James Patterson (left) and former US President Bill Clinton at a book signing in 2018 Image Credit: Shutterstock

What is it that makes James Patterson one of the world’s most successful authors? He’s produced so many books his Wikipedia page doesn’t bother trying to list them. He’s made $700 million out of a career stretching back four decades. He doesn’t even really write his books, which include the Alex Cross, Michael Bennett and The Women’s Murder Club detective series, instead farming out story lines to a team of collaborators, and changing what he gets back if he doesn’t like it.

"What do all great stories do?" he asks rhetorically, when I contact him via Zoom in his Florida home. "They start by asking a question that the reader must have answered. John Grisham does the same thing, but he doesn’t boil things down as much as I do. Sometimes if someone is a really great writer, readers keep reading because they get hooked on the language. But I don’t have that problem."

Well no, he doesn’t. You don’t read a James Patterson thriller for the beauty of its similes. You read it for the fast moving plots. Now 74, Patterson wrote his first Alex Cross novel, featuring the eponymous African American detective struggling to balance a stressful career with family life, in 1993. Several film adaptations followed.

"When I started writing, every Hollywood movie had a black guy with a boombox on his shoulder," he says, by way of explaining his desire to write a different sort of black character in his books. He has no time for the suggestion that, as a white man, he might today fall foul of the Twitterati.

"I grew up in a small town that was heavily black; I had a lot of black kids as my friends. So do I have the right to write a black character? Sure I do. William Styron wrote those two books [Sophie’s Choice, and The Confessions of Nat Turner] and I thought he did a good job.

"In the beginning, LittleBrown didn’t put my picture on the Cross books. The early reviews all went, ‘What a great thing for a black writer to create this character, it’s so credible and believable’. For me, it’s just read the damn thing and come to your own conclusions."

His 29th Cross novel, Fear No Evil, out recently, features an unsavoury character who closely resembles Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who killed himself in jail in 2019 while awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking minors.

Patterson published a non-fiction book, Filthy Rich, about Epstein in 2016, based on police transcripts of interviews with some of the girls who made allegations of sexual abuse against him. He is still haunted, not only by the girls’ statements, but by how long it took the American media to take notice.

"It’s hard for me to get over Epstein," he says. "The interviews in Filthy Rich are devastating. But when I took Filthy Rich to the newspapers, no one wanted to cover it... I was like, ‘Are you guys crazy? Wake the hell up’."

Patterson is a brawny mix of the straight talking and the liberal leaning. He produces books like a factory produces cars, yet cares passionately about literacy – he’s donated millions to pupil literacy funds. His novels make no claims to artistic importance, yet he believes deeply in the power of stories to reveal other lives more clearly.

He is also writing an autobiography and has a forthcoming collaboration with Dolly Parton, Run, Rose, Run, a novel about a young Nashville singer.

I ask him why he keeps on going and for the first time a hint of a different sort of writer appears.

"When I was a kid, I had this notion that I wanted to write the sort of book that would be read so many times the binding would fall out and the pages would be scattered by the wind. I’m still working on that one. So that’s why."

The Daily Telegraph

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