'Ray Charles played piano all the time'

McLean Hospital was nothing like the state-run bin in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "It was one of the top two private psychiatric hospitals in the USA," recalls James Patterson, who began working there in 1969.

The writer, whose thrillers include the popular Alex Cross and Women's Murder Club series, is now pretty well known himself. But then he was just an aide supporting himself through six years of college - and it was the patients who were the big names at the hospital in Belmont, near Boston, Massachusetts.

James Taylor, who wrote a couple of songs about the place, came here as a youngster, and so did his brother and sister. After a drugs bust, Ray Charles was another resident: "When he came to play in Boston, he had to spend two days at the hospital. He would play the piano all the time." Susanna Kaysen turned her experiences into the memoir Girl, Interrupted, which became the film starring Winona Ryder.

But the most eminent patient of all was a poet: "Robert Lowell was on maximum security. He was depressed; he didn't get a prize he thought he was going to get. He was very lucid, although a bit hyperactive. He would give poetry readings in his room every day. His explanations about what he had written were very down-to-earth. I was already scribbling myself and hearing him made writing seem even more attractive and romantic."

The night shift gave James the chance to do the reading he'd never got round to at school: Genet, Beckett, Ionesco, Joyce and comic writers such Peter De Vries. But it wasn't just literature that McLean gave Patterson. "I grew up in a very provincial atmosphere and now I met people from different strata of society who had travelled the world and were very wealthy. My tolerance for human beings, and what makes them what they are, became wider. It was rare to find a patient for whom there wasn't a reason for them to have some kind of care. I found the hospital personnel to be very, very dedicated and caring.

"After the first year, I tended to work in adolescent wards, with kids who needed to talk to someone. For 15 years after I left, I still got letters from some of them saying, 'I've just got one of your books.'"

Patterson's novels are, of course, very different from the sensitive poems of Robert Lowell. His latest, Beach Road, (Headline, £17.99) tells of "a star athlete arrested for a triple murder on the beach near a movie star's home."

In a previous book, there is a physical description of a hospital like McLean. Otherwise, Patterson has never written about the six years he spent with sometimes violent patients and a bunch of keys. "I've always found that what happens in real life doesn't fit into my books."