Richard North Patterson likes to think of himself as a method actor. The 66-year-old writer and part-time resident of West Tisbury writes mostly fiction, but while his characters are born out of the quiet space in his imagination, he said, their every thought and movement is grounded in research. For each book he writes, he conducts dozens of interviews to get a sense of the backdrop he’s chosen. For a novel featuring a president he interviewed former heads of state. For a story about a man on death row he interviewed a man on death row in San Quentin. And for many of his recent books, Mr. Patterson interviewed Vineyard psychiatrists, including Dr. Charles Silberstein and the late Dr. Bill Glazer, to get a sense of the psychology that defines interpersonal relationships, and to figure out what makes people who they are.
“I’m not just phoning it in, I really want to find out what it’s like to be that person,” he said during an interview at his home in West Tisbury.
In the case of Loss of Innocence, due out Oct. 1, Mr. Patterson’s interviewed 10 members of the Wheaton College class of 1968, the same year his protagonist, and Mr. Patterson, graduated from college. At the time Wheaton was an all-female college.
“You deliver the reader a much different experience than simply saying, I am going to make up some stuff,” he said.
Of course, he still likes to make things up. But he says the best fiction is based in fact. “It’s nice to ground it in something that is truthful and informative,” he said.
In writing the books that make up his most recent trilogy, Mr. Patterson departed from a previous trend of exploring faraway places and set the books on the Vineyard, his home during the summer and early autumn. Fall From Grace was published in 2012, Loss of Innocence is a prequel to that book and Eden in Winter, due out next summer, will round out the trilogy.
Mr. Patterson will discuss his latest work on Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center in an event sponsored by the West Tisbury Library Foundation and the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society.
These books hardly required research into the landscape or the social life of Vineyarders, as Mr. Patterson is familiar with these topics. Instead, he focused on the psychology of the characters. After all, this is his first foray into the point of view of a young woman.
His main character, Whitney Dane, is 21 in June of 1968 and setting out on what she thinks will be a blissful pre-nuptial summer — she’s set to be married in the fall. As the novel opens, rain is the biggest threat to her wedding that she can fathom.
But that’s before the events occur that cause a “loss of innocence.” While Mr. Patterson remains tight-lipped about what specifically happens, it’s clear that Ms. Dane’s wedding will not proceed as planned. The Island she perceives as a paradise will soon be tainted with whatever turbulence Mr. Patterson has invented.
“In the course of the three months, everything in her life changes,” he said. “Basically it’s about how women’s lives changed so dramatically and what women expected changed dramatically.”
While the novel is focused on family relationships and is primarily character-driven, a departure from his earlier work, he hasn’t strayed from a career-long interest in social and political issues. In fact, he’s chosen to set the novel against the backdrop of arguably one of the most tumultuous years in American history, a year that contained high-profile assassinations, riots and widespread social unrest.
To accurately depict the culture of the Island at that time, he spoke at length with Peter Simon and Carol Brush, both of whom were here during that time. He also scoured the archives of the Vineyard Gazette looking for information about social movements that made their way to the Island.
“Concerns of the 1960’s lapped up on the Vineyard as well,” he said. “People were worried about the draft, people were worried about Vietnam. You had an element of hippies who came here, so you had a drug culture.”
Ms. Dane is a summer girl whose banker parents own a home in Chilmark. Her transformation throughout the book is defined by the newly-emergent women’s movement.
“I thought it was imperative to write from the point of view of a young woman who is affected by these changes against the backdrop of that time.”
Mr. Patterson said he experienced the effects of the women’s movement in his own life, especially in terms of how it made candid conversations between the sexes about all topics possible.
The titles in the trilogy, Fall From Grace, Loss of Innocence and Eden in Winter, are hardly subtle in their biblical references, but also convey a specific view of the Island to his readers, most of whom have not visited and never will, he said. Of course, some of the Edenic qualities that draw his characters to the Vineyard are the same that attracted Mr. Patterson.
“I’m here because it’s beautiful and I love being here and I can’t think of a prettier place to be in the summer,” he said. “So many people who have summer homes here are drawn by the outdoors. They want to be on the beach, they want to hike, they want to explore the ins and outs of a fundamentally rural setting.”
He likes the idea of introducing his readers to the Island, a place he says intrigues people.
“Many people are curious about it because they have heard of it because of presidential visits, or because there are public figures that come here. I am not sure that I want to draw a lot of tourists here, although it would be good for the economy... It’s a unique place and I think people enjoy experiencing places they haven’t been and having a writer take them there.”
While he is here, he writes occasionally, and he paints and golfs, both badly, he said. He studies acrylics with John Holladay at the Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs. Several colored canvases in his foyer prove he’s been hard at work.
“I’ve gone right to the impressionist period without going through the initial periods,” he said.
A lawyer by degree and training, Mr. Patterson didn’t always claim the descriptor “writer.”
“I thought, those are special people. But once I started doing it, I felt like maybe I could be one. It felt right to me.”
He studied writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and reads the fiction of other authors to hone his craft. His first (and last) short story, The Client, was published in the Atlantic Monthly. His first novel had 13 rejections and required three rewrites. But he persisted, and said he’s never written anything that didn’t eventually make it to print. That first novel, The Lasko Tangent, won an Edgar Allan Poe Award.
Of the 22 books he’s written, Loss of Innocence is one of his favorite four or five, he said.
For now, he’s taking a hiatus from writing, but he says his subconscious is always writing behind the scenes.
Perhaps while he sips coffee on his porch and looks out into the up-Island woods, he’s plotting the next mystery to intrude on this Vineyard’s paradise.
Richard North Patterson will speak about his work on Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the Film Center, 78 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $25 per person ($20 for Film Society members) and available at the box office or mvfilmsociety.com.