James Patterson: Stretching the boundaries of the thriller
"Crossover" is a word heard more often in music than in publishing. Rarely does a writer who is extremely successful in one genre venture into another. Part of this phenomenon is the result of reader expectation and the ensuing pressure from publishers. Oftentimes, it is simply an author's choice.
This makes James Patterson's latest novel, Cradle and All, quite a surprise for his many fans. Patterson, best known for his Alex Cross thrillers, has ventured into an area few mainstream authors have attempted: spiritual millennial fiction.
With his trademark rapid-fire chapters, Patterson tells the story of Anne Fitzgerald, a former nun turned private investigator sent to investigate two pregnant teenagers. Besides being pregnant, the two girls share one other trait: They're both virgins. Patterson recently talked to BookPage about the genesis of this novel and his own development as a writer.
BookPage: Your latest novel, Cradle and All, is a departure for you in some ways, isn't it?
James Patterson: Well, it's a little like When the Wind Blows in that there's a little bit of the spiritual in it, a little bit of the supernatural. But yes, this one's a little different. What brings all my books together, though, is the desire to make them real page-turners.
BP: Your publisher describes Cradle and All as "an entirely reimagined version of a 1980 Patterson novel, Virgin. That book is long out-of-print. Readers might want to know how this came about. What inspired you to "reimagine this book? In what ways is it reimagined?
JP: You'd have to read both versions, the old one and the new one, to have a real appreciation of how it changed. I think a lot of writers like to look at old work again. When Virgin came out, I always thought it was a terrific idea, but I don't think I got it right, so I just kept fussing with the idea. It's been out-of-print for a long time, so the publisher said "what about bringing Virgin out again? Once I got into it, I decided I wanted to rewrite it. I restructured it a lot, especially changing the main character, Anne Fitzgerald, to a private investigator.
BP: You have an interesting take on writing through female voices. How have you developed such an ability to capture women characters?
JP: I think it goes back to when I was a kid. I grew up in a house full of women grandmother, mother, three sisters, two female cats. I cooked for my grandmother's restaurant. I've always been most comfortable talking to women. My best friends generally tended to be women. I liked the way they talk, the fact that a lot of subjects weave in and out of conversations. Sometimes men are a little bit more of a straight line.
BP: How did you begin writing fiction when you came from a background of marketing and advertising? At one time, you headed the J. Walter Thompson agency, right?
JP: I was writing fiction before I got into advertising, actually. My graduate thesis at Vanderbilt, in fact, was fiction. I was in a doctoral program in the English department and decided I wanted to move on to something else.
BP: So you came out of an academic background in fiction, and yet and I mean this as a compliment your work is decidedly unliterary. It's accessible, story-driven, and character-driven. Was this a conscious decision or was this an evolution in your life as a writer?
JP: A conscious decision. I read Ulysses and I figured I couldn't top that, so I never had any desire to write literary fiction. I never read commercial fiction until I was around 25 or 26, and at that point I read two books: The Exorcist and The Day of the Jackal. And I went, Ooh! This is cool. I like these. It's a different experience from reading literary fiction; it's a different reward. And I set out to write that kind of a book, the kind of book that would make an airplane ride disappear.
BP: There's an ongoing discussion or conflict between popular and literary fiction.
JP: Yes, and I think it's a silly thing to argue about. There's plenty of room for both. Unfortunately, what happens in the book world is these petty arguments go right out to the populace, so you have an awful lot of reviews constantly trashing or demeaning the novels that are out there. If you look at the movie business, they've learned to be generous to both movies that are serious and movies that are more frivolous.
BP: Speaking of the movies, have you been happy with the way Hollywood has treated your novels?
JP: Yes, for the most part. Kiss the Girls was fine. Morgan Freeman was great. But there was a television movie adaptation of Miracle on the 17th Green that wasn't all that great.
BP: Is there another movie version of Alex Cross coming out?
JP: Yes, Along Came a Spider is in production right now, with Morgan Freeman doing the role again. It's supposed to be out October 8, but that might be a little optimistic.
BP: And what's next for Alex Cross? Is another one in progress?
JP: Yes, it'll be out next November. And I have a new series debut coming out as well. I've finished the first book. It involves four women who get together to solve murders. Each of the four women is involved in a different job, but the one thing they share is a level of frustration in their work, primarily from men. They all work in male-dominated professions and then get together in their spare time to solve murders without any interference from men. It's sort of a Women's Murder Club.
BP: So again, the female voice?
JP: Yes, when I created the Alex Cross character, there was a certain amount of eye-raising because he was a black man. And then I've written all these stories from a woman's point of view.
BP: So you're comfortable writing outside your "comfort zone"?
JP: I would be more uncomfortable writing a Tom Clancy military novel or a race car novel or anything like that. Where I'm writing is my comfort zone. I couldn't write anything else.
Steven Womack is the Edgar-Award winning author of Murder Manual. His latest novel is Dirty Money (Fawcett).