Nearly 40 years ago, working as an ad man at legendary firm J. Walter Thompson, the very agency that reportedly inspired Mad Men, James Patterson penned an unforgettable jingle and had an entire generation melodically declaring that they were Toys R Us kids.
Today, Patterson holds rapt the attention of a more mature demographic, adult readers of popular fiction, his almost supernatural, pied piper-like abilities to mesmerize the general public undiluted by the passage of time.
Since giving up his exquisite office at the Manhattan firm in 1976, Patterson has demonstrated not only a proficiency at generating snappy prose and irresistible melodramas, but is also as stunningly prolific as a novelist as he is ubiquitous on the shelves of supermarkets, airport gift shops and, oh yeah, bookstores too. In just a few minutes shy of three decades, Patterson has knocked out nearly 150 books, some 55,000 published pages. More than 100 of those titles became New York Times bestsellers, his body of work having sold more than 300-million copies worldwide. According to Guinness Book of World Records, Patterson is the bestselling author in the world; indeed, it was recently reported that an astonishing 1-in-17 hardcover books purchased in America is written by none other than James Patterson.
Fully aware that his routine seven-figure paychecks are utterly reliant on a perennially replenishing global population who actually loves to read, but also inspired by his son Jack's apathy towards literature, Patterson in 2008 launched Read Kiddo Read, a literacy initiative more likely to lead children to bookshelves than toy stores.
For decades, Patterson has showered youth reading programs nationwide with millions of dollars in donations, but when young Jack balked at turning pages, Daddy stepped in with an offer impossible for the pre-teen to refuse: you don’t have to cut the lawn anymore, but you do have to read for one hour every day. With Papa Patterson leading the way, Jack within months had devoured A Wrinkle in Time and three books in the Percy Jackson franchise for young adult readers.
Convinced that many young readers today find literary selections mandated by most public schools to be arid, lifeless, centuries-old heaps of dust and dung, and now knows – after donating hundreds of thousands of copies of Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne to schools through Read Kiddo Read – that one can attract more flies with money.
“Millions of kids have never read a book they liked, and that’s a tragedy,” says Patterson. “At Read Kiddo Read, we work really hard to make sure the books we recommend to young readers and their parents and teachers are ones kids are actually going to love, and then ask for more. It might be Wimpy Kid or Witch & Wizard or The Hunger Games now. Great. Once they develop the habit for reading, they’ll move on to all of the stuff they’re supposed to want to read. Good books are a gateway on so many levels.”
Speaking of habits, if you’ve read one of Patterson’s white-knuckled tomes, say the three-dozen titles in his exhilarating Alex Cross series, you’ve likely read them all. Addictive is likely the most accurate word for his critically dismissed (let them read Bleak House!), but ravenously devoured pop fictions – mysteries, whodunits, crime thrillers with sprinklings of kink, gore, and sass – by… Well, by you. Or someone in your office anyway. Just look on your nightstand and around your cubicle; there’s a 1 in 17 chance, give or take, someone’s ignoring all life on the planet with a copy of Patterson’s two most recent novels, NYPD Red 4 and the 23rd Alex Cross story, Cross Justice.
But who is this 68-year old Palm Beach who has been known to publish six novels in a single year and last fall was awarded the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation? Glad you asked…
You’re so famously prolific as a novelist. What’s the secret to an excellent day at the desk?
Five mornings a week, I’m up and at ‘em bright and early, walking three or four miles across a lovely train with my golf clubs. I hit enough good shots to make it pleasant, and I have no misconceptions about my abilities – so I never get angry when I miss. Golf is a perfect thing to do for a while every day, and my mind is clear and quiet. And then I’m ready to work.
Many authors have very strict, almost superstitious routines or work habits when they’re deep into a book. What is something like that in your writing process, day to day?
When I was a kid, I’d do my homework to Top 40 radio. That was my habit. Now, I do my thing to rock & roll. I love Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan. I love Nirvana, and Eminem – especially the more melodic stuff. Can you hear that in my books? I don’t know. I wish I liked opera, but I don’t. I love the theory of opera – the emotions so big they can only be expressed in these gigantic songs – but the practice, these large people up on the stage making those sounds, it somehow doesn’t work for me.
You’ve written more books in 30 years than five authors combined would write in 100 years. Who are some of your literary influences, the parties perhaps partially responsible for your prodigious output?
(Laughs) As a kid, I was turned on by comic books. Loved them. DC superheroes and Donald Duck, and all the stuff in between. Then right after high school, I started working night shifts at a mental hospital and all there was to do was read usually, so I needed bigger books. I went right from comics to James Joyce, skipped bestsellers completely – which might be ironic. I don’t think one book is more important than another. There’s room for all kinds. Lots of people think science fiction is for kids, and yet scientist after scientist will tell you they became scientists because of science fiction.
Though peace of some kind is often restored by the endings of your novels, there’s also a good deal of anguish and heartache in them. Where does that come from?
Well, 35 years ago, I was with a woman for seven years. It was just an idyllic relationship. One day, we were in the post office together and she had this seizure. There happened to be a nurse there in line who helped us out and told me we really needed to see a doctor. Turns out, Jane had a brain tumor and for the next 2 ½ years, she was dying. But we had this thing, she and I, all the time, where we’d say, ‘Isn’t it lucky you didn’t die that day in the post office, and we still have today?’ We’re all dying, but life becomes so clear when the clock is that loud. Maybe that’s what you’re talking about.
That’s beautiful. Perhaps that is part of what fuels your work ethic, along with the tales themselves.
I was very lucky to have grandparents who kept telling me that life had no glass ceiling over my head, but they also kept it very real. My grandmother used to say, “You can dunk, even though you’re only 5’11”. You can play well, but you’re a little slow. You’re not going to be play for the NBA. But other than that, you can do anything you want to do.” I carried that with me. Today, I know I can’t be James Joyce, but I can be James Patterson. Besides that, I’ve never found writing to be hard. All my life, whenever I’ve been stuck in class or in a waiting room, I just started making up stories. When I started writing them down and then selling them, it only made sense. So I never played for the NBA, but I do make up stories all day long.
For which you are handsomely rewarded. How’s life in Palm Beach?
You go around the world and you see various places. I like Santa Barbara. I like San Francisco. I like Madison, Wisconsin. But I really like Southern Florida. The ocean is right outside my window. Some people would say it’s unreal. I would correct that; it’s not unreal. It’s just not ordinary or average. It’s beautiful. I am a very lucky man.