How a kid from Newburgh became a mega-best-selling author

James Patterson (Rankin)

Depending on your criterion for measurement, James Patterson is arguably the world’s most successful living author – not bad for a guy who grew up in a working-class Newburgh family. He has sold more than 380 million books worldwide, earning an estimated $700 million over a single decade and topping Forbes’ list of highest-paid authors for three years running. Patterson was the first person to sell one million e-books, holds the Guinness World Record for the most number-one best-sellers (67 at last count) and was the first to top The New York Times’ best-seller lists in both the adults’ and kids’ categories simultaneously. His novels account for roughly six percent of all hardcover novels sold in the US – more copies than those of Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined. At least a dozen movies and TV series have been based on his books.

Born in 1947 to an insurance salesman and a schoolteacher, Patterson started writing at age 19 but initially pursued a career in advertising. In 1976, while still working for the J. Walter Thompson agency, Patterson had his first novel published by Little, Brown and Company (following 31 rejections). The Thomas Berryman Number then won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best First Novel. His juggernaut hasn’t slowed down since.

Patterson leaps genres with ease, churning out YA and children’s books, comedies and romance novels and even some nonfiction, but mysteries and espionage thrillers are his bread and butter – or by now, champagne and caviar. The series of detective novels featuring forensic psychologist Alex Cross are his most widely known works. The current CBS TV series Instinct, starring Alan Cumming as an openly gay former CIA operative, is based on Patterson’s novel Murder Games. It’s his good fortune that so many people love a mystery.

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But some people also love to solve mysteries in real life. Among them are experts in the science of stylometry: text analysis – nowadays greatly assisted by computer programs – that helps scholars answer such questions as how much of Shakespeare’s plays were collaborations with other writers. Stylometric techniques led to the identification of the Unabomber and quickly outed J. K. Rowling as the real-world alter ego of “Robert Galbraith,” purported author of the Cormoran Strike mystery series.

James O’Sullivan of University College Cork is one of the leading lights in the modern stylometry field, which he prefers to call “digital humanities.” His analysis of a cross-section of the works of James Patterson concluded that the author’s prodigious output (his website promises 13 new releases between January and May of 2019) is due mainly to the fact that Patterson no longer does most of his own writing. He’s hardly the first author in history to maintain a stable of writers; as we saw in the 2018 biopic Colette, the French author’s husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, did so quite openly, without crediting his staff. Patterson at least admits that he mostly comes up with the plot concepts for his books and lets others – among them Candice Fox, Maxine Paetro, Andrew Gross, Mark Sullivan, Ashwin Sanghi, Michael Ledwidge and Peter de Jonge – write them based on his (extensive and detailed) outlines.

The latest work to undergo O’Sullivan’s scrutiny, 2018 release The President Is Missing, is an interesting exception: Patterson is in fact the primary author. It’s an espionage thriller about cyberterrorism in which the hero just happens to be the president of the US. The final chapters are where the hand of his most illustrious collaborator so far is made manifest: Bill Clinton. Now that he’s wealthy beyond most Newburghers’ dreams, Patterson can spend most of his time at a palatial estate in Palm Beach, but flee the worst of Florida’s summer heat at another home in Briarcliff Manor. So he’s practically neighbors with Chappaqua-based Clinton.

Patterson hasn’t forgotten his humble roots, though. In 2016, he partnered with Emmy-winning reporter Tim Malloy to write and host an hourlong documentary titled Murder of a Small Town, available from Video on Demand. With some scenes shot on the streets of Newburgh, it focuses primarily on poverty in the Palm Beach County towns of Pahokee and Belle Glade, where his Patterson Family Foundation is active in donating books to needy families. “I was amazed at how terrific the kids were, and how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and yet they lived amidst all this poverty and violence. It reminded me of Newburgh,” Patterson told the Poughkeepsie Journal when the documentary was released. “It’s maddening to hear people who don’t really know what it’s like to grow up and live in cities like Newburgh and Pahokee, and don’t understand it. The people who live here are worthwhile human beings. To equate everybody in those towns with the worst element of the towns is just wrong…As I say in the film, I was one of those people.”

On a practical level, Patterson and his wife Susan remain activists for literacy. They wrote a children’s book together titled Big Words for Little Geniuses (2017) meant to instill a love of language in youngsters in the digital age. “Getting kids reading is a big thing with me,” Patterson told Hudson Valley Magazine prior to its publication. In 2005, Patterson founded the James Patterson PageTurner Awards to donate funds to people, companies, schools and other institutions that find original and effective ways to spread the excitement of books and reading. In 2008, inspired by their own son’s disinterest in books (cured by a dispensation from household chores for each hour that he read), the Pattersons created ReadKiddoRead.com, which helps parents, teachers and librarians find the best books for their children.

Patterson has also set up the James Patterson Teacher Education Scholarship in the schools of education at Appalachian State University, Michigan State University, Florida Atlantic University and the University of Florida. He runs the College Book Bucks scholarship program, and in 2015 partnered with Scholastic Book Clubs to put books in the hands of young readers via the James Patterson Pledge. The National Book Foundation recognized his philanthropic and educational work that same year, giving Patterson its Literarian Award as a “passionate campaigner to make books and reading a national priority. A generous supporter of universities, teachers’ colleges, independent bookstores, school libraries and college students, Patterson has donated millions of dollars in grants and scholarships with the purpose of encouraging Americans of all ages to read more books.”

This poor kid from Newburgh has done good while doing well. For more information, visit www.jamespatterson.com.

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