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Mystery master James Patterson talks about writing a thriller with Bill Clinton and why watching cable news is so scary

Jan. 29, 2018


Writer James Patterson has a mystery for you to solve. How does the planetís 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 ó 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," "Womenís Murder Club" mastermind discussed reading, writing and murder.

Q: Letís start with "The President Is Missing." Youíre collaborating with Bill Clinton on a fictional thriller. Wow.

A: 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.

Q: What was it like working with him on this book, which is due out in June?

A: Heís fantastic. My assistant, sheís not political, but she said ĎYou know, we have a [current] president who doesnít seem to know very much about anything, then we have this guy who knows everything about everything. He doesnít 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.

Q: Youíre 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?"

A: I havenít. I love my wife.

Q: Understood. But it does look like youíre having fun with the genre.

A: You want to have fun without making fun of it. You donít want someone whoís watching to think, "This person is making fun of something I love." Weíre having fun with this because weíre fans.

Q: All the attraction to true crime, I think itís because tragic stories make people feel better about their own lives.

A: Like "I thought I was crazy, but look at them"?

Q: Yes.

A: 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 thereís a couple [of shows] that are like, ĎDonít ever answer your doorbell again.í They have twists and turns, the element of "Oh, my God, I canít believe people are actually doing this stuff!"

Q: Which is what I also find myself saying when watching cable news.

A: Iíll go back and forth between CNN and Fox because itís 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 didnít know which one.

Q: How many books are you working on right now?

A: I have no idea.

Q: Really?

A: Itís too hard to know. Iíd need a calculator. Really, I donít know Ö . Thereís kids books, a series on Einstein, ah Ö . We also have a TV series with CBS coming in March ["Killer Instinct"], starring Alan Cumming, and heís one of the first gay character leads. I love being partly responsible for that because itís [adapted] from a book I wrote.

Q: Many of the shows youíre launching this year are being released in tandem with books on the same subject. Did you pick the ID stories youíre focusing on?

A: 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.

Q: Writers are notoriously awkward on camera. When watching yourself, what bothers you the most?

A: For some reason I donít have an issue being in front of a TV or film camera. But in front of a still camera, Iím a disaster. Itís weird to me. It makes no sense. But give me a still camera, all my face muscles freeze. I look ridiculous.

Q: You host another true-crime show out this month, "48 Hoursí" "All-American Murder," about the Aaron Hernandez homicides.

A: I did a bunch of interviews for the CBS show, and I liked that. I did break the cardinal rule though, you know, that Iím 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 Ö "Iím not supposed to do that. Iím crying. Sheís crying. Iím unprofessional. Reporters donít do that stuff." This never happens on "60 Minutes."

Q: True crime as entertainment often makes us forget there is pain and loss underpinning all these stories.

A: Thatís true. And youíre limited by the truth. It reinforces the old cliche that truth is stranger than fiction. And certainly this year, who could imagine the stuff thatís happened.

Q: If youíd not broken through as a novelist in the 2000s, do you think youíd still be an advertising executive?

A: 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? Iíd be dead by now. I would have shot myself. I never loved it, but I had good instincts. Itís very hard to look at rough little storyboards and understand what the film is going be like, and an awful lot of clients couldnít make that jump. It was painful.

Q: But that process likely helped you as a novelist, because structure and outline are the devil for most writers.

A: Outline, outline, outline. If you outline, you will have a lot less problem with structure. Itís better to find it out two weeks into the project than nine months in. OMG, itís not working.

Q: Do you still work like that?

A: Yes. I outline everything. My outlines are 40 to 60 pages, and itís just a paragraph per chapter. Whatís the core, whatís the heart of thing? Why am I excited to write that chapter?

Q: Youíve funded and launched several initiatives to get kids to read.

A: I was inspired by our son. Heís a bright kid but wasnít a big reader. One summer we said look, youíre 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 canít get them reading more competently, then itís a huge problem for them, their families and society.

Q: How old is your son?

A: Jack is now 19, but when he was little, my big thing was just to get him to think things through. Iíd say, how was school?

"Good."

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 itís not just about kids being literate thinkers.

Q: What do you mean?

A: 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 ĎThis is really weird. Grass-fed meatballs?í

She didnít get it. I said can you imagine little meatballs grazing around a field? She said, "Oh, I never thought of it that way." Thatís the kind of thing Iím doing [laughs], educating people in coffee shops.

 

 


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