James Patterson: ‘The pace, the drama, should never stop’
His father grew up in a New York poorhouse called the ‘Pogie’. He worked at a psychiatric hospital where he met the singer James Taylor and the poet Robert Lowell. He once watched Norman Mailer and James Baldwin square off to fight. Dolly Parton sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him over the phone.
James Patterson has written some truly gripping novels during his phenomenal career – but some of his best stories are, without a doubt, the stories of his life. Now, in his official autobiography, he tells the story of his journey to becoming one of the bestselling writers of all time.
Here, in this extract from The Stories of My Life, James Patterson reveals how his iconic detective Alex Cross was born…
I finally started a love story, a saga with mystery elements. Halfway through my initial draft, I experienced my first and only bout of writer’s block. I couldn’t get my head or, especially, my heart into the novel. Even after it was finished — and I mean finished — I never submitted it to publishers. Eventually, I destroyed the pages. And no, I don’t regret it. And yes, I really did shred the original. I don’t remember anything about the story, not a scene, not one character, not even the book’s title.
As I’ve said, I finally threw myself into the Mad Men world and rose from copywriter to creative director to CEO. I was done as a novelist. I wasn’t a writer anymore. It was the late 1980s and three years since my previous novel had been published.
But honestly, I couldn’t help myself. I finally took up my pencil and wrote a mystery novel called The Midnight Club, which was how I got back to Little, Brown. It was also how I met the producers David Brown and Joe Wizan. They optioned the book and promised me they would get the movie made.
Next, I started a very pacey thriller about a Washington, DC, homicide detective, Alexis Cross. Sixty pages in, the story wasn’t working. More writer’s block? That was my fear. Then Alexis became Alex, and suddenly the novel, Along Came a Spider, seemed to write itself.
I think I know why. When I started to conceptualize Along Came a Spider, I wrote a full-length outline of the story. Several hundred pages. When I went back to start the novel itself, I realized that I had already written it. The short chapters in the long outline seemed just right to me, a way of keeping Along Came a Spider bright and hot from beginning to end. This reminded me of a story I’d heard from my editor Michael Pietsch about Bruce Springsteen: When Springsteen was writing Nebraska, he put down a demo, just him and his acoustic guitar. He eventually realized that the demo was the record. In the same vein, I came to understand that my long outline for Along Came a Spider essentially was the novel. It was also the birth of a new writing style for me. I had discovered that the pace, the drama, should never stop.
When I submitted Along Came a Spider, Larry Kirshbaum was the head of Time Warner Books, which included Little, Brown. Larry had a really good feel for commercial fiction. He and his team discovered David Baldacci, Nick Sparks, and me.
Larry read Along Came a Spider on a plane headed to London. As soon as he finished, he handed the manuscript over to his number two, who was sitting beside him. When they arrived in England, Larry called Fredi Friedman — my editor at the time — and they made a seven-figure offer for two Alex Cross novels, Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to get star treatment at Little, Brown. When a publisher offers a writer seven figures, the execs go all out to make the book work.
And it worked beautifully for Along Came a Spider. The reviews were very good, especially one George Pelecanos wrote in the Washington Post. Along Came a Spider made it to number 2 on the New York Times bestseller list.
I didn’t feel particularly deserving of this sudden fame and fortune, but I was sure liking it. There’s nothing like walking by a bookstore and seeing a couple of your novels staring back at you from the front window.
Speaking of bookstore windows
Okay, I am walking along Broadway in New York City. I’m walking pretty quickly. I arrive at my local Barnes & Noble on the corner of Sixty-Seventh Street. I see three copies of my novel Along Came a Spider in the window. This is good stuff.
I’ve been pretty much waiting for this to happen since I first came to live in New York in the 1970s. It’s now January of 1993.
I go inside the bookstore. I’m hyperventilating a little. I want to make this moment last.
It’s a Sunday. I’ve just seen that Along Came a Spider is number 6 on the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t think that could be a mistake, but I’m a little afraid it might be.
I walk toward the fiction section and I can already see the cover for Along Came a Spider. It features big type and an illustration of a spider hanging over a suburban-looking house.
Now here’s what some writers do. We count the number of copies of our book in stock at the local bookstore.
I know there were twelve copies of Along Came a Spider here a few days ago. Now there are six copies.
So maybe the New York Times bestseller list is accurate. I’m feeling a little dizzy. I don’t know how to handle this. I’m starting to get hopeful — and hope is not a strategy.
While I’m heading toward Along Came a Spider, a woman picks up a copy.
I stop walking.
Now, here’s another thing that happens with some writers: If we see you pick up a copy of one of our books at the store, we watch you. If you buy the book, I swear, it makes our whole day. But if you put the book down, reject us, as it were, it breaks our hearts. Seriously. I think it hurts our souls.
So I’m watching this woman, practicing spy craft the way I’ve read about it in John le Carré mysteries.
She reads the flap copy, then she reads the author blurbs on the back cover. Then she puts Along Came a Spider under her arm.
I’m trying to be cool about this, but I want to go over and give her a big hug.
I watch this wonderful, wonderful person walk down a long, narrow aisle — and then she slides Along Came a Spider into her hobo bag.
She stole the book.
And all I can think is Does that count as a sale?
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