Last week, I had the pleasure of heading to the Warner Theatre in DC to listen to Bill Clinton and James Patterson talk about the new book they wrote together, The President is Missing. It’s a thriller that tackles a threat so big, the President is forced to completely disappear from public view—essentially to go missing. I haven’t read the book yet, but listening to the two co-authors discuss it was an incredibly interesting and entertaining experience.
Now, Clinton and Patterson have been on a press blitz the past couple weeks promoting this book, which was released on June 4. And for good reason; the initial print run was 1.2 million copies, which is virtually unheard of today. But this event felt different than their other appearances. From the start both men were incredibly relaxed, giving off a vibe that they knew they were among friends and like-minded people. Indeed, there were a few moments during the hour and 15 minutes in which Clinton mentioned someone by name who he had worked with while he was President and gestured toward the audience, telling us that the man or woman was in attendance. Patterson, likewise, was incredibly affable and came off as quite humble, despite the fact that he’s had more New York Times #1 bestsellers than any other author ever. There was a few jokes made at the expense of the current president at the beginning of the talk, but those didn’t last. Both man were quick to point out that their book has no political bent, and that it isn’t meant to make a political statement—it is just meant to provide a thrilling and authentic look at how the government, the President specifically, might respond to a cyber-terror threat of this magnitude.
I just used the word authentic because Clinton used it countless times over the course of the evening. That was his job in writing this book—as it was his first foray into fiction, he stressed that his role was to provide authenticity to the characters, policies and actions that took place. As a writer, I was eager to hear about the process Clinton and Patterson used. It turned out they weren’t actually in the same room much over the course of the year that they were writing the novel. After collaborating on an outline for the book, Patterson sent Clinton a series of questions, so detailed that Clinton jokingly complained about having to write essays to answer each one, and then Patterson would send Clinton pages to read and fill out with details. The first place he added authenticity, obviously, was in the proceedings. There are details in the book, they’ve said, that have never appeared in a thriller like this before because they are things that only the President would know, a point that I’m sure will be enough for countless readers to pick up the book. But the second place is the one that seemed more important to Clinton, and also more important to the book as a whole, which was in the characters. Clinton stressed that he wanted every character, even the terrorists, to be complicated, well-rounded humans, not just archetypes. This obviously makes for a richer reading experience, but for Clinton he was trying to convey the importance of treating people, specifically terrorists or potential enemies, as humans with complicated pasts, relationships and motives. It is only when we do this, he said, that we can fully understand and counteract the threat that we are dealing with.
I’m not totally clear on what the threat in the book is—one part of the event that was rather entertaining was the fact that because the book is a thriller neither author wanted to spoil it. They did talk about some characters in detail, but in phrases typically ending with “which you’ll see if you read the book.” I think both men did a good job avoiding spoilers, even while saying that the threat in the book falls in the realm of cyber-terrorism. They chose this because, as Clinton stated explicitly, it is the single biggest threat facing our country today. And while the book is a work of fiction, it seems that they both hope it will shed a light on the enormity of this type of threat, and the devastation it has the potential to cause, in hopes of prompting people to prepare for it. We should be building defenses to potential attacks before they happen, Clinton said—it was no use creating defense systems to prevent planes from flying into buildings after 9/11, because our enemies had already moved on to planning the next type of attack.
They took some time to talk about the role of the Secret Service in the book, and how their representation of these men and women was meant to shine a light on the selfless and heroic work they do every day. They also talked about the number of strong, female characters in the book—the sniper, one of the main terrorists, is a female, as are the Vice President and some other high ranking officials. Patterson talked about his childhood growing up with three sisters and about how his grandmother was the one who supported his dreams of becoming a writer, even when his parents didn’t see it as the best choice for a career. And Clinton said he obviously has some experience with strong women, which elicited applause from the audience.
Towards the end of the event, the conversation shifted to Patterson and the efforts he is making to improve literacy rates across the country. He said that he believes the best books he has written are his children’s books, because, if children’s parents choose to buy the books, they encourage reading and expanding vocabulary from an early age. Apparently he has a book of big words that Clinton is obsessed with—he dared the audience to buy it, saying there would be words in it we didn’t know. The book, I believe, is Big Words for Little Geniuses.
This conversation also led to what might have been one of my favorite lines of the night. During the discussion of literacy rates, Clinton mentioned that the US has the shortest school year in the developed world, except for Belgium, which has a shorter one. Paul Begala, who worked as an advisor to Clinton during his presidency and moderated the event, cut in. “With all due respect Mr. President, how do you know how long Belgium’s school year is?” Clinton looked at him in disbelief. “I just do,” he answered. “Politics is the only profession in which we question when people know things. We wouldn’t ask a doctor why he or she knows the difference between a heart and a lung.” Now this quip drew some laughs, understandably, but I thought it was telling in a few ways. One, Clinton is very smart. When you hear him talk, you can tell how well-read and intelligent he is, and that all of his opinions are formed based on knowledge and experience. And two, working in politics is hard. If elected, not just as President but to any office, you are expected to have an opinion on and be knowledgeable about every issue that could effect your constituents, and the breadth of this information must be staggering.
Overall, it was just cool to be in a room with two men of such stature and hear them discuss something they were obviously very passionate about. It was also the best that my Nan was here, so I had someone to share the experience with. When the event was over we rushed outside to grab our signed copies of the book. She was convinced at first that there were too many for Clinton and Patterson to have signed them all, that they must have used stamps, but we compared the signatures on the way home and they were different! I don’t read a lot of crime and political thrillers, but I do intend to read this one. So stay tuned for a review in the near future!