James Patterson and wife Sue Patterson in their backyard in Palm Beach, Florida.
“Let’s shoot the breeze for a bit,” says James Patterson, exuding a relaxed attitude on a recent morning at his Palm Beach home despite the fact that he has 13 books coming out this year. He had 11 last year. To date, the 65-year-old author has published 95 books—his most recent, “Guilty Wives,” hit shelves this week—and according to Nielsen ranks as the country’s top-selling author.
Those numbers have added up to big business: Mr. Patterson earns more than $80 million a year, according to people familiar with his publishing empire.
More than a handful of those recent titles are aimed at young adults, as Mr. Patterson continues to expand his publishing empire beyond the thriller and detective genres. He’s also shopping projects to Hollywood and has a new movie inspired by his Alex Cross series that will hit theaters later this year.
Mr. Patterson works seven days a week out of a two-room office suite at his Palm Beach oceanfront home. White bookshelves line the first room, where he does the bulk of his writing, all in pencil on white legal pads. There’s no computer; just a telephone, fax machine, an iPad, and a bag of bubble gum. The second room looks like a traditional bedroom, but the bed is covered by books, loose-leaf papers, and manuscripts.
When it comes to writing, he has a well-practiced system: he writes a detailed outline and then hires someone—often a former colleague from his advertising days—to write the ensuing scenes, usually in 30 to 40 page chunks. He will review those pages every few weeks, sometimes providing notes on them and other times re-writing them entirely.
When he’s not writing, the 65-year-old author can be found on one of Palm Beach’s premier golf courses, at the movies (he sees almost everything), or at home having dinner with his wife, Sue, and their 14-year-old son, Jack. Sometimes, Mr. Patterson will retire to write into the night, particularly if he’s excited—or anxious—about a new project.
On a recent morning, Mr. Patterson—still clad in his morning golfing gear, khakis and a navy PGA championship pullover—took a break from writing to sit down with the Wall Street Journal in his office. There, we talked about his career and thoughts on storytelling—both on the page and on screen.
1. You publish so much. How does the actual writing process work?
2. I have a number of writers I work with regularly. I write an outline for a book. The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish. I get pages from [the collaborator] every two weeks, and then I re-write them. That’s the way everything works. Sometimes I’ll just give notes….Look, this is commercial fiction. It’s a little different from really serious literature. There, the publishers or editors will wait until the whole manuscript comes in. With my work, I get pages early and if the story has gone the wrong way, or if it’s losing steam, then I say, ‘hold it—let’s talk. We’re off track in terms of what should be driving this story ahead,’ or ‘I’m losing interest in the narrator.’ Sometimes there’s not enough tension. I’ll do any number of outlines or re-writes on the pages. I’ve done as much as nine drafts of a book after the original comes in.
3. Nine drafts! So they’re really worked over?
4. Oh yeah. This is not easy. One of the hard things, and this relates certainly to commercial fiction as well as writing for television and movies, is just getting the voice down. Once the voice is there, it’s easier. That’s why you can have six writers on a TV show because there’s a voice and a set of characters, and other writers can come in and conceivably do a good job writing in that voice and writing those characters.
5. How many books are out this year?
6. I think nine this year. But let’s see…I have a release calendar that’s color coded. We have…one, two, three, four, five kids’ titles, so that’s five plus eight adult books. So that’s 13.
7. I like the way even you can’t keep track. You thought you had nine books coming out, and it’s actually 13. I know, it’s sick.
8. Do you ever get to date your books?
9. Date? I’m married!
10. I mean, choose their release dates, when they hit the shelves.
11. No, I don’t pick them, but we’ll talk, me and the publisher. Little, Brown [and Company] will come down here to visit. We’ll chat about everything. When you have as many books as this coming out, it’s hard to keep getting people excited about them. I’m excited about them. Otherwise I wouldn’t do them, but you have to make sure that the publisher is excited and that they go out with a lot with enthusiasm because in reality they are probably going to have 13 number one bestsellers. Maybe one or two will be number two. But it’s a constant process making sure that everybody is pumped up.
12. Do you feel that you are unfairly criticized because of you publish so much?
13. All that I ever want to see happen is [for the books] to get a fair shake. I don’t like it when you get people who say, ‘Well, I haven’t read his books but I hate him.’ Read them and then hate me. And I have discovered over the years that…people generally find the books are a lot better than they thought they were going to be… I just want to entertain people, and I do my best to make sure the books are as good as they can be.
14. Do you think your books now are better than the ones you wrote, say, 25 years ago?
15. The kids’ books, in my opinion, are the pinnacle. That’s the stuff I do the best. I think my kids’ books are better than my adult books. But I’m pleased with the adult books, too: we’ve got the three biggest detective series in the last 25 years. Some of the writing could be snappier, but the storytelling is pretty good.
16. Is storytelling what matters most to you?
17. Well, it’s one thing that matters. There are a lot of ways to write good books. You can have ‘The Corrections,’ which is very complicated sociology, or James Joyce, where the allusions and the writing are stunning. But my work is just pure storytelling. I don’t think there is anything to hate here, but I also don’t sit around feeling like I should take big bows. In terms of the number of memorable characters I’ve created, however, I think that’s pretty cool. The rest of it—it is what it is. I just don’t like it when people take cheap shots.
18. But surely, those shots are part of your success?
19. There’s that. I’m not a writer’s writer. I’m not a craftsman. I could be, and that would be a one-book-a-year operation.
20. Why do you think your children’s books are your pinnacle?
21. I guess they fit right into my wheelhouse. I have a big imagination, a, and b, I think I’m funnier than sh–. And that really lets it loose. People always come up to me and say, ‘you should do standup.’ It’s nice to discover things about yourself. That keeps everything lively and fun. I think I’m more motivated than I ever was to keep writing stuff.
22. That’s a great feeling.
23. It’s frightening too—especially to the literary community. Sorry, boys!
24. Do you think that the literary community dislikes you?
25. There’s kind of a misunderstanding. I get a lot of questions like, ‘how do you feel about keeping up-and-coming writers off the bestseller list?’ But I don’t think I’m really doing that. I might knock Tom Clancy off a week earlier. But the reality is, unless your publisher commits to a lot of copies, you’re not going to get on the bestseller list. The chances against you are 500,000 to 1.
26. What do you like to read when you’re not writing?
27. I read a lot of weird stuff…like Thomas Merton’s letters. I got hooked on Merton a long time ago. Somebody just sent me his letters. I read a lot of kids’ stuff. I have very catholic taste. It’s really all over the map. Oh, and Stephen King. I read his stuff. I like breaking his balls by saying positive things about him.
28. Do you ever talk to him?
29. No, he’s taken shots at me for years. It’s fine, but my approach is to do the opposite with him—to heap praise.
30. Do you read his books pretty regularly?
31. Yeah. I like a lot of his earlier stuff better. Although I think his latest book [‘11/22/63’] is pretty good. It’s done well and it’s also closer to what he was writing fifteen years ago. But if he had written it fifteen years ago, the critics would have torn it up, said ‘schlockmeister writes more schlock.’ Instead, they ate it up.
32. Is that because the industry has changed, in terms of being more accepting of commercial writing?
33. No. Commercial books don’t even get covered. The reason why so many book reviews go out of business is because they cover a lot of stuff that nobody cares about. Imagine if the movie pages covered none of the big movies and all they covered were movies that you couldn’t even find in the theater?
34. Your books are co-written. Where do you find your collaborators?
35. Some of them are just people I knew from advertising—people I knew who had talent and people I knew, once we agreed on something, who would execute it.
36. Do you pay them a salary, or share royalties from the books?
37. I don’t go into it, but nobody complains. Nobody asks for a raise. It’s a lucrative thing. It’s a combination of monthly salary with a bonus. It’s a very nice process. I am really easy to work with as long as you’re trying to do your best.
38. Where do your ideas come from?
39. Everywhere. Sometimes I fill up a piece of paper with a half dozen scenes. Other times, I have the idea for the beginning and ending of a story. Other times, it’s just a loose idea of a character.
40. Do you have a favorite book?
41. I am proud to have created Alex Cross. ‘I Funny’ [an illustrated novel about a middle-school boy who wants to become a comedian that comes in December] I like a lot. I think ‘I Funny’ is a very cool distinctive book. More than anything else, it’s just having created Cross and Michael Bennett and the Women’s Murder Club. And Private, and Maximum Ride. And Witch & Wizard. I’m emotional about all of them. One of the tricks with so many series is keeping them going and knowing when to end them. I do like branching out, as with “Zoo,” which is totally off the wall and coming out this year. Every so often, I will do something really different.
42. Have you thought about doing more nonfiction? Plays? Musicals?
43. “Against Medical Advice,” which was nonfiction, differed completely from my usual work. But I won’t do nonfiction anymore. I enjoyed doing “Medical Advice” because I was working with a friend and helping him tell his story, so that was very rewarding for me. But in general, nonfiction is the wrong format for me because it’s too restrictive.
44. How do you decide to end a series? Maximum Ride, for example?
45. It just—fell. I just know when it’s time. Like when I don’t know if I have any more to say about those characters. And Daniel X will end soon.
46. Living in Palm Beach, do you feel that you’re away from the center of things?
47. Yes, but I like that. A lot of those things—the publishing business, Hollywood—are distractions. They get in the way of creating good books and good movies. In that atmosphere, people are just worrying too much about what the other guy is doing.
48. Very few of your books are set here in South Florida. You’re not inspired by this area particularly?
49. I wouldn’t be inclined to write too much down here, no. Look, Washington, D.C. is a good location for Cross because a lot can go on sort of believably. How much could really happen down here, realistically? Maybe there could be a mystery about a jewel thief.
50. But people whose imaginations aren’t as massive as yours, they could get confined by living here.
51. I always thought it would have been useful for [Stephen] King to get out of Maine. But people do what they want.
For more go to James Patterson’s Big Overhaul