- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2006

PALM BEACH, Fla. — James Patterson’s life was an accident, a clashing of indecisiveness, a lost first love and an idea that there were rules for ordinary folks like him. At age 59, though, there’s nothing ordinary about the multimillionaire author.

He has published 35 books, 18 of which hit No. 1 on the New York Times list of best-sellers. He has sold 100 million copies, grossing $1 billion in sales. His thrillers “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider” have been made into movies starring Morgan Freeman as criminal profiler Alex Cross. More Hollywood deals are in the works.

Mr. Patterson, the former chairman of the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm, produces up to five books a year: mysteries, thrillers, fantasies, love stories and children’s themes. He made $40 million last year — doing it in a manner that caught the eye of a Harvard University business professor.

Still, despite the fame and fortune, he sees himself as “just a guy that tells stories” and his work as “scribbling.”

“My books are good of their kind,” he says matter-of-factly.

Mr. Patterson has just returned from a 10-day tour to promote his new book, “Beach Road,” which he wrote with journalist Peter de Jonge. Another book is due out Tuesday, his third for the year so far.

Unlike many writers, Mr. Patterson is the hand that rocks his own cradle, involving himself in cover designs, organizing signing events and speaking engagements. He contributes his own money to his book-advertising campaigns.

In the halls of Harvard Business School, he’s an unusual icon.

Harvard’s John Deighton devised “Marketing James Patterson,” a case study taught in several courses, after hearing the author speak at a gathering of business professionals and realizing that he is a marketer who happens to be his own product.

“That doesn’t happen with a can of soda,” Mr. Deighton says.

“The man is a marketing machine,” adds Bob Wietrak, vice president of merchandise for Barnes & Noble booksellers.

A few years ago, Mr. Patterson began using collaborators to produce even more work.

It began with “Miracle on the 17th Green,” a story of a middle-aged man seeking the extraordinary from his ordinary life, written with Mr. de Jonge.

“Peter is a better stylist than I am, and I’m a better storyteller than he is,” Mr. Patterson notes. He has since worked with five co-authors.

Mr. Patterson writes the story outline. The co-author pens a first draft. After a series of back-and-forths, a new book is produced in about half the normal time. “If you commit to my style, it’s very doable for a collaborator,” he says.

Of critics who say he has industrialized the art of novel writing with an assembly-line production style and flashy marketing, Mr. Patterson shrugs yet seems to take offense.

“Just because it’s clean prose doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to do,” he says.

Mr. Patterson was raised in upstate New York, the son of an insurance salesman. At 19, he took a job as a night-shift psychiatric aide in a Massachusetts mental hospital, a move that would set off a series of what he calls “accidents” that eventually created the phenomenon of Mr. Patterson the master marketer, the man who can write no flop.

“That’s when I really started reading a lot, but it was all serious stuff,” Mr. Patterson says. “I didn’t read commercial stuff, and somewhere along the way, I read ‘Ulysses,’ and I love [James] Joyce anyway, and I thought. ‘I’m not even going to try to write serious fiction because I can’t get anywhere near here.’”

In his 20s, he read Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal” and William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist.” Something hit him.

“These are good, too, in their own funny way,” Mr. Patterson recalls thinking to himself. “I could do something like this.”

Then the “scribbling” began.

Mr. Patterson graduated summa cum laude from Manhattan College in the Bronx and later left Vanderbilt University with a master’s degree in English without much of a clue what to do next.

“I thought it was foolhardy of me to think that I could make a living writing,” he says.

So he took a job as a copywriter with J. Walter Thompson in the ad agency’s New York office.

“My rise in advertising was another accident. I had no interest in really going up the corporate ladder at all,” Mr. Patterson says. “I’d gotten my first book [“The Thomas Berryman Number”] published. It got turned down by thirty-some publishers, and then it won an Edgar [Award] as the best first mystery.”

At 27, he thought he was on his way. “Then I fall in love with this woman, and she developed a brain tumor. It was devastating to me.”

After her death, Mr. Patterson threw himself into ad work, rising to chairman of the agency in about three years. “I couldn’t write, and I didn’t want to -spend any time by myself,” he recalls. As the pain numbed, Mr. Patterson again took up writing but soon realized something was missing.

“I’m spending all this time writing and all the rest of the time, you know, doing this advertising stuff, and I’m spending no time trying to find somebody,” he says. “That’s why I left. I left to find somebody.”

Love, it seemed, was integral to his happiness and, ultimately, to his personal success. He married his wife, Sue, eight years ago, and they have an 8-year-old son, Jack.

Much like his accidents in life and love, Mr. Patterson’s writing style — short, punchy sentences, less detail and more plot jammed into two-page chapters — also came by chance.

He does most of his writing in longhand, in pencil (“Me and Hemingway,” he quips). Some of it he does in bed.

In his writing room, about a dozen neatly stacked piles of works in progress line a desktop. “We just sold a couple of things to Hollywood — a Cross book and a horror book for next year,” Mr. Patterson says.

“I’m very lucky in that I have kind of the triple-header,” Mr. Patterson adds, shaking his head in disbelief. “I love my little boy, I love my wife, and I love what I do.”

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