James Patterson talks to David Shuster

The author, who has sold more than 300 million books, on getting kids to read, rejection and ‘The Simpsons’

David Shuster: You have a children's imprint that's coming up. Tell me about that.

James Patterson: Yes, we're just announcing a children's imprint called "Jimmy." And the mission — it's a very simple and, I think, an elegant mission, which is that when kids finish a "Jimmy" book, they will say, "Please give me another book." And that sounds a little simple-minded, but I think it's the way to get kids reading.

That's the way we — whether it's food or movies or whatever — we eat a certain kind of food, like the first time we have pizza or, you know, whatever, broccoli, whatever your favorite food is — and you go, "Oooh, I really like that. Give me another piece of pizza" or "Give me another carrot" or whatever or movies. So, same with books. If kids don't — if their experiences aren't good, they say, “I don't really want books," you know?

A lot of authors, though, have tried that and have said, "Well, I'm, you know, into children's books because it's a way a pathway for kids to read." What's different about this that makes you think that it can be this sort of noble goal?

Well, I already know that my books work tremendously well with kids. It's right in my sweet spot, allows me to be funny, which I can't be in the adult books. And kids gobble up my books. And I think the cool thing about the books that I write is, they're funny, and they're engaging, but there's also something for kids to think about. The middle school books are about a kid who doesn't really fit into the education system here. He's a bright kid, though. But they're really because his talent is more on the arts side and illustrating and drawing, there's nowhere for that to get out in the school system. 

Several of your books have gone from the literary world to movies or TV. The latest that's coming out, premiering this summer on CBS, "Zoo" — what has you so particularly excited about this Hollywood adaptation?

What I like about the "Zoo," I always felt it had the potential to be a terrific movie or TV series because it's so visual.

And to set it up for people, it's animals that are devouring humans and —

Well, I wouldn't say that. It's a fable. And it's a fable about, really, what man is doing to the environment. And in this case, animals, they're threatened. And when animals are threatened, things happen. A tsunami's coming, and all of a sudden the animals take off for the hills and the humans don't kind of get it. In this case, the animals start to react against human beings. And in some cases there are animal attacks. And they're just threatened by what humans are doing. And it's very exciting. I mean we have lions on the middle of these big fields chasing our heroes in Africa. And it reminds me a little of "Jaws" because you can't quite see them coming. We have bats in Rio de Janeiro just storming all over the city. We have horses acting strangely in Boston. It's very visual.

For all of your accomplishments, all the records that you've broken in terms of publishing and best-seller lists, you've described yourself as an entertainer. How come?

I think that's what I do. Early on as a writer, I realized that — having read "Ulysses" a couple a times — that I could not be James Joyce, I could not be Gabriel García Márquez. I didn't quite have that talent level. But I did think — and I started out as a little literary snob, but I read a couple of best-sellers back then. One was "Day of the Jackal," and one was "The Exorcist." And I went, "Well, these are kind of cool too. And I think at my talent level, I can write books like this. I think I can write books that will keep people turning the pages."

Vanity Fair described you as "the Henry Ford of books." Did you take that as a compliment or an insult?

It's just some headline writer. But there is some truth to it in the sense that I do a lot of books. I do work with co-writers. Well, you know, Simon and Garfunkel, Lennon and McCartney, Gilbert and Sullivan … most of the cathedrals in Europe, the Internet — all of those, they're the result of collaborators. So it's not really that weird.

You were in the advertising business for many, many years.

Yeah, but I've been clean for over 20 years. 

‘I could not be Gabriel García Márquez. I didn’t quite have that talent level … I think at my talent level … I think I can write books that will keep people turning the pages.’

James Patterson

Your first book, "The Thomas Berryman Number," a Nashville newspaper man who's on a murder trail — it was rejected by 31 publishers?

First book, "Thomas Berryman Number" was rejected by 31 publishers. It then won an Edgar as the best first mystery of the year here in America. And I still keep a list of all the editors who rejected it. And sometimes they ask me for blurbs for their writers, which I give them.

Another one of your early books, "Season of the Machete" —

That "Season of the Machete" is terrible.

Did you know it was terrible at the time?

No. No. That's a book where — I guess it's a sophomore jinx. And I wanted to sort of follow up on what I thought was a good book. And I just messed it up, badly. So don't read that. 

Your first early love, Jane Blanchard — you knew her for six years. She had a brain tumor. She died three years later. 

Well, I think it was my first great love. I think it taught me that men and women can have wonderful relationships, because it was a wonderful relationship. And I think that's a great lesson. I think a lot of men and women, young men and women, don't believe that. I think they get very cynical about it. But it is possible. And I'm very lucky now. I have been married to Sue, and we've been together for, you know, over 17 years, going to be 18 years. And it's a wonderful relationship. It's a love affair. 

James Patterson with David Shuster
‘Dwyane Wade … he’s got three kids, and he’s really just on them about reading all the time. And LeBron [James]. LeBron is a pretty big reader himself.’

James Patterson

When was the moment that you realized — was it your first best-seller when you thought, "OK, I can I can be successful at this"?

I remember when I won the Edgar Award, I remember standing up and not having much to say, and I was 26 at the time — "I guess I'm a writer now." If you're writing but you haven't been published and people say, "What do you do?" You know, "I'm a writer." They'll immediately say, "Well, what have you published?" And if you say, "I haven't published," they'll look at you like you're a mad person like, "What? How can call yourself a writer if you haven't published?" Which is kind of crazy, because I think you can be a writer if that's what you do and you do a lot of it. But I think for me, having the book published and then winning the Edgar, I did feel, "OK, I'm not just kidding myself now. I'm a real writer. This is a real thing."

I talked to a lot of your fans in getting ready for this interview. And every one of them wanted to know, how are you able to be so prolific, so many different storylines, so many different projects?

My strengths are ideas. I have so many ideas for books. I have in my office a folder this thick with ideas for different books. I mean, literally hundreds and hundreds of ideas for books. That's a big strength. I can tell a story about anything.

One superior talent, at least in the basketball world, LeBron James, you've partnered with him a while back. What was that like?

I did a couple of webcasts with basketball stars Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki. And they're all interested in getting kids reading, Dwyane Wade in particular. He's got three kids, and he's really just on them about reading all the time. And LeBron. LeBron is a pretty big reader himself. The kids are paying more attention. Also in America, for a lot of kids — and this is unfortunate, but it is what it is — a lot of kids don't think reading books is cool. And it is cool.

Your support of independent bookstores is particularly interesting, given that your traditional books are probably the least likely to help those independent bookstores. 

I don't know about that sentence, in the sense that I think my books sell well in bookstores. But my thing is really to try to shine a light on problems. And one of the problems in this country is less and less and less bookstores. And that's a real problem. I mean, it may all happen on the Internet 50 years from now. 

We need great books in this country. The country needs a literature. We need bookstores. We need places where people can go in and talk about books with other people who are interested in books. When I put out the million dollars to help independents, the response was unbelievable. The unfortunate thing is a lot of these people that are very emotional about the town bookstore do not go to the town bookstore. It's kinda, "Oh, yeah, I was there, like, three years ago." Well, no. Gee, I mean, if you really want to support them and you want me to support them, go there and occasionally buy a book.

And the same with public libraries. So if you support your public library, you should go and send your kids there and get them to check out —

Yeah. I mean, this year we're doing a big thing, a couple million dollars with school libraries. And once again, I want to shine a light on the fact that a lot of schools — the libraries have almost no books in them and no librarians. And the funds for school libraries keep getting cut back. And there used to be that saying, "It's the economy, stupid." I think a good saying right now that I wish politicians would get in their heads, and I'd love to see when the presidential debates, that in every debate the notion of "Education is the future of the economy, stupid." So what are we doing? What are we doing for education? Because that is the future. 

Your son Jack is 17. He's soon going to sort of leave home. You've been through the experience of trying to get your own child to read. For somebody like me — I've got a 2-year-old at home. We do a lot of "Goodnight Moon." But what's the trick for kids as they're getting older to get them — is it parent reading to them?

I just think it's parent involvement. Try to get books that the kids are responding to. Don't force them stuff. So let them tell you what they like for a while. And at a certain point, when kids get to be 7 or 8, that's a point where if it's not working, you can force the issue.

And what we did with Jack — and Jack's a bright kid — he wasn't a big reader when he was 8. And that summer — and summer's a great time to do this. This whole thing of "Go vegetate for the summer"? No. No, no, no, no, no. We're not going to do that. Yes, you can relax. Yes, there's no school. But with Jack, we said, "You're going to read every day." And his response initially was, "Do I have to?" And we said, "Yeah, unless you want to live in the garage."

You know, "We read in our house. That's the deal. But we're going to go out and get a bunch a books that you're going to like." By the end of the summer, Jack's reading skills had improved dramatically. And that can happen in most households. You just keep doing it. 

You've said that one of your greatest accomplishments was an appearance on "The Simpsons."

Yes. I was a cartoon. And I still am a cartoon. Yeah. No, it was great fun. In this particular segment, Marge is on the beach and she's reading one of my novels. And she's, "Oh, I just love James Patterson." And then in the background, I ride by on this white horse on the beach.

And then they cut, and she's on the back of the horse, and we're sort of whispering sweet nothings. Then she says, "Do you want to write nursery rhyme titles for some of your books?" Some of the Alex Cross books had nursery rhyme titles. And I said, "Marge, there's more interesting things we could do than that." And then this alarm clocks rings, and my eyes go back and forth. Then the film cuts, and Homer comes into the bedroom. And Marge is in bed. And Homer says, "That was great last night, Marge. But why did you keep calling me James?" Yeah, so that was fun. It was great fun. After the episode ran, I sent flowers to the studio for Marge. And to this day, I've never heard back.

They haven't responded?

Marge has not responded.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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