Source: David Levene/Guardian News & Media Ltd
Harry Patterson, alias Jack Higgins, has been a writer for 70 years. The Eagle Has Landed, perhaps his most renowned work, has sold more than 50 million copies. Earlier this year he was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature by the University of London International Programmes, the world’s oldest provider of degrees through distance and flexible learning and of which he is an alumnus.
So you were born in Newcastle…
Yes, but I’m not a Geordie, I hasten to say. My mother, who was a teenager, got married to a Scotsman who was working in Newcastle. And that’s where the [name] Harry Patterson comes in. She left him when I was 15 months old and I never had anything to do with him my entire life. She went back to Belfast and that’s where I spent the next 12 years of my life with the extended Higgins family. Jack Higgins was my mother’s uncle, so when I needed another name to go with the books I thought I might as well keep it in the family! Then my mother entered another relationship with an Englishman and moved to Leeds when I was 12.
Why did you choose to study at the London School of Economics?
Because of the whole ethos of the place. The attitude towards things, I just found it incredibly interesting. Have you ever seen The West Wing? Martin Sheen…whenever he’s boasting, he says: “Never forget that I went to the London School of Economics.” And I always thought that it was a great advert for the place [that the] President of the US [went there]. Well, Martin Sheen playing him. But you get the point.
Since you taught at a polytechnic [Leeds] and were headhunted, so to speak, by the University of Leeds, did you enjoy academic teaching?
It’s wonderful. It gave me enormous freedom. You weren’t afraid to speak your mind.
Now that you’ve been a successful author, would you ever consider going back into the academic world?
Come on, I’ll be 85 in July! Who on earth would ask me to? It would be very jolly, but I don’t believe for a minute that anyone would ask me.
Some creative writing courses have been described as a “waste of time”. Do you think this is the case?
It’s pretty awful to be as dismissive as that, but…the whole thing about writing is…thousands and thousands [of books] are pulped [each year]. What you’re left with is a surprisingly small number of people who actually sell. The vast majority of people who try, including a lot of people who actually do get printed, never get anywhere. It’s a very strange business.
You once said your goal was to write books that make money…
I couldn’t see the point of writing books that didn’t make money, let’s put it like that. I suppose what I was talking about was fiction. There are plenty of things one can do that won’t make you much money but you do them for their own sake. [Like] scholarly books. And thank God there are people doing that. But you’re not really going to make a lot of money out of it.
What are the best aspects about writing?
The really great things are when you have a really great idea and you know you have and it’s working. What happens then is that your brain blows and all sorts of characters appear; they really do. You’re sitting there pounding it out and the things you can do are extraordinary when that happens.
Looking back, what advice would you give to your younger self?
I’m fascinated by philosophy and Zen, and what I now have firmly found at this stage in my life is that, looking back, life is ruled by chance. I absolutely believe that.
In that sense, do you have any regrets?
No, no regrets. I’ve got great kids; I’m sorry that way back in life [there was] divorce, of course, but then again you’re with half the population of the country! I’ve been very lucky in my second marriage. We look back and [sometimes] think: “What if I had done that? Would it have made a difference?” But in a sense, it’s idle speculation. I didn’t do it, and that was it.
Do you ever get tired or think, I’m done with writing?
It’s different when you’re older, it takes a bit longer to get going. But every so often you get that burst [of inspiration].
So you’re going to keep going…?
I suppose so and then someone will have to finish off [my last book] after [I die]. After all, that’s what happened to F. Scott Fitzgerald. After the army…a friend of mine gave me an old Penguin copy of The Great Gatsby and I thought it was the best thing I’d ever read in my life. I was completely bowled over by it. It made me think, not that I would ever conceivably be anything like this man, but this is what I want to be.