January 21, 2009 / 11:04 AM / 9 years ago

Book Talk: Thriller writer Jack Higgins marks 50 years

<p>Jack Higgins is seen in this handout photo, taken in England 2008.Rob Currie/Handout</p>

CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - Novelist Harry Patterson, better known as thriller writer Jack Higgins, celebrates 50 years of writing this year, counting his blessings.

Patterson, 79, was diagnosed about eight years ago with essential tremor syndrome, a progressive neurological disease, that made him shake so much that about two years ago he found he could not pick up a pen and was about to give up writing.

But while suffering a seizure friend's house, he fell and knocked his head, ending up in hospital -- and overnight his tremors disappeared, allowing him to write again.

"In a way it is a bit like Lazarus. It has been a blessing late in life -- this unprecedented cure. People have got in touch with me who have got this crippling thing to say what can they do. I can't tell them what to do. I was just lucky," he said.

Patterson has written more than 60 novels over the past 50 years, with his 1975 breakthrough novel "The Eagle Has Landed" made into a blockbuster movie and establishing him as an international best-selling author.

Patterson was a soldier and then a teacher before becoming a full-time writer and penned novels under various pseudonyms including James Graham, Martin Fallon and Hugh Marlowe.

His latest novel, "A Darker Place," released this month, is his 16th featuring Irish hero Sean Dillon.

Patterson spoke to Reuters about his career:

Q: Did you think "Eagle" would be your turning point?

A: "At the time I was writing for Collins Publishers and it was a good thing when they took me up. But when I wrote "Eagle" the director who handled me rang me up and said what is this book? He said it sounded like a bird book. I gave him the pitch ... the book was about German paratroopers dropping in to grab Winston Churchill. He said that was the worst idea he had ever heard in his life and my readers would hate me as I was not giving them any heroes. Anyway the book was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston who realized they had something special on their hands and it came out in America to be a sensation."

Q: How did that changes things for you?

A: "It was rather Harry Potter-ish. Obviously no one will get to that level that (J.K. Rowling) did. But suddenly you were known to everybody and everyone wanted to know you and copy you."

Q: Any you moved to Jersey then?

A: "I came here in 1976. I am a tax exile. When I wrote "The Eagle," I was about 46 and at that time in England there was a very extreme socialist government and you were paying taxes to the level of 83 percent so I decided to come to Jersey for a few years. I hadn't expected the Jack Higgins success to continue but of course it did and I stayed."

Q: Why had you used so many pen names previously?

A: "I used all the other names as I was writing books more as a hobby when I was an academic and for the money. I discovered I could write three books in a year but needed a different name on each otherwise the publishers would not use that many in a year."

Q: How did you settle on Jack Higgins?

A: "My mother was a Higgins from Northern Ireland. I was born in England, she left my father when I was a few months old, a marriage breakdown, and she decided to get out and took me back to Belfast to her extended family, the Higgins family. Jack Higgins was a great uncle of mine. When I was a child if I was ever at his house he opened a little drawer under the stairs as he put his coat on and there would be three or four handguns and he'd put on in his pocket. He was a militant Orangeman."

Q: What is your proudest achievement?

A: "People are always going on about the OBEs and honors that Britain hands out but I've never had anything like that. There is a certain opinion held by many people that if you are a tax exile in a place like Jersey why should you have an honor as it is slightly dishonorable. But there is a famous program in England called "Desert Island Discs" and people always said it was only a few thousand people who have been asked to do that program and I have been blessed by appearing on it twice."

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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