If Bill Clinton possessed an uncanny ability to understand the average voter during his time in politics, it was in no small part because he liked what they liked. From Big Macs and New Balance sneakers to the smooth stylings of Kenny G, on matters of taste, the 42nd president was a man of the people. After undergoing heart bypass surgery in 2004 and the insertion of coronary stents in 2010, Clinton gave up the fast food, but at 71, his appetite for pop culture remains as voracious as ever—particularly when it comes to pulp fiction. If there’s a $10 paperback with a shadowy figure in silhouette framed in crosshairs on the cover, chances are he’s read it.
And chances are it was written by James Patterson, whose books have sold more than 350 million copies, putting him in the rarefied company of Stephen King and J. K. Rowling. By collaborating with a bevy of coauthors, Patterson, a former advertising executive, has managed to publish some 150 titles over the last 42 years, including Along Came a Spider, Kiss the Girls and the 23 other mega best-sellers in his Alex Cross detective series.
What happens when you put together America’s most prolific thriller writer and its most insatiable thriller fan? The world will find out on June 4, when The President Is Missing hits bookstores. Cowritten by Patterson and Clinton, it follows a fictional Democratic president from the South as he races to unravel a cyberterrorism plot that threatens to cripple American infrastructure and the global economy. As a work of literature, it’s distinctly both Pattersonian (short chapters, lots of dialogue and cliff-hangers) and Clintonian (impromptu policy dissertations and appeals to idealism). If it’s not a best-seller by the time you read these words, wait a few minutes and check again.
Earlier this spring, The National rode New York City’s No. 2 train to President Clinton’s private office, where—surrounded by the presidential biographies Clinton devoured during his West Wing days to understand his place in history—the coauthors and contemporaries (they were born seven months apart) spent an hour discussing their, um, traditional writing process, the best and worst presidential TV shows, and what most Americans still don’t understand about the world’s most high-profile job.
THE NATIONAL: Let’s start at the beginning: How did you two end up writing a book together?
James Patterson: We have the same lawyer and friend, Bob Barnett.
Bill Clinton: Barnett’s been on me ever since I left the White House to write a mystery because I like them so much. I read hundreds a year. I mean, literally a hundred mysteries a year. I’ve read all of Jim’s books. Barnett used to give them to me, and they never lasted more than 48 hours before I’d read them. I liked the Alex Cross and the Michael Bennett books the best. I like Daniel Silva, Robert Cray, Sara Paretsky. I’ve got Jonathan Kellerman’s books going back to the early ’70s. I just love all this stuff.
Jim, you write many of your books with coauthors, but usually they’re people who are considerably less well-known than you. Did you have any reservations about working with one of the most famous people alive?
JP: Well, fear. It’s a challenge. Usually when I work with a coauthor, I’m kind of the boss. Now I’m just a working guy. I’m arm candy.
BC: But we really did just work together. It was hardly a hierarchical enterprise.
JP: We would go back and forth on the original outline, making it better, and then do drafts back and forth, which is fun. The president actually was extremely respectful and nice and good to work with. We never really had a serious disagreement.
Was writing a thriller more or less fun than writing your memoir, My Life?
BC: Oh, way more fun. It didn’t take as long and it wasn’t as hard work because I had help. I wrote every word of that book by hand, every last word; 22 full notebooks. I wrote a 900-page book that way.
I hope you wrote this one on a computer.
JP: We’re both pencil guys.
BC: We both write by hand. How crazy is that? I wound up spending less time writing my long autobiography because I didn’t have to rewrite as much stuff. I think it slows you down just enough that you’re more likely to hit the target.
I wonder if there are any young writers writing their books in longhand.
BC: Nobody. It’s an old person’s thing.
When it was announced that you were doing this, it was advertised that the book would have “insider details only a president would know.” What are some of those insider details?
BC: I don’t know about “only a president would know.” But how the president in our book gets out of the White House—not many people know that. [Early in The President Is Missing, the protagonist, President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, has his Secret Service detail stand down and escapes the White House via a network of tunnels to a parking garage.] Not many people fully understand the way the movements work with the Secret Service, and how, if you wanted to get away, you could, but it wouldn’t last long.
JP: I don’t think people understand how trapped you are if you’re president. It’s not like you can go out to the store and get a candy bar. At one point in the book, President Duncan has to drive a car, and we talked about when the last time was you drove a car. What’d you tell us?
BC: I think it’s been 12 years. I had an antique car, a 1924 Buick, that I had bought at an auction because it had belonged to my uncle when I was young, and I rode in it in the Christmas parade in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I took my two nephews on a ride in that. I don’t think I’ve really driven a car since then.
JP: So when the president in the book gets out of the White House, on the one hand it’s very serious, but it’s also somewhat exhilarating. “I’ve gotten out of the White House. I’m going to go have a hot dog!”
BC: You can’t imagine what it’s like. I was able to create some space for my family, but you have to negotiate things like that. Chelsea was still a middle school student when we moved to the White House, and I negotiated to have no Secret Service on the floor where we were. So we didn’t have that, but we had lots of buttons all over the place. If I had a heart attack or we were attacked or something, you could push the button.
JP: You really see how difficult the job is, and that was part of the stimulus for me to work with him. For a long time now we’ve been essentially making fun of presidents, like on Saturday Night Live. Or Scandal, which is kind of a ridiculous president situation, or House of Cards, where a president is a murderer, and eventually that seeps into the public consciousness. A prime motivation for me was to remind people how difficult this job is, how important it is, how stressful it is.
Works of fiction about the presidency often feel like a comment on the times we’re living in. The West Wing was wish fulfillment for people who didn’t like George W. Bush’s policies, and 24 was wish fulfillment for people who loved them. Is there some element of that with The President Is Missing?
BC: I don’t think so. I was a big 24 fan because I thought it was good cheap thrills. It wasn’t always realistic, but it did make an elemental principle that, if you go to law school you learn the first year, which is that hard cases make bad law. There was one case where Jack Bauer’s involved in torture somewhere in Africa and he comes back and he’s willing to go to this Congressional hearing, and even fess up and testify there. His theory is if I put my life on the line for the country and I’ve stopped several murderous things and you still want to indict me, fine, but I do understand why you don’t want to legalize torture. That’s an incredible insight to get out of a TV show. In our case, we’re trying to raise a legitimate security issue that you saw during the election with cyberterrorism and do it in a context that people will be able to relate to.
JP: As a country, we are not prepared for cyberterrorism and people aren’t thinking about it. It doesn’t come up in the debates, but it’s serious.
BC: It bothered me that people didn’t seem more upset about it when it came out immediately after the last election. And I think that was because people didn’t see cyber work against politicians as a threat to them and their way of life. So one of the things we tried to do with this book is to show: Man, that’s the tip of the iceberg. Nearly everything we have is dependent in some way or another on the internet, and if it all goes south at once we could be in deep trouble for a long time. Everybody would be bothered if the lights didn’t come on.
This book has got to be the most topical thriller ever written. You’ve got Russian hacking, ISIS, there’s an oblique mention of Black Lives Matter. You talk about fake news, conspiracy theories. You talk about the Flint water crisis. There’s even a scene about the Affordable Care Act—not exactly the stuff of most thrillers.
BC: [Chuckles] It’s a much more abbreviated list than it started out.
What was the idea of cramming in so many hot-button topics?
JP: What was on our mind is how complicated this job is. It never stops coming at you. It’s not like, “Okay, we’ve got a big emergency, so everything else has to stop.” It doesn’t stop.
BC: You don’t get to stop doing everything else just because something’s moved up to the front burner. You still have to find a way to manage it all.
President Bush took up painting after his presidency. President Obama is working on a show for Netflix. Is there something about getting out of the White House that leaves you feeling like you need a creative outlet?
BC: Not to me. I just always wanted to do this. Bob Barnett tried to get me to write mysteries the minute I walked out of the door of the White House, and I just was too busy starting my new life. So I just thought I might do it now.
Some would say writing a book isn’t the most fashionable way of getting ideas into the world these days versus, say, a tweetstorm or a Netflix series. Is there something you can do in a book that you can’t in newer mediums?
JP: Complexity. Unfortunately, we’re getting simpler and simpler as a society, and things are more complicated. Most things are not black and white. Most things are gray, I think. As thrillers go, it’s pretty complicated.
BC: I also like the fact that you can explain a little bit. There’s almost no premium on explanation today.
What do you mean by that?
BC: You’re just supposed to have an opinion, and be articulate using your opinion, and attack whoever doesn’t have your opinion. But explaining a complicated problem as a predicate for having an opinion about what to do about it—the whole information eco-structure doesn’t support that as well. I think anything that can distill and clarify explanation without making it dishonest is a good thing.
Is it harder to communicate ideas and change people’s minds now than it was when you were in the White House?
BC: Yes it is, because you don’t have access to as many people. I also think it’s easier to slam people now than it was then. But you can’t give up; you’ve just got to find a way to do it. I still believe that Washington and everyplace else would work better if people were worried more about how they can make something good happen and get other people to work with them.
Was there anything you learned in working with James Patterson about storytelling, about what makes the books you love work or not work?
BC: He keeps reminding me, without having to beat me over the head, that you don’t have to tell everything you know about something to make it a good story. I think the thing I learned most from a stylistic point of view is how to tell a story with more action and fewer words.
Let’s talk about other portrayals of the presidency in pop culture. The West Wing: thumbs up or thumbs down?
BC: Thumbs up. It was a good show partly because Martin Sheen didn’t have to be the center of the show. West Wing was about the West Wing. It worked because it was an ensemble show. You could tell a lot of stories and none of them had to be totally unbelievable. It’s the flip side of Geena Davis in Commander in Chief, and she was quite good, I thought: her persona. But you can’t write a big thriller every week about a sitting president without having to make up so much that it’s not going to be believable.
What about Veep? Air Force One?
BC: [Julia Louis-Dreyfus] is a great comedian, and I loved Air Force One. Harrison Ford and Hillary went to the same high school in Park Ridge, Illinois. Hillary and I were having dinner with him in Wyoming when he asked Glenn Close to be his vice president. She was out there and she had told him she couldn’t play the vice president because she had some scheduling conflict. I said, “Glenn, you do not say no to the president.” And then Harrison Ford gets up and kneels down in front of her and says, “Will you please be my vice president?” And she did it.
That’s some quality film trivia!
BC: Anyway, it’s good, but there’s not an escape pod like that in the plane. It’s a good cheap thrill, not particularly realistic. We didn’t make up anything like that for the book.
Speaking of not realistic, whatever your politics, you have to agree things are pretty weird in Washington these days. Does the extreme nature of the news now make it harder or easier to write thrillers that are based in reality?
JP: It’s so different and strange, I don’t even think it relates. Had I ever proposed an idea for a novel two years ago that would have replicated what’s going on now, I don’t think the publisher would have bought it. I just think they’d go, “No, we don’t see that.”
BC: All this stuff that’s going on, it reminds us that a country, particularly a democracy in a multilayered society, operates by more than law and edict. A lot of it’s custom. And if you believe everything needs to be changed, then something like what we’re going through may be seen as a purging or a renewal of authenticity.
In the book, you refer to The Fourth Turning, a work of historiography that argues all societies go through 100-year cycles of growth, decay and violent upheaval.
BC: There’s something to that, by the way. The regular rhythmic, seasonal, occasional upheaval. All systems are subject to what my professor of Western civilization called institutionalization. That is, great societies grow great in part by building great institutions, and they do great things. The Internal Revenue Service collects taxes, Congress passes laws, whatever. But his theory was that civilizations failed because the institutions that they built became more interested in their own prerogatives than the advancement of the social enterprise of which they were a part, and that’s when violence or a different system would prevail. Jefferson said the same thing. Jefferson said from time to time democracy must be refreshed with the blood of patriots. The problem is whoever’s theory it is, it’s always on their clock, serving their purposes. I do believe that in the current climate, very often there are short-term political rewards for highly conflict-oriented behavior, which is designed to make sure as little as possible happens. It may be good politics but it may undermine the national welfare over a long period of time.
President Clinton, the walls of the rooms here at your office are packed floor to ceiling with books. How do you find time to read 100 thrillers a year and still read so much other stuff? Are these books just camouflage to hide the thrillers?
BC: I’m old, man. I’ve had plenty of time to read all these books. There’s a study off the Oval Office I used as a library. The books you see here are basically the ones I had in there. I kept a lot of my books about the presidents there, especially presidents that weren’t so well-known. I found I could learn a great deal from them—which ones failed, which ones didn’t. I read a lot of books about one-term presidents.
What’s something you learned from reading those?
BC: First of all, at the edges of greatness and abject failure, at the far ends you probably get there because you’re lucky or unlucky. That is, George Washington did a very good job starting us off as a country, but there was only going to be one father of our country. Abraham Lincoln I think was a great person and a great president. If he had lived a normal life in a normal time, he might have left the White House after one term because of an emotional breakdown. He had depression fits for years and years. But something happened to him, and the carnage of the Civil War, all that blood—he absorbed it, rose above it, and became something truly stunning. On the other hand, you have Franklin Pierce, who was a hero of the Mexican war, a brilliant young Congressman. His 11-year-old son died in an accident on the way to his inaugural. So his wife was catatonic for the first two years he was president and he was devastated. Plus, he only got picked because he was a Democrat from the North who didn’t want to see the Union broken up but wasn’t eager to be too aggressive about getting rid of slavery. I don’t think that I or you or anyone else, if we had been the president of the United States in 1852, could have been seen as successful. And Lincoln could not have been seen as successful until the seeds for secession had been sown and all the moderate options had been stripped away. So that’s what I learned. On the other hand, once you get away from the very extremes, a lot of it’s up to you, baby. You’ve got to show up, suit up, and you can make a real difference if you’re lucky.