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So What Do You Do, James Patterson, Bestselling Novelist?

The award-winning author on crossing into TV and film and why 'commercial' is not a dirty word.

By Jeff Rivera - November 24, 2010
With 56 bestsellers to his credit, including the popular Alex Cross series, and the distinction of being named the highest earning author of this year by Forbes, James Patterson can't miss.

Yet despite his commercial success, he hasn't been without his criticisms. Some have said Patterson lost his touch by using a slew of co-authors, and even Stephen King once called him a "terrible writer."

Patterson, however, says he's never been interested in being a literary type who engages in a "show-off prose." His m.o.? To write books that the masses will be interested in. And, from the 170 million copies he's sold thus far, that strategy is indeed working.


Name: James Patterson
Position: Author
Resume: Started as an advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson before dabbling with writing his first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, which won an Edgar Award. He followed that with Along Came a Spider, launching his career as a thriller writer, and 56 New York Times bestsellers followed.
Birthdate: March 22, 1947
Hometown: Florida
Education: Graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Manhattan College and summa cum laude with an M.A. in English from Vanderbilt University
Marital status: Married
Favorite section of the Sunday Times: "The Book Review or the obituary section."
Favorite TV show: 30 Rock
Guilty pleasure: "Walking the golf course three or four times a week around 7 AM."
Last book read: The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark and Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue


How did your background in advertising prepare you for becoming a bestselling writer?
Well, I met a lot of serial killers working in advertising so... But seriously, I think it made me aware of thinking about the kind of audience with whom I'm talking to and what they might be interested in. I have a 12-year-old and it is something I talked to him about now and that is, when you sit down with people you've got to think about who you are speaking with and what might they be interested in.

You were at one time a midlist author with your first title. How did you position yourself into becoming one of the biggest authors of our time?
I didn't. I don't do any of that. It is all emotional with me. [For] the first book I wrote, I was 26-years-old and I won an Edgar. I think what happened, more than anything else, was that I was with a woman who was dying of cancer and she was sick for about three years. And that is when I think I was sort of in purgatory in more ways than one. It was a terrible time and then after Jane died, I said, "Okay, well now I wanna sit down and try to write a book that a lot of people will be interested in reading." And it was soon after that that I wrote Along Came a Spider.

What is the difference creatively in approaching your novels for the masses compared to writing a literary novel?
I probably wouldn't try to write a literary novel. I think I can write an acceptably good novel, but I am not particularly interested in talking to that audience. I think a lot of the things that are praised are just kind of show-off prose, which is just not my thing. I can appreciate it, you know. I'm a big reader and I read all kinds of things, but it is not something I want to do.

"I write books that people really want to read. That is what I think is the brand."

One of your latest agendas has been creating books "for boys." Why do you feel we've lost so many boy readers, and what type of titles are you creating to change all of that?
Well, one of the things that's gotten me busy up to my ears now is that I have a lot of young adult books such as the Maximum Ride series. I was nominated for children's author of the year at the Children's Book Awards. My agent at the time felt that my style would really be a good start for kids because it is very fast-paced. I believe that probably the best way to get most kids reading is to just give them books that they love. There's millions of kids in this country that haven't read a book that they like, and that's not a good idea. And it's even worse for boys because they are more impatient. They don't like to sit, you know. The Witch and Wizard is actually the biggest kids series by far that I've done, and we have a movie coming now.

With so many titles being released under your name, how do you avoid diluting your brand? And what can other writers who enjoy writing different genres do?
I write books that people really want to read; that is what I think is the brand. So, whether it is a romance or a young adult or whatever, if you pick up one of my books, the pages are gonna really turn fast and that's the connection that I have with the readers. I think that people have to write stuff that they have some passion for. My success revolves around the fact that I am fairly analytical, logical, have a pretty good IQ but I've got street smarts too. You know, a lot of people who have nice IQ's are just dumb as a brick when it comes to thinking about how other people think and what they might like and how to act in public and things like that. I think I have, you know, gifts involved of those areas. I mean, if I am writing a story that kids are supposed to not want to put down, if I don't feel it, then I don't think kids will feel it. If I don't think that the pages are moving in the story and the characters aren't involving, then I'm going to assume that the people reading it won't.

You recently formed a film production company which will self-finance some of your own pictures. Why was this important and what challenges have you had to overcome?
We have an entertainment company and right now there are a few video games we have, such as with the Women's Murder Club. We have a kind of a big mass audience game with Sony coming in the fall called Catch a Killer, which is kind of fun because I haven't really played around in that area. We have comic books with IDW called Murder of King Tut, and they are going to do comics of another series that I'm working on as a book. We have a TV deal with Fox, a TV movie with Lifetime and Sony, which is shooting in September, and then we have two features: one Alex Cross and one Witch and Wizard. Alex Cross is supposed to start shooting in first quarter and we have David Twohy who wrote The Fugitive script. Idris Elba is going to be Alex Cross, looks like. He is really, really good.

"Just write a terrific book that has some kind of a hook or uniqueness that people are going to respond to. That's really the best advice I can give most people."

Your character Alex Cross is African American. Many authors wouldn't have dared to write about a character of another race, particularly one of color. What prompted this decision?
Well, I think part of it is I grew up in a town that had a very large African American population living in New York and still is a troubled town now. It was just the murder capital of New York state, and now the problem is between Mexican gangs and African American gangs. My grandparents owned a restaurant and the cook was a black woman. She was having problems with her husband, and so she lived with us for three or four years. During that time, I spent tons of time with her family, who I loved. I loved the food; I loved the music. I thought that they are a very wise people, and that experience to some extent gave me some of the feelings for the Cross family.

What do you do marketing-wise to promote your books effectively, and what can a beginning author do to make an impact from the very start?
Write a good book; that is what most authors can do. Just write a terrific book that has some kind of a hook or uniqueness that people are going to respond to. Write it in a way that people will not be able to stop reading it, and that they will compulsively read. That's really the best advice I can give most people.

With the market shifting to eBooks, why have you chosen not to create your own publishing company and sell directly to retailers?
If I were to announce that, I think certainly initially it wouldn’t be looked at as a good thing. You know, it is something you think about every once in a while, but my life is good. I like the publisher and the people there and am not interested in hurting them. And I don't particularly want to do something that would create more upheaval to people in the publishing business. I think it is an important business. I think it is dealt with kind of unfairly by the media at times.

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Jeff Rivera is the author of Forever My Lady (Grand Central) and the founder of GumboWriters.com.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.



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