James Patterson: Alex Cross Began as a Woman
As any thriller fan knows, James Patterson is a megalith of fiction writing: His crime and suspense thrillers, love stories, nonfiction, middle-grade and young adult novels have all been No. 1 bestsellers--and he writes a dozen books a year. His marquee character Alex Cross, who was brought to life on the big screen by Tyler Perry last fall, is on a new, deadly chase in "Alex Cross, Run." Patterson sat down with his longtime editor and publisher, Michael Pietsch (who has given Patterson "scars from the beatings," according to the author), to talk about Cross' surprising beginnings as a woman, what interests Patterson more than murders, the author's future plans to pen a "bodice-ripper" and writing in a "white heat."
Michael Pietsch: Jim, can you take us back to the moment when the character Alex Cross first appeared in your mind?
James Patterson: The weird thing about it, when I first started with Alex, it was a woman. The first 60 or 70 pages, it was "Alexis," and it wasn't "Cross." There was something about creating an African-American character in a woman that just felt a little too daunting for me. And I changed to "Alex," and the rest is mystery (laughs).
MP: Was she a detective right from the start?
JP: Oh, yeah. She was a detective.
MP: And she was an African-American woman?
JP: Yeah, it was the same basic thing: She was going to get involved in the same kind of murder case.
MP: Where did this idea of an African-American woman who was a police detective come from?
JP: I think part of it was that I had written an earlier book, "The Midnight Club," which dealt with a handicapped man in a different way. He just doesn't act as though he's a victim. And it struck me that, especially at that time, and especially in the movies, African-American men in particular were just being stereotyped as these hoodlums--the people with boom-boxes on their shoulders, etcetera, etcetera. And I didn't feel that was representative of African Americans, and so I wanted to write a character who was the opposite of all the stereotypes.
So: well-educated, responsible, taking care of his family, a good dad, conscientious, solves problems with his head rather than his fists or a gun--although that's evolved. He's become fairly good with his fists, but a thinker. But, different from the stereotypes that certainly were prevalent when the Cross series started.
MP: Did you grow up reading detective and police novels? Was this a form that you'd always loved?
JP: I was always a good student, but I didn't read that much until I was 18 and I was working my way through college. But I never read detective novels. I started out in graduate school writing a more serious book. Right around that time I read "The Day of the Jackal" and "The Exorcist." I hadn't read a lot of commercial fiction, and I liked them.
It seemed to me that I could write commercial fiction. I wasn't sure whether I could, or whether I wanted to write serious fiction at that point. So I said, "Let me try something else," and I wrote a mystery--but I didn't know much about it. The first one, "The Thomas Berryman Number," won an Edgar Best First Mystery, after it was turned down by 30 publishers (laughs). But I think part of the reason that it won the award and that it was a good book is that I didn't know anything about detective stories.
MP: Your major theme seems to be the police detective investigating murders. You have the Women's Murder Club novels, the Alex Cross novels, the Michael Bennett novels and now a new series called "Private," all based mostly on a murder being investigated.
JP: What I find most interesting in those books is not the murders. I always try to make sure that they hook you and they keep surprising you. But I think [the murders are] useful. I just find the characters interesting and different. You know, Alex and his family and what's going to happen with them, and how he's relating to them, I find compelling.
Michael Bennett is growing faster than any of the others as a character. I think the voice is getting better, and the way he relates to his family and the way he relates to his very strained situation in that he is a father with 10 adopted children and also a New York City cop. And that has to be one of the most unique situations in all of crime fiction.
Now, the Women's Murder Club is, I think, very distinctive because it's four women in different fields: a police detective, a medical examiner, a newspaper writer and an assistant district attorney, who are all best friends, which is credible. It might be a little bit of a stretch that they'd be friends with a journalist, because the question would be, "Can we shut her up?"
But there's always something that drives these things: the frustration that people have with most of the institutions in our society--government, police work, etc.--to set up an investigative company that's so much better than the FBI or your police department, or Mossad. They're just better because they can afford to pay better people and get better technology. And that, to me, is a cool thing to work with.
MP: I read that you write nearly 365 days a year. Is that true?
JP: Pretty much. Somebody said you're lucky if you find something you like to do, and it's a miracle if somebody will pay you to do it. I love to tell stories. It's a delight for me. I am very devoted--I really enjoy my wife and my son. So that's a big part of my life. I run around the golf course very early in the morning, for an hour and a half, which is a little bit of exercise. You just go and chase the silly little ball for an hour plus. Most of the rest of the day is writing and storytelling, which I love. Not a lot of socializing.
MP: How do you feel when you put pencil down at the end of a day of writing?
JP: Depressed! (Laughs.) I messed up again.
MP: Do you feel exhilarated?
JP: It really depends on the day. I think that's true of all writers. If it's a good day, you're flying. And if it's not such a good day…. The only thing now that's different than what I faced earlier, and what a lot of young writers face, is I'm very confident that I will solve the problem at some point. Whereas, when most of us start out, unless we're unbelievably arrogant, we're not sure.
MP: Are you always working on many different novels at once?
JP: In terms of outlining, I’ll go on little streaks. I just went on a streak and I did four outlines in about five weeks. The reason that I will do outlines in a white heat is that I'm letting stuff flow through my system. I'll go back and read one over and add to it, and subtract and let it percolate a bit. I'm to the point now where I've put down five or six or seven potential storylines.
MP: One thing I've noticed that, for me, connects all the novels, is a real sense of your characters' working lives, how the work that they do helps them understand who they are and what matters in the world, and how the job feels to them day by day, how hard it can be sometimes. And how work life intersects with family life.
JP: That's pretty much where I'm at in terms of most of the characters that I'm interested in. I read an awful lot of novels where it's the lone wolf who goes home and drinks and smokes him or herself to sleep. And I think that certainly happens. I think it happens more in detective fiction than it happens in the real world, based on the cops and the FBI people that I've met and socialize with. I think their family life is a little bit more connected.
MP: You've written some amazingly moving love stories. After a long track of writing suspense novels and thrillers, were you surprised when a love story came to you?
JP: No, I wasn't surprised. It's a kind of story that I like to read occasionally. And I felt that I could write one because one of the hallmarks of what I do is a lot of twists and turns and a fair amount of emotion--more than you'll find in most mysteries or thrillers. So I did feel like I could write a love story--not the so-called "bodice…" whatever they call those….
MP: "Bodice-rippers" is the typical term.
JP: (Laughs.) I've read one or two, but I don't quite get that genre. I don't know that I could write that. But a more human love story, I thought I could. But the interesting thing is, I brought the story into Little, Brown just when I was starting to consider doing more than one book in a year. I brought in "Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas." It was just that idea, and a book called "Beach House."
And the man that ran the company actually started to cry when I told him the story for "Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas." And then he said, "I don't think I want to do the book, though, because that's not your genre." (Laughs.) I always felt that was most publishers' point of view: You're a mystery writer. You're a sports writer, or whatever. I always felt that what people look for in my books is that you will turn the pages when you read them. So whatever it is, if it's going to be a love story, it will be a page-turning love story. At any rate, the powers that be did let me write the books.
The love stories are harder to write for me. "Sundays at Tiffany's," I wrote with another writer. I wrote like nine to 11 drafts of that book. They're just harder, especially if you set the bar at "You must keep turning the pages." Because, usually, not enough happens in those books to keep me keep turning the pages. (Laughs.)
MP: I've been your editor for more than a decade now. And I'm still here.
JP: Yes. And I still have many of the scars from the beatings.
MP: After all these books, is it hard for you to get editorial notes, to have someone suggest to you to change a plot line, or a character? Or to say that something's not working?
JP: No. I really prefer that editorial letters come in the form of, "Here are the big issues." I think some editorial letters are just like, "Here are 300 things." And it's kind of overwhelming and you get this feeling that all of these things are equal and this is hopeless. As opposed to, "Now here the big issues"--and then a lot of little things. But, no, I like to get them. I trust your instincts. I think you understand what my strengths and weaknesses are. I don't think you really try to get me to do things that I might not be able to do. Every once in a while, we disagree. And I curse at you, and you curse at me. No, you don't curse back, which disappoints me a little (laughter).
MP: You manage to do a huge amount of reading for pleasure. You're always telling me about books you've read. Do you read fiction and nonfiction?
JP: In the last two years, I've cut way back. Between the adult and the young adult stuff, it really has gone over the top a little. But I'll still do 30 to 40 books a year, so it's still a fair amount of reading. Back and forth between nonfiction and fiction. I usually have three or four things that are open on my desk, on my bed, on audiobook in the car.
MP: You're passionate about getting books that kids find exciting into their hands. Besides writing your own novels for them, do you have other ideas about how parents can encourage their kids to read?
JP: Parents and grandparents have to understand that it's their job--not the schools' job--to find books for their kids. They don't realize that they have to find books for their kids. One of the reasons it's so important early on, until the kids reach a certain proficiency with reading, is a simple-minded thing, but common sense: The more kids read, the better readers they become.
So with our son Jack, he did very well in school, and he was a good reader, but he just didn't read much. So my wife and I said, "This summer, you're going to read. You're going to read every day. You don't have to mow the lawn, but you do have to read." The first summer, he said, "Do I have to?" And we said, "Yeah, you do have to, but we're going to go out with you and we're going to find a bunch of books." So we got "Percy Jackson" and "A Wrinkle in Time" and one of the Warrior Series books. And, well, my own "Maximum Ride," and he read every day, or pretty much every day.
And, at the end of the summer, his reading ability had quadrupled. He was so much better. And he had read half a dozen books that he loved--a big deal. There are millions of kids in this country who have never read a book they loved. Never, ever, not one. That's a disaster. But parents: it's not so hard to find the books. That's why I started a site called www.ReadKiddoRead.com.
MP: Is it true that you go and see a movie every day of your life as well as golfing?
JP: (Laughs.) No, that would be an overstatement. But I will go a couple of times a week. When I quit my day job, and I was just writing, I would go out to the movies in the afternoon. There used to be a couple of movie theaters in the area; I was living in New York City at the time. And that was my way of just getting away for a little while, clearing my mind before I would come back and write some more.
MP: Do you have a favorite book-to-movie experience where you thought both the book and the movie were really good?
JP: Sure. "Silence of the Lambs." And the new Cross movie. Alex Cross just took his first trip to Hollywood in many years, and it was quite a ride. Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Ed Burns and the rest of the cast did a great job, and movie audiences gave the film unanimous "A" ratings to CinemaScore on their way out of the theater. As for what's next for Alex in Hollywood… only Hollywood knows!
MP: Is there something in your future that you're working towards? Do you have a goal or a set of goals?
JP: You want to keep the series fresh, and I will stop a series if I'm not interested in the next book. You've been warned.
The kid stuff, I find very stimulating because I think it's a good thing to do. And there's a lot of room there for the imagination. "Middle School, the Worst Years of my Life," which is very funny and illustrated--it's a different kind of book for me. I wouldn't be surprised if that's my breakout book, one that just keeps selling and selling. It's unusual because it's funny, but it's also a very affecting story. And I have another series, which has to do with a little kid who wants to be a standup comedian. And that's another book that is very funny, but it's very touching and very unexpected in terms of where it goes.
You know, getting these movies not just off the ground, but made as good movies, is challenging, especially "Witch and Wizard," where I'm really involved in the whole thing, soup to nuts. So that's a challenge. There are books coming up. There's one book, I won't mention the title, but coming with the writer David Ellis, who I've enjoyed. We did a book called "Guilty Wives," and we're starting another book. And it's just one of those books where I think the outline is really, really cool and different. So that's particularly exciting to me, when you get a story and the outline is great, or the way it's developing is really exciting, which doesn't always happen. But when it does, it's, it's very cool.
In the past three years, James Patterson has sold more books than any other author (according to Bookscan), and in total, James' books have sold an estimated 260 million copies worldwide. Since 2006, one out of every 17 hardcover fiction books sold was a Patterson title. He is the first author to have No. 1 new titles simultaneously on The New York Times adult and children's bestsellers lists and is the only author to have five new hardcover novels debut at No. 1 on the list in one year—a record-breaking feat he's accomplished every year since 2005. To date, James Patterson has had nineteen consecutive No. 1 New York Times bestselling novels, and holds the New York Times record for most Hardcover Fiction bestselling titles by a single author (76 total), which is also a Guinness World Record.
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