But he may not be cut out to be a nursery teacher.
“A hard thing when you’re young is you tend to sort of think everything is about you, which is very normal at this stage, but it isn’t,” he is saying. “And the thing about books is you get to meet so many different kinds of people and get compassion for their lives.”
His bemused audience of four and five-year-olds are trying to pay attention but it’s a losing battle. In fairness Patterson was told to expect an older crowd. He’s written a kids’ book called I Funny, about a disabled boy who wants to be a comedian and he was planning to read out some gags but he’s now thinking better of it. “You’re such a young group, I don’t think I’ll do that. Does anyone here know a joke?” he appeals vainly.
At the last count the 65-year-old American has sold 275 million copies of his books. He has published 98 adult and children’s novels and has been the most borrowed author from British libraries for the past six years. This year alone – remember it’s still only February – he has had three number one best-sellers. According to the Forbes Magazine richest authors list he earned £62million last year, more than double his nearest rival Stephen King and five times as much as JK Rowling.
So he really doesn’t need to die on his feet in front of 16 infants at a public library in Greenwich, Southeast London, and it’s a mark of his commitment to child literacy that he is bothering.
It’s also a chance to meet the Duchess of Cornwall, whose charity Booktrust has organised this Get Dads Reading event, which explains why his publisher Dame Gail Rebuck, u?ber-powerful boss of Random House, is here too.
“You and I can’t solve global warming or the healthcare crisis but we can make it our job and responsibility to get our kids reading,” he tells me once the Clarence House caravan has departed and everything has calmed down.
“We all know we’re supposed to teach our kids how to ride a bike and kick a football but the most important thing we have to do is make sure they can read competently because it helps them become better, smarter people and gives them a chance in a harder and harder world.” [Co-op of the corporation]
His personal motto is that life is complicated enough so if you can make things simple you should. That’s certainly the watchword of his fiction. In one of his most recent novels, Merry Christmas Alex Cross, his god-fearing, family-loving African-American detective is called out to deal with two successive but unrelated cases on Christmas Day: one a domestic hostage stand-off, the other a terrorist launching an attack at Washington DC’s main rail station.
These two tales are told in linear order in chapters of two or three pages that don’t correspond to self-contained chunks of story and seem designed to make you feel you’re progressing through the story faster (Patterson’s own slogan, on the back of every book, is “the pages turn themselves”).
There are no subplots and the main story is so uncluttered you could probably turn it into a screenplay without omitting anything. The Arab terrorists are crude racial stereotypes and there is little suspense over the outcome because you know there’s no way the catastrophe they are planning will actually happen. But it does impel you to carry on reading, partly by making everything so easy.
The reason his literary output is so massive, at a rate of about one book a month, is that in most of his novels he doesn’t do the line-byline writing himself. He produces a treatment of 60 to 80 pages, establishing the plot and characters in detail, then hires a writer to turn it into a full-length book. He sees their work every couple of weeks, sending it back with notes to speed it up, make it more real etc, and the co-writer ends up with a decent billing (although not an equal share of the cash). When I ask if he’s a kind editor he says no writer has ever quit.
He is unapologetic about this collaborative process, saying it’s completely normal in most other art forms. “I’ll give you the short answer,” he says.
“Gilbert and Sullivan. Woodward and Bernstein. Stephen King and Peter Straub. Virtually any TV show there is. I’ll sometimes get on a TV show to be asked a question and they’ll be reading off a teleprompter from something they didn’t write. In my case I’ve always been a good storyteller. I’m very good at plot and characterisation but there are better stylists.”
He says some of his books are better for the collaborator’s input but he is keen to dispel any impression he is putting his feet up while his writing drones do all the hard work. He gets up at the crack of dawn every day, and his office at his home in Palm Beach, Florida, is stacked with manuscripts of novels in progress.
He says his life revolves around his wife Susan (he married late after losing a fiancée to cancer as a young man), his 15-year-old son Jack, who is at boarding school, and his work.
James Patterson, Alex Cross At the last count the 65-year-old American has sold 275 million copies of his books
Millions of us take his novels on holiday but James Patterson admits he has more than one helping hand to make him the world’s most popular read
“We see a couple of movies a week and I will go out and walk the golf course, five mornings a week from like 7.30 to 9, just a big walk,” he says. Otherwise it’s writing, writing and more writing.
“I am a freak. I love to do it. I do it seven days a week. I did it on the plane over here, I did it this morning and I’ll write when I get back to the hotel.”
He’s an active philanthropist, paying for more than 200 scholarships in 20 universities designed to train teachers and other educators whom he hopes will end up working in deprived communities. He doesn’t have a charitable foundation – he just does it all himself – and says the universities can’t believe how fuss-free he makes it.
After a top career as chair of advertising firm J Walter Thompson and another one in thriller writing, which he began only in his 40s, does he have time to develop a third one before he takes a rest?
“The third career is probably the kids’ books,” he says. “My US publisher says they are my best books by far. It’s right in my wheelhouse because it’s all imagination and there’s lots of comedy, which I don’t do that much in the adult books.”
Is he hopeful some of the five-year-olds from his audience in Greenwich will become Patterson fans eventually? “I don’t care,” he says. “I don’t need any money. I just want kids to find books they’ll enjoy because keeping them healthy and making them read are the two most important things we can do for them.”