As the world’s best-selling author – with a staggering 350 million books sold and a reported $1 billion fortune – you would think at 70, James Patterson might be ready to slow down and take things easy.
The man who has had a record-breaking 114 books on the New York Times bestseller list and who has, for the past decade, been the author most borrowed from British libraries, surely has no goals left to achieve. You’d be wrong.
Indeed, says Patterson with a twinkle in his eye, he is in the middle of writing a book that has just sold in a seven-figure deal with his unlikeliest collaborator yet: former President Bill Clinton. It is the first time a US President has ever authored a novel, which has made it the most eagerly anticipated book of 2018.
With a staggering 350 million books sold and a reported $1 billion fortune, author James Patterson has become a walking literary ‘brand’
A movie is already in the works at cable TV giant Showtime. ‘We talk a few times a week,’ says Patterson when we meet in Manhattan. ‘I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to call Clinton a friend but we’re on very friendly terms. I’ve been to his house, he’s been to mine, we play golf together. This has been one of the most enjoyable collaborations I’ve ever worked on. Clinton is enjoying the creative process. He’s an extremely smart guy. And he’s got lots of great stories to tell.’
Patterson, whose atelier churns out up to 20 books a year across every genre, from thrillers to teen fiction and even romance novels, has been accused of literary ‘painting by numbers’ by critics, who say the process where he writes a 50-page outline then ‘hands off’ to another writer to pen the book is ‘cheating’.
‘Not at all,’ says Patterson, a former chairman of advertising giant J Walter Thompson. ‘Hollywood has teams writing movies, television shows are written in collaboration. What about Lennon and McCartney? Rogers and Hammerstein? I have no problem working as part of a team. Other people bring expertise I don’t have.’
His book with Clinton, The President Is Missing, is a case in point. The 42nd President was already a big Patterson fan, telling the author he ‘devoured’ all of his 24 books featuring Alex Cross, a detective turned forensic psychologist. The series celebrates its 25th anniversary next year and Patterson’s 25th Cross thriller, The People Vs Alex Cross, has just been published in the UK.
Cross is the star of two of Patterson’s most successful books, Along Came A Spider and Kiss The Girls, which were turned into hit movies starring Morgan Freeman. Clinton approached Patterson to suggest their joint project.
‘I’d done an interview saying he’d be my dream lunch partner so one thing led to another and we ended up having a two-hour meeting in Florida.’ Clinton suggested co-writing a thriller. ‘Who’s going to turn down an opportunity like that?’ says Patterson. ‘I went off and wrote a 50-page outline and we started from there.’
The plot revolves around a fictional president who mysteriously vanishes into thin air: ‘He is the most watched, most closely guarded man in the world. How can this happen? When you are working with someone who was actually in the Oval Office, they have a unique perspective. The President knows how it all works.’
But does Clinton actually write the book? ‘Of course, yes, he’s been very involved. It’s a two-way process but he has written sections of this book and he was very involved in the plot.’
Patterson was born to an ‘emotionally repressed’ father, an insurance agent, and a teacher mother in working-class Newburgh, New York. ‘My father never showed emotion,’ he says. ‘The only time we hugged was on his deathbed. I grew up playing in the woods, telling myself stories. I knew I needed to escape our small town.’
At 18, Patterson moved to Massachusetts and worked the overnight shift at a local mental hospital to help pay his way through university. He started reading voraciously to alleviate the tedium of the 11pm-to-7am graveyard shift, ploughing through James Joyce, Dostoevsky and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, along with more modest fare such as The Day Of The Jackal and The Exorcist.
‘I read those and thought: I can do that.’ He ‘fell’ into advertising. ‘I needed a job and J Walter Thompson had openings.’ For 25 years, he rose through the ranks, ending up as North American CEO.
Meanwhile, he was also working on his writing. His first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, was rejected by 31 publishers before it was published, in 1976. The first Alex Cross book, 1993’s Along Came A Spider, topped the bestseller charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
‘Then I had the financial security to quit the day job in 1996 and go into writing full-time.’ His approach to publishing is very much that of an advertising guru: ‘Get a good story, tell it in a snappy way, advertise.’
He was the first author to put adverts for his books on TV, paying out of his own pocket to advertise Along Came A Spider. Sales soared. He also took a new approach to the business of writing.
‘Until me, authors wrote a book a year,’ he says. ‘My view was, why?’ Patterson is the antithesis of a starving artist. Instead, he presides over a well-oiled money-churning machine of at least two dozen co-writers.
Patterson is in the middle of writing a book that has just sold in a seven-figure deal with his unlikeliest collaborator yet: former President Bill Clinton
He comes up with the plot and hands each collaborator an outline of 50 to 60 pages. They write the books – he admits only writing ‘one or two from scratch’ each year – but he ‘micromanages’ everything from the book covers to the ad campaigns. He is a workaholic, rising at 5.30am to work seven days a week at his $20 million Palm Beach ocean-front mansion. He admits to having a trusted formula: ‘Short sentences, good story, keep the pages turning. There are serious writers who don’t want to entertain, it’s all about style, and that’s fine. But I want to entertain people. I never run out of plot lines. I’m a story-teller.’
In his latest Cross book, The People Vs Alex Cross, he risks compromising the readers’ trust in their hero by putting him on trial for murder after an alleged revenge killing.
‘I love the unexpected. Readers know when they pick up one of my books – whether it’s the latest Cross or a romance – it will be a good story that makes you turn the pages.’
He bristles when asked if his writing is hackneyed, formulaic. ‘I’m not writing War And Peace. I’m writing books for mass entertainment. They are well written. The story moves along at a cracking pace. I entertain millions.’
Alex Cross remains his favourite character, even though Hollywood has never fully embraced him because, says Patterson, of race. The fictional character is African- American. ‘When I created Alex Cross, the traditional movie view of black people in America was guys holding boom boxes. ‘I grew up in a tough town. I had a lot of black friends. I wanted to give a more rounded view, to portray Cross as someone who solved problems with his brain and intellect, not his fists.’
There have been three Alex Cross films so far – the most recent with Tyler Perry– but one studio executive even suggested it would be ‘better if we made him white’.
‘Readers know when they pick up one of my books – whether it’s the latest Cross or a romance – it will be a good story that makes you turn the pages,’ says Patterson
Despite Patterson’s billion-dollar fortune – Forbes magazine estimates he earned $97 million last year alone – he finds it hard to splurge. There is the mansion, of course, which he shares with Sue, his wife of 20 years, and their 19-year-old son Jack, and another home in upstate New York, but friends have recently started encouraging him to spend.
‘I’ve started taking private jets,’ he admits, ‘but it’s hard when you come from a background of thrift.’
Jack is studying religious studies and economics at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Will Patterson leave his fortune to his son?
‘He’ll be well taken care of, but most of it will go into a foundation. No one needs that kind of money.’
Patterson gives away $20 million to $30 million a year, mostly to help promote child literacy programmes. ‘I don’t want my name on buildings,’ he says. ‘I’m not that person. Reading saves lives. If you encourage a child to read, it opens a whole new universe to them, a world of possibilities.’
He is a ‘massive’ admirer of J K Rowling. ‘If a child reads all of Harry Potter that’s a competent level of reading ability. She’s saved the lives of thousands of children. Kids who read make better students, better adults and, ultimately better parents.’
He met Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at an event to promote parents reading to their children. ‘She was very passionate – and very shy,’ is all he reveals of their encounter.
Patterson has become so famous he appeared as a character in The Simpsons and was invited to Harvard University to lecture business students on becoming a brand. ‘They can’t talk to a Coca-Cola bottle but they can talk to me.’
What does he hope his legacy will be? ‘My money will go in giving scholarships and bringing books to people. I like to think Alex Cross will be around in 100 years. But if one kid picks up one of my books and reads… then that’s priceless.’
James Patterson’s ‘The People Vs Alex Cross’ (Century) is out now, priced £20