Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
James Patterson is on the phone
Would you be interested in an interview with mega-selling author James Patterson? Yes, I think I would. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
We went to the beach over the weekend, and for a brief moment I had the bright idea to survey what people were reading.
Results: One visible copy of Why Men Love Bitches (from 2002!) and zero copies of anything by Eh-ming-way. (Granted, it’s 2022, and everyone reads on Kindles or phones, so who knows what they might have been reading?).
As for me? What was I reading? Ha ha ha, you must not have brought elementary school-aged kids to the beach recently, dear hypothetical reader who asked that question.
That said, statistically speaking, across all beaches, the answer to my “what/who are people reading at the beach?” question would most likely be James Patterson. And as it happens, we have an interview with him to share today.
Freelance writer, author and ghostwriter Curt Schleier told me he’d just talked with Patterson, and wondered if my readers might be interested?
Indeed, I thought you would. Here’s Curt:
James Patterson & me
by Curt Schleier
Author James Patterson called me. That’s the good news.
The bad news: He wasn’t calling to ask me to co-author one of his books.
You know Patterson, of course. The words “best selling author” only begin to describe him. He’s sold 425 million books worldwide, more than anyone else over the last 50 years.
Actually, I was supposed to call him to discuss his latest, an eponymous autobiography, James Patterson, but the publicist inadvertently transposed the digits of his number.
Verizon’s robot informed me the phone I was dialing was not in working order. I feared the interview was lost. But then the phone rang.
“Hi, this is James Patterson. I think we’re supposed to talk now.”
I’ve interviewed countless celebrities over the years, and let’s just say I took the fact that he called back as an indication that despite his success, Patterson is not too full of himself.
There were other signs as well, and those proved to be the most interesting moments of our 45-minute or so talk.
We covered the material included in his new book:
Youngest of five children, born into a modest working-class family in Newburgh, N.Y. He’s bright, earns a bachelor and Masters degree in English, comes to New York to find his fortune.
He winds up as a junior copywriter at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency; through luck and pluck, he works his way up the corporate ladder. At age 38 he’s named CEO.
All the time he’s writing: early in the morning before work, at lunch at his desk, at night at home, on the plane on business trips. But unlike his rapid rise at Thompson, success as a novelist is not immediate.
His first, The Thomas Berryman Number, was rejected by 31 editors before it was published. But Patterson told me he never lost hope.
The rejections “came pretty quickly,” he explained. “They came in clusters. Several [editors] said send me your next book. It’s not like they were saying, ‘you’re wasting your time.’”
In the end, he had the last laugh. The book won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America as “best first novel.”
That was 1976, and there were a bunch of novels after that, but it wasn’t until 1993 that Patterson enjoyed his major success with Along Came a Spider – introducing Alex Cross, a Black forensic psychologist, who eventually became the hero of over 25 Patterson novels.
In his autobiography, Patterson reveals that Alex Cross was originally a woman, and would have been named Alexis Cross.
The character, he explained while we talked, was based on a Black woman cook he knew at a local Newburgh restaurant.
“I spent a lot of time with her and her family. They were smart and fun and I never forgot them,” he said, but added that while writing the book, “I just felt as a woman it wasn’t clicking.”
So Alexis became Alex, but stayed Black.
“When I was writing this book, in Hollywood films, every time you saw a Black person he was carrying a boombox, and that’s not what I saw growing up with Laura.”
Patterson writes popcorn novels; popular beach reads. But, his books have not always received the best critical reception.
With some trepidation I asked about his reaction to negative reviews. Example: Stephen King, whom Patterson said he admires once called Patterson “a terrible writer.”
“It depends. If it’s fair I’m always cool with it. With King, I like most of his books a lot. What he said was about Season of the Machete (1977) and he was right about that book.
I have an ego, but I’m realistic about it.”
I’ve done this kind of work long enough to have grown relatively immune to celebrities’ charms, but two things he said toward the end sealed my membership in the JP Fan Club.
First, he’s committed to getting young people reading, and has donated millions of dollars to pay for reading programs, classroom libraries and teacher training. He also regularly speaks to educational groups.
“Right now in this country, less than half the students are reading at grade level, which is a disgrace, a tragedy,” he told me.
And, I got the sense that despite his success Patterson has managed to stay connected to his small town roots.
“I’m aware of the blessings I have,” he said. “I grew up in a small town and am still amazed that I wrote a book with President Clinton and Dolly Parton and that I’m on the phone with you.”
7 other things worth knowing today
‘Parentese’ is truly a lingua franca: In an ambitious cross-cultural study, researchers found that adults around the world speak and sing to babies in similar ways. (NYT)
How Jimmy Buffett came up with the idea to launch Margaritaville (and executed it). "I'm not about to apologize for being a good businessman. Too many people in music have ruined their lives because they weren't." (Inc.com)
Los Angeles County officials last week presented the deed to prime California oceanfront property to the heirs of a Black couple who had built a beach resort for African Americans there in 1912 when racial segregation prevented them from enjoying other beaches, but who were harassed and finally stripped of the land nearly a century ago. (Today, LA County - good pictures)
Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday to apologize for the Catholic church’s role in abusing Indigenous people in residential schools. Over a century, 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the schools. 6,000 died. (NBC News)
An estimated 3,726 to 5,578 tigers currently live in the wild worldwide — up 40% from 2015, according to a new tiger assessment from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But: "A fairly significant chunk of that 40% increase is explained by the fact that we're better at counting them." (NPR)
This will bring you some contagious laughter this morning: “A group of women all bought their husbands the same shirt and didn’t tell them...” Nice job, ladies. (Twitter)
Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of Little, Brown. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.