Novelist James Patterson has made an incredibly successful career out of imagining gripping stories of danger and intrigue; other authors find their ideas closer to home, basing their books on their own life’s experiences. And while there are very few able to combine the two, mining their own real-life experiences to produce a novel with the high stakes and global interest of The President’s Daughter, former President Bill Clinton is a rare exception.
In this second co-authored novel from the duo Lee Child once called “the dream team” – their follow-up to the global bestseller The President Is Missing – Clinton and Patterson bring FBI-level accuracy and big-screen intensity, respectively, to a story in which a former president’s nightmare is realised: when Michael Keating’s daughter is abducted, he is forced to test his former Navy SEAL training, his leadership abilities, and his emotional mettle to bring her back safely.
While the story itself is fictional, the details – from the motivations of the novel’s inciting incident to the vulnerability of a former president’s children – are directly inspired by reality. Below, in an exclusive interview transcript, Clinton and Patterson talk about their most recent collaboration, from the unique nature of their collaboration to the ‘real deal’ depictions of Secret Service action and the security of post-White House family life.
Mr President, How much of the plot of the new book was informed by real-life experiences?
President Clinton: Well, first of all, some of the things in the new book are situations that I faced when I was president. There are characters in this book whose animus towards the United States, in general, and this president, in particular, were based on events that actually did occur. In the attempt to stop the ethnic cleansing and terrible slaughter in Kosovo, I ordered the bombing of Serbia under Mr Milosevic for 78 days, until we got peace. We tried very much to minimise any kind of casualties – especially civilian causalities – but we accidentally did hit the Chinese Embassy, because our maps indicated that that was an intelligence post for the Serbian government.
So it is, in fact, true that the United States destroyed the building and killed three non-combatant Chinese nationals. And that's a big part of the plot in this book – about how this Chinese man came to hate the United States, our government and our military.
And how about the security afforded to former presidents?
PC: There was a big debate a couple of years ago about whether it costs too much to maintain security for a former president, and whether you should cut it off after a few years. There's some argument for that, but when you first leave the White House, your adult children don’t get any security anymore, which is perfectly understandable.
But what I do know is that a former president or the former president and his family present delectable targets for kidnapping or for retaliation. And on several occasions in the first four or five years I was out of office, there were genuine worries that if I went this, that, or the other place, or I did it under certain circumstances, that it wouldn’t be safe. And Chelsea was young and single and in New York and always being harassed by the paparazzi, but we saw in the traffic that I had access to that there was some risk that using New York as a target might be seen as a twofer in subsequent terrorist actions if Chelsea were there.
So while I was well-protected, she wasn’t, and there were a couple of times when Hillary and I provided extended security support for her just so she wouldn't have to worry about it.
But this is a perfectly feasible scenario under certain circumstances, and insofar as we possibly could, an accurate description of how the Secret Service detail relates to the local FBI, relates to the larger Secret Service, and is or is not influenced by the White House. Although I have to say we never had anything but support from the White House for whatever legitimate security concerns arose.
James Patterson: Just to piggyback on what the President was saying, what separates this book, and what separated The President Is Missing, from anything that I’ve written – and pretty much anything that I’ve read in the field of thrillers and mysteries – is it’s just so authentic. If such and such happened, it would happen like this. Here's how the Secret Service would act. It’s the real deal.
There’s a lot of detail on military weaponry, planes, technology; the mindset of a SEAL. How did you research that?
JP: When I wrote the book Walk in My Combat Boots – I did that with Matt Eversmann. Matt was the real sergeant portrayed in Black Hawk Down. And Matt came in and helped, in terms of The President’s Daughter. He’s a Ranger. He ran Ranger training school for seven years, so he knows. So when President Keating has to deal with a situation in terms of the military, that’s where the detail came from.
In terms of collaborating for the second time: How has this worked?
PC: Well, we did it in a similar way as we did The President Is Missing. We agree on the plot and the characters first. Jim would go through a few chapters and send them to me. Then I would go through them and make suggestions for changes or edits, and we just did back and forth, back and forth, from start to finish. And I think that what I tried to do was not to interfere with what he does better than anybody on Earth, but to make sure that all of it actually hung together; that it made sense, that we weren’t postulating something that would just be so unrealistic it wouldn't work.
Mr Patterson, how is it different collaborating with a former president than with the many other collaborators you've worked with?
JP: When I do my other collaborations, I have the final word always. When I work with President Clinton, he has the final word. But it’s good. I love it and he just brings such expertise. I mean, honestly – and many thriller writers are in this boat – you’re making up a lot of stuff, and you can get away with it. Readers just assume, Well, if it’s in the book it must be true. But in this book, and in The President Is Missing, if it’s in the book... I mean, obviously the plot is a little over the top, but if it happened, here's how it would happen. And that, I think, separates the book – and one of the reasons I’m really happy to have done it.
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Photo: David Burnett