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Book World Live: Richard North Patterson, author of 'Eclipse'

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Richard North Patterson
Novelist
Tuesday, January 6, 2009; 3:00 PM

Novelist Richard North Patterson, author of 16 popular legal/political thrillers, was online Tuesday, January 6 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss Eclipse, his latest book, which dramatizes the corruption and competition of the global oil trade. The novel is partly based on the life and brutal death of the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

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Read the Review: Africa, in the Shadow of Sept. 11 (Post, Jan. 6)

The transcript follows.

Patterson, a former trial lawyer, was the SEC's liaison to the Watergate special prosecutor and has served on the boards of several Washington advocacy groups. He lives in San Francisco and Martha's Vineyard.

Join Book World Live each week for a discussion based on a story or review in Book World or in the weekday Style Section. For more from Book World, read the daily Short Stack blog, subscribe to the weekly Book World podcast, and join the ongoing discussion in Dirda's Reading Room.

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Richard North Patterson: Hello from Ric Patterson. My new novel, Eclipse, involves an American lawyer, Damon Pierce, who fights to save African human rights leader Bobby Okari and his wife Marissa -- a woman Pierce once loved -- from death at the hands of a brutal dictator empowered by his country's oil wealth. I look forward to your questions.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: In reading your bio, I see you were the SEC's liaison to the Watergate prosecutor. As time has faded, we forget about the details of that time in history. What was the SEC's interest in the Watergate investigations?

Richard North Patterson: There was evidence that William Casey, recently head of the SEC, had deliberately squelched an investigation of the Nixon administration's embarrassing connections to ITT -- which, it seemed, might have aided the Republican party in return for favorable treatment by the justice department. Casey's highly suspicious "solution" was to terminate the SEC inquiry by sending it to that same Justice Department, which buried the matter. There was substantial evidence of Casey's duplicity -- qualifying him, perhaps, for his later job as head of the CIA. But when Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the Special Prosecutor's inquiry into Casey came to an end.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: There have been some historical arguments that the oil industry had significant involvement in the early decades of the 20th century in promoting the rise of gas-powered vehicles over electric vehicles. Many don't realize about one third of all cars were once electric. To what degree to you believe there has been direct and indirect, if any, collaborations between the oil and auto industries since then?

Richard North Patterson: That is certainly consistent with more recent history, in which the oil and auto industries have promoted vehicles and opposed regulation in a matter calculated to promote their economic interests. The result is a growing economic, environmental, and -- I would argue -- moral crisis. Oil dependency is not only bad for us in terms of sheer self interest; our dependence on oil autocrats diminishes our standing on human rights.

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Atlanta, Ga.: At what point did you decide educating your readers about specific issues was more important than telling a good story? I'm sure I learned something from your last few books, but I didn't really enjoy reading them the way I did your previous books.

Richard North Patterson: It's not my intention merely to inform. I think it's essential to stress the values of any good novel--people, plot, and place. From today's review in the Post, I struck that happy balance in "Eclipse."

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Mechanicsville, Va.: I've really enjoyed all of your books, but I have to confess I like your courtroom dramas best. Is there another book based on a trial in your future?

Richard North Patterson: Absolutely. I've started work on "Honor," a courtroom drama which ends with the military court martial of one army officer on charges of killing another. Among the issues is the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on veterans of Iraq.

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Washington, D.C.: As opposed to Watergate, the revelations about Bush-era illegal conspiracies seem to be falling flat in the zeitgeist. When I was a kid, people seemed delighted Nixon got caught, today I think people would rather not know how much worse the Bush administration was than we realize. I don't really want to know what his conversations were like over Katrina decisions since his own mother already commented that the victims were lucky to move to Texas. I don't want to know about conspiracies that haven't been uncovered yet. How do today's conspiracies compare to the pre-Watergate one of the 1960s when we knew something was up, but didn't know what it really was.

Richard North Patterson: I think today's conspiracies are more sophisticated. For conspirators the rules now include: keep the conspiracy small; and no recording devices allowed. Moreover, the Dick Cheney theory of government has pushed official secrecy in alarming new directions. It is fair to say that, in areas like energy, the government itself inspired to keep us ignorant of facts I believe we should have known.

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Munich, Germany: Your new book sounds like it's based partly on the life and death of Ken Saro-Wiwa from Nigeria. Did you travel to Nigeria to do any research? A friend of mine who work as a seismologist for an oil contractor in Nigeria once told me that Nigeria is the most corrupt country on the planet. Do you have any amusing stories about the corruption in Nigeria that didn't make it into your book?

Richard North Patterson: Yes, the book was partially inspired by Ken Saro-Wiwa, and I did extensive research in Nigeria.

The experience was unforgettable. Perhaps most striking was what almost happened to me. As part of my itinerary, I arranged with an American expatriot to meet with the armed militants who operate in the trackless creeklands of the Niger Delta. A week before I was scheduled to do this, my security advisors implored me not to go, citing physical danger and the prospect of arrest. After some argument, and over the dissent of my would-be guide, I finally postponed the trip.

Two weeks later, my guide was arrested with two German documentary filmmakers by the Nigerian security services, who jailed them for three months before expelling them from Nigeria. As I didn't plan to write a prison novel, I'm happy to have missed this.

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Alexandria, Va.: Are there any of your former characters that you want to return to, to continue telling their stories?

Richard North Patterson: Never say never. After a period of time I find myself curious about characters I last spent time with years before. Christopher Paget is one example; Caroline Masters another. Offhand, I would say the most likely characters might be David Wolfe and Hana Arif from "Exile," along with Hana's daughter Munira. Like the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy itself, their story seems far from over.

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Arlington, Va.: Why did you choose Africa this time around?

Richard North Patterson: First, I was inspired by the tragedy of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a martyred Nigerian human rights leader who remained vivid in my mind fifteen years after his execution. What is so timely about Saro-Wiwa's story today is that, against great odds, he aroused a mass movement to protest the plunder of his region's oil by the country's brutal dictator. Obviously, the Darwinian competition of world powers for oil is piercingly salient today -- notably in Africa, where the world's greed for petroleum has caused great human suffering. I think this makes for dramatic and compelling fiction.

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Bethesda, Md.: I am excited to read your book, especially since the weather here is so gloomy -- I'm looking forward to curling up with your novel. But my question for you is: what are you looking forward to reading in this new year?

Richard North Patterson: I'm currently reading a novel called "Spy by Nature" by Charles Cumming, an espionage thriller. And on my nightstand is Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes," a history of the CIA. And Christopher Plummer's wonderful autobiography. My friend Scott Turow is also working on a sequel to "Presumed Innocent," which I can't wait to read.

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Rockville, Md.: I have a question that isn't about your latest book, but about your past work: what is your favorite of the novels you've published? And why? I've always been such a fan and am really intrigued by the idea that an author can finish a work and move on and do another one without wanting to tinker away and away at each one forever.

Richard North Patterson: You've hit on something. Writing a novel is like a very intense love affair -- absolutely involving while it's happening and impossible to replicate once it's done. As a writer you have to commit yourself totally to the world you are currently creating.

I care deeply about all my books -- otherwise, I'd never have begun them. But I suppose my favorites include "Degree of Guilt," "Protect and Defend," and "Exile" -- the latter two because I learned so much from writing them, in addition to being proud of the results.

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Alexandria, Va.: My question is more on the business side of things -- I keep reading that the publishing industry is imploding, with imprints going under or converging with others. Have you been affected by any of that? How is the future looking, from your perspective, as far as the book industry goes?

Richard North Patterson: I haven't been affected yet. That's only because I won't be negotiating a new contract for the better part of a year. In the meanwhile, I try to focus more on the book I'm writing than on all the bad news you so accurately catalogued. In the near term, I think times will be leaner for publisher, authors, and booksellers alike. I feel a little better about the longer term, including new ways of getting books like Kindle. But I think we're far away from the golden days of publishing. I'm just very grateful for the career and readership I have.

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Envy!: I just have to say that I am beyond envious that you reside in my two favorite places: San Francisco and the Vineyard. I realize this is completely off topic, but will you share your favorite places to eat/spend time/whatever in each place? My favorite restaurant in San Francisco is Greens and on the Vineyard, I love Zapotec in Oak Bluffs. Wish I were in either place right now! Sigh.

Richard North Patterson: I love both restaurants you mentioned. Other personal favorites include Aqua, Michael Mina, and the North Beach Restaurant in San Francisco. And Atria and Detente in Edgartown. But you've obviously got good taste and there's an awful lot to choose from.

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Falls Church, Va.: Did you spend much time in Nigeria while researching this book? If so, what are your impressions of the country? If not, how were you able to paint such a rich picture of it?

Richard North Patterson: I didn't believe I could make this the book I wanted without going to Nigeria. My overall impression is of a vibrant people whose country has been ruined by the corruption that oil brings: government officials steal the profits; we in the West fuel our cars and industries; the oil companies do pretty well -- and the Niger Delta, source of Nigeria's oil, is mired in economic and environmental ruin. That was part of the impetus for "Eclipse."

As for other impressions, Lagos is an astonishing dystopian place. It's the model for the fictional city of Waro in "Eclipse."

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Washington, D.C.: Since you have been involved in politics in the past and since this is a chat for WaPo, I must ask, what do you think of the current political climate? Of Burris being rejected on the Hill today, of Norm Coleman possibly being beaten by Al Franken, of the change that everyone is hoping President-elect Obama will bring, etc.? Is all of this enough to make you want to relocate back to this area so that you can watch the spectacle up close?

Richard North Patterson: I'm coming to the Inaugural -- I wouldn't miss the most historical electoral event in my lifetime. I think this is the turning point, where Americans have perhaps our last chance to leave behind the divisive ugliness of the past decade, and tackle problems so big that no sane country could ignore them. If we do this, we may thrive again; if not, we'll precipitate our national decline.

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Crofton, Md.: A thriller about global oil is obviously very timely. What inspired you to set your book against that backdrop? Did you conceive of the idea before Al Gore's opus "An Inconvenient Truth" came out, or was that part of the impetus for writing this new book? And what sort of feedback have you received from environmentalists -- or Big Oil for that matter. I realize it's a novel, but it's partly based on truth, right?

Richard North Patterson: The novel is fact based and intensely researched. One source of inspiration was the gracious example of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian human rights leader whose protests against environmental despoiliation led to his death. But this story seems particularly compelling today where the rise of Al Qaeda, instability in the Middle East, our failure in Iraq, and the increasing demand for oil has caused our strategic planners to focus on oil security. This led me directly to the Niger Delta as a prototype for fiction.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Have you already sold the movie rights? Who would comprise your dream cast? (Do you ever have any say over that?)

Richard North Patterson: No rights sold. To me, characters all look like people I have invented. But Patrick Dempsey sort of looks like Damon Pierce, and Thandie Newton might make a good Marissa.

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New York, N.Y. : So, what's next for you? Are you already in the thick of writing your next novel? If not, what do you do in your off time?

Richard North Patterson: Actually, my next novel, "The Spire," is a psychological suspense novel set on a college campus. It's done, and will be published on September 1. I'm now working on a new novel, "Honor," focused on a military court martial.

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K Street: Do you ever have the urge to go to trial again? I'm buried under briefs and keep daydreaming about getting out of here and transitioning into being a trial lawyer.

Richard North Patterson: I really enjoyed being a lawyer. But the wonderful thing about writing novels is that it's self-assigned work: I get to pick the subjects, and tell the stories as I think best. It licenses my curiosity and creativity in a way that few jobs can.

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Wondering: How did you learn about Ken Saro-Wiwa? And why did you wait so long to base a story around him? I've never heard of him, honestly, but his story does seem compelling.

Richard North Patterson: I first heard about Saro-Wiwa in 1994, when the writers' organization PEN began protesting his incarceration. But the subject became even more compelling when, after his death, the Niger Delta became hell on earth--both a frightening place, and a compelling setting for fiction. The current world-wide competition for oil compelled me to write "Eclipse."

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Escapes: I think of books in general as ways to escape. But you are lucky enough to get to research different places and set books in them. Have you had any particularly amazing travels thanks to your work as a novelist? And any places you are setting your sights on to include in future work?

Richard North Patterson: One of my most unforgettable experiences was my immersion in Israel and the West Bank in order to write "Exile." My unforgettable experiences included meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres, meeting with the survivors of a suicide bombing in Haifa, and a secret encounter with a leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade wanted by the Israels Army. It's the only interview where a subject had two body guards, and all three were armed with AK-47s. Unforgettable.

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Vienna, Va.: What do you think of the global warming claims? I hear so much conflicting information: global warming is real, global warming is a myth, we must find alternative energy sources, we have plenty of energy sources, etc. In the research you've done, what is your take on all of the information that is floating around?

Richard North Patterson: I'm not a scientist but it seems that the body of scientific opinion suggests that global warming is very real. Given what we're doing to the ozone layer, that sounds right to me. If polar bears could speak, I think they'd complain that their ice is melting -- obviously a fact.

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Fiction vs. facts: I realize that your novel is a fictionalization of the twists and turns of global oil industry. But my question is: how close is what you've written to the truth of what's going on in the world as far as all of this is concerned? Did you ever worry about your own safety as you were investigating these companies and entities? Or am I over-reaching?

Richard North Patterson: I make every effort to cut to the bone of reality. In this effort, writing fiction is particularly valuable: sources are often more likely to be candid with me than a journalist. As for my safety, I only worry about it when experts say I should -- as in Nigeria, where I was advised to travel with a security team. (In another answer, I mention my encounter with a Palestinian resistance leader wanted by the Israeli Army: in the course of the interview, it occurred to me that I might incidentally become collateral damage.)

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Springfield, Va.: I haven't had a chance to pick up your new book yet, but it's on my wishlist. In the meantime, can you tell us about the characters in this novel? Who will we root for, who will we root against? Or at least, who are your favorites (heroes and villains alike) in this one?

Richard North Patterson: "Eclipse" focuses on the fictional West African country of Luandia, and on the struggle of Damon Pierce, an American lawyer, to save resistance leader Bobby Okari and his American wife Marissa from death at the hands of General Savior Karama, the country's brutal and corrupt ruler. It's a story of adventure, intrigue, corruption, and betrayal set in a murderous environment where contending forces fight over the plunder of oil and Pierce never knows who to trust, or what will happen next. The novel climaxes with Bobby's trial by a virtual kangaroo court assembled by Karama. The stakes are not only the lives of Bobby and Marissa, but Damon's as well; the question is whether any of them will escape alive.

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Shady Grove, Md.: I'm sure you get asked this question all the time, but please indulge me: who are your favorite authors? And/or favorite books of all time? I like your writing style so I expect I'd like your favorites!

Richard North Patterson: Favorite authors include Scott Turow, Dorothy Dunnett (for the Lymond Chronicles), and Allen Drury for his early political novels. Favorite books include "Advise and Consent," "Revolutionary Road," "By Love Possessed," "Prince of Tides," and Jack Newfield's bio of Robert Kennedy.

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Inaugural!: You're coming to the Inauguration? Have you already scored tickets to one of the balls? And if so, do you need a date? (Kidding!)

Richard North Patterson: I do have tickets for the Inaugural and to a ball, and would love to go with you. But my wife's under the happy illusion that she's my date.

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Amazing: It is amazing to me that your next novel is already done and has a release date. How on earth do you write so fast? Also, you say it's set on a college campus -- is the setting based on any particular university? Also, do you write your books concurrently, or do you finish one before you start the next one?

Richard North Patterson: I write one book at a time. But I work intensely, five days a week. For that time, I absolutely live in a the world I'm creating.

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Next generation: Are there any new authors who you think we should watch -- I've been a fan of yours for years, but am interested in finding good writing wherever I can. I thought you might be more tuned in to up-and-coming novelists than I might be.

Richard North Patterson: I admire Arturo Perez-Reverte.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: I realize it's a novel and not a non-fiction book, etc., but what do you hope people take away from "Eclipse," if anything?

Richard North Patterson: I hope people will not only be engrossed in a story, but will more fully understand the human costs of the global lust for oil. If that happens, then I've done my job.

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Annapolis, Md.: Will this novel do for the oil industry what "Blood Diamond" did for the diamond industry -- in other words, did you write this in part to shed light on the shady dealings these companies are having?

Richard North Patterson: I hope so. But instead of focusing on the oil companies, I think there is plenty of blame to spread around. In corrupt petro-autocracies like Nigeria, it's too easy for government officials to steal money for themselves while ignoring the needs of their people. The Niger Delta -- sunk in violence, corruption, and environmental ruin is a tragic example.

More broadly, industrialized countries share responsibility. Our dependence on oil has sponsored pollution and greed, while empowering leaders who control oil who ignore human rights. To apportion the blame, it is best not to focus on the oil industry, but on oil itself.

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Arlington, Va.: Are you planning to do any events in the D.C. area, such as book readings or signings? If so, how would one find out about your scheduled appearances?

Richard North Patterson: Regrettably, I'm not scheduled to do any touring right now -- among other things, I'm pretty busy being a dad. But I have many friends in Washington, and look forward to appearing in the next year or so. So please keep an eye out for me.

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Richard North Patterson: Time is up, so thanks a lot to everyone. I've enjoyed this.

Ric Patterson

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