James Patterson Biography

James Patterson is a best-selling author but his work style is controversial.

Author/producer James Patterson
Author/producer James Patterson. Getty Images/Jeffrey Mayer/WireImages

 

Born March 22, 1947, James Patterson, perhaps best known as the writer of the Alex Cross detective series, ranks among the most prolific of contemporary American authors. He even holds the Guinness World Record for the number of New York Times number one best-selling novels sold. and was the first author to sell more than one million e-books. Despite his widespread popularity—he’s sold some 300 million books since 1976— Patterson’s methods are not without controversy.

He uses a group of co-authors which allows him to publish his works at such an impressive rate. His critics, who include contemporary authors such as Stephen King, question whether Patterson is too focused on quantity, to the detriment of quality.

Formative Years

Patterson, son of Isabelle and Charles Patterson, was born in Newburgh, NY. Before heading off to college, his family moved to the Boston area, where Patterson took a part-time night job at a mental hospital. The solitude of that job allowed Patterson to develop an appetite for reading literature; he spent most of his salary on books. He lists “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a favorite. Patterson went on to graduate from Manhattan College and holds a masters’ degree in English literature from Vanderbilt University

In 1971, he went to work for advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, where he eventually became CEO.

It was there that Patterson came up with the phrase “Toys R Us Kid” which is still used in the toy store chain’s ad campaigns. His advertising background is apparent in the marketing of Patterson’s books; he supervises the design of his book covers down to the last detail, and was one of the first authors to orchestrate advertising his books on television.

His techniques have even inspired a case study at Harvard Business School: “Marketing James Patterson” examines the effectiveness of the writer’s strategies.

Published Works and Style

James Patterson's first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, was published in 1976, after being turned down by more than 30 publishers. Patterson told The New York Times that his first book compares favorably to his current works in one way: “The sentences are superior to a lot of the stuff I write now, but the story isn’t as good.” Despite its slow start, The Thomas Berryman Number won an Edgar Award for crime fiction that year.

Patterson makes no secret of his current use of co-authors, a group that includes Andrew Gross, Maxine Paetro and Peter De Jong. He likens the approach to the collaborative efforts of Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein: Patterson says he writes an outline, which he sends to the co-author for refining, and the two collaborate throughout the writing process. He’s said that his strength lies in concocting plots, not in parsing individual sentences, which suggests he has refined (and perhaps improved) his writing technique since his first novel. 

Despite the criticism that his style is mechanical, Patterson has hit on a commercially successful formula.

He’s written 20 novels featuring detective Alex Cross, including Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, and 14 books in The Women’s Murder Club series, as well as the Witch and Wizard and Daniel X series.

Books Made Into Blockbusters

Given their broad commercial appeal, it's no surprise that several of Patterson's novels have been made into movies. Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman has played Alex Cross in adaptations of  Along Came a Spider (2001), and Kiss the Girls (1997), which also starred Ashley Judd.

New Focus on Childhood Literacy

In 2011, Patterson wrote an opinion piece for CNN urging parents to become more involved in getting their kids to read. He discovered his son Jack wasn't an avid reader. When Jack turned 8, Patterson and his wife Susie made a deal with him: He could be excused from chores over summer vacation, if he would read every day.

Patterson later launched child literacy initiative ReadKiddoRead.com, which offers advice for age-appropriate books for kids of various ages.