GENA KITTNER For the State Journal
James Patterson’s latest novel isn’t a mystery or thriller or tale about a middle school boy. It’s an autobiography.
Though people familiar with his work will find similarities – the book is written in short, approachable chapters with a friendly tone. It’s funny and lighthearted, until it’s serious and poignant.
The autobiography covers everything from growing up in his hometown of Newburgh, New York, to his early career in advertising to his writing process for his record-selling novels. Centered throughout the book and his life is his clear desire to write.
Patterson will discuss his book with former UW-Madison Athletic Director Barry Alvarez during an event with the Wisconsin Book Festival later this month.
Q: You have written so much. I read somewhere you hold a Guinness World Record for the number of New York Times bestsellers, but never an autobiography. Until now. Was this a pandemic project?
A: Yeah, it was. Obviously, we were tucked away in the house. I just started writing down some stories and liked this way of doing it. It’s not like one of those boring (autobiographies). It’s just story after story after story. Stories about Dolly Parton, President Clinton. I was really enjoying it. I think for anyone who really likes books, or really likes reading and writing, (the autobiography) is really interesting. There are not many writers who do books about themselves. It’s probably the only good thing that happened to me during the pandemic.
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Q: How was the experience of writing the autobiography different from your usual writing?
A: This is a book without assassins – no killers, etc. I don’t have any sex scenes in there. (Actually) there’s one sex scene (referring to when his boss at an advertising firm enters his hotel through an adjoining door and climbs in his bed). (The editors) thought that was a hilarious chapter. I didn’t.
Q: Did you know from the beginning what anecdotes from your life you wanted to tell?
A: I outlined some. I started with (his work at) the mental hospital (in his early 20s). It was interesting, spending time with James Taylor and Robert Lowell. I think I changed a lot there. I grew up in a small town. I got exposed to a lot of different kinds of people there. Not just mental illness, Harvard people, people from New York. Big town people.
Q: Many of the stories, as you mentioned, are funny. But some made my heart hurt a little. Did you strive for a balance?
A: It’s not like I plotted this out like some marketing document. I just sat down and started writing these stories. I knew if I did this story right I know it’s a pretty good story. I knew the core was interesting. One of the things that I do treasure is the idea that I still see the world through the eyes of this kid from Newburgh, New York. That really allows me to enjoy this stuff (like) meeting Dolly Parton and hanging with her. And President Clinton. I actually know a bunch of the presidents. I talked about this with Dolly a lot. We were both billion-to-one shots. My chances of coming to New York, of becoming a successful novelist, were about a million to one. It’s interesting to know how it happened.
Q: You drop all sorts of names in your book – from your childhood and professional life. Do you think people are going to be surprised to find themselves in the pages of your autobiography?
A: No, because I’ll have called them all and said “you have to get the book.” I don’t think (they’ll be surprised). Maybe, I hadn’t really thought about it that way. In some cases I wanted to make sure some people got a mention.
Q: You’ve partnered with a lot of people in your writing, most recently Dolly Parton. I know from your autobiography that music has long been important to you – what was it like working with a singing legend?
A: It’s been great. I mention (in the book) about her singing “Happy Birthday” to me over the phone. This year, on another birthday … we were out in Austin, Texas, being interviewed (and) Dolly did a half-hour show after. (While on stage) Dolly said, “It’s Jim’s birthday” and 6,000 people sang “Happy Birthday” to me onstage.
Q: Your book with Dolly Parton, “Run, Rose, Run,” is slated to become a movie. Are you worried about how it will turn out?
A: We were very careful and that’s why we brought in Reese Witherspoon’s company to produce it. We want to make sure it’s a really good movie.
Q: What other projects have you worked on that have been meaningful to you?
A: I have this series “Walk in my Combat Boots: True Stories from America’s Bravest Warriors” and “ER Nurses: True Stories from America’s Greatest Unsung Heroes.” I worked with 1st Sgt. US Army (Ret.) Matt Eversmann, part of the Ranger unit portrayed in the movie “Black Hawk Down.” We’ve become really good friends. I saw him do some interviews with soldiers (and realized) this guy can really get men and women to talk about experiences. We talked to about 100 different men and women (per book) and I would turn these 40-page interviews into 4-6 page nuggets (for the book).