Mad man made good

In James Patterson’s thriller Jack and Jill (1996), a madman stalking a child in a branch of Toys “R” Us pauses to reflect on the in-store Muzak:

The overhead speakers were playing the chain’s irritating and moronic theme song: “I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid.” Over and over and over, the kind of mindless repetition that kids loved … I don’t want to grow up either, he said to himself. I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid killer.

Patterson wrote that jingle while working at the advertising firm of J. Walter Thompson North America. He became its CEO while still in his thirties, retiring in 1996 to concentrate on his writing. By the 2000s he was the world’s bestselling living author. More than 450 million copies of his books are in print.

Yet his impressive literary career is less a second act than an extension of his first profession. To the more genteel world of publishing he brought an aggressive marketing ethos, and he recreated himself as a lucrative brand name. Even the title of his autobiography – James Patterson by James Patterson: The stories of my life (by James Patterson) – evinces the “mindless repetition” of that Toys “R” Us ditty. Autobiographies tend to be artful self-presentations, but this one is the work of a master salesman. One approaches it with a combination of curiosity and scepticism.

The author presents himself as a hard-working, family-oriented individual from a blue-collar community, a folksy figure calculated to appeal to the average Joe and Josephine. His “least favorite word” is “elicit” and he is unimpressed by status; he has rejected the “fancy-pants” country-club set. (Fortunately, he’s still willing to share stories of golfing with three presidents, co-writing novels with Bill Clinton and Dolly Parton, and meeting celebrities.) At times Patterson echoes the anti-intellectual bias of mainstream American culture: he finds “the inner world of literary people [to be] borderline crazy and completely overrated.” This homespun persona, however, exists in tension with a more complex figure glimpsed between the lines, someone a mystery writer possibly intended to conceal in plain sight. Despite the brief, anecdotal chapters, he advises “not to skim too much”: his book is as much an essay on “the craft of storytelling” as it is “this ego biography that you’re reading”.

He was born in 1947 in Newburgh, New York. Although he describes himself as “kind of a working-class storyteller”, his family were middle-class. His father, “a quiet but tough man”, sold insurance while his mother taught. Both parents were readers, but Patterson didn’t develop a feeling for literature until after he left high school. He was an achiever, nevertheless, gifted with a “goofy-high IQ” and the determination “to be number one in, well, everything“. His strong work ethic derived in part from attending Catholic schools through college, where rigour and discipline were enforced by corporal punishment, but the drive to succeed stemmed primarily from his desire to please a demanding father. He has since undergone counseling for “anger issues” related to his upbringing and come to accept himself less for his achievements than for being “a reasonably nice person who mostly tries to do the right thing”.

Patterson presents convincing evidence that he can be kind and compassionate. But “kindness” becomes a refrain, almost as if it were another jingle for the sensitivity he wishes to impress on his female demographic. “My wife, Sue, says that sometimes I’m too kind”, he admits, and Sue duly provides a guest-written chapter, testingifying directly that he is “sweet and thoughtful”. He insists that caring authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe are his role models, and that he was hired to work at a psychiatric hospital after high school (despite a lack of qualifications) “because I have empathy for people. You be the judge of that.”

Empathy – or the canny manipulation of emotion – has helped make him a global phenomenon. While his thrillers eschew nuance and at times credibility, they expertly exploit primal feelings. (In their focus on propulsive plots, simple English and exaggerated characters, they somewhat resemble interwar pulp fiction: Patterson has recently rebooted 1930s stalwarts the Shadow and Doc Savage.) But he’s not all sweetness and light, as those “anger issues” attest. A non-skimming reader will discern more than a little passive-aggressive score-settling. The writer Jimmy Breslin was brusque to him once: “I figured he wasn’t really a bad person… but what a prick”. And don’t get him started on Stephen King, who called him a “terrible writer”. Patterson disagrees, branding his style “colloquial”. He discusses a controversy concerning one of his titles, The Murder of Stephen King – “A cool story with Stephen King as the damn hero” – in some detail. King’s representatives asked that he withdraw the book; Patterson acceded “out of respect”. He complains that this gesture was never acknowledged: “I still enjoy King’s scary novels … but I guess he has trouble with thank-you notes.”

The part-time stint at the psychiatric hospital was formative. There, Patterson filled the slack hours at night with second-hand paperbacks and, to his surprise, discovered a passion for literary fiction: “I started reading like a man possessed during those long, dark nights of other people’s souls.” He movingly describes how writers such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet freed his mind and inspired him to be a writer. After college he attended graduate school, hoping to write “the Pretty Good American Novel”. He fell under the sway of modernism, invested in style rather than plot and disdained commercial fiction.

But graduate school was a dead end, in part because Patterson felt (and feels) ambivalent about academia, and because he needed to support his writing habit. He drifted into advertising, started to enjoy thrillers and ceased to be a “literary snob”. He also perceived a new opportunity: realizing he wouldn’t win stars as a modernist, he decided he could write bestselling thrillers. His first mystery, The Thomas Berryman Number (1976), was rejected thirty-one times before it landed at Little, Brown. The book had literary pretensions, starting with the title: “Thomas” was a tribute to the novelist Thomas McGuane, “Berryman” a nod to the poet John Berryman. It won a prestigious Edgar award for best first novel, but sold modestly. The art of the bestseller had yet to be mastered.

And yet, as Patterson tells it, his breakout book, Along Came a Spider (1993), almost happened by accident. He’d written a “full-length outline” of several hundred pages before realizing that the outline itself, with its short chapters and minimal detail, was the finished novel, “keeping [it] bright and hot”. Readers agreed, and the book climbed to number two on the New York Times charts. Revealingly, Patterson doesn’t mention the vital role played by advertising. When he insisted that Little, Brown run television spots for the book, they demurred, so he created one himself. The publisher reluctantly agreed to split the cost; once the ads ran, sales sold.

Patterson continued to refashion Publishers’ Row in the likeness of Madison Avenue. Once established as a thriller writer, he proposed writing a romance. His publisher objected that this would hurt his “brand”; again the prevailed authored, and the book (Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas, 2001) was a success. He then produced books in multiple genres – fantasy, science fiction, children’s, young adult, nonfiction – at a clip, mostly by hiring (openly credited) co-writers. Patterson designs the plots and provides his collaborators with detailed outlines, revising their chapters as needed. His name graces 400 or so titles to date.

He is a fiction factory and cheerfully admits it. But at the same time he wants his craft to be acknowledged, and he has wider philanthropic aims. The former altar boy is on a crusade against childhood illiteracy, donating millions of dollars to the teaching profession, school libraries and independent bookstores. He considers his works for children “the best books that I write”, although his adult books can be instructive as well. The early novels featuring detective Alex Cross are laced with allusions to books by accessible and recondite authors alike. “Teaching is in my blood.”

Patterson dislikes dogmatism. He wishes more people displayed the open-mindedness literature cultivates. “My entire life”, he says, “I honestly have had no idea who the hell I am … [I’ve] no particular identity, [I’m] just another lost soul.” That existential self vies with the constructed persona of James Patterson by James Patterson, of course, but it is not a unique struggle. His autobiography reveals as much about the nature of being human as it does about the consequences of becoming a brand name.

Michael Saler is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. He is writing a history of modern fantasy

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