"It started in a bar, as all good things do," author James Patterson says of his literary collaboration with sportswriter Mike Lupica. The pair have just released their third collaborative thriller, "Twelve Months to Live" (Little, Brown, and Company) — a tale about as soaked in the settings and culture of Long Island as a book can be.
"This is probably the most important novel set in Long Island since 'Gatsby,' or Jaws," joked Patterson in an exclusive Zoom interview with Newsday. "It's a rich, wonderful, beautiful place to set a story where a lot of bad things happen."
Though Patterson has summered on the Island and has placed a few of his single-author thrillers here, it's his straight man Lupica who brings deep Island knowledge to the partnership. "I met my wife out here," said the sportswriter, who worked at Newsday in the 1990s. "We owned our first home out here and I'm out right now. I live on the East Hampton-Amagansett line. We're more Amagansett than East Hampton — and Amagansett is where Jane is from."
By Jane he means Jane Smith, the defense lawyer protagonist of "Twelve Months to Live." "Jane Smith is the best character we've ever created, bar none," the authors avow regarding their "smart, beautiful, funny, and talented" heroine. A tough cookie who is a veteran of two marriages and the NYPD, Jane has an office near the Nassau County Courthouse, and her "two-bedroom saltbox is at the end of a cul-de-sac past the train tracks for the Long Island Rail Road. North side of the highway, as we like to say Out Here."
Jane is Long Island through and through. She walks her pooch on Indian Wells Beach and Atlantic Beach, her favorite hiking trail runs through the rural area near Gardiner's Bay, and her doctor — the book's title refers to her cancer diagnosis — is an old friend from junior high in Patchogue.
Her partner, an investigator named Jimmy Cunniff, also ex-NYPD, owns a bar — the only fictional location in the novel, Lupica notes — at the end of Main Street in Sag Harbor. Jane's other hangouts — the Candy Kitchen, East Hampton Grill, Rowdy Hall — are so real the smell of the French fries almost comes off the page.
"Mike will never have to pay for a meal in a restaurant again," comments Patterson.
The authors are also sensitive to the class substrates of Long Island, pegging their characters accordingly. Jane's client, Rob Jacobson, owner of the biggest real estate company in the Hamptons, is from Sagaponack and Manhattan's Upper West Side. The Suffolk County D.A. "gets it in early that he grew up in Greenport, over on the North Shore, as if he himself could have been among the jury pool."
Jacobson stands accused of a triple murder — husband, wife and teenage daughter — a family who was celebrating a 20th wedding anniversary with their very first Hamptons rental. Though Jacobson's DNA was found all over the scene, he's otherwise a charming guy. "Lookswise, he reminds me of George Clooney," Jane notes, thinking she might have married him if she'd met him at the right moment between marriages. Patterson and Lupica are gunning for either Clooney and Brad Pitt to play him in the screen adaptation, which they say already has an Academy Award-winning actress and "one of the biggest show runners" attached.
Collaborations have long been a part of Patterson's career, and Lupica follows celebrity writing partners like Bill Clinton and Dolly Parton. But this pairing is no one-book wonder and Jane Smith is nowhere near the end of the road as "Twelve Months to Live" comes to an end. Two sequels, "EIght Months to Live" and "Four Months to Live," are well underway.
"Mike is a great writer," says Patterson. "Whoever told him only to write sports novels gave him bad guidance." The two men — "have you noticed we sound alike?" — run a kind of writers room over the phone, talking four or five times a day. Each creates a longhand draft on yellow pads — "assure the readers no Google Docs are involved" — but exactly how those parallel pads become a single manuscript is a well-guarded secret. "I destroy all the drafts," says Patterson. "It's crazy, but that's what I do."
Patterson has always loved a female protagonist — Alex Cross he says, was originally Alexis — so why did he give his "best character ever" a terminal diagnosis? "It's a different kind of ticking clock for a thriller," he explains. And on a personal note, he says, "I went through this with the first love of my life, who died two years and nine months after her cancer diagnosis."
Though they won't give away the end of Book Three, Jane Smith will not go gentle into that good night, the authors assure us. "I love the conversations Jane has with God," says Lupica, "whom she properly refers to as she. At one point she looks up at the heavens and says, 'Don't make me come up there!' "