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Author James Patterson has golden touch

Multimillionaire says he's ’just a guy that tells stories’
/ Source: The Associated Press

James Patterson’s life was an accident, a clashing of indecisiveness, a lost first love and an idea that there were rules for ordinary folks like him. But at 59, there’s nothing ordinary about the multimillionaire author.

Patterson has published 35 books, 18 of which hit No. 1 on The New York Times list of best sellers. He’s sold 100 million copies, grossing $1 billion in sales. His thrillers, “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider,” have been made into movies starring Morgan Freeman as criminal profiler Alex Cross. More Hollywood deals are in the works.

The former chairman of J. Walter Thompson advertising firm, Patterson produces up to five books a year: mysteries, thrillers, fantasies, love stories and children’s themes. He made $40 million last year — doing it in a manner that caught the eye of a Harvard University business professor.

Still, despite the fame and fortune, he sees himself as “just a guy that tells stories,” his work as “scribbling.”

A literary icon? “Nope.”

“My books are good of their kind,” Patterson says matter-of-factly, as he sits in a pale yellow multimillion-dollar waterside mansion in swanky Palm Beach with two Mercedes-Benzes parked in the driveway. There’s a dock outside, but no boat. “I know the rules, and I just choose to break them.”

Case study at Harvard Business SchoolPatterson has just returned from a 10-day tour to promote his new book, “Beach Road,” which he wrote with journalist Peter de Jonge. Another book is due out May 23, his third for the year so far.

On this recent sunny day, his huge, white front door is filled with balloons and plastered with signs reading, “Welcome Home Daddy.” His wife, Sue, newly emerged from the swimming pool, walks around the airy estate in a white robe.

Unlike many writers, Patterson is the hand that rocks his own cradle, involving himself in cover designs, organizing signing events and speaking engagements. He contributes his own money to his book advertising campaigns.

In the halls of Harvard Business School, Patterson is an unusual icon.

Harvard’s John Deighton devised “Marketing James Patterson,” a case study taught in several courses, after hearing the author speak at a gathering of business professionals and realizing that he is a marketer who happens to be his own product.

“That doesn’t happen with a can of soda,” Deighton said.

“The man is a marketing machine,” added Bob Wietrak, vice president of merchandise for Barnes & Noble booksellers.

A few years ago, Patterson began using collaborators to produce even more work.

“I do have a big imagination,” he says, the slit of his left eye closing to a near wink.

It began with “Miracle on the 17th Green,” a story of a middle-aged man seeking the extraordinary from his ordinary life, written with de Jonge.

“Peter is a better stylist than I am, and I’m a better story teller than he is,” Patterson says. He’s since worked with five co-authors.

Patterson writes the story outline. The co-author pens a first draft. After a series of back-and-forths, a new book is produced in about half the time.

“If you commit to my style, it’s very doable for a collaborator,” he says.

Patterson’s editor at Little Brown and Company said a bit of nervousness followed the first collaboration.

“We were very careful and watched it very closely,” said Michael Pietsch, also Little Brown’s publisher. The books have sold just as well, Pietsch said.

As for working with Patterson?

“It’s just like working with any other writer except that I do it a lot more often,” Pietsch said.

Of critics who say he’s industrialized the art of novel writing with an assembly line production style and flashy marketing, Patterson shrugs, yet seems to take offense.

“Just because it’s clean prose doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to do,” he says. “It’s hard to keep people glued to the page. Almost nobody does it ... and if nobody does it, it can’t be that easy.”

Inspired by ‘Jackal,’ ‘Exorcist’Patterson was raised in upstate New York, the son of an insurance salesman. At 19, he took a job as a night shift psychiatric aide in a Massachusetts mental hospital, a move that would set off a series of what he calls “accidents” that eventually created the phenomenon of Patterson the master marketer, the man who can write no flop.

“That’s when I really started reading a lot, but it was all serious stuff,” Patterson says. “I didn’t read commercial stuff and somewhere along the way I read ’Ulysses’, and I love (James) Joyce anyway, and I thought I’m not even going to try to write serious fiction because I can’t get anywhere near here.”

In his 20s, he read Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of The Jackal” and William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist.” Something hit him.

“These are good, too, in their own funny way,” Patterson recalls thinking to himself. “I could do something like this.”

And the “scribbling” began.

Patterson graduated summa cum laude from Manhattan College in the Bronx and later left Vanderbilt University with a masters in English without much of a clue what to do next.

“I thought it was foolhardy of me to think that I could make a living writing,” he says.

He took a job as a copywriter with J. Walter Thompson in the ad agency’s New York office.

“My rise in advertising was another accident. I had no interest in really going up the corporate ladder at all,” Patterson says. “I’d gotten my first book published (’The Thomas Berryman Number’). It got turned down by 30-some publishers and then it won an Edgar (Award) as the best first mystery.”

At 27, he thought he was on his way. “Then I fall in love with this woman and she developed a brain tumor. It was devastating to me.”

After her death, Patterson threw himself into ad work, rising to chairman in about three years.

“I couldn’t write, and I didn’t want to be spend any time by myself,” he recalls.

As the pain numbed, Patterson again took up writing but soon realized something was missing.

“I’m spending all this time writing and all the rest of the time, you know, doing this advertising stuff and I’m spending no time trying to find somebody,” he says. “That’s why I left. I left to find somebody.”

Love, it seemed, was integral to his happiness and ultimately, to his personal success. He married his wife eight years ago and they now have an 8-year-old son, Jack.

Scoring life's triple-headerMuch like his accidents in life and love, Patterson’s writing style — short, punchy sentences, less detail and more plot jammed into two-page chapters — also came by chance. He had written about 150 pages of “The Midnight Club,” a story about a killer, a journalist and a cop published in 1999, when he got an idea.

He was planning to add details and descriptions “because that’s the way we are all taught to do it, and I said, ’Ya know, I kinda like this.’ There’s way too much ... that feels like it was taught somewhere,” Patterson says. “I think that’s a big bore.”

For the most part, Patterson is laid back, unpretentious but also seemingly charmed by himself. Almost six feet tall with blue eyes barely peeking through the droops of his eyelids, he has an uncombed head of hair and crooked teeth.

Patterson does most of his writing longhand, in pencil, (“Me and Hemingway,” he quips) at a round pine table in a small second-floor office in his home overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. Some of it he does in bed.

He proudly points out photographs of former President Bill Clinton.

“You see what Clinton’s got under his arm? A James Patterson book,” the author says, a half-cocked smile creeping across his jowly face.

In the writing room, about a dozen neatly stacked piles of works-in-progress line a desktop.

“We just sold a couple of things to Hollywood — a Cross book, and a horror book for next year,” Patterson says. “That’s one that I wrote that I haven’t gone further with. ... That’s the horror, that’s next February. That’s an outline for another one.

“I’m very lucky in that I have kind of the triple-header,” Patterson adds, shaking his head in disbelief. “I love my little boy, I love my wife and I love what I do.”