'I think I could write at a decent level - but no' - world's bestselling author James Patterson
James Patterson, the world's bestselling author, tells Jake Kerridge why he cares more about stories than sentences
If literature were a sport, James Patterson would be a Donald Bradman or Usain Bolt figure, so far ahead of his rivals that it's hardly worth their bothering to turn up. Although many critics would maintain that he shouldn't be anywhere near the podium - his thrillers are often panned for their textureless prose, formulaic plots and pancake-flat characters - you can't argue with worldwide sales of 385 million. He makes regular appearances in the number one slot on Forbes magazine's annual list of the world's richest writers - last year he earned $85m (€75m) in the US alone - and, unlike many of his rivals, it nearly all comes from book sales rather than film and TV royalties.
It's worth clarifying that Patterson isn't quite superhuman enough to have racked up his 250-strong bibliography - including dozens of children's books as well as the thrillers - by working alone. During a recent talk at a crime writing festival, he charmed the audience with a witty speech that included an account of his average day: "8am, take a phone call from Bill Clinton... 9am, go down to the basement and let my co-writers out."
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Other novelists grumble that these days Patterson banks the cheques while his co-writers, whose names appear on the front covers in a much smaller font size than his, do the heavy lifting. When we meet at his hotel in Harrogate, I ask Patterson, a less ebullient figure offstage, whether there's any truth in this.
"I start with an outline and I do three or four drafts before I send it to a co-writer. That's a 60-to-80 page outline for every book. One year I wrote more than 2,500 pages of outlines." How do the collaborations work? "They're weird friendships in that it's mainly telephone, but a lot of laughs. I tend to be moderately funny if I want to be." Does he always have the last word? "First, middle and last. I listen. But it needs to end up a James Patterson book."
He took much the same no-nonsense attitude with Clinton, with whom he recently co-wrote the thriller The President Is Missing. "He was respectful, always. He would always go, 'This is your province, not mine.' I know, with his own books, he's one of those people where they arrive at midnight on the last day of the deadline, so I wasn't going to send him questions and wait for the answers, I would go to his house and ask him like 30 questions every time. He wanted to put a lot more political detail in the book - he's a wonk - but I said we need to keep the story intense, we can't veer off."
Patterson and his wife, Sue, have become friends of the Clintons. "With just four people, Hillary is just so warm and funny and down-to-earth. The first time we had dinner, two or three times I saw them holding hands, which I don't think some people would expect."
Patterson is 72 and shortish. With his dark hair, mottled skin and round glasses, he has the air of a benign mole. He was working in advertising at J Walter Thompson when he published his first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, in 1976. "I was more interested in sentences then. You know, there were a lot of good sentences, but not that good a story."
Has he any ambition to produce something in his earlier vein again? "Not particularly. I was at Vanderbilt," he says, referring to the private university in Nashville, to which he won a full scholarship. "I was a PhD candidate - and I don't really want to write books for those people. I read a reasonable amount of literary fiction, I think I could do it at a decent level, but no."
Patterson's latest novel, The Inn, published last week, is written in collaboration with a young Australian author called Candice Fox, and sees the nice folk of a small town in Massachusetts at war with a gang of drug dealers exploiting the US opioid crisis. While you read it, you might long for the more carefully crafted prose of Lee Child or even the gauche-but-human idiosyncrasies of Dan Brown, but it nevertheless makes you burn to see justice done as you turn the pages, even if your ideas of justice are usually a lot more complicated than the novel offers.
The book's message, I suggest, is that small-town American values will always win out in the end, but Patterson insists that he never preaches in his books: "I'm open to lots of ways of looking at the world."
He is diplomatic on politics too, insisting that most politicians are trying to do their best, "even Boris Johnson, in his own bizarre way." What about Trump? "Clinton spoke to him after the election and he told me Trump was acting like nothing special had happened, because to him it's all a game."
He insists that, contrary to rumour, it is unlikely that either Donald Trump or Bill Clinton knew anything about the activities of the financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead yesterday in prison while awaiting trial for sex trafficking of minors. Patterson has written an account of his own investigations into Epstein's alleged crimes, Filthy Rich, sparked by his fury at the press's lack of interest in the case.
"Why were they not writing about him 15 years ago? Newspapers don't have reporters now, just people sitting by computers."
It conjures an interesting vision of the future in which multi-millionaire novelists take over investigative journalism from cash-strapped newspapers, but Patterson is used to doing other people's work for them. In 2018 he donated $3m to a literacy programme at the University of Florida - "the state has contributed nothing." And, in a more idiosyncratic attempt to promote literacy, he has instituted a scheme that sees him awarding $500 bonuses to outstanding staff members in book shops.
It's an interesting glimpse into the mind of a man with very precise ideas about the value of money - unsurprising for someone who grew up underprivileged and knew poverty again after he dropped out of college.
"My father grew up in a poorhouse, which essentially was the equivalent of being homeless, in Newburgh, New York. I have been, in my life, poor and then middle-class and then poor and middle-class again and now rich, but I do think that gave me a feel for people of different classes. And even though I don't particularly want to give away money, I think we have to tax rich people a lot more in America than we do."
He and Sue live in New York and Palm Beach, Florida; they have a son, Jack, now 20. Allowing for the current unpunitive tax system, what does he spend his money on? "I have a Tesla. Umm... I fly private a lot." He's not extravagant then? He gestures at his unprepossessing T-shirt and jeans combo. He has no plans to slow down. "I don't work for a living, I'm playing. Why would I stop playing?"
'The Inn' by James Patterson and Candice Fox (Century).