A Between the Lines Interview with James Patterson
James Patterson is a giant in the literary world. He holds a Guinness record for the most #1 New York Times bestsellers of any author. One-in-seventeen fiction hardcovers sold in the U.S. are Patterson novels. And Forbes ranks him as the top earning author in the world. With all that, it might be easy to forget that Patterson was no overnight success. He paid his dues, and his rise was born of great storytelling, tenacity, and a willingness to buck convention.
Patterson’s first novel was rejected by more than thirty publishers. When it was finally published in 1976, he won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, but Patterson was so insecure about his work that he thought they’d made a mistake. Over the next sixteen years, Patterson published only a handful of novels to modest sales. It wasn’t until 1992 and his breakout novel featuring the now iconic Alex Cross that things started to change.
But it wasn’t just Mr. Cross that set Patterson’s course. It was his decision to take the reins of his career, to do things his way, even if it defied conventional wisdom. So, he ran television ads for his work despite raised eyebrows from some in the literary crowd. He embraced short chapters and chapters with alternating points of view, prompting finger-wagging from some writing teachers. He wrote in multiple genres, against admonishments that it would confuse his readers. And he was among the first to work regularly with co-authors, publishing multiple books a year, to claims that he was treating writing too much like a business.
While most of the naysayers have come around, it is doubtful anyone can dispute that Patterson’s rise is truly a writer’s story; a tale of sticking to it, beating the odds, and getting people—including millions of kids—to read.
Patterson recently took the time to answer a few questions for THE BIG THRILL.
Back when you were a kid in Newburgh, New York—or even after you published your first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number—did you ever imagine you’d become the world’s bestselling author? What did your success mean for your family and your friends from your hometown?
My first book was rejected by thirty-one publishers, so no; I did not expect this kind of success at that point. My mother was a teacher so I know that she would be especially proud of my kids’ books.
If you could go back in time and give your younger writer self some advice from what you’ve learned, what would it be?
Be confident in your ability to tell a good story. I have that now but early on I didn’t. When I won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel I thought it was a mistake. That’s the kind of lack of confidence that many young writers face.
You started your career writing on a traditional path of a book every year or so. What inspired your move to working with co-authors and multi-books a year?
Well, I have a friend, Peter DeJonge, and we had been out golfing one day and after were having a beer. And we started going back and forth about a story idea that I had. I thought we could collaborate in an interesting way and that became MIRACLE ON THE 17TH GREEN. What I found was that I really enjoyed that process. My co-authors are usually people that I’ve known—often people I’ve worked with previously—so, I know we can collaborate well together.
Speaking of your books, BURN, the latest in the blockbuster Michael Bennett series, was just released and HOPE TO DIE, the latest Alex Cross novel comes out November 24. What’s new and in store for Mr. Bennett and Mr. Cross?
Well, Michael and his family leave witness protection at the beginning of BURN and head back to New York City. Michael joins an Outreach Squad in Harlem and the crime they’re investigating is a real doozy.
HOPE TO DIE picks up right where CROSS MY HEART left off. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that I think it’s my best Alex Cross book yet.
By my count, you also have three other books coming out before year’s end. Given that you’ve achieved every conceivable recognition, record-breaking sales, and the accompanying rewards, what motivates you to be so prolific?
I’ve never run out of ideas for stories. In my office, I have a five-inch-thick folder full of ideas and they’ve never stopped coming. They say you’re lucky if you find something you like to do in life, and it’s a miracle if somebody will pay you to do it. I want to continue telling stories for as long as I can.
You seem to have made a career by bucking convention. Where did this rebellious streak come from? And has it ever not served you well?
Oh, I don’t know, I spent a long time in advertising and doing that gave me the chance to try something new and see if it worked. If it didn’t work, we’d try something else. It’s true that I had to push back against some established views in the publishing world, but I don’t know if I was rebelling so much as wanting to try out new ideas. Lucky for me, they worked. Also, what the hell, I’m a rebel.
What writing and career advice would you give a new writer trying to break in or a midlist writer trying to get noticed?
There is no advice I can give to guarantee success. It has to do with writing books that are unique and yet are relevant to the marketplace. There are a lot of writers out there, but there aren’t a lot of storytellers. The advice that I give to all writers though is to start with an outline. It’s the best way to figure out where the story is headed and you’ll get it down faster.
Two things that stand out in your books are (1) story, and (2) memorable heroes and villains. Is there a set structure to a great story? And how do you craft such memorable protagonists and villains?
I don’t think there is one set structure, but a story does need a structure. As I said before, outlining is so important. With my books, I think what hooks people into my stories is the pace. I try to leave out the parts people skip. With regards to crafting memorable characters, I think that one of the hard things, but ultimately a very important thing, is getting the voice down. These characters’ voices are what define them and what turn them into the interesting people that the readers are able to connect to. I have a lot of compassion for people and that can be useful as a storyteller. You feel for the heroes in my stories.
Your author website seems targeted toward young readers (images of you dressed as a pirate, in Groucho glasses, etc.). Your Facebook page also has a TREASURE HUNTERS banner. Is writing for kids your passion these days?
Writing the books that get kids reading is the thing that I am most passionate about. But I also think that my kids’ books are the best books that I’ve written, especially my Maximum Ride and Middle School series. My goal is to write books that as soon as kids finish them, they say, “That was great, give me another.”
You’ve been quoted as saying that you don’t like your books referred to as “guilty pleasures” because no one should ever feel guilty about reading a book. Will that be your legacy—getting young (and old) people who might not otherwise pick up a book, to read?
I hope so. It’s been my mission to do all that I can to get families reading and especially to get kids reading. But, come on, we all know that there’s still much more to be done. And that’s why I keep writing and keep doing all that I can to encourage reading.
In this age of Netflix, iPhones/iPads, video games, and an endless array of visual stimuli, what can parents do to entice their children to read?
They can let kids pick out books that they’re excited about, books that actually appeal to their interests. And they can make reading a priority in their household by creating family reading time and making sure that mom and dad set the example and prioritize reading as well.
You’ve done so much to support literacy and the less fortunate. Please tell our readers about some of your projects and initiatives—and what they can do to help.
Well, I have a website called ReadKiddoRead and it’s a resource to help parents, teachers, and librarians find books that are really going to turn kids on to reading. I also have over four hundred Patterson Teacher Education Scholarships at twenty-two colleges and universities across the country and these future teachers are really committed to getting kids reading.
But anyone can find ways to help promote reading in their house and in their community. Buy books from independent bookstores. Support your local library. Research what other families and communities are doing to encourage reading. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
Switching gears from reading, any movie or television adaptations of your books on the horizon?
We’re adapting ZOO into a 13-episode series with CBS that will air next summer. You’ll also be able to stream it on Netflix after it airs. So, that’s a project that I’m pretty excited about. Also, one of my kids books, Middle School, the Worst Years of My Life is about to be green lit.
Speaking of movies, I’ve read that you’re a movie buff and I see you even post reviews on your website. What’s been your favorite movie over the past year?
I try to see as many movies as I can, so I always end up with multiple favorites by the end of the year. Two recent favorites were Boyhood and Chef.
Same question for books—do you have a favorite read or two over the past year?
I really liked the latest book in the Cormoran Strike series, THE SILKWORM. J. K. Rowling is such a terrific writer. She’s able to write stories that would probably be dull if another author wrote them but she makes them interesting. I also recently enjoyed IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE by Hampton Sides.
Speaking of favorites, among your own one-hundred-plus books, do you have a favorite?
It really is like asking me to pick a favorite child. But Alex Cross and I have been together for the longest and I’ve always felt a certain kinship with him. His first outing, ALONG CAME A SPIDER, is one that’s dear to me.
If you weren’t writing, what would be your dream job?
Well, writing is my dream job so I feel lucky to get to do that every day. If I weren’t writing, I would still want to do something that allowed me to tell stories: a filmmaker or a showrunner.
Last question: One hundred years from now, what do you hope people will say about James Patterson?
That I was a good husband, a good father, and a good storyteller. And Jeez, isn’t it frickin’ amazing that the old coot is still writing.
Photography Credit: David Burnett
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