‘Bill and I got pretty friendly’: James Patterson on writing with Clinton and clashing with Trump

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Having a direct line to at least two former US presidents would seem almost a requirement for achieving the status of world’s bestselling author. But it’s not the “former guy” who lives two decent golf swings along Palm Beach’s swanky Ocean Boulevard that James Patterson has a lot of time for these days. It’s Donald Trump’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, who has become a trusted friend, confidant and business partner.

To take a quick step back, Patterson, whose gritty thrillers, tales for children and teenagers and expanding array of real-life stories have sold more than 300m copies worldwide, used to be friendly with his near neighbour Trump, at least before the most turbulent presidency of modern times.

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Indeed, Patterson tells of an encounter a dozen years ago in which Trump, ebullient at a newspaper article he’d just read, said to him: “Did you see the polls?”

“He was ranked first among who people would like to see as a Republican candidate,” Patterson says. “And he wasn’t running then, nobody knew anything that he stood for, zero. And he looks at me and he goes, ‘Crazy world, huh?’”

Patterson, who claims to be a left-leaning political independent, was no fan of the Trump administration, and admits the pair haven’t spoken since. “There’s a lot of bad stuff that went on there. I don’t get it,” he says. “I’ll leave it at that.”

It’s clearly not a topic Patterson likes to dwell on. But our discussion about Clinton, with whom he co-wrote (at least to some degree) the 2018 bestseller The President is Missing, puts him on a more comfortable footing. Since their first collaboration, which Patterson called “a highlight of my career”, Clinton calls at least a couple of times a month, he says. In June, they will release their second jointly written thriller, The President’s Daughter, one of many co-authored projects Patterson has become known for.

I meet Patterson at his home, a Mediterranean-style villa in Palm Beach. He greets me dressed in an open-necked shirt and jeans, and guides me through the property to a modest patio set out back. There is no Lamborghini or Ferrari in the driveway – the kind that seems to continually cruise Ocean Boulevard outside – just a simple Tesla in the garage that Patterson says he’s happy to be able to drive again freely now that Trump is no longer president and there aren’t Secret Service agents closing the road every other weekend.

“Bill and I got pretty friendly, and it’s nice,” Patterson, 74, says, as we chat on the back porch surrounded by lush coconut palms and mango trees. “He gave me Monopoly for socialists for Christmas, which is fun. For my birthday the year before he gave me a humidor, and he knows I don’t smoke. So I said, ‘Bill, you’re the expert on cigars – do I put chocolate or bubble-gum cigars in the humidor?’ And he said, ‘Oh, definitely the bubble gum. At our age, Jim, we need to exercise those teeth.’

“It’s like that. It’s fun. I see the world through the lens of Newburgh, New York, this little town upstate [where Patterson was born], and it’s cool … this Newburgh kid is talking to the former president!”

The banter masks the business side of their relationship, in which Clinton lends the authenticity of detail and experience, while Patterson mostly envisages the story and plays the role of wordsmith. “Imagine in real life if a president’s daughter was kidnapped. It’d be on every news channel forever,” Patterson says.

“And if you have President Clinton to put the authenticity to it, in terms of what the Secret Service would really do, and then the page-turning part of it … they’re good stories, the authenticity is there, and the plots are somewhat over the top, but in this day and age anything could happen. You know, the Capitol building is going to be stormed. If you wrote that you’d be like, ‘Come on, give me a break! That couldn’t happen!’ But now?

As with Clinton, Patterson says he picks his co-authors partly because of the knowledge and detail they can bring to a story.

The latest, Red Book, the sequel to 2017’s Chicago detective novel Black Book, is his fifth collaboration with David Ellis. At least 15 more books, spanning numerous genres with a stable of different authors, are scheduled for release between now and September from an operation the New York Times once dubbed Patterson Inc.

“I have so many ideas. I have files with a ‘Clever Ideas’ title on it that’s about this thick that I’ll never get through,” he says, pushing his finger and thumb widely apart.

“Some I do myself still. But I do have a few people who I really like working with: Maxine Paetro, who I’ve done the Women’s Murder Club with. We’ve been doing it a long time and I’ve known Maxine forever.

“A couple of people are newer, [such as] Brendan DuBois. The way I found a couple of them was I had this idea to do these Bookshots – 70 or so, it was insane – so all of a sudden I had to find a whole bunch.” Bookshots was Patterson’s series of short novels (150 pages or less), sold for $5 and consumed on devices.

“It’s like the soccer coach who goes, ‘That guy, not that guy’. I don’t know why, you just know. I will invariably write a 40- to 70-page outline. On every book, all my outlines are two, three, four drafts. I remember taking somebody up to the office when I was working on the Bookshots, and I kept pulling out these drawers full of drafts, the guy who was interviewing me said, ‘This is crazy, this is crazy, James, you are crazy.’”

Patterson says he might have up to 30 projects on the go at any one time. “Some Hollywood, some children’s books, a couple of non-fiction. But I don’t find it overwhelming.”

Critics have seized on Patterson’s overdrive production line and fast if not furious literary style. In 2009, Stephen King famously called Patterson “a terrible writer”. Seven years later, Patterson called off a fictional book called The Murder of Stephen King, which some figured was an attempt at revenge.

“The world would be awful if everybody had the same point of view,” Patterson says. “I like his books, most of them. It pisses me off sometimes, but yeah, it’s fine. I think he’s unnecessarily harsh at times and no, I’m not a terrible writer, but my basic approach to life is: it’s OK, it’s all right.

“Somebody said you’re lucky if you find something you like to do, and it’s a miracle if somebody will pay you to do it, and that’s my gig. I love doing it. I’m very quick, and good as a storyteller, I’m not that interested in being a craftsman.”

Patterson with Bill Clinton in May 2018. Their book The President’s Daughter will be released in June.
Patterson with Bill Clinton in May 2018. Their book The President’s Daughter will be released in June. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Patterson has built an estimated $80m (£58m) fortune, according to Forbes, from his writing, but apart from his “absurd” 21,000 sq ft mansion, set on two acres of prime waterfront land and with expansive views across the Atlantic, there is little to suggest extravagance.

“Obviously this is a ridiculously big house, but we wanted to be on the ocean, and once you get on the ocean they tend to be ridiculously big houses. In this town anyway,” he says of the residence he shares with his wife Susan and where their 23-year-old son Jack, who now works in New York finance, grew up.

What gives him more pleasure is directing chunks of his wealth to philanthropic literary causes. Last year he donated $500,000 to indie bookstores as the coronavirus pandemic began to bite.

It is children’s literacy in the US, however, that really concerns him, and which provides the passion for Patterson’s diverse range of comic books, novels and short stories known as Jimmy Books, and the inspiration behind the Read Kiddo Read website.

“The mission for Jimmy Books is when a kid finishes a book, they’ll say, ‘Please give me another’ – as opposed to millions of kids in this country who say they have never read a single book in their lives. You have in this country something like only 46% of kids reading at grade level. It’s a disaster.

“There are a lot of things in life: global warming … I could do something and preach to the converted if I wrote a book about it. [But] it would only be read by people who are already there. But with the reading, I could actually change something. If we can get 70% of the kids in this country reading at grade level, it would be stunning. And we can. We know how to do it. And it has to do with teaching teachers to be better at teaching reading.”

To that end, Patterson has partnered with the University of Florida’s college of education for five years, and the James Patterson literary challenge funds scholarships for student teachers among other programs. His $2.5m gift to help fund classroom libraries through Scholastic Book Clubs last year brought his lifetime donation to that cause above $11m.

“If you radically increase the number of kids who go to high school, you’re going to radically increase the number of kids who come out and get a job, who won’t have to go on and get help from the government to live their lives,” he says.

“It’s just any level – humanitarian, economic, any way you see it – it just makes sense. We have to get kids in this country so they can read reasonably well and do basic math, and think. It’s a big deal.”

Somebody said you’re lucky if you find something you like to do, and it’s a miracle if somebody will pay you to do it, and that’s my gig

Patterson takes pride in directing his philanthropic efforts himself. “I don’t have a staff. It’s me,” he says. “I’ll call a college: ‘Hey, we like what your college is doing in turning out teachers. The only thing we ask is that every year, if we’re going to give you 10 scholarships, [is that] the kids write a couple of pages on how they’re going to take what they’re doing out into the world.’”

Alongside the legends of fiction he has created such as Along Came a Spider’s Alex Cross (“I think I have a lot of similarities to Cross – family-oriented, duty-bound, whatever”) Patterson also takes delight in presenting powerful real-life stories to broader audiences.

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His book Filthy Rich, the tale of the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein (a Palm Beach neighbour, though Patterson never knew him), written with John Connolly and Tim Molloy, was a New York Times bestseller and became a top-rated Netflix documentary series. And Epstein wasn’t the first Palm Beach resident to draw Patterson’s attention. Last year’s The House of Kennedy with Cynthia Fagen explored the curse of the Kennedys, and is currently still in the bestsellers charts in the UK. And then there is the famous Beatle whose story always held a special fascination, reflected in his 2020 book The Last Days of John Lennon.

“I’m a rock’n’roll junkie,” he says. “This house is connected to next door, there’s a bridge, and the house was owned by Lennon and Yoko Ono. He liked sailing with the boys here.

“I lived on Central Park West, 10 blocks away from the Dakota, when he was shot. I went up there that night.” Patterson, in his own inimitable style, turned the events into a bestselling true-crime drama.

At the end of the day, Patterson says he tells stories for everyone. People of all ages read them, and then come back for more. Reviews on Amazon for this year’s Walk in My Combat Boots, a powerful collection of interviews with soldiers who have experienced the raw horror of battle, include a veteran who said he’d given up on Patterson’s “beach reads” but came running back for this.

“That’s the nice thing, where people will say, ‘You’ve got my husband reading for the first time,’ or you’ve got someone reading again because they’ve gotten away from it,” Patterson says.

“All of a sudden they go: ‘This is fun, I read it and I enjoyed it, and give me another book.’”

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