It’s not the typical autobiography,” James Patterson insists about his new memoir, the aptly titled James Patterson, which the 75-year-old author penned while whiling away the hours during the pandemic. “It’s just story after story. I wanted to write something that was different from what I’m expected to write. At this stage, I get up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, shit—you again.’ ”
What Patterson is expected to write includes a pretty broad cross section of literature—police procedurals, mysteries, YA novels, children’s books, and a smattering of nonfiction. Most of all, though, he’s expected to write best-sellers; he’s had 114 of them on The New York Times list, a record-setting 67 at No. 1. In fact, his books have sold more copies than Stephen King, John Grisham, and Dan Brown combined, amassing Patterson the sort of personal fortune more associated with tech moguls than mere scribblers—roughly $800 million.
Some of the details of his rags-to-riches life are recounted in his memoir—how he grew up in working-class Newburgh, New York; graduated from Manhattan College, where he studied English; and earned his masters at Vanderbilt University. How he arrived in New York City a literary snob intent on become a novelist. And how, instead, he took a job in advertising at J. Walter Thompson and spent the first 20 or so years of his working life climbing the corporate ladder, ultimately becoming CEO.
“It influenced me,” Patterson says of his time in advertising, “in the sense that I became very aware that there’s an audience. They test everything. And you think you have something wonderful, and then you find out nobody paid any attention whatsoever.” He adds cheekily, “As I say about advertising, ‘Yes, I was in it. But I’ve been clean for over 30 years.’ ”
He was still in it, though, when, at age 29, he published his first book in 1976, the Edgar Award-winning The Thomas Berryman Number. Six more followed over the years, until, in 1993, he published Along Came a Spider, introducing one of his most indelible and successful characters, Detective Alex Cross. It was his first best-seller.
“Early on, it occurred to me, I did not have the talent to be the next Gabriel García Márquez,” he says. “So writing things that are commercial, I thought, would be a good thing.”
And that’s precisely what he did, retiring from advertising in 1996, at 49, to devote himself to churning out a book a year, sometimes more, including more than two dozen additional Alex Cross novels. He’s also been something of a literary pioneer when it comes to partnering with celebrity coauthors. His current best-seller, for instance, is Run, Rose, Run, cowritten with Dolly Parton. (Its film rights have already sold to Reese Witherspoon’s production company.) “I sat in her comfy little office in Nashville and, two hours later, she and I made the deal. No agents, no lawyers, no bullshit. And we’ve become great friends,” he says about working with Parton.
His most famous collaborator, though, has to be former president Bill Clinton, with whom Patterson has cowritten two novels, The President’s Missing and The President’s Daughter, both of which are in development as movies. He’s also been known to have palled around with George H. W. Bush, especially on golf courses. And he slips in a few details about both former commanders in chief in his memoir, such as how Clinton is a lead foot while driving golf carts, while Bush preferred to walk the links—or, more accurately, sprint through them. “He was a pretty humorous guy, as was Barbara—very down-to-earth and human,” he says.
Early on, it occurred to me that writing things that are commercial would be a good thing.
Patterson’s collaborations with ex-presidents and country singers, however, can be a humbling experience—usually for the ex-presidents and country singers. Being one of the most successful writers on the planet (it’s been estimated that about 6 percent of hardcovers sold in the U.S. are Patterson books) has made him insanely famous.
“Oh, I know who you are. I recognized you right away,” Clinton told him when they first met at the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester, New York, where Clinton had just finished a round with Donald Trump.
The first time Patterson met Clint Eastwood was similarly eye-opening for the actor. The author was having dinner with Morgan Freeman, who was starring in the 2001 film adaptation of Along Came a Spider. While they were talking, a fan wandered up and asked for an autograph—not Freeman’s, not Eastwood’s, but Patterson’s, leaving Eastwood to quip, “I need a hit movie . . . bad!”
Patterson’s memoir is chock-full of boldface names he’s encountered over the decades. There’s a story about a quasi-fistfight between Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. And another about his own literary feud with Stephen King, who once described Patterson as “a terrible writer.”
“I did do The Murder of Stephen King,” he recalls about a book he wrote in 2016. “His people were like, ‘Oh my God, you can’t do this!’ ”
But, Patterson says, he mostly wrote his autobiography for other writers. “We put up with a lot of crap, especially early on,” he says of the profession. “You put up with a lot and pay your dues and, hopefully, get better. I think I’m doing my best work right now, which is surprising.”
This story is featured in the July 2022 issue of Los Angeles
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