Patterson shows his softer side
James Patterson turns his hand to a love story, inspired by his own tale of love and loss. Hannah Stephenson chats to the multimillionaire thriller writer
He has made a fortune from his taut, tight thrillers, most notably those featuring ex-FBI agent and psychologist Alex Cross, – played by Morgan Freeman and, more recently, Tyler Perry in film adaptations. But now best-selling novelist James Patterson has embraced a new genre in his latest book, First Love, based in part on his very own love story.
He says, “It’s closer to who James Patterson is than the thrillers. I’m not very violent at all. I just found that writing thrillers was a way to make a good living. So there is a softer side. My life is much more family-orientated,” says the 66-year-old New Yorker and former advertising guru.
“As you get older, the idea of first love becomes more interesting. You like to go back and hang out there for a while and remember how it was.”
The story, co-written with author Emily Raymond, charts
the adventures of two youngsters who take a road trip across America and fall in love, but a sad twist in the tale leads to a tear-jerking finale.
It was inspired by the heartbreaking story of his own first real love, Jane Blanchard, when he was in his 20s. He was with her for seven years. “We were in one of the post offices on Broadway one day when she collapsed,” he recalls. “She’d had a seizure. Then we found that she had a brain tumour and a limited amount of time to live.
“The way we chose to get through it was to take the attitude, ‘Isn’t it lucky you didn’t die that day? We have today’. She was a terrific person.
“When she got sick, she was bald half the time. I was in love with a bald woman. That teaches you something about love and the fact that the visual thing isn’t as important as we think it is.
“We all know that we’re going to die some day, but in this case, it made it very concrete and we had to deal with it. She went on living for another two years and it was a very special time.”
They both lived their lives in the present for those two years, he reflects. “We tried to make every day count. If we went out for a walk – and a lot of the time I was pushing her around in a wheelchair – there was something special about it.”
Patterson adds that she would wear a different goofy hat every day as she didn’t want people to be depressed.
He was with Jane to the end in hospital and vividly recalls the fateful day she died. “I remember sitting there holding her hand and whispering to her and she whispered back to me to have a life. She didn’t say, ‘Move on’, but she did say she wanted me to be happy.”
But nothing helped him cope with her death.
“I can remember crying almost every day from the day she got sick and maybe a year or so after. I was a basket case,” he recalls.
His therapy was to throw himself into work at top US advertising agency, JWalter Thompson.
“I didn’t want to be by myself at all. I could not go on a vacation. That’s when I threw myself into advertising. Before that my priorities were Jane and writing books.
“I went from copywriter to creative director to chairman in about three years. I didn’t write any books for a couple of years.
“It was heavy-duty grief. I’d come home at night and sit playing four or five songs that were special to us. It was insane.”
Many years later he married Sue, an advertising art director 10 years his junior, with whom he has a 15-year-old son, Jack. They live in a Dh40-million colonial-style house
overlooking the ocean in an elite part of Palm Beach, Florida. Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and the Kennedys have summer homes nearby.
He works seven days a week out of a two-room office suite there. The community around them is a sociable one but they live a fairly quiet life, he says.
“We have family and good friends we’ve made down here but other than the occasional charity, we will not go out to big social events. It just doesn’t appeal to us.”
He gets up at about 5am to write, will walk nine holes of the golf course and then write some more.
All the hard work has paid off, thanks to his popular Alex Cross, Women’s Murder Club and Michael Bennett series, along with his Young Adult and children’s titles. Last year he was the second highest-earning author (after Fifty Shades phenomenon EL James), making a staggering $91 million (more than Dh330 million), according to Forbes magazine.
One out of every 17 hardcovers sold in the US is his, and with his Maximum Ride and Witch & Wizard series, he’s increasingly as much a force in the young adult market as adult thrillers, his mainstay. He has sold more than 275 million copies of his books worldwide.
Patterson grew up in Newburgh, on the outskirts of New York, the son of an insurance executive and a teacher. He began writing detective books while working as an advertising copywriter.
He wrote his first thriller at 25, The Thomas Berryman Number, which was initially rejected by 26 publishers but which eventually won the prestigious Edgar best first mystery in the US, while he was still in advertising.
Part of the reason for his massive sales may be down to the fact that he brings out so many books every year
‘I’d like to see more of my work out there. I haven’t loved the movies so far’
– it’s usually in double figures, he says. He currently has 25 manuscripts and screenplays in his office that are works in progress.
Unsurprisingly, he has employed an army of co-writers for some time.
“The way the co-writing works is that I will write the original outline and then the co-writers (who don’t live nearby but work remotely) write the first draft and then I write all the subsequent drafts.”
More film adaptations may be on the cards – but Patterson wants more control over the finished product than he had with previous movies Along Came A Spider, Kiss The Girls and more recently Alex Cross.
“I’d like to see more of my work out there. I haven’t loved the movies so far. Morgan Freeman is great and the movies were OK, but the last Alex Cross wasn’t that good.”
He has his eye on British actor Idris Elba, star of Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, for future Alex Cross films. “I’m much more involved now because I didn’t like the process in the past.”
Despite his millions in the bank, he has no thoughts of retirement.
“You retire from work but not from play. For me, this is enjoyable.”
The author has employed an army of co-writers to help him keep up with demand
Patterson’s new novel tells the tale of two youngsters falling in love on a road trip
Patterson wrote his first thriller at 25 and
has since sold more than 275 million copies
of books worldwide
The author was not happy with the last Alex Cross adaptation