Mega-best-selling author James Patterson is known as a tough guy who plays by his own rules. He got the reputation as an ad agency executive, and it carried over to his second career as a prolific writer of best-selling mystery thrillers — including the well-known Alex Cross series that started in 1992 with Along Came a Spider, which later became a movie.
See also: Excerpt from Middle School.
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But at a recent luncheon in Manhattan, Patterson, 64, was genial and amusing. He said he only became an agency copywriter after failing to find work as a cabdriver (his hair was too long). And the height of his career so far, he insisted, was an appearance on The Simpsons.
Patterson also showed a deeply emotional side. In his prepared remarks, he told the story of an early love, a woman named Jane Blanchard, who died of a brain tumor in the 1980s. Here, Patterson's voice cracked and his eyes filled. "Very strange," he told his hushed audience, "that it still affects me the way it does."
Regaining his composure, he explained that after Blanchard's death, "I threw myself into advertising … I didn't want to have any time to myself." He rose to be creative director, then North American CEO, at the global agency J. Walter Thompson. But he never really liked the business, and he began to write novels.
According to his publisher, Patterson has sold more than 220 million books worldwide, which have grossed some $3 billion. Readers range from "people in trailer parks to presidents," Patterson says.
Patterson is publishing 11 — yes, 11 — new books this year, including the latest book in the Women's Murder Club series, 10th Anniversary, and a stand-alone novel Now You See Her, which is out this month.
But in the last several years, he has gravitated to another genre — young adult novels — generating such high-profile series as Witch & Wizard and Maximum Ride. His new title, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, also comes out in June.
He spoke with the AARP Bulletin about why he writes for a younger crowd, his future plans and which writers he's reading these days.
Q. You've said you're obsessed with writing young adult books now. Why?
A. I don't get a chance to be funny with the thrillers. I like to be funny, and I think I am really funny. So with Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, it was fun to let loose. Hopefully, the book can help kids get through middle school and realize that they're not alone in terms of being afraid and nervous, or being an individual and having to deal with bullies.
Q. How did you get started with young adult books?
A. I wanted my son, Jack [who's now 13], to be a good reader; he's a smart boy, but he wasn't terribly interested in reading. So when he was 8, that summer my wife, Sue, and I said, you have to read every day. You don't have to mow the lawn, you do have to read. By the end of the summer, he'd read six or seven books and loved three of them.
Q. What can adults do to get a child to read?
A. It's our job – as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles — to find books our kids are going to like. And for a lot of kids, it's not going to be Charles Dickens. If they taught movies in school, and they started with Ingmar Bergman movies, we'd all go, uh, I don't really like movies. And that's what happens in a lot of schools.
It's crucial that we get books to them, whether it's Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Percy Jackson or Harry Potter or the books I'm writing.
A. On my website, we now list 300 to 400 books in categories: for 1 to 6 years old; then 6 to 8, and so on. But you can't use just age, because reading ability is all over the lot.
Q. What books made an impression on you growing up?
A. Actually, comic books got me to be fairly proficient as a reader. In those days, comic books were everywhere … in the drugstore, in the supermarket. Superman, Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck. …
I didn't care for most of the books I was being asked to read in school. I started reading like crazy right after high school when I got a job in a mental hospital. I was working my way through college, and I did a lot of night shifts, and there was nothing to do. So I read like crazy, serious stuff, all the classics.
Q. Who are your favorite writers now, and what are you reading?
A. My favorite serious writers are James Joyce and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I just finished The Paris Wife [a novel written in the voice of Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley], which I thought was pretty good; Moon Over Manifest, a kid's book, which won the Newberry Award; Swamplandia, by Karen Russell, and I'm also slogging my way through The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. I just read the new book by George Pelecanos, the best of all of us mystery writers.
Q. You read these books simultaneously?
A. I'm all over the place. And I've always got something going in the car; I have a Jeffrey Deaver book on audio.
Q. Does your son read your young adult books and critique them?
A. Yup. He never shuts up. "That's the wrong title." "The beginning was a little slow." But he loved Middle School.
Q. To what do you attribute your success as a writer?
A. I'm a very good storyteller; I have a lot of compassion for people. That's very useful for a novelist. A lot of novelists are snots. They're just mean people. I'm not a terribly skilled stylist, nor do I want to be. I want a lot of people to read one of my stories and go, That was pretty cool.
Q. You've been accused of operating more like a CEO than an author, because you work with cowriters. It's also been said that you churn out books like a factory.
A. That's just total nonsense. I am so incredibly involved. I write the outlines; and if you read the outline, you've read the novel. I insist on getting pages [from cowriters] every couple of weeks. I will edit and guide them along the way. Once I get the first draft, I will write anywhere from one to seven, eight, nine drafts. CEOs don't do that. I'm very, very hands on. If it's a factory, it's a factory where everything is hand-tooled.
Q. You made a big career shift in midlife. What can you advise others?
A. If you're still working, or if you have time, you prepare. If you want to write, you write, write, write. I have a friend who was also in advertising. And five or six years before he retired — and he retired fairly young, in his 50s — he took acting lessons and never told a soul. When he retired, he became a full-time actor, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway. He prepared, he made sure that when he did retire, he was ready to do this.
And I think the other thing that's useful is, don't speculate about something; try it. We make judgments a lot of times based on faulty information or almost no information.
Q. Is there something you aspire to write or to do that you haven't done yet?
A. I'm looking forward to creating a couple of big hit movie franchises [based on my books].
Q. I know you were not very involved in the two Alex Cross movies that starred Morgan Freeman [Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls].
A. I wasn't involved at all. Morgan Freeman is great, but I felt they were clunky as movies. I'm very involved in the new Alex Cross movie: We're going to be shooting in August, with Tyler Perry [in the lead role] and Matthew Fox from Lost.
The trick with the movie scene is that there are so many people you have to deal with. Really, nobody gets in the way of my books. The editor is helpful, but not in the way.
Q. Some people are saying that Tyler Perry is not enough of an alpha male to play Alex Cross.
A. It's going to be a little controversial. I've seen Tyler perform in the theater, and he's real powerful. And I think his movies are very emotional and can be very funny. He's got a lot on the line here, and he wouldn't do this if he weren't certain it was going to work well.
Q. Your latest Women's Murder Club book, 10th Anniversary, is just out. What's the appeal of that series for you?
A. Most detective series involve a lone wolf — male or female. They're obsessive: They go home, smoke a cigarette, drink themselves to sleep. I liked creating something different, where you have four women [a detective, a district attorney, a medical examiner, a reporter]. Women are much more collaborative than men. And the fact that they're best friends — that's a cool notion.
Q. You've said you're compassionate and referred to your sentimental streak. Why murder stories?
A. It seemed presumptuous to think I could write serious fiction. A murder mystery seemed a little more logical. There's a market there, there are people who actually read them, it's a little easier to get published, and I liked them. Somewhere along the way, I read Day of the Jackal and The Exorcist and I went "Oh!" — these are good, I think I can do things like this.
In some of the best mysteries and thrillers, there is real heart. The key to Alex Cross is, he has a heart, he's a compassionate man. Now, obviously, there's a lot of graphic stuff in what I do too.
Q. Yes, what about the blood and gore?
A. It's appropriate to what I'm doing. It's not something I shy away from. I'm hardly the most graphic, but it's not Mary Higgins Clark either. I like her, and I like her writing. But that's a different style. Her first book, Where Are the Children?, was actually pretty scary. I think she could push the envelope a little more [now] than she does.
Q. I'm assuming you won't be retiring anytime soon. But will there come a time?
A. I wasn't planning on these young adult books. That's what has put it a little over the top. [But] I love what I do, I don't feel harried, I don't feel any pressure. So there's no particular reason to not want to do it.
Evelyn Renold is a writer and editorial consultant in New York. She is the former executive editor of Lear's magazine and senior deputy editor of Good Housekeeping.