James Patterson unapologetically self-identifies as a “literary snoot.” Think Günter Grass or “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” So when Patterson wrote his first mystery, he apologized to his writing professor Walter Sullivan.
“[Sullivan] set me on a righteous path,” Patterson says, “but I sort of messed up and I'm writing thrillers and mysteries.”
Now, Patterson is a usual suspect on bestseller lists with hundreds of millions of copies sold. He holds the record for most #1 New York Times bestsellers by a single author. And his latest book is something different from his typical mysteries and thrillers: a memoir entitled “James Patterson by James Patterson: The Stories of My Life.”
“If you read the autobiography, you'll find out that I care about none of that,” he says. “Means nothing. Zero.”
Rather, what matters to Patterson is the jubilation of reading and writing.
“I don't work for a living,” he says. “I play for a living,”
In his memoir, Patterson saunters in and out of potent memories with an unconventional ease.
A chapter in his memoir beginning with his first kiss at a Catholic school makeout party, for example, gets interrupted by another memory. He shares little details like his first kisses’ name, Veronica Tabasco, and the sweet Catholic politeness of saying “you kiss nice,” and then transports readers to another memory years later in Newburgh, New York.
That’s where he found Tabasco’s grave next to his grandfather’s. She died in her 20s. He ends the chapter then and there.
Other parts of his childhood, like his hometown, influenced his most beloved character Alex Cross, a Black detective. Patterson’s grandparents owned a restaurant in a Black and white community. When the resteraunt’s Black cook had problems with her husband, she moved in with his family.
During this time, his relationship with the family grew — and so did their impact on him.
“They were really smart and really funny. The music was great and the food was great,” he says. “That family just stuck with me.”
When a production company offered Patterson $1 million to change Cross’ race to white for film adaptation, Patterson refused despite his lack of funds at the time.
Although Cross is his most well known character, after the release of his new memoir Patterson says “now [he] will be the most beloved.”
Patterson is known to co-author books with other writers and public figures such as country star Dolly Parton and former President Bill Clinton. He often structures the book with outlines, while his co-authors add color and authenticity through their various backgrounds. Writing with Parton resulted in the extravagant and excessive scenes that reflect her exciting life. And Clinton’s intimate knowledge of the Secret Service made their books more genuine.
Even after writing for more than 40 years, he is still discovering new facets to his writing like simple sentences and conversational ease.
“I write colloquially,” he says. “It's the way we tell stories to one another and some people don't like it. That's okay.”
At 75, the literary giant is still all gas, no brakes. As a maestro of productivity, the author and co-author of more than 200 books since 1976 has no plans to stop.
“Why would you retire from play?” he says.
Book excerpt: 'James Patterson by James Patterson'
By James Patterson
Passion keeps you going . . . but it doesn’t pay the rent
When I first arrived in New York, I would force myself to get up at five every morning to squeeze in a couple of hours of writing before I went to work at the ad factory. I was full of hope and big dreams but not enough confidence to quit my day job and write for my supper.
I’d play some music, maybe a little Harry Nilsson (“Gotta Get Up”), and do my first stint of scribbling sentences, cutting sentences, adding sentences, driving myself crazy.
The book’s getting better, right?
The book’s getting worse. Every sentence I write is inferior to the last. I’m going to be the next Graham Greene.
Don’t quit your day job, chump.
You start thinking you’re a fraud, “a big fat failure.” Okay, okay, so that’s a line out of the movie You’ve Got Mail. So is “You are what you read.”
As I said, I was driving myself crazy. It goes with the territory. I think that’s what first-time novelists are supposed to do. Our rite of passage. Every night after work, I’d come home in a daze of jingle lyrics and cutesy catchphrases, sit in my kitchen, stare around at the tiny antiseptic space, then start writing again. I’d go till eleven or twelve. That’s how I wrote The Thomas Berryman Number.
I did the first draft in pencil.
But then I typed. The two-finger minuet. I had to reach up to the counter to peck at the keys of my faithful Underwood Champion. Eventually, I hurt my back. That’s when I stopped typing and started writing everything in pencil again.
I still write in pencil. I’m writing this with a number 2 pencil. The pencils were gifts from my old friend Tom Mc- Goey. They each say Alex Cross Lives Here. My handwriting is impossible to read—even for me. Hell, I’m not sure what I just wrote.
After about a thousand revisions, when I thought the manu- script for The Thomas Berryman Number might be ready for human consumption, I mailed it out myself. No agent. No early readers. No compelling pitch letter.
I got rejections. Mostly form letters. A couple of handwritten notes from editors that were encouraging. One publisher, Mor- row, held on to the manuscript for two months before rejecting it. With a form letter.
Then I read an article in the New York Times Book Review about the literary agency Sanford Greenburger Associates. San- ford Greenburger, the founder of the agency, had died in 1971. His son Francis took over the business. Francis was in his twenties, not much older than me. The article in the Times said they were accepting manuscripts from unpublished writers. That would be me.
I sent over the manuscript that had already been rejected thirty times. We’re talking four hundred typewritten pages secured in a cardboard box. Two days later, I got a phone call from Greenburger Associates. I’m thinking to myself, I can’t believe they turned my book down so fast!
The caller turned out to be Francis himself. He said, “No, no, no, I’m not turning your novel down. Just the opposite. Come on over and see me. I want to sell this thing. I will sell your book.”
So Francis hooked me up with Jay Acton, a hot young editor at Thomas Crowell, a small, family-owned New York publisher. Jay and I got along beautifully. He worked with me for about a month on the manuscript. He helped the book take shape and we cut some fat.
Then Jay rejected it. My thirty-first rejection.
But Francis Greenburger talked me down off a ledge of the thirty-story Graybar Building, where J. Walter Thompson had its offices. “Don’t worry your pretty little head. I’m going to sell it this week.”
And he sold it to Little, Brown. That week.
From 'James Patterson by James Patterson' by James Patterson, published by Little, Brown and Company, copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
This segment aired on June 9, 2022.