The name James Patterson elicits a response like no other writer in publishing. He releases more novels in a single year than most writers will in a lifetime. His name appears—rather incredibly–just after Taylor Swift and One Direction as #3 on Forbes’ 2016 list of Top 100 Celebrity earners (beating LeBron James, Beyoncé, and Adele). He is an iconoclast and outlier, someone who—at least at first glance–seems to have more in common with a Fortune 500 company rated Strong Buy by Goldman than your average, slogging novelist awaiting inspiration, eviction, and an asthma attack.
I have always regarded him with great respect and curiosity. I will pick up a Patterson when I want to lose myself in any airport, beach, highway, or waiting room. (Full disclosure: I listened to the audiobook of Private waiting for my daughter to be born, five hours passing in the blink of an eye.) Yet I’ve been especially inspired by the ways he’s continually reshaped the game. He’s challenged traditions, creating–with a Gatsby-like strength of vision–new ways of thinking and talking about books: from up-front collaborations with co-authors, to writing across multiple genres, to releasing Bookshots (breakneck paperbacks to be devoured, Tequila-style, in one sitting).
It’s like he’s mistaken publishing for Silicon Valley. It’s that level of innovation and dynamism that he brings to his work.
I discovered after interviewing him that like many visionaries commercial success is an afterthought; he’s driven, pure and simple, by a passion for books—championing literacy and libraries with a zeal that is downright infectious. I’d heard he was also generous with his time, which I experienced firsthand when I emailed him out of the blue to be an inaugural interviewee for Backstories and he responded within minutes, immediately agreeing to take time out of his crushingly busy schedule to answer my questions.
And while for most writers a Works By page that requires a font so minute it requires a magnifying glass will remain a thing of pipe dreams, we can nonetheless be inspired by his pioneer’s mindset, continually asking the questions: What hasn’t been done yet and where can we go next?
What do you read to refuel the creative well?
I read a lot — and I try to read from every possible segment. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Week, Paris Review, Tin House. I talk to our eighteen year old and his friends – more than they want to talk to me. Jack makes playlists for me at least once a month. I also read at least two books a week (down from four or five). Go to more movies than I should.
If you could change one thing about American culture, what would it be?
I think too many Americans don’t think very deeply on any subject. I wish more people understood that for the most part, the issues in life aren’t black and white.
They say, “You can’t take it with you,” but if you could? What three inanimate objects would you take with you into the afterlife?
Does a library count as one object? Also a pencil and a pad of paper. I plan on writing twice as many books each year in the afterlife.
If you couldn’t be yourself but a character in a novel, then whom would you choose to be?
Probably Peter Pan. He’s always been one of my favorite characters. And who wouldn’t want to fly?
If you could invent a word, what would it be and what would it mean?
This is not exactly a word, but it’s a term at least: “caricature assassination.” It’s where somebody nails somebody in caricature, and it sticks to them so badly they can no longer be taken seriously. I’ve seen people’s entire careers and relationships derailed this way.
Are you on the outside or on the inside?
Definitely the outside. I’ve always felt that way. I won an industry award at a fancy New York restaurant last year. I told them I felt like the Big Mac at Cipriani. Sometimes it still surprises me that I’ve ended up here. I’m very lucky.
What are you afraid of?
Not getting enough done today. Or getting buried under all the manuscripts in my office.
Is there a song that brings tears to your eyes? Which one?
I’m not usually one to cry at a song, but if I had to pick one, I would say Elvis’ “Love Me Tender.” It’s kind of timeless.
If you had the ear of the entire world for 10 seconds what would you say?
Read. Write. And don’t wait to start.
Is your creative process at heart akin to:
E. Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
F. Other: Riding a roller coaster and not pulling down the safety bar. It never gets dull.
Does a child have to experience hardship of some kind to grow up and become a great writer?
I don’t think anyone grows up without some kind of hardship. It’s an unavoidable part of life. It may not make everyone a great writer, but it does give everyone a unique story to tell, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
If you are Ahab, who or what is your Moby Dick?
People losing interest in reading. It’s an ongoing battle of mine. Hopefully I don’t get dragged to the bottom of the sea by it.
How do you remain humble after experiencing such monumental success?
Honestly, I’m always too distracted by my next story to think about it. There’s always something new to work on. Even if I hadn’t achieved any success, I would still be writing stories.
Is your relationship with your published books most akin to:
A. Beloved children
B. Disowned children
C. People you pass on a street who look vaguely familiar, but you keep walking
E. Other: Beloved children, but I definitely have favorites.
If aliens were to reach Earth a million years from now–the human race long extinct–and they discovered a single book, what would you want them to read?
A book about aliens landing on Earth believing that humans are extinct –only they’re not really extinct. Is that too contrived? Hey, if we’re all going to be extinct, we might as well have some fun with the situation.
The Free-Association Corner (please write the first thought that comes to mind)
Shock value. One of the best parts of storytelling.
Fame. Not the most important thing–but if you have it, you better use it wisely.
Book critics. I have no problems with the ones who say nice things about my books. That’s all I’m going to say.
The future of the publishing industry. In need of some innovation.
Edgar Allan Poe. Now there’s someone who knew how to use suspense.
The English language. One of our most powerful tools. Dangerous if misused.
About James Patterson
James Patterson received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community at the 2015 National Book Awards. His other awards include two Emmys, the Edgar Award, and the Children’s Choice Award for Author of the Year. He is a tireless champion of the power of books and reading, exemplified by his new children’s book imprint, JIMMY Patterson, whose mission is simple: “We want every kid who finishes a JIMMY Book to say: ‘PLEASE GIVE ME ANOTHER BOOK.’” He has donated more than one million books to students and soldiers and has over four hundred Teacher Education Scholarships at 24 colleges and universities. He has also donated millions to independent bookstores and school libraries. Patterson will be investing proceeds from the sales of JIMMY Patterson Books in pro-reading initiatives.