He outsells JK Rowling, John Grisham and Dan Brown put together. He's topped the New York Times bestseller list 35 times, and has so many books coming out in the next few months he's lost count. So how does he do it? James Patterson reveals his secret to Gaby Wood
Gaby Wood in The Observer, Sunday 5 April 2009
James Patterson's broad, yellow, colonial-style mansion in Palm Beach is belatedly recovering from a birthday party. "Happy Birthday Jack" reads a lopsided silvery sign over the entrance. Patterson opens the door, shunting the shiny lettering a little further towards its demise as a he greets me. He shrugs; his son Jack turned 11 several weeks ago, he says, and they still haven't got round to taking the decorations down.
It's a gratifying sign of normality in a life that is, at least statistically speaking, extraordinary. From an attic room here, a place that overlooks a lovely expanse of glinting water and has the character of a well-read pirate's private cabin, Patterson produces dozens upon dozens of absurdly lucrative books. He is the world's bestselling author: JK Rowling, John Grisham and Dan Brown put together don't match the sales of his books. He's had over 35 New York Times bestsellers, he has been the most borrowed author in British libraries for the past two years, and he is due to publish so many tomes in so many genres in the next few months he doesn't even know the exact number.
How does he do it? Well, ever since 1996, when he published a novel called Miracle on the 17th Green with a golfing buddy, he has done it by finding collaborators to help him fill in the blanks. He comes up with the plot, they write the sentences, he reviews draft after draft. To hear Patterson tell it, he simply has too many ideas to write them all up himself, so he enlists an army of co-writers. He resists the word "factory", of course, or "formula".
"When I take you up to the office, you'll see," he says. "You'll say: 'OK, it's not what I thought it was like. It's something else. I'm not sure what it is... It's kind of a force of nature - some peculiar coming together of... whatever - individuality, willpower, background - into this storyteller that loves to do it, and [who] has an endless supply of stories.'"
He's heard the rumour that there are only a limited number of plots under the sun; he doesn't buy it. He doesn't fret about it. He still has a thick file full of them: thrillers, romances, non-fiction, science fiction, young adult novels... I ask if he's ever had an idea in his file where he just thinks: Actually, that's rubbish.
"Oh, sure," he replies blithely. Well, all the ones I haven't done, I either haven't figured out a way to do them, or I keep doing something else instead."