The former New York creative director and U.S. CEO of J. Walter Thompson published his first book, a mystery novel, in 1976. Since then, Patterson, 57, has written 29 more books, including the 10th volume in the Alex Cross thriller series (London Bridges), and Santa Kid, his first children's book. He writes with a pencil and, in a wink to his past life, occasionally sprinkles the names of ad peers (Burt Manning, John Dooner, etc.) into his stories. These days, Patterson spends most of his time in Palm Beach, Fla. "I was in advertising, but I've been clean for about nine years now," he deadpans.
Q: Why write a children's book?
A: I will try anything where I've read books in the genre and liked them and get them. So I'm going to do a horror book. I have a young adults' series [coming out] next year, in April. And, with respect to children, I've got a 6-year-old. In reading him an awful lot of kids' books—some of which are quite nice—generally speaking I found the illustrations to be terrific and a lot of stories to be very flat. I've found with Jack that one of the coolest things you can do with a little kid is put them on your lap or sit with them in bed at night before they go to sleep and read to them. It is such a personal-bonding cool thing to do, and you know, 30 years from now, Jack will look back and he'll remember that we did that kind of thing.
You're a huge movie buff. How often do you go to the movies?
Four times a week.
What have you seen recently that you liked?
The Incredibles. The structure is good, the idea is terrific, and they deliver.
What are your favorite books?
One Hundred Years of Solitude [by Gabriel García Marquéz] is probably my favorite. And I'm a big James Joyce fan, and Ulysses in particular was the book that in reading it, I went, "I can't." Nothing that I could write will ever come close.
How would you describe your writing style?
I think the strengths are story. I keep it moving. What I will hear—and it's the same thing over and over again—about the books is, "Couldn't put it down. I went to bed and I wound up reading until 3 o'clock in the morning." And then, incredible attachment to some of the characters. "Alex, please get him married. ... Nana Moma, she must not die. ... The cat, do not hurt the cat." The weaknesses are style, partly by choice, partly because I'm just not that good. I'm OK, and I could do better.
Did being a successful adman make you a better writer?
The most valuable part of the advertising process was understanding that there's an audience. I write commercially, commercial fiction, and there's an audience, and I like the audience. I don't condescend to them.
Were you involved in the two feature films made from your Alex Cross books?
I'll tell you a quick story. Went to the press junket for Along Came a Spider. So I'm watching the first scene, and I go, well, alright, that wasn't in the book. I watch the second scene—alright, that wasn't in the book either. And in the second scene, Alex Cross, the main character, is recovering from what happens in the first scene, and he's building a ship in a bottle—which I don't think is all that cinematic, but whatever—and this woman walks in and she basically says, "Stop with the ships in the bottle. It's time to get your ass out there and get shot at again," or whatever. I'm watching this woman going, who is the woman? And she never comes back in the movie. It's not his little girl, it's not—I don't know who this woman is. So I see Morgan Freeman a little later, and I go, "Morgan, who was that woman in the second scene?" He goes, "Oh, that's Alex's sister." I said, "Oh, I didn't know Alex had a sister." So, they do what they do.
During college, you worked in a mental hospital. Is that where some of your more psychotic characters came from?
Great preparation. No, it really didn't. The most important thing is I used to work a lot of overtime, the 11-to-7 shift, and man, it's 3 o'clock in the morning, and you're watching somebody sleep. So I started reading my brains out. It was all serious stuff. I just started reading everything I could get my hands on. That's where I really turned on to reading and stories.
What ad work are you proudest of?
I didn't find it that gratifying to do the winning commercial. I think that in terms of pride of achievement, Thompson New York had been dreadful, I mean really dreadful. I remember when I took over there, we went to one of our biggest clients, Warner Lambert, and heard this guy Mel Goodes, who has become a friend, and he said, "We have three agencies, Thompson, Bates and Y&R. And right now I would rank you guys four." Thompson would go out to these clients and do like twelve campaigns. I said, look, we're not going to bring anything to a client that we don't think is great for them and for us. Instantly we stopped doing really horrifyingly bad work. The place went from really bad to good, as big agencies go.
At this point, would you say being an author has eclipsed being a CEO of an ad agency?
Eclipsed. The writing life is great. Look, the advertising thing was fine and dandy. I enjoyed making these little movies, and I really enjoyed the people. The nice thing about hiring people is you could surround yourself with people you like to be around. So that part of it was great. The difference with the book world is I have a good idea, I walk into the publisher. Mostly they do it. I didn't make a lot of mistakes in advertising; I don't make many mistakes in publishing.