After more than four decades in publishing, record-breaking bestseller James Patterson has this to say: You can go your own way. Discover an exclusive extended interview with Patterson below.
Chris Sorensen For The Washington Post via Getty Images
BY BOBBI DEMPSEY
“I never give anyone writing advice.” That may seem like a surprising way to open an interview with a magazine for writers, but James Patterson has always avoided casting himself as the all-knowing writing guru. He’s a firm believer that every author is unique, and each must find a way to use their individual strengths and talents: “I don’t tell other people what they should do. I just know what I do. But I can share what works for me.”
What works for Patterson also seems to be popular with a massive number of readers. He holds the Guinness World Record for the most No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, and his books have sold more than 375 million copies worldwide. He is the author of dozens of titles, many of them written with a crew of co-writers that Patterson keeps very busy.
He is passionate about promoting literacy and a love of reading, investing significant resources to support those causes. He has donated more than 1 million books to students and soldiers and heads up a foundation that has funded some 400 Teacher Education Scholarships at more than 20 colleges and universities. Plus, he has donated millions of dollars to school libraries and independent bookstores, including giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in surprise bonuses directly to bookstore employees.
Patterson created a children’s book imprint, JIMMY Patterson Books for Young Readers—affectionately known as “JIMMY Books”—in 2015. He says the imprint has one simple and important goal: “When a kid finishes a JIMMY book, I want them to say, ‘Give me another.’”
In 2016, Patterson played a central role in launching BookShots, a publishing program offering original, shorter-length (150 pages maximum) stories that retail for less than $5. Some of the stories are written by Patterson and his co-authors and feature his well-known characters like Alex Cross, while others are from a stable of authors selected—and their works edited—by Patterson himself. He also teamed up with former President Bill Clinton to pen the thriller The President Is Missing, which hit stores in June and sold more than 152,000 hardcovers in the first week, according to NPD BookScan—the best first-week sale for an adult hardcover fiction title in several years.
The prolific author is enthusiastic about the latest JIMMY Books project, a new line with a super-smart 12-year-old orphan as the heroine, called Max Einstein: The Genius Experiment. It’s the first of a series (co-written with Chris Grabenstein) that Patterson will produce in conjunction with the Albert Einstein Archives.
His strongest asset as a writer, Patterson would say, is his love for telling (and hearing) stories. His likable, relatable personality immediately makes people comfortable. He’s the kind of guy you’d gladly spend hours trading tales with over drinks. As we settled in for this interview, he told a fascinating story about his uncle, whose last name was the same as my hometown. Placed for adoption as a child, the uncle—as an adult—tracked down his brother (Patterson’s father), and eventually located their long-lost father in a seedy bar near a bridge in Poughkeepsie, only to leave without ever introducing himself.
Wow, that’s quite a story, like the real-life start of a novel.
There’s a writing lesson from that story. Sometimes people go, “Oh, he’s not a very good writer,” [because] there were no big sentences in that story. But it was a really good story. I write colloquial. I don’t tell anyone else they should write colloquially. I write the way we tell stories. If everybody wrote that way, it wouldn’t be great. But that’s what I do.
I write in a very simple way. I don’t have to. I was a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt. I know the rules—I could write more complex sentences if I wanted to. But I choose not to, and I think it’s a valid approach, in the same way I think James Joyce had a valid approach when he wrote Ulysses. It’s a different tone, a different voice. I think my voice is pretty distinctive.
You don’t come from a privileged background, but you credit that for playing a role in your success.
I was poor and middle class, and then I was poor and middle class again. And now I’m rich. And on balance, I prefer being rich. But I don’t think I’d be who I am or write what I wrote if I hadn’t been brought up the way I was. I had a 10-cent allowance when I was a kid. And I had to make that decision: Are you going to have a Pepsi this week? My mom went to the supermarket and she would get one quart of soda a week. For four kids. And she was a teacher at a Catholic school, so there was no money there.
I didn’t come to [success] overnight. I was lucky in that the first novel I wrote won an Edgar when I was 26, but I didn’t have anything that would have supported my life in terms of making a living until I was in my 40s. I was very practical about it, and humble. I didn’t feel that I should expect to make a living, or that I was entitled to anything. That seemed very presumptuous to me. I’ve always been big on, “Have a dream and a backup dream.”
I’m very organized. Anybody I work with would tell you, “He’s very focused.” I’m clear and will say exactly what I want. But there’s room for exploring. I think most of [my co-authors] have enjoyed it. It allows me to do what I love, which is telling stories. Most of the time I will lay out the story. And then we’ll take that 40 or 60 pages and turn it into 350 pages.
Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?
You see this? [He holds up a stuffed folder, roughly the size of an old-fashioned Manhattan phone book, with the word IDEAS in large capital letters on the front.] I don’t think I’ll run out anytime soon. I’m not quite as quick as I was, but I still do OK.
You’ve done a lot for childhood literacy.
I tend to be very efficient and do a lot of things at the same time. With the philanthropy, I try to make it as efficient as I possibly can. To have a really clear-cut mission. So with JIMMY Books, it’s a simple mission but I think it’s clear and allows us to function in an appropriate manner. Which is, when a kid finishes a JIMMY book, I want them to say, “Give me another,” instead of, “I never want to read again.” If we can deliver on that, then JIMMY Books is a big deal. Because we’ve done what we should do, which is putting [the kinds of] books in kids’ hands so they say, “I like to read.”
You’ve also been very active in supporting future teachers.
We have scholarships for kids to get through school who are going to be teachers. One of the colleges is University of Florida. I went there with [Harry Bosch author] Mike Connelly, who is a graduate of the school and asked me to do a speech with him. While I was there, I met the kids that we have scholarships for, and I also met the education department. And I said, “If you have something else that we could partner with, that would be great.” And they came back with a program they have been testing. In Florida, the percentage of kids who read at grade level is 43 percent. That’s not great. It’s not great anywhere. The best in the country is Massachusetts, which is like 62 percent. University of Florida, in the outer areas around Gainesville, they have over 80 percent of the classes reading at grade level. And we’re taking that across Florida this year.
We went up and met with the state lawmakers in Florida, and they were all for it. They said, “Look, we spend $130 million a year and we don’t think we spend it as well as we could. We’d rather spend it on second and third graders instead of trying to get kids when they’re in high school. It’s very hard to get them at that point, it’s too late.” So we try to do stuff where we think there will be a good result.
We also have a kids’ show now on PBS, called “Kid Stew,” in more than 200 markets. It’s to make learning fun. It’s by kids, for kids. We do some interviews, but it’s funny. There’s a time machine, which is a phone booth. And they’ll go back and talk to Da Vinci for a while. Or Shakespeare.
Your latest kids’ project is the Max Einstein book. How did that come about?
The Einstein estate came to three publishers, and they basically said, “We want to do a series of books that would introduce kids around the world to Albert Einstein. And the only thing we’re going to give you is the name Max Einstein.” So we had to pitch our idea.
And we’re little compared to the others. But I figured we have an advantage because I’m going to write them and I’ll be in the room, so I can talk about what the books will really be like. When we get in there, I said, “For starters, I’d like to make Max a girl. Because I think that’s more useful now. Because there are still a lot of places in the United States, and a lot of places around the world, where girls and women are not encouraged to study math and science. I know in some places it’s beginning to even out and that’s good, but I think it would be good that Max is a girl.” They liked that a lot. Then I began to tell them the story we had in mind. They were very smart in that they said it’s got to be entertaining or kids won’t read it. Then you get to the challenge of, How do you write an entertaining book about Einstein’s theories?
You’ve called it the most important work you’ve ever done.
Because I think it is, if we go around the world and turn millions of kids on to science. For a long time, a lot of the scientists that you would meet, if you asked, “What got you started?” They would say, “Reading science fiction.” They read sci-fi and they get turned on. And they say, “I want to do that. I want to build a time machine,” or whatever it is. That would be part of the stimulus. I think this series of books will turn a lot of kids on. Boys and girls. And in certain families there are going to be doubts. The way I grew up, my mother encouraged my sisters to become secretaries. We didn’t know any better.
I mean, it’s nice to have created Alex Cross and the Women’s Murder Club and all that. And Max Ride, my other Max, that’s another empowered girl who basically becomes the leader of this group of kids who escape from a terrible situation and have to power through
Do you find it challenging to write in the voice of female characters?
Not really. I think a piece of it is I grew up in a house full of women. Mother, grandmother, sisters, female cat. I write about women a lot. I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing something like Harlequin [romance]. I don’t have the voice. I just spent so much time with women, especially growing up. I think I kind of got it, within reason. I know and empathize with a lot of things that people go through.
BookShots was a new, innovative approach to publishing works that were packaged differently than your normal books. You take a very active role in creating and developing the outlines for all of your full-length books. Was it the same with BookShots?
There they are. [He gestures towards shelves filled with books]. That was one year’s output. That was insane. To take that on and write a bunch of them, and then to do the outlines. That year, I wrote 2,500 pages of outlines. And all of my outlines are three or four drafts. So that’s nuts.
I did all of the outlines [for BookShots]. Every outline was 30 or 40 pages. In 90 percent of the cases, I would have [my writers] sending pages every two weeks. And I would call them back that day and either say, “Keep going,” or, “Hold up, we’re going off the track here.” That’s the way I work with my co-authors, with all of my books.
But with BookShots, we’re kind of done with them. It was too threatening to publishers, honestly, to have these books for $3.99 and $4.99. They thought people were not going to want to buy a hardback. But I think toward the end, [the books] were really catching on. What we do now is we’ll bundle three of them in a paperback. They sell well. We’ve gone from being in the red to being solidly in the black. But the energy it took was incredible. We’re doing an occasional one now. But not a lot.
What do you think of the state of publishing today? There’s a trend toward giving content away, especially in the form of ebooks.
People think free books are great, but it’s a problem when publishers want to give away writing. Just like what happened with musicians. It’s like, OK, let’s go to your house and take your money. A lot of free books don’t even have editors. That’s a problem because if the last six books you read were terrible, you’re not going to want to read any more. It turns people off from reading. I think at this point it’s important that we still have publishers and editors. That can all be done on the internet, but nobody’s really doing it [that way] yet. Not really doing it, to a big extent.
I wonder who is going to do the Great American Novels in the future. Who’s going to develop the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald, or whoever you think is terrific. The reality of it is, if Infinite Jest was published today on the internet, it [would] sell five copies and disappear. Ulysses goes out and sells three copies and disappears.
Originality is a big thing. You get too much of, Let’s do another one of whatever. Realistic fiction in YA is a hot thing now because of John Green. But people forget that John Green does really good dialogue. And if they can’t do great dialogue, they might not make it. That’s what separates him. Obviously, he promotes really well, too.
How did Bill Clinton compare to your normal co-author situation?
He was very respectful. What sets that book apart is the authenticity. Even though it’s a novel, people really get to know what it’s like to be president during an unbelievably tense three or four days, where the worst attack ever on the United States is imminent. There’s a traitor in the White House. The president disappears. If that kind of attack were about to happen, this is the way it would go. It’s all real stuff. If the motorcade was attacked, this is exactly what the Secret Service would do.
[Clinton] has been a joy to work with. It’s fun. We get a kick out of each other. It’s different than with my other co-authors. I defer more here than I normally would. And he wants everything to be accurate. A lot of times, if you’re a fiction writer, you just make shit up. But he’ll be pushing for accuracy. He pushed for the characters to be more flesh and blood. There’s an assassin in the book, and in the first draft, I think she was a little bit more of a thriller device. But she wound up being very flesh and blood, and he really helped push for that—to make sure [the assassin] was a real human being.
Anybody on your wish list you’d like to work with?
Maybe the Pope. I think the two of us could do something good. WD
Bobbi Dempsey (bobbidempsey.com) is a freelance writer whose credits include The New York Times, Harper’s, Quartz and Parade. She is the author of the Amazon Kindle Single ebook Degrees of Desperation: The Working-Class Struggle to Pay for College.