Stan Pottinger Teaches Me How to Write a Thriller

The author Stanley Pottinger invited me to his book party at Elaine’s on March 8, and as I was leaving I snagged a copy of A Slow Burning off the bar and started it on the train. It was a page-turner but it managed to treat racial issues in a thoughtful way and the writing had real grace. I remembered something my father-in-law says every summer; he turns to me with exasperation and asks me why I don’t write a thriller. “These guys can’t be that much smarter than you. If you just sat down and studied some of the books, you could figure out the formula.”

Stan Pottinger is a friendly guy, and the next morning I called him and asked if he’d tell me how he does it. “I’m lucky and stupid,” he said, laughing. His first book, The Fourth Procedure , was a giant hit, selling 1 million copies, and things looked good for A Slow Burning , but he was still holding his breath. “I feel badly qualified to talk about this ex cathedra. On the subject of what makes a best seller, there’s only one thing I know for sure, it’s that nobody knows. You ask smart people, they don’t know. There has to be some soul in the writing or it doesn’t matter what the formula is.”

I leaned on him, I told him my novel had sold well under 20,000 copies. He said if I promised not to make him sound pontifical, I could come by his place in the West 50’s the next morning.

I got there at 10. Mr. Pottinger darted into his study to finish an e-mail, then we went out for breakfast. We got a booth by the window at the Brooklyn Diner U.S.A.

Stan Pottinger is 60, boyishly handsome, with boyish energy, too. He told me he’d grown up in Dayton, Ohio, the son of an insurance man, and his youthful ambition was to play football. He played quarterback for one year at Harvard, then went on to law and politics. In the Nixon Administration, he was a high appointee in the Justice Department, played a bit part in the Saturday Night Massacre.

Washington led him to New York–investment banking, real estate. Then, at 45, he figured it was time to do something creative.

“Midlife crisis?”

“No. I expect to have my midlife crisis in a few years. I’m saving it. Where I grew up, Beirut was a crisis, not middle age. I knew nothing about the interior life. And I still think the interior life is greatly exaggerated.”

So he went to New York University’s film school and set out to produce movies. But, in 1990, some properties tanked and he had to refinance. That left him no time for a film. “I wrote at night. I must have written one-tenth of the book on the backs of packets like this.” Stan Pottinger grabbed a sugar packet out of the little rack.

“No,” I said.

“Yes! Or on paper tablecloths. They’re great, especially when they give you crayons.”

He often thought about what a professor had said in giving him an award for best student screenplay: You apparently like to tell a story. “It’s the classic ghetto boy who is told by a teacher, ‘Stan, you can do something,’ and he believed it.”

“Yeah, but this ghetto boy had argued four cases before the Supreme Court,” I said.

“Writing is more difficult and exposed than standing up before nine justices.”

“Do you go by Stan or Stanley?”

“Stan. Stanley’s awful. I got stuck with that on the first book. For this book, I argued I should be Stan. I said, If Bob Woodward can be Bob, why can’t I be Stan? And they said, that’s his born name. Which shot me out of the saddle. It’s probably bullshit, but that’s what they told me!”

Stan Pottinger was a quick learner. He read a Times piece on commercial fiction saying that medical subjects were good so he went with abortion, as he’d been on the board of a pro-choice group. Still, he kept his sugar packets to himself till he went out to dinner with a country neighbor, Joni Evans, the editor and now agent. She asked him why he was spending so much time in upper Westchester.

“I confessed I was trying to write something. Later, she told me she thought to herself, oh no, this is the end of a friendship. But what she actually said was, why don’t you show it to me sometime? I eventually got up the nerve to show her the first 50 or 100 pages, double-spaced. She said, Oh my God, you’re a writer.”

“Why’d you believe her?”

“She’s ruthlessly honest. You can go to the bank on what she tells you, in either direction. I’ve heard her tell people, You should express your creative impulses in another way.”

Joni Evans hooked Stan up with an agent, Ed Victor, and, on the last day of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1992, Victor gave the pages to Susan Petersen, then president of the Ballantine Publishing Group, and told her to read them on the plane back to New York. “‘Call me in London on Monday,'” Stan said Mr. Victor told him. “‘Don’t ask me who wrote it, don’t ask me if it’s anyone who’s ever written before, don’t ask if it’s a man or a woman, don’t even ask me where the story’s going. Just give me one of two words. Yes or No.’ The next day she had one sentence for him. How much would a Yes cost me? I kiss the ground Susan walks on. She bought a book from someone who had never written a word.”

Stan was shocked. He’d already had several professional careers, but everything else had been teamwork. Now someone was giving him somewhere in the middle six figures for stuff he’d done by himself on paper tablecloths.

I asked him if he’d earned back his advance on The Fourth Procedure . “Oh yes. I wouldn’t be happy writing a book that didn’t earn out. I don’t think this is a game called screw the publisher. My agent would kill me for talking this way, but I think you’re in this together for a long time.”

We finished breakfast and went back to his place. Stan sat down at his coffee table, and I sat on the couch. He told me he had gotten all the furniture in his place on one shopping mission to Atlanta, during the Super Bowl. He doesn’t mess around.

I launched a Paris Review -style interview of a potboiler writer. “What about when all the writing workshops say, Write what you know?”

He made a face. “I don’t think you can limit yourself to that. If you’re trying to do a commercial book, a mystery or a thriller, you have to go beyond your own head. No one lives a life that interesting.”

He told me about showing a scene he’d written in which police search a transvestite’s body to Joe Lisi, an actor and former caption of the New York Police Department. Mr. Lisi told him it was crap, and Stan realized how much of what he’d imagined was derivative. It wasn’t imagination, it was from television or movies.

“Research is the dirty little secret of novels that work,” he said. “Readers want to be amused and entertained, but they also want to learn something.”

So he got a tour of the Statue of Liberty from the lead architect on the statue’s 80’s refurbishment, videotaped the tour, and watched it while writing his action scenes at the statue. When he read in the newspaper that Harvard scientists had been able to locate the site in the brain where phobias dwell, he called one scientist up, said he was writing a novel, then flew up to interview him.

“I said to him, can you locate racial phobias? He closed the door to his office. You can, he said, but we can’t begin to talk about it, that would wreck our program. ‘Well, I can,’ I said.”

And two brain surgeons in Atlanta let Stan watch a 10-hour operation and videotape it. The patient had to sign a release.

As for sex scenes, the single, once-married Stan Pottinger is evidently an expert himself, but he said, “Sex is not as much of a spectator sport as the porn industry makes us think.” His rule of thumb is that something else has to be going on in the sex scene, some other tension.

“Sex becomes secondary. Sex becomes a way to communicate rather than a way to fuck.”

I wrote it all down. The doorbell rang. It was photographer James Hamilton. The author changed out of a white cotton sweater for a more rugged denim shirt and he and the photographer went out on the balcony. “What’s the book about?” I heard James Hamilton say. “It’s about two men who are in love with the same woman,” Stan said. “In other words, it’s the thing that everything’s about.”

After a while Stan came back in and James Hamilton left.

“What about pace?”

“Pace is everything,” Stan said. “In film school they say, You cannot see the teeth on a moving band saw. Meaning, you can get by with some screw-ups if you’re moving at a pace that’s really fast. You have to keep the pages turning because you’re competing with everything from MTV to the Internet.”

I said, “So you have to hook the reader in the first chapter?”

“No, the first page. I’ll tell you why. I spend a lot of time in bookstores, watching readers. And what you see a lot is, first they look at the jacket, then they go to the first page. Not the jacket copy. They read a paragraph. If they like it, then they go to the jacket copy. If they like that, they carry it to the cashier.”

All writers are self-absorbed, Stan allowed, but he’s become reader-absorbed: “They own my life.” When he learns that someone’s a reader, he doesn’t hesitate to pick their brains. He showed chapters to a mailman, a grocer and a former secretary. “I had a chapter with two women in it. My secretary had one comment. ‘I know they’re different people and they’re doing different things, but it’s as if they’re wearing the same perfume.’ Isn’t that great? Sharpen the differences! I had to make them different. Turn off the damn television set and figure out who they were.”

“Did you ever go to a writer’s workshop?”

“Once, 10 years ago. An afternoon session.”

“So how did you figure out the rules?”

“Monkey see, monkey do.”

Stan read widely. John Fowles for elegance, Michael Crichton for his understanding of science, James Dickey’s Deliverance for oomph, and James Mills’ The Underground Empire for intrigue. And he hoovered literary tips. “Leo Tolstoy said, Writing is simple, all you have to learn is what to leave out. And here’s a great line that’s really true. Amy Hempel says, All writers are self-taught. Meaning that ultimately you have to look at your own shit and learn to edit yourself.”

So now he has a two-book deal, a giant advance. How does he deal with the pressure?

“I don’t do anything without pressure. A physical therapist said, Get in tune with your body. But if I listened to my body, I’d stay in bed all morning.”

It was time for the big enchilada. “Why do you write?”

“It’s hard, but when it works it’s the best life you can have, it’s the most portable work there is. You can live in Italy and write about Alaska. Using your imagination is fun and rewarding.”

Fun and rewarding! Feeling cleansed of angst, I went home and thought about what I’d tell my father-in-law. Stan was such a nice guy, he’d made it seem pretty easy. I could certainly do the research, and writing came easy to me. There was a guy at the wine store who’d offered to look at my stuff any time–I felt I could swallow my pride and show him some stuff. It would be difficult to step outside my own fascinating life and write about other people’s, but now that I was middle-aged, I thought I could do that, too.

But finally I came up against the hard rock of Stan Pottinger’s enthusiasm. That, no one could fake.