Literature is not a democracy. In the book world, being popular does not necessarily make you great. But if it were, and if it did, then the man sitting across the table from me in a canary-yellow mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., would be president-for-life of the literary universe, and Philip Roth would be a comptroller in North Dakota.
The man in the mansion is James Patterson. He is the author of 34 books, the last 18 of which have gone to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. All told he's sold about 100 million copies; last year they earned him something on the order of $40 million. At 58, Patterson puts out four or five books annually: mysteries, thrillers, romance novels, fantasy--he takes all comers. He's already got one out in 2006, The 5th Horseman, and it's only March. Patterson is the world's greatest best-seller factory, and depending on how you look at it, he's either a damn good writer or the Beast of the coming literary apocalypse.
When the apocalypse arrives, at least he'll be comfortable. Patterson spends most of the year in Palm Beach, three blocks from a world-class golf course. His backyard is the Intracoastal Waterway. Sitting in his airy, wood-paneled office, surrounded by about a dozen neat stacks of paper representing works in progress, he's amiable, chatty and deeply unpretentious--he refers to his writing as "scribbling." But it's at least a bit of a con--he's read practically everything, and he gets a sly kick out of reminding you of that. He references both Ibsen and Crichton, Joan Didion and Jean Genet. Before I arrived, just as a courtesy, he read my book.
Patterson grew up in a small town in upstate New York. He always wanted to be a writer, but he didn't find it necessary to starve along the way: he had a highly successful career in advertising, including a six-year run as chairman of J. Walter Thompson in North America. But he never gave up on his dream. In 1977 his first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, won an Edgar Award, the Oscar of the mystery world, although it wasn't a big commercial success. His evolution into James Patterson, The Man Who Only Writes Best Sellers, had yet to to be fulfilled.
First came the creation of the Patterson style, which dispenses with any flowery bits or extraneous details. A typical Patterson novel might have 150 chapters, but each one is just two or three pages long. His paragraphs are short too, often just one or two sentences. It's an approach that emphasizes action over style and pace over everything. "It was a little bit of an accident," he says. "I was writing a book called Midnight Club, and I'd done about 100 pages, and I was planning to really flesh them out. And I read the 100 pages, and I said, There's something interesting here. And that's where I went to just leaving a lot of stuff out."