Sunday conversation: Mystery master James Patterson talks about writing a thriller with Bill Clinton and why watching cable news is so scary
Writer James Patterson has a mystery for you to solve. How does the planet’s top-selling novelist churn out several books, launch a TV series, host a true-crime show and collaborate with former President Bill Clinton on a forthcoming Oval Office thriller — all within the first month of 2018?
Patterson, 70, dropped clues to how he does it all in recent phone call from his Palm Beach, Fla., home, where the “Alex Cross,” “Michael Bennett,” “Women’s Murder Club” mastermind discussed reading, writing and murder.
Let’s start with “The President Is Missing.” You’re collaborating with Bill Clinton on a fictional thriller. Wow.
No novel about a president has ever had more authenticity and a sense of history. There is a speech at the end of it. Wait, I do not want to give that away. I have to save it for the tour.
What was it like working with him on this book, which is due out in June?
He’s fantastic. My assistant, she’s not political, but she said ‘You know, we have a [current] president who doesn’t seem to know very much about anything, then we have this guy who knows everything about everything. He doesn’t forget anything. Same with Hillary. She forgets nothing. Both of them are total recall. It must be totally ridiculous to be in the house with them.
You’re also playing host in your new Investigation Discovery series, “Murder Is Forever.” You introduce one episode with the line, “Be honest, you ever want to knock off your spouse?”
I haven’t. I love my wife
Understood. But it does look like you’re having fun with the genre.
You want to have fun without making fun of it. You don’t want someone who’s watching to think, “This person is making fun of something I love.” We’re having fun with this because we’re fans.
All the attraction to true crime, I think it’s because tragic stories make people feel better about their own lives.
Like “I thought I was crazy, but look at them”?
Yeah, that might be a little piece of it. But also, people really like stories, and these are all really good stories. “Mother of All Murders,” the murderer in [that episode] is almost as crazy as the killer in “Psycho.” Then there’s a couple [of shows] that are like, ‘Don’t ever answer your doorbell again.’ They have twists and turns, the element of “Oh my God, I can’t believe people are actually doing this stuff!”
Which is what I also find myself saying when watching cable news.
I’ll go back and forth between CNN and Fox because it’s hilarious. How can they both be true? I remember years ago I went to the doctor for this little thing. The doctor I went to previously had done this small procedure in his office. The second guy I went to said, “He should have never done that procedure. That could have killed you!” I knew that one or both of them was crazy, but I didn’t know which one.
How many books are you working on right now?
I have no Idea.
It’s too hard to know. I’d need a calculator. Really, I don’t know… there’s kids books, a series on Einstein, ah…. We also have a TV series with CBS coming in March [“Killer Instinct”], starring Alan Cumming, and he’s one of the first gay character leads. I love being partly responsible for that because it’s [adapted] from a book I wrote.
Many of the shows you’re launching this year are being released in tandem with books on the same subject. Did you pick the ID stories you’re focusing on?
Yes. I went through their library and picking out stories that I could [also] turn into books. It was a fair amount of work, actually.
Writers are notoriously awkward on camera. When watching yourself, what bothers you the most?
For some reason I don’t have an issue being in front of a TV or film camera. But in front of a still camera, I’m a disaster. It’s weird to me. It makes no sense. But give me a still camera, all my face muscles freeze. I look ridiculous.
You host another true-crime show out this month, “48 Hours’ ” “All-American Murder,” about the Aaron Hernandez homicides.
I did a bunch of interviews for the CBS show and I liked that. I did break the cardinal rule though, you know, that I’m supposed to be this serious guy. I was with the mother of one of the people he killed, and she was a wonderful lady. I started crying and I thought ... I’m not supposed to do that. I’m crying. She’s crying. I’m unprofessional. Reporters don’t do that stuff. This never happens on “60 Minutes.”
True crime as entertainment often makes us forget there is pain and loss underpinning all these stories.
That’s true. And you’re limited by the truth. It reinforces the old cliché that truth is stranger than fiction. And certainly this year, who could imagine the stuff that’s happened.
If you’d not broken through as a novelist in the 2000s, do you think you’d still be an advertising executive?
Oh Jesus, what a sad a story that would be. My joke about advertising is that I have been clean for 30 years. If I stayed in advertising? I’d be dead by now. I would have shot myself. I never loved it, but I had good instincts. It’s very hard to look at rough little storyboards and understand what the film is going be like, and an awful lot of clients couldn’t make that jump. It was painful.
But that process likely helped you as a novelist, because structure and outline are the devil for most writers.
Outline, Outline, Outline. If you outline, you will have a lot less problem with structure. It’s better to find it out two weeks into the project than nine months in. OMG, it’s not working.
Do you still work like that?
Yes. I outline everything. My outlines are 40 to 60 pages, and it’s just a paragraph per chapter. What’s the core, what’s the heart of thing? Why am I excited to write that chapter?
You’ve funded and launched several initiatives to get kids to read
I was inspired by our son. He’s a bright kid but wasn’t a big reader. One summer we said look, you’re going to read every day this summer. And he said do I have to? And I said yeah, unless you want to live in the garage. We went out and got “Percy Jackson” and “Wrinkle in Time,” and by the end of the summer, he had read like a dozen books.
A broad range of books is very important in making good readers. Even more important is getting to at-risk kids. If we can’t get them reading more competently, then it’s a huge problem for them, their families and society.
How old is your son?
Jack is now 19, but when he was little, my big thing was just to get him to think things through. I’d say, how was school?
No dude, that was an essay question. Then he would have to explain why he said good, or change his mind. They should be able to do that about everything. And it’s not just about kids being literate thinkers.
What do you mean?
Well, I recently stopped in this little coffee place when I was going to see “I, Tonya,” because I had some time to burn. I was reading the menu, and said to the waitress ‘This is really weird. Grass fed meatballs?’ She didn’t get it. I said can you imagine little meatballs grazing around a field? She said, oh, I never thought of it that way. That’s the kind of thing I’m doing [laughs], educating people in coffee shops.
What are you watching now on TV?
I like to sample. Every once in a while I get caught on one, like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” My wife and I also watched “The Good Wife” together.
What about movies?
I love “I, Tonya.” Allison Janney is great, and Margot Robbie is unbelievable. She’s doing a lot of the skating too, which is stunning.
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
Get our revamped Envelope newsletter, sent twice a week, for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes insights and columnist Glenn Whipp’s commentary.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.