Let the record reflect that Richard North Patterson does not think of himself as another Scott Turow (though both have written entertaining, character-driven thrillers filled with dramatic courtroom confrontations); he doesn't like being weighed against commercial suspense writers (at least those whose work he views as "all story with no characters or ideas"); and he's definitely not James Patterson (the comparison to whom still confounds the 51-year-old lawyer-cum-writer). "I was at a dinner party with some friends once and a woman handed me a copy of Kiss the Girls to sign," he says, his sandy-haired good looks giving way to an incredulous smile.

What truly irks Patterson, though, are those who glibly reduce him to a "bumper sticker," who call him "one of the best of a new generation of legal thriller writers." He understands that much of this comes courtesy of his breakout 1993 bestseller, Degree of Guilt, which prefigured parts of the O.J. Simpson trial in its panoramic portrait of a scandal-ridden celebrity murder trial. His fifth book and first after an eight-year hiatus, Degree of Guilt, like his three subsequent bestsellers, Eyes of a Child, The Final Judgment and Silent Witness, was published by Knopf. All use a trial and the law as flashpoints for ethical and personal skirmishes.

But to hear Patterson tell it, the runaway success of these novels has thrown new hurdles in his path. "What happens is that you write something that's a recognizable subject and there's a tendency to put you in a box," he says. In an effort to break out of that box, he has taken a new direction with his latest book, No Safe Place, out from Knopf. While the novel features an attorney as its protagonist, its backdrop is not a sensational trial but a presidential campaign. The year is 2000, and Democratic presidential candidate Kerry Kilcannon is campaigning against the incumbent Vice President in California. Kerry's brother, James, was assassinated running for president in the state exactly 12 years earlier. Now Kerry finds himself pursued by his own problems, from a gun-packing anti-abortion extremist to a newsweekly that threatens to run a story about an affair Kerry had with TV reporter Lara Costello.

For Patterson, writing a political thriller was liberating. "It's recognizably me and yet people are going to feel compelled to take a fresh look at me," he says. "I've added some new preoccupations, such as: What's it like running for president in the media age? What constitutes a news story?'' His longstanding readers will nevertheless recognize the use of flashbacks, the dramatic plot twists, the social consciousness and the Freudian subtext that here involves Kerry's dysfunctional childhood.

On a recent sunny, windless Monday morning, Patterson met PW on the tarmac of the antiquated airport on Martha's Vineyard. Patterson, who lives nine months each year in San Francisco, summers on the island and promises his family he'll do no work there. The author has adhered to a grinding itinerary for the past three weeks, and his latest book tour hasn't even begun. From his winter home in San Francisco, Patterson traveled to Chicago for BEA, returned to the Bay area for a week of writing and visited Knopf's offices in New York. With his worn topsiders, narrow khakis and sunglasses resting on the placket of his white crew shirt, Patterson blends in among the Island's summer residents. Yet beneath the tanned face, Patterson still evinces a drawn and road-weary expression.

It was, ironically, the punishing routine and frequent travel of a career as a securities lawyer that prompted Patterson to take up writing in the first place. Sitting in the living room of the sparsely decorated cedar-shingle house that sits behind a circular driveway in West Tisbury, as assorted deliverymen and gardeners slip in and out, Patterson talks about his childhood in the Cleveland area and law school at Case Western Reserve, where he took his degree in 1971. "I enjoyed myself more than most law students did, which meant I didn't work as hard." But his efforts were impressive enough to land him a job as an assistant attorney general in Ohio and later a role in the Watergate case as liaison for the Securities and Exchange Commission.But 21 years ago, an epiphany 'changed all that. Working in Birmingham, Ala., for a national securities law firm, he was striking out on his third business trip in as many weeks when he saw his one-year-old son, Brooke, waving goodbye through the screen door. Patterson, who now has six children, counseled himself that there had to be a better way. Then 29, he'd never published anything before, but he mapped out the plot of a suspense novel inspired both by his work on the Watergate securities case and by his obsessive fondness for the mysteries of Ross MacDonald (Patterson had read 17 of his novels). It eventually became his first book, 1979's The Lasko Tangent. A novice to the field, he sent an unsolicited manuscript to Norton, where it was accepted by editor-in-chief Starling Lawrence.

Patterson would eventually come to know a number of celebrated editors. As if to punctuate this point, the phone rings, interrupting our conversation. It's Phyllis Grann, president of Penguin Putnam, a personal friend of Patterson's and a fellow Vineyarder -- calling to discuss the following week's dinner plans. "What should you bring?" Patterson repeats her question. "Charm, wit and white wine would be great," he says, laughing. He hangs up, returns to the living room and resumes sitting in a white leather chair, crossing one leg over another. "We're old friends," he explains. Patterson's editor is in fact a different publishing icon -- Sonny Mehta -- who, Patterson says, believed in him when he was seen as washed-up, if he was seen at all.

A Novelist Reborn

Despite his early success (The Lasko Tangent won an Edgar in 1979 for best first suspense novel), by the mid-1980s he suspected that his career was floundering. In 1985, Villard published his fourth novel, Private Screening, in a print run of only 5000 copies with little promotional support, and Patterson, disheartened by his dwindling hardcover audience, stopped writing altogether. He continued working as a lawyer, moving from San Francisco back to Birmingham, but the time helped him as a writer. "What I learned from those eight years is that when you think you're not working you really are." Still, Patterson allows, "part of me is tempted to say I'm really distressed about missing those eight years between 37 and 45. I wish I had them back."

Patterson's eight-year absence made the success of Degree of Guilt all the sweeter. That success was due, in part, to good timing (John Grisham's The Firm and A Time To Kill were still high on PW's mass market paperback list when it came out), Knopf's relentless publicity and the fact that he was a fresh face writing about a sexy topic. "When I re-entered the business it was a more perfect time than I could have managed if I planned this thing," Patterson says.

Of course, Patterson expected none of this when he undertook Degree in January 1992. "I was doing it for the pride, to see whether I could still write. The novel came to Mehta from Susan Petersen, then head of Patterson's paperback publisher, Ballantine, who was still publishing Patterson so successfully in mass market that 300,000 copies of Private Screening had sold in that format. Mehta signed him up immediately after reading the manuscript for Degree on a flight from New York to London. A 250,000-copy first printing followed. Mehta and Knopf then went to extraordinary lengths to promote him. "They re-introduced me to booksellers and to a public who had not read me or forgotten about me," says Patterson.

Despite -- or because of -- Degree's success, Patterson is exceedingly sensitive to the concentration of legal matter in his fiction. "To me, the law as a subject is really not a presence in No Safe Place. And in my next book, Steelton, there's no trial and no defense lawyer."He could branch out even farther in the future. "Maybe one day I'll write a comic novel," he says, a raffish gleam in his eye.

In his efforts to diversify, Patterson has had to spend more time immersing himself in new cultural milieus. For No Safe Place, he exploited a contact made with George Bush, who had written him a letter praising Degree. After hearing Patterson's request that Bush help him, the former president agreed and the two became friends. (Patterson smiles when he recalls his four-year-old son, Chase, running naked around the Bush's home on one trip there). "A lot of the story just became two degrees of George Bush," Patterson says. This explains a note in the acknowledgements that reads "The attitudes expressed by Kerry Kilcannon do not reflect -- in fact, frequently contradict -- those of the political leaders and advisers who helped enhance my understanding of Kerry's world." Those politicos include John McCain and Bob Dole (whose campaign Patterson trailed to better construct certain scenes). Bush introduced Patterson to Ron Kaufman, a campaign strategist, whom Patterson grilled to find out "how do you run a guy like Kerry," whose campaign is based on principles rather than polls. Patterson is a registered independent and describes himself as having a libertarian streak. He and his wife have supported domestic-abuse programs, and he says that while storytelling is his primary goal, he does strive to impart messages in his work. He's even considered running for office (though he says "I don't sense a really great grassroots swell").

Patterson, who describes himself as a "romantic," infuses No Safe Place with an entirely different kind of idealism: a surprisingly sentimental love story. "I didn't think about it when I wrote it, but it occurred to me later that it's a variation on the classic theme of thwarted romance, from Romeo and Juliet to The Thorn Birds," although he believes the romance relates to the book's central theme of privacy.

Patterson's protagonists are slightly glamorous types to whom extraordinary things happen, like Tony Lord in Silent Witness, who is accused and then exonerated of raping and murdering his high-school girlfriend. Given Patterson's comparably ordinary life, does he identify with, or live vicariously through, his characters? "I tend to write people who are ambitious. That's a personality type that I relate to. There is a school of fiction -- New Yorker fiction -- the premise of which is a guy gets up in the morning, brushes his teeth, decides whether to leave his apartment and by the end of the story decides not to. That is not the kind of person or the kind of fiction that engages me."

Readers don't have to wait long for the tipoff that his books are of a different ilk. No Safe Place begins with gory killings at an abortion clinic and moves quickly to Kerry's nightmare about his brother's assassination. "I don't clear my throat like Flaubert did in Madame Bovary, where he described the village brick-by-brick," Patterson says.

Like Kerry, Patterson walks a tightrope between reviewers' standards and widespread acceptance. With the Lincolnian dilemma of pleasing everyone all of the time in mind, PW asks if he'd prefer his next book to be a bestselling smash and critical dud or a reviewer favorite with midlist success. Patterson looks introspective for a moment, then makes a motion to dismiss the question. "Can I know what will happen to the one after that?" When PW overrules the objection, Patterson opts for commercial acceptance. "I'd have to say being read; it's the ultimate form of admiration," he says.

Taking a break from talking, we decide to drive over to a stretch of beach that Patterson and his wife own, where a key scene in No Safe Place -- a getaway weekend between Kerry and Lara -- takes place. Despite gumption and a sports-utility vehicle, massive flooding from recent storms prevents us from reaching it. Rain threatened to destroy Kerry and Lara's tryst as well, symbolic of the storm that awaits them when the national media will get wind of their affair. The coincidence is uncanny and reminds us of the tendency in Patterson's books to predict the news. "If you get things right," he says with the rhetorical flourish of a politician on the stump, "sooner or later they will happen."