“I don’t work for a living – I play for a living”. So James Patterson told a rapt audience at the opening session of the 2019 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, one of my favourite events of the year.
Patterson was talking to broadcaster Mark Lawson, who hosted a number of today’s sessions. Unsurprisingly, James Patterson was the biggest draw of the day. How could he not be, given his much-loved back catalogue and continued global domination? After all, he has eight books scheduled for publication in the next few months: “Usually, when doing an interview I’d try and read the author’s back catalogue”, quipped Lawson. But where would you even begin in James Patterson’s case?
With his high-profile and ongoing feuds, of course: such phenomenal success is guaranteed to attract criticism. Stephen King, in particular has been vocal in his displeasure about the fact that Patterson chooses to collaborate with other writers. “Life would be boring if everyone took the same approach to everything”, reflected the 72 year old – who looks far more frail in the flesh than you might expect, but then he has fought off cancer twice in the past three years.
Warming to his theme, Patterson continued: “I’ve created a number of memorable characters, unlike Stephen – although he is a great storyteller.” A fair assessment, I think: readers return to Patterson for much-loved characters such as Alex Cross and Michael Bennett and, arguably, to King for his varied plots. And there’s room in this world for both of them, surely?
It’s interesting, how the subject of co-authorship rears its ugly head again and again (MC Beaton would allude to it later on today, when she described James Patterson as a “package author”.). “Read the book or don’t read it”, is Patterson’s view; “You’ll like it or you won’t”. He’s particularly proud of the work that he’s done with David Ellis, in particular ‘The First Lady’, which was published just before ‘The President is Missing’.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, the ‘President’ novel is the result of a collaboration between Patterson and the former U.S. president Bill Clinton. Patterson knew the Clinton family “slightly” before this collaboration, but he and Bill became “very friendly during the writing process. Apparently, Clinton reads one book per day and has a “phenomenal” memory for names. The latter, I already knew to be true, thanks to a friend who met Bill Clinton around ten years ago and, encountering him again several years later, was astounded by him recollecting exactly who she was and the name of the company she worked for.
Truth be told, James Patterson is a somewhat tricky interviewee. He didn’t answer all of Mark Lawson’s questions directly and I got the impression that – who can blame him –he’s bored of answering the same questions over and over. And who, after all, would want to have to justify the remarks of their country’s president? I refuse to repeat Donald Trump’s latest set of horrifyingly inflammatory remarks, but anyone reading this post will be aware of the U.S. president’s statements and actions of the preceding week.
“I’m not a fan of Donald Trump’s politics”, a weary-sounding James Patterson told us, “but I do know him and his family – in the same way that I know the Bush family and the Clintons. They are all, in their own bizarre way, trying to do the right thing”. Asked to hold forth on Trump’s most recent pronouncements, he responded “Trump divides people into winners – and losers”.
Let’s leave that there. It’s a little unfair to expect a novelist to engage in political debate at a book festival, especially outside their own country – and let’s be honest, we’ve got plenty of our own problems here in the UK.
How does James Patterson identify themes for his books? An ongoing theme, he says, is that of power: selected on the basis of what will move him emotionally. “I don’t write realism; it’s where the story’s going and how the characters respond that moves me”. He has always, Patterson says, been confident in his writing – and that confidence has grown over the years: “It informs everything I do”.
Interestingly, Patterson says he was always a good student: “but not a particularly good reader”. It wasn’t until he began a job involving night shifts that he began to read properly: “From that point, I began scribbling down stories”.
Whether or not you’re a fan of James Patterson’s books, it’s impossible not to admire the work he has done to promote literacy – both in the U.S. and in the UK. The scheme he recently developed with ASDA sees Patterson donating a book to disadvantaged communities for every James Patterson novel purchased by ASDA shoppers. “I found the idea irresistible”, Patterson told us “and I love ASDA for acting in a responsible way. We are all responsible for getting kids to read”.
I profoundly agree – just as I profoundly disagreed with Patterson’s next statement: “In Britain, people don’t buy books for children”. Really? My niece and nephew are both voracious readers and are given books every single Christmas and birthday. And most of my friends’ children love books, and possess many. That was one of the most bizarre statements I’ve heard in quite some time.
Patterson did redeem himself shortly afterwards, however, when he commented that most of his readers are women – a fact which “doesn’t surprise me because women read more than men – and are smarter”.
Despite his massive success, few of Patterson’s books have been made into films. “Hollywood didn’t take to me initially”, he admitted “and I’ve had a problem convincing them otherwise.” He believes that, for him, the future lies in box set TV – and I agree: the short chapter format, of which he is the master, would undoubtedly be suited to TV.
As you can see, this was an interesting interview, if not as impactful as I’d hoped. Stay tuned for M.C. Beaton and Stuart MacBride, whose encounter had me, and the rest of the audience, clutching my sides with laughter.