour in Berlin discovered that not all Germans were villains. “Before that the image was of SS officers about to rape a 13-year-old girl or beat a Jew to death. I’d been exposed only to the propaganda.” (Higgins’ sympathetic treatment of Germans has made his books enormously popular in both West and East Germany.) After Harry returned to Leeds, he drifted from job to job for seven years while collecting rejection slips. When he was 27 he went back to school to become a teacher and met Amy Hewett, a fellow student. A month before they were married in 1958, Harry received a $210 advance for a novel, Sad Wind from the Sea, “the biggest wedding present we could have had.” Until then he had not had a single word published.
Still doubtful of a career as a writer, Harry completed a three-year B.Sc. course in two years while teaching full-time at Leeds and cranking out five more thrillers. With pen names like Hugh Marlowe and Martin Fallon as well as his own, Patterson published 23 action novels before he decided to tackle more serious themes. The first of these, East of Desolation, in 1969, marked the debut of “Jack Higgins.” Patterson borrowed the “punchy hard name, not easily forgotten” from an uncle. The book sold well, but before long it seemed that Higgins might be overshadowed by James Graham, another pen name. “The idea of using Graham was to take up the slack because I was writing so fast. When Graham’s first book, A Game for Heroes, got good reviews, we thought he’d become bigger than Higgins. But it didn’t work out that way.”
In order to avoid cutting into sales of the current Storm Warning (by Higgins), Patterson’s next book, The Valhalla Exchange, will be published in February under his own name. It is about the mysterious Nazi, Martin Bormann. Already the prolific Patterson has finished another Higgins epic for fall. Called Day of Judgment, it deals with a fictional attempt by President Kennedy to smuggle an American-born bishop out of East Germany.
When he is writing, Patterson demands total silence—to the point of sometimes wearing earmuffs. “If that’s not enough, I use earplugs too.” He writes best from 10 p.m. to dawn, averaging between 5,000 and 6,000 words a night (while chewing Wrigley’s gum almost without letup). The next morning he reads his work aloud to Amy or one of their older daughters. “They get annoyed if they miss anything,” says Patterson. He and his wife have four children, Sarah, 17, Ruth, 15, Sean, 12, and Hannah, 3.
When the income from Eagle, his 39th book, put him in Britain’s 83 percent tax bracket, Patterson sold his house in Leeds and moved his family into a modern split-level on the Channel Island of Jersey. There the tax bite is a mere 20 percent. “Money now means nothing to me because there is an inexhaustible supply,” says Patterson. In addition to the new house with swimming pool, Patterson has ordered a $26,000 silver Porsche and is building a tennis court at the back of the garden.
One price of success has been the flare-up of an ulcer, during which the 6’1″ Patterson dropped from 170 to 140 pounds. Amy insists he has to learn to relax. “He gets no lasting satisfaction from anything but writing,” she says.
Nevertheless, Patterson says it has been worth it. “I’ve had to face the fact that life is schizophrenic and that more and more Jack Higgins is taking over from Harry Patterson.”