If ever a person seemed destined to become a successful writer, that person is Richard North Patterson ’68. His first short story, written while he was taking a seminar with Jesse Hill Ford at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was published in the Atlantic Monthly. His first novel, The Lasko Tangent, won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America; the award is generally considered to be the most prestigious in the genre. A fast start, certainly.
To date, Patterson has written a total of 20 novels, 16 of which have been New York Times bestsellers and which cover subjects as disparate as gun violence, capital punishment, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, human rights, and the geopolitics of oil. His novel Degree of Guilt won the French Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and a later novel, Protect and Defend, was recognized with a Maggie Award from Planned Parenthood for its treatment of issues surrounding reproductive rights. His current novel, Fall from Grace, was released this year to yet another round of critical and popular acclaim.
For Ohio Wesleyan alumni and friends, Patterson’s 2010 novel, The Spire, holds particular interest because much of the research for the book was conducted on campus. Readers who know Ohio Wesleyan will feel right at home.
That much success would be enough for most people, but Patterson also practiced law in both the public and private sectors after graduating from Case Western Reserve University School of Law. He has served on the boards of both his alma maters, and each has honored him with the highest alumni recognition. He also has been a board member of the National Partnership for Women and Families, the Family Violence Prevention Fund, PEN Center West, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. At one time, he was chairman of Common Cause, the grassroots citizens’ lobby founded by John Gardner in 1970. All of this while writing book after book—very successfully.
Patterson’s view of success may be different from those of many others in the public eye, however. “If you think of success as related to money,” he says, “of course you have to make enough to support your baseline economic needs—and also what’s necessary for your children.
“For me, that meant providing an education at the best place they earned by their own efforts, and I also wanted them to be able to graduate without debt and to pursue jobs that were meaningful to them. I’ve told them that money isn’t free; you pay for it with the time you spend making it. That it might be best to take a job where you make less money, but has importance for you.
“Taking care of my kids has always been paramount,” Patterson says. “When I started writing, I was published and had some decent reviews, but after a while, it wasn’t enough to give them a house to live in or the possibility of the education I thought was important, so I practiced law for eight years. I’ve never regretted that. I’ve always believed in paying obligations forward, and now I have a balanced view about how I spend the rest of my life.”
Thinking further about the dimensions of success, Patterson says, “I can tell you what success is not: it’s being rewarded beyond the worth of what you do and reveling in that, divorced from doing any good with it. To me that’s the definition of failure. The other view of success I don’t like is the reality TV notion that success and celebrity are the same thing—that success equals notoriety and being known for making a sex tape instead of doing something that has some meaning.”
Patterson also says that success, as society defines it, is a somewhat artificial construct. “I had a hit book at 45,” he mentions, “and I adjusted to that pretty easily because I realized that the success wasn’t about me as a human being. It was about something I produced. And if people suddenly find you interesting because of what you’ve produced, once again, it isn’t about you. It’s about what you’ve done. Getting invited to a lot of places you weren’t invited to before isn’t really a measure of success. When you know that, it makes it easier to get over yourself.”
Ultimately, success for Patterson is about relationships. ‘I’ve just come back from my daughter’s wedding,” he says, “and it’s a cliché, I know, but it does make you think about what’s important.
“Paul Newman once said. ‘It’s been a privilege to be here.’ And that’s true. It’s a statistical miracle that any of us is here at all, and in the business of life and at the stage of life I am now, it’s wonderful to be able to make more time for family and friends.”