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Stories From Author James Patterson’s Remarkable Life Portrait of Himself as Young Man

In a new memoir, the writer traces his unlikely path from blue-collar kid to blockbuster storyteller

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Stephani Diani

Most weeks, avid readers scanning the best-seller lists are likely to find at least one James Patterson book — either solo projects or collaborations with other writers. They’ll include thrillers, children’s graphic novels, middle-grade fiction and nonfiction. One recent hit is Run, Rose, Run, written with Dolly Parton, who wrote music to go along with it. (Read our interview with the pair about the project.)

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Now, Patterson, 75, has turned his prodigious storytelling skills to looking back on his own journey. His new memoir, James Patterson by James Patterson: The Stories of My Life, is written as a sequence of short, often-amusing tales covering his working-class childhood in Newburgh, New York — where he’d sometimes drink beer at the bar with his dad at age 5 or 6 — and his unlikely path to fame. That included some 25 years in the advertising business (he cowrote the jingle “I’m a Toys ’R’ Us kid”) until he quit, in 1996, to write full-time.

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Reading his memoir is a bit like hanging out with a wry, down-to-earth raconteur who, by many accounts, just happens to sell more books than anyone else on the planet.

Enjoy a glimpse into Patterson as he tells it like it was.

You’re slipping, James

According to Patterson family lore, on March 22, 1947, I nearly died at birth at St. Luke’s Hospital in Newburgh, New York. I don’t remember, but I did live to tell about it.

Let’s start with my father. Charles Henry Patterson was a quiet but tough man who came from tough times and from a tough river town.

spinner image photo collage of images from james patterson including him as a baby as a child meeting santa claus working at an advertising agency and at his wedding to wife sue
Clockwise from top left: Young James Patterson; the future author working at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York City; at his wedding to wife Sue; meeting Santa as a child in Newburgh, New York
Courtesy James Patterson

My dad grew up in the Newburgh poorhouse (think about that for a second or two). It was called the Pogie. His mom was the charwoman there. She cleaned the kitchens and bathrooms, worked, she said, from “7 to 7, seven days a week.” For her long, hard work, she and my father got to share a single room on the basement floor. They weren’t homeless, but they were damn close. My father never met his father, at least not as far as he could remember.

My mother, Isabelle Ann, attended high school with my dad. After college she became a fourth grade teacher at St. Patrick’s, one of the four Catholic schools in Newburgh. She made next to nothing. Maybe even a little less than that. I’m surprised the parish priests didn’t ask her to pay them for the privilege of teaching at their school. Several nights a week, she would be bent over the dining-room table grading papers until 9 or 10.

She had a cool mission as a teacher: She wanted to turn mirrors into windows. She pretty much followed the same philosophy at home. Mirrors, physical or symbolic, weren’t big in the Patterson house.

My sisters — Mary Ellen, Carole and Teresa — ruled the roost. In their view of the world, I was hired help. I was muscle. I was their minion. So I handled the garbage detail, the lawn work, the snow removal, and the repair of bicycles, small electrical appliances, deflated balls of all sizes and shapes. We were a very ball-sy family. 

I was always a good student, driven to be number one in, well, everything, but I’d get a 97 on a test and my mom or dad would say, “How come you didn’t get a hundred? You’re slipping, James.”

The idea I had growing up — and I held on to it into my 40s — was that my folks only cared about me as long as I was number one in my class. I don’t blame them, because I feel they were doing the best that they could. I think they honestly believed the next Great Depression was just around the corner, and they always clung to, Careful. Careful. Go slow. Look both ways. Then look again. Your best isn’t good enough. You’re slipping, James.

My favorite dad story

Just a few weeks before my father got shipped out to fight in World War II, he received a long-distance phone call [from a man who] identified himself as George Hazelton from Port Jervis, a town about 40 miles from Newburgh. George told my dad he was about to leave for the Pacific theater with the Navy, and the night before, his father had said to him, “George, you know we love you very much, and you’re about to go off to fight in this horrible war, so we have to tell you something that we’ve kept from you all these years. We’re not your natural parents. We adopted you when you were 1 year old.”

Then George Hazelton told my father — over the phone — that he was his brother.

So Charles Patterson and George Hazelton, two brothers who still hadn’t actually met, both went off to fight for their country in World War II.

Miraculously, they both also came home. They became best friends, extremely loyal and loving toward one another. The thing I remember best about the two of them was that when they were together, they would laugh and laugh. And my father didn’t laugh all that much.

spinner image james patterson with his wife and son and on the golf course
With Sue and son Jack; on the golf course with a hole in one.
Courtesy James Patterson

My father would sometimes tear up when he told the story about how he and his big brother, George, found one another. I think it was the only time I ever saw him cry.

A few years after the war ended, my Uncle George called my father again. This time he started with the punch line: “I found our father.”

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My uncle went on to report that their father was tending bar in Poughkeepsie, New York. He was working in a seedy joint under the Mid-Hudson Bridge. My Uncle George said, “C’mon, Pat, let’s go to Poughkeepsie. The two of us. I want to meet him.”

My father said, “Well, I don’t. I’m not interested in meeting the bastard. I’m not going with you, George.”

So my uncle went all by himself to this ugly little gin mill sitting under the Poughkeepsie bridge. A couple of rummies were inside, bellied up to the bar. The joint reeked of months-old stale beer and hard liquor that was even older. Just right for a scene in a novel about upstate New York by William Kennedy or Richard Russo.

My Uncle George didn’t drink, so he ordered a Coca-Cola. Then he sat there nursing his soda, watching his father, who he’d never met, growing so disgusted by this poor excuse for a human being that he never even introduced himself. After half an hour — an excruciating time, I imagine — Uncle George left the bar and drove back to Port Jervis alone. His father never knew that one of his sons had been there.

And to this day, I don’t know my grandpa Patterson’s first name. 

Small-town bars actually played a big part in my youth. On many a Saturday afternoon, my father would drag me along to a local joint on Broadway in Newburgh. My dad called it “babysitting the boy.”

Here was our ritual: The bartender would slap half a mug of beer down in front of me. I was 5 or 6 years old. I’d quaff the beer in one big sip. Every Saturday. The guys in the bar would cheer for me, and my dad was clearly proud. Somehow, I didn’t become an alcoholic, but encouraging your kid to chug down beers at 6 was an interesting way of being a dad. I don’t recommend it. 

“I know you better than you know yourself.”

Brother Leonard, the Christian Brothers principal at St. Patrick’s High School, had a divine plan for me. “I know you better than you know yourself,” he liked to say. Not that the saying made a lot of sense to any of us. Then again, Brother Leonard was fond of declaring, in complete seriousness, things like “Hey, I misunderstood me.”

Some of you will find this next part hard to believe — but it happened. 

In my senior year I applied to Harvard, Yale, Colby and Bates. As of February, I hadn’t heard back from any of the schools. As background, you need to understand that my family didn’t know much or think much about college. But my mother finally set up an appointment for us to talk to Brother Leonard about the admissions situation.

I already had a theory about what was about to go down.

The good brother kept my mother and me waiting in the school cafeteria (which offered a daily choice of hot dogs or hamburgers for our school lunches. That was it: hamburger or hot dog, every day). Finally, he called us to his office. He listened as my mom and I told him our concerns. Then he told us the deal he’d made on our behalf.

“Oh, I never sent your transcript to any of those schools. I only sent it to Manhattan College.” Manhattan College was run by the same group of Christian Brothers who taught at St. Patrick’s. So, of course, Manhattan was a Catholic school. “Here’s the good news, Mrs. Patterson. James has been accepted at Manhattan with a full scholarship. You’ll never have to pay a cent. Congratulations.”

Then the principal shook hands with both of us. That sanctimonious son of a bitch. I wanted to smack him. I wanted to scream in his face.

But that was that. As always, I had the sense that Brother Leonard felt God was sitting on his shoulder doing the actual decision-making. To this day, I have a problem with authority figures. Brother Leonard is the reason why.

I immediately applied to Hamilton College and was accepted — but with no financial aid. My father told me I could head on down to the bank and take out a big personal loan for college. He had no problem if that was my decision, but it meant going down to the bank by myself.

So off I went to Manhattan College, which, by the way, happens to be in the Bronx.

Before I take leave of my hometown, I have to say that, to this day, I look at the world through the lens of a blue-collar kid who grew up in Newburgh. It’s a blessing. I think it’s why I’ve never been too full of myself, too impressed with best-seller lists. It’s probably why I’m kind of a working-class storyteller. I just keep chopping wood.

Passion keeps you going … but it doesn’t pay the rent.

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When I first arrived in New York [after college], I would force myself to get up at 5 every morning to squeeze in a couple of hours of writing before I went to work at the ad factory. I was full of hope and big dreams but not enough confidence to quit my day job and write for my supper.

I’d play some music, maybe a little Harry Nilsson (“Gotta Get Up”), and do my first stint of scribbling sentences, cutting sentences, adding sentences, driving myself crazy.

The book’s getting better, right?

The book’s getting worse. Every sentence I write is inferior to the last.

I’m going to be the next Graham Greene.

Don’t quit your day job, chump.

You start thinking you’re a fraud, “a big fat failure.” OK, OK, so that’s a line out of the movie You’ve Got Mail. So is, “You are what you read.”

As I said, I was driving myself crazy. It goes with the territory. I think that’s what first-time novelists are supposed to do. Our rite of passage. Every night after work, I’d come home in a daze of jingle lyrics and cutesy catchphrases, sit in my kitchen, stare around at the tiny antiseptic space, then start writing again. I’d go till 11 or 12. That’s how I wrote The Thomas Berryman Number.

I did the first draft in pencil.

But then I typed. The two-finger minuet. I had to reach up to the counter to peck at the keys of my gloss-black Underwood Champion. Eventually I hurt my back. That’s when I stopped typing and started writing everything in pencil again.

I still write in pencil. I’m writing this with a number 2 pencil. The pencils were gifts from my old friend Tom McGoey. They each say Alex Cross Lives Here. My handwriting is impossible to read­ — even for me. Hell, I’m not sure what I just wrote.

After about a thousand revisions, when I thought the manuscript for The Thomas Berryman Number might be ready for human consumption, I mailed it out myself. No agent. No early readers. No compelling pitch letter.

I got rejections. Mostly form letters. A couple of handwritten notes from editors that were encouraging. One publisher, Morrow, held on to the manuscript for two months before rejecting it. With a form letter.

Then I read an article in The New York Times Book Review about the literary agency Sanford Greenburger Associates. Sanford Greenburger, the founder of the agency, had died in 1971. His son Francis took over the business. Francis was in his 20s, not much older than me. The article in the Times said they were accepting manuscripts from unpublished writers. That would be me.

spinner image james patterson and tim malloy holding two of their emmy awards
With one of his nine Emmys (and collaborator Tim Malloy).
Courtesy James Patterson

I sent over the manuscript that had already been rejected 30 times. We’re talking 400 typewritten pages secured in a cardboard box. Two days later, I got a phone call from Greenburger Associates. I’m thinking to myself, I can’t believe they turned my book down so fast!

The caller was Francis himself. He said, “No, no, no, I’m not turning your novel down. Just the opposite. Come on over and see me. I want to sell this thing. I will sell your book.”

So Francis hooked me up with Jay Acton, a hot young editor at Thomas Crowell, a small, family-owned New York publisher. Jay and I got along beautifully. He worked with me for about a month on the manuscript.

Then Jay rejected it. My 31st rejection.

But Francis Greenburger talked me down off a ledge of the 30-story Graybar Building, where J. Walter Thompson had its offices. “Don’t worry your pretty little head. I’m going to sell it this week.”

And he sold it to Little, Brown. That week.

Excerpted from James Patterson by James Patterson: The Stories of My Life. Copyright © 2022. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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