Sunday, February 10, 2008

Behind the Production Line

I wrote recently about James Patterson’s novels being the most-borrowed from British libraries. Bookseller deputy editor Joel Rickett now examines those annual lending library figures for The Guardian, and in the course of it points out the remarkable drawing power of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction:
Patterson plays well in libraries because avid readers retreat to his clearly defined world, which has a reliable structure and set of values. That’s partly the appeal of the single most borrowed book last year, Patricia Cornwell’s At Risk, and it also helps to explain the popularity of British and American authors as diverse as Ian Rankin, Martina Cole, Dan Brown, Kathy Reichs, Harlan Coben, Peter Robinson, Jeffery Deaver, Lee Child, Val McDermid and Michael Connelly. There are vast differences in the quality of their writing, but they share an ability to spin addictive yarns about people in peril--who are usually saved by a familiar, flawed hero. To some extent these crime and thriller stories are elbowing aside romances and clogs-and-shawl sagas from library shelves, with Josephine Cox and Danielle Steel slipping down the top 10 most borrowed authors list, and grande dame Catherine Cookson finally plummeting from sight.
(You can download the list 100 most borrowed books from UK libraries as a PDF file here.)

I readily admit that I used to be a big reader of Patterson’s Alex Cross thrillers. But due to the sheer volume of his output (many of his novels having been written with co-authors), coupled with the fact that I am averse to the short chapters and lack of depth in his later work, I haven’t read any of his work for many, many years now. Nonetheless, it should be noted that Patterson won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his 1977 debut novel, The Thomas Berryman Number. And he has helped many struggling authors get a leg up in the business. Among those is Andrew Gross (The Blue Zone), who I met--with Patterson--last summer at ThrillerFest in New York. (The two of them are shown in the photo above, with Patterson on the left.) Shots editor Mike Stotter and I coaxed Gross to tell us a bit about his relationship with Patterson. His explanation:
You’re sort of sitting around, contemplating which cliff to drive your Audi off (bemoaning the fact you live at sea level), when out of nowhere the phone rings, and it’s your agent, asking, “Can you talk to James Patterson? He’d like to have a word with you.”

“I think I can fit him in,” you say, counting to five before fully committing, as not to appear too desperate. (Okay, three.)

The call that changed my writing life.

Completely unbeknownst, the top editor (now president) at one of houses who rejected me, didn’t chuck my book in the circular can. Instead, she passed it along to her top-selling author, Patterson, sagely noting, “This guy does women well!” (Something my wife’s been insisting ever since is a gross overstatement.)

Six books later, all #1 bestsellers, I’d written about women crime fighters in San Francisco; an inspired innkeeper in France in the fourteenth century who becomes a court jester to search for his abducted wife; a likeable loser in Palm Beach thrust in the center of a multiple homicide; and a single mother whose son is murdered in retaliation by a vicious mobster--and who sets out to find her revenge. I grew accustomed to seeing my books read as the morning paper on airplanes, my name atop the bestseller lists, even receiving a check or two from projects sold to film. As a writer, I was about as lucky as one of my own characters, leaping the span of a rising drawbridge on a motorcycle, knocking off the bad guy, finding the girl.
I even managed to get a word in with Patterson last summer, as he waiting for his limousine to whisk him away from the Thrillermaster Award ceremony. He was affable, extremely witty, and even posed for a photograph with his protégé Andrew Gross, remarking, “Damn that Gross, [he] is so much and younger and better looking than me.” At which point Gross blushed and I snapped my camera shutter.

Now comes a profile of Patterson in the London Times, which also explains more about how he works with his co-writers:
In the past decade the 60-year-old New Yorker has become the world’s greatest factory of bestsellers, employing a team of writers that push out four or five books a year. This industrial approach has earned him an estimated £20m annually and the Time magazine headline “The man who can’t miss”.

He crafts a 30-page outline, a co-writer fills in the gaps and, after Patterson’s final polish, another commercial success hits the slipway. He is open about collaboration and the readers don’t mind, judging by the 165m thrillers he has sold in 18 countries. Recently signed up by Random House, he has set up a new production line for a further eight novels. None of this weighs too heavily on the millionaire as he contemplates plots in the wood-panelled office at his Florida mansion in Palm Beach, where he lives with his wife Sue and their son Jack, 10. Visitors find him amiable, chatty and unpretentious.

The idea of collaboration occurred to him in 1996, when he and Peter de Jonge, a friend and journalist, came up with the idea for a golf novel, Miracle on the 17th Green. “Peter’s a much better stylist than I am and I’m a much better storyteller than he is,” he reasoned. “Why not?”
As is the case for many of us, the Times explains that Patterson’s great commercial success is shaded by a tragedy.
His father, Charles, a Prudential insurance executive, was “a strange, troubled guy”, Patterson recalled. Charles was abandoned by his own father at the age of two and grew up in a poor house, “so he didn’t have any role models in how to be a father”. A domineering man, Charles squabbled with his wife and was often absent. The effect on Patterson was that “I didn’t get married until I was 48”.

At school he did well, but his home life left him with the feeling that there was “nothing loveable about me”. His first girlfriend at school was called Jean; he drove around with her, eating pizza, but he could not see himself as anyone’s companion for life.

Armed with English degrees from Manhattan College and Vanderbilt University, Patterson yearned to write fiction but settled for copywriting. He joined JWT in New York and began dating Jane, “the nicest person in the history of mankind. Every evening I just wanted to be with her”.

One morning after they had been together for five years, the couple went for breakfast and stopped off at the post office, where Jane dropped to the floor. “She had a brain tumour and had a limited amount of time to live. Those 2½ years were the most special of my life. The perspective we took was that we were lucky to have each day together. I was passionately in love with a bald woman with tufts of hair.”

For a couple of years after Jane’s death, Patterson “worked my brains out and zoomed up the ladder”. But he was lonely and in desperation went to a dating agency, only to be thrown out “because I thought the questionnaire seemed slick and silly”.
And also like those of us in the world of writing and reading, Patterson is appalled by the sharply declining importance of books in our modern society:
In a recent blog on his website, Patterson expressed horror at published statistics showing that the amount spent on reading each year by the average American family had declined from $163 in 1995 to just $126 in 2005. Yet his latest scheme has struck some commentators as a campaign against literature. He plans to embrace the computer games market by targeting middle-aged women unfamiliar with the pastime.
To his credit, Patterson is at least doing something to promote reading, the Times explains: “[H]e founded the James Patterson PageTurner Awards, donating $600,000 to reward schools and other institutions that ‘spread the excitement of books and reading’.”

Read the Times’ full James Patterson profile here.

1 comment:

David J. Montgomery said...

Patterson takes more than his ration of shit from people, but I admire the hell out of the guy. He puts out books that people want to read, so God bless him for that.