JENA KITTNER For State Magazine
James Patterson’s latest novel is not a detective, thriller, or story about a high school boy. This is an autobiography.
While people familiar with his work will find similarities, the book is written in short, accessible chapters with a friendly tone. It’s funny and lighthearted until it gets serious and poignant.
The autobiography covers everything from growing up in his hometown of Newburgh, New York, to his early career in advertising and the writing process of his record-selling novels. At the center of the whole 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 that you made it to the Guinness Book of World Records for New York Times bestsellers, but never autobiographies. Until now. Was it a pandemic project?
IT HAS: Yes, it was. Obviously we were hidden in the house. I just started recording a few stories and I liked this way. It’s not like one of those boring (autobiographies). It’s just story after story after story. Stories about Dolly Parton, President Clinton. I really enjoyed it. I think for those who really love books or really love reading and writing, (autobiography) is really interesting. Not many writers write books about themselves. Perhaps this is the only good thing that happened to me during the pandemic.
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Q: How was the experience of writing an autobiography different from your usual writing?
IT HAS: This is a book without assassins – no hitmen, etc. I don’t have any sex scenes in it. (Actually) there is one sex scene (meaning when his advertising boss enters his hotel through the next door and climbs into his bed). (The editors) thought it was a funny chapter. Je n’ai pas.
Q: Did you know from the very beginning what anecdotes from your life you wanted to tell?
IT HAS: I have outlined some. I started with (his job) in a psychiatric hospital (he was in his early 20s). It was interesting to spend time with James Taylor and Robert Lowell. I think I changed a lot there. I grew up in a small town. There I met many different people. Not just mental illness, people from Harvard, people from New York. Big city people.
Q: Many of the stories, as you mentioned, are funny. But some made my heart hurt a little. Are you striving for balance?
IT HAS: Not that I planned it as some kind of marketing document. I just sat down and started writing these stories. I knew that if I did this story right, I know it’s a pretty good story. I knew the core was interesting. One of the things I really treasure is the thought that I still see the world through the eyes of this guy from Newburgh, New York. It really allows me to enjoy things like meeting and interacting with Dolly Parton. And President Clinton. I do know a bunch of presidents. I talked a lot about this with Dolly. We were both a billion to one shot. My chances of coming to New York and becoming a successful writer were about a million to one. It’s interesting to know how it happened.
Q: You mention all sorts of names in your book from your childhood and professional life. Do you think people will be surprised to find themselves in the pages of your autobiography?
IT HAS: No, because I called them all and said, “You should get the book.” I don’t think (they will be surprised). Maybe I didn’t really think about it that way. In some cases, I wanted to make sure that some people got a mention.
Q: You have collaborated with many people in your writing, most recently with Dolly Parton. I know from your autobiography that music has always been important to you – what was it like working with a singing legend?
IT HAS: That was great. I mention (in the book) about her singing “Happy Birthday” to me on the phone. This year, on a different birthday… we were in Austin, Texas doing interviews (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 on stage.
Q: Your book with Dolly Parton “Run Rose Run” should become a movie. Are you worried about how it will turn out?
IT HAS: We were very careful and therefore brought in Reese Witherspoon’s company to produce it. We want to make sure it’s a really good film.
Question: What other projects that you worked on were significant to you?
IT HAS: I have the 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. U.S. Army (ret.) Matt Eversmann, member of the Ranger unit depicted in Black Hawk Down. We became very good friends. I saw him interview soldiers (and realized) that this guy can really get men and women to talk about their experiences. We talked to about 100 different men and women (for each book) and I turned those 40 page interviews into 4-6 page nuggets (for the book).