Author Talk: January 12, 2007
January 12, 2007
International bestselling author Richard North Patterson takes his political and legal thrillers one step further by focusing his latest novel, EXILE, on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this interview, Patterson shares why he was inspired to write about this timely topic and discusses the extensive research he undertook in preparation for the book. He also describes some of his personal encounters with those experiencing these ordeals firsthand, and explains how his connections in Washington D.C. have aided him throughout the course of his career.
Question: You have had a very successful career and have written quite an impressive list of novels. In what ways does EXILE represent your exploring new territory as a writer? When and how did the idea for the story in EXILE develop? What might you say to your current fans about the direction you are taking, and in general what makes EXILE stand out from your body of work?
Richard North Patterson: EXILE represents what, to me, is an exciting fusion of my established territory --- legal and political drama --- with a new focus: the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and the lethal politics of the Middle East, shadowed by the threat of a nuclear Iran. The result, I hope, is the most compelling fiction of my career.
The stimulus for EXILE is my friendship with two brilliant advocates and experts with very different perspectives. My close friend Alan Dershowitz has long engaged me with his impassioned defense of Israel --- whose survival as a nation I consider to be a moral imperative. And then Jim Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute and a leader in promoting deeper understanding of Arab-Americans and the Arab world, issued me a challenge I could not resist: to write a novel which combines the absorbing qualities of good fiction with a nuanced portrayal of the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
While this may seem a quantum leap from my previous work, in a sense EXILE represents an extension of my belief that courtroom drama can illuminate the important controversies of our time. In EXILE, the engine that enables me to explore the geo-politics of the Middle East is a high-profile trial: the defense by its Jewish-American protagonist, David Wolfe, of his Palestinian ex-lover, Hana Arif, accused of complicity in the assassination of an Israeli Prime Minister who has proposed a last-ditch plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Because of the paramount importance of its subject, I hope the book will not only engage my current readers, but all readers of good fiction who also care to learn more about this terrible dilemma, and the role it plays in the Middle East as a whole.
Q: The research you did for EXILE is extensive, including your trip to the Middle East. For those of us who have not traveled to the region, what was most remarkable about your journey? What are a couple of major things in your opinion that most Americans relying on U.S. government reports and television don't know?
RNP: During my time in Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank, I had many illuminating and sometimes harrowing experiences. Among them were meetings in Israel with the survivors of a suicide bombing in Haifa; with an Israeli general in charge of protecting Israel from terrorism; and, memorably, with Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, twice Prime Minister of Israel. On the West Bank I experienced at first hand the incendiary fear and anger between the IDF, whose mission it is to protect Israel from violence, and the Palestinian civilians whose lives, and movements, are affected by checkpoints, raids, and the inevitable arbitrary behaviors of a military force that is both fearful and despised. And my meetings with Palestinians from all walks of life left me with indelible impressions. One of these events happened during a trip to Jenin where I met in secret with Mohammad Abu Hamad, the leader of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade --- who was, depending on one's point of view, a "terrorist," or a lynchpin of Palestinian "resistance" to Israeli occupation.
The meeting was remarkable for several reasons. Hamad was wanted by the IDF, and it dawned on me that the place where we met could be raided, or bombed. Hamad certainly acted as if this were a live possibility: he moved virtually every hour; was obviously fatigued; and, as I interviewed him, sat between two apprehensive bodyguards with an M-16 on his lap. Hamad was a man defined by war since he was fourteen, when he was jailed for lobbing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli tank. But what struck me most was when I noted that the IDF asserted that the Jenin operation was in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Israel. Oh no, he answered without irony --- the suicide bombing in Israel was a reprisal for an earlier IDF operation in Jenin.
In general, all of my encounters in the Middle East made it clear that the most committed antagonists are incapable of seeing this tragedy for the complex thing it is, because they are all transfixed by their own narratives and paradigms.
Q: In addition to Israel and the Palestinians, your book spotlights Iran as a major regional threat to peace. What made you expand the scope of EXILE?
RNP: From the beginning of my research in 2000, my inquiry into the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy was open-ended. And as I interviewed expert upon expert in the Middle East --- including former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, former National Security Director Sandy Berger, former Chief Middle East Negotiator Dennis Ross, and former U.S. Ambassadors to Israel Martin Indyk and Dan Kurtzer --- the shadow of Iran loomed ever larger over my story.
The reasons are now much more widely known than they were in 2000: that elements of the Iranian regime are fanatically dedicated to the erasure of Israel, and to the assertion of Iran as the region's dominant power --- a tendency since confirmed by the accession as President of a fanatic Holocaust denier. For reasons of its own, Iran funds extremist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, as was vividly illustrated by events that have occurred since the completion of EXILE, including those in Gaza and Lebanon which led to the outbreak of war. Plainly, the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is part of a regional conflict that serves as a distraction from Iran's ambition. And, regrettably, the failure of U.S. policy in Iraq has dramatically strengthened Iran's position.
Q: In EXILE there is a suicide bombing in San Francisco. What is your opinion about how likely this is to happen, if not in San Francisco, then elsewhere in the U.S.? How is the "climate" in the U.S. different from a place like Israel, where they deal with real life suicide bombings everyday? In your opinion do all of our efforts to prepare for such attacks make us feel safer than those in the Middle East? How so?
RNP: To me, suicide bombings in the United States are definitely possible --- indeed, the events of 9/11 can be viewed as suicide bombings on a massive scale. All that is required is for a few terrorists to scale down their ambitions from mass disasters to the more random, perhaps targeted, bombings that plague Israel.
Obviously, Israelis feel much less safe than Americans --- they are, geographically, a tiny country, and their enemies are close at hand. But America's very size is a problem of its own: we are full of "soft" targets, and we cannot protect them all. So even if our security efforts help us fend off another 9/11 --- about which we can hardly feel sanguine --- they certainly do not render us secure.
Q: Politically you are well connected, and you follow American politics very closely. Where did your ties to Washington politicians originate? Do you ever rely on any of your friends on the Hill for information when writing your books? Did you use any notable sources for EXILE? How does your knowledge of how our government and the justice system really works play into the story in EXILE?
RNP: My friendship with American political figures began with the first President and Mrs. Bush, who were gracious enough to write me a kind note about my first bestseller, DEGREE OF GUILT, and who later helped me with my first explicitly political novel, NO SAFE PLACE. Shortly thereafter, I met then-Senator and soon to be Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, a political leader --- and writer --- I had long admired; Bill became a close personal friend and someone whose advice was instrumental in NO SAFE PLACE (1998) and the political novels which followed: PROTECT AND DEFEND (2000), about Supreme Court politics and so-called "partial birth abortion," and BALANCE OF POWER (2002), in which my fictional president, Kerry Kilcannon, takes on the American gun lobby.
These novels depended on extensive research: as one example, in a single remarkable day of researching for PROTECT AND DEFEND, in 1999 I interviewed then-President Clinton and his 1996 opponent, former Majority Leader Bob Dole, concerning the ins-and-outs of my imagined Senate confirmation fight over abortion and my fictional Supreme Court nominee, Judge Caroline Masters. And in the course of all this research, I have formed continuing personal friendships with senators Edward Kennedy, John McCain, and Barbara Boxer; former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger; and several congressmen, journalists, and consultants. This has given me a particular perspective on politics and politicians: while I deplore our polarized, gerrymandered and money-driven electoral process, I think that a number of our elected officials are far better than we generally appreciate. Public life is hard --- it is not merely a job, but a way of life.
Certainly, I could not have portrayed the political world realistically without knowing politicians, consultants, journalists, and appointed officials. In addition to the Israelis, Palestinians, and Middle East experts I interviewed for EXILE, I consulted numerous other Washington-based experts. In order to understand the ins and outs of a murder trial where the defense seeks to expose information bearing on Israeli and American national security, I interviewed Professors Philip Heymann, former Deputy Attorney General; and Jeff Smith, former General Counsel of the CIA. Others whom I interviewed included a former Assistant Director of the Secret Service, and experts on Hamas, counter-terrorism, and internal security.
Finally, I'm particularly indebted to David Siegel, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, for his extensive advice, and for making my trip to Washington as rewarding as it was, and to Jim Zogby for his ceaseless advice and support.
My aim, as always, is to present fiction which is so thoroughly grounded in reality that the story both engages and informs. There is always a first time, but I've yet to be challenged with respect to authenticity of background or material errors of fact --- although given the vehement feelings on all sides with respect to events in the Middle East, it is inevitable that EXILE will stimulate controversy.
Q: What fictional elements of EXILE were, for you, the most challenging and engaging?
RNP: I was immersed in the story of EXILE from start to finish. But a particular challenge was creating the complex romantic relationship between two characters whose backgrounds are very different from my own: the secular Jewish-American lawyer David Wolfe, and the Palestinian militant Hana Arif. Of the two, David was easier for me --- with Hana, I benefited from the sensitive advice of Palestinians, observant Muslims, and other Arabs or Arab-Americans who took an interest in my project. While I'm not the ultimate judge, I'm proud of the nuanced, often wrenching, relationship I portrayed.
A secondary challenge was my portrayal of the failed suicide bomber, Ibrahim Jefar --- particularly in the prologue, which portrays Jefar's thoughts and emotions. It's a myth that suicide bombers are drawn almost exclusively from the poor and less well-educated, and I'm very grateful to several experts who helped me to construct the possible inner landscape of a suicide bomber.
Q: How has the experience of writing EXILE affected you as a person?
RNP: Because of EXILE, I feel deeply connected to the Israeli-Palestinian question, and friends on both sides. This has only intensified my concern, and sadness, about the continuing adverse developments in the region since I completed the novel.
This experience has also deepened my interest in --- and, I believe, my understanding of --- U.S. foreign policy and the complex dynamics of the Middle East. Although I have yet to work out how, I hope to maintain a connection to the region, the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, and larger questions regarding America's role in the Middle East.