At a time when reading for pleasure is on the decline, James Patterson knows better than anyone how to keep selling novels. Since his first thriller was published in 1976, the 74-year-old from upstate New York has gone on to sell more than 400 million books worldwide. He holds the record for the most appearances on The New York Times bestseller list, and the record for the most times topping that list. For the past 13 years in a row, Patterson has been the most borrowed author from British libraries. Last year, Forbes estimated he brought in around $80m (£59m), making him America’s highest paid author. He has built this empire on the back of a staggering production rate: this year alone, no fewer than 11 new James Patterson titles will hit bookshelves around the world.
Still, even bestselling authors aren’t averse to the odd publicity stunt. This Wednesday, at Bethnal Green Town Hall in London, Patterson will put his detective hero Alex Cross on trial for a gruesome triple murder in the author’s first ever interactive live event: “The Judge, The Jury and James Patterson.” Given that Cross, who first appeared in 1993’s Along Came A Spider, is now the star of the world’s bestselling detective series, it isn’t hard to guess the verdict his creator will be lobbying for. “I hope he gets off,” says Patterson with a chuckle when we speak over video call from his Mediterranean-style villa in Palm Beach, Florida. The event wasn’t Patterson’s idea, but he immediately saw the appeal. “Courtroom stuff is always really interesting, so the idea of putting Alex on trial and having a live jury there who are gonna vote on it seemed fun… it’s hard to draw attention to books these days.”
The event is being held to promote the publication of Fear No Evil, the 29th instalment in the Alex Cross series. In typical Patterson fashion, his new thriller is a breakneck, globe-trotting adventure that bounces Cross from Washington DC to LA, Paris, Mexico City and finally the wilderness of Montana, where he finds himself caught between a murderous drug cartel and a rogue group of vigilante soldiers who’ve gone to war with them. It’s all faintly implausible, of course, but Patterson argues that’s part of his style, too. “For the most part, I don’t do realism,” he says. “Every once in a while a critic will go: ‘This isn’t very realistic!’ Not that I compare myself to Picasso, but to me that’s like looking at a Picasso and saying: ‘Well, this isn’t very realistic!’ That’s not good criticism. You can say ‘I hate this’ or ‘I think it stinks’, but Fear No Evil is not realism. It’s over the top, more like movies, but you always hope there’s some emotional truth too.”
Patterson’s fast-paced, plot-driven and massively popular thrillers would seem to make them perfect fodder for film adaptations, but the author lets out an audible groan when I mention that I’ve recently rewatched the various Alex Cross stories that have made it to the big screen. Cross was first portrayed onscreen by Morgan Freeman in 1997’s twisty neo-noir Kiss The Girls and its 2001 sequel Along Came A Spider, before the franchise was rebooted with 2012’s dismal action flick Alex Cross, which starred Tyler Perry as the eponymous detective. Patterson hasn’t been satisfied with any of them. “The Hollywood stuff sucks,” he says, with a sigh. “Morgan Freeman’s great, he’s terrific, but the movies are OK at best. The last one with Tyler Perry… it wasn’t Tyler’s fault but it was awful.” Even after all his success, it turns out Patterson is still susceptible to a bit of good old-fashioned rivalry between authors. “It pisses me off that Michael Connelly has had both [long-running Amazon detective series] Bosch, which I think is pretty good, and The Lincoln Lawyer, which I also thought was pretty good. And I like movies better than he does.”
If Patterson had his way, it would have been Idris Elba heading up the Alex Cross reboot in 2012. He recalls having a positive meeting with the British actor at a hotel in Beverly Hills. “He was great, he was wonderful, and he really wanted to do Alex,” says Patterson, who was eventually overruled by the film’s producers who preferred a bigger American name. “We couldn’t sell him! They brought in Tyler Perry instead. Idris would have been great, and the thing of it is it would have been good for him too. They keep giving him these roles that are not worthy. ‘Oh, play the villain in this.’ F*** that. Idris is so good, he’s a talented guy.”
In recent years, the adaptation of his work he’s been happiest with was the Netflix documentary series Filthy Rich, which was based on Patterson’s 2016 true crime book of the same name about his former Palm Beach neighbour, the billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Having followed the case closely, Patterson says he’s uncertain whether to believe the official story about Epstein’s apparent suicide in a New York jail cell in 2019. “I thought for sure that he killed himself, and then I’ve heard enough stories to at least doubt it a little bit,” says Patterson. “It could have been that somebody might have knocked him off.” He adds that he’s hopeful more truth will out when Epstein’s alleged accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell stands trial in Manhattan this month. “It’s going to start very soon. I mean, presumably it’s gonna start. Who knows?” he says conspiratorially. “In Florida she might have gotten away with it. They’d have said it wasn’t her fault, but I think they’ll nail her in New York.”
Alongside his various fiction projects, Patterson is also executive producing a new Discovery docuseries about Maxwell, Chasing Ghislaine. In total, he says, he is currently working on “31 live projects, including some Hollywood stuff”. He maintains this prodigious output by working with a stable of co-authors who he often calls upon to flesh out the books in his various series based on his “60-80 page outlines”. While some critics have questioned Patterson’s production-line approach to novel writing, he argues that his form of collaboration is no different to how most movies, television and theatre are produced. “It’s not like some weird, crazy thing, but it freaks writers out,” he says. “If other writers don’t work in a certain way they go: ‘What’s this bulls***? How dare you not do it the way I do it!’ For me, I came out of advertising, but I’ve been clean for over 25 years. That’s very collaborative.”
Typically, Patterson’s co-authors make do with a smaller cover credit beneath his bold-faced name, but he also co-writes books with bigger names who lend an air of authority to his work. He has written two thrillers with former President Bill Clinton, 2018’s The President Is Missing and this year’s The President’s Daughter, and next year in March he will publish Run, Rose, Run, a much-anticipated collaboration with country music icon Dolly Parton.
Patterson says he got in touch with Parton because she, like him, has donated millions of dollars to promote child literacy. It turned out that wasn’t all they had in common. They bonded over their similar journeys from growing up in small-town obscurity, he in Newburgh, New York, and her in rural Tennessee. “We just hit it off,” he says. “She’s from a town that’s so small it almost doesn’t have a name, so like me it’s a million miles from where she grew up to the fame that she’s amassed. We’re both pretty down to earth, and we work hard. She sang ‘Happy Birthday’ over the phone on my birthday, so that was cool.”
He’s particularly excited about the project because Parton will be releasing a new album to accompany the novel they wrote together, featuring the music created by their fictional heroine. “There’s literally an album with 12 songs that are all in the book,” he says. “There’s a little bit of a mystery to the story, but it’s mainly about this country singer that comes from nothing and tries to make it in Nashville.”
Having turned his hand to thrillers, romance novels, teen dramas and true crime, Patterson says he approaches all of his books from the same starting point. “My notion when I sit down to write something is that there’s one person sitting across from me, I’m telling them a story, and I don’t want them to get up ‘til I’m finished,” he says. “I think that’s a strength and a weakness. The strength is the pages turn themselves. The weakness is that I’m so conscious of that, I sometimes don’t dig as deep as I should. In some cases, I could write better books.” He reflects on this admission for a moment, before turning brighter. After 45 years as a published author, and 400 million books sold, Patterson acknowledges that he’s still learning. “Although I must say, some of the stuff that’s coming, and it’s interesting as I get into my late forties here, I really think it’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever done.”
‘The Judge, The Jury and James Patterson’ is at London’s Bethnal Green Town Hall on Wednesday 24 November. Tickets available here. ‘Fear No Evil’ is out now