In November of 1989 a headhunter called me and asked if I'd like to do some freelance work for Jim Patterson.
"Jim who?" I said.
"Patterson. James Patterson," she said.
"Who is James Patterson?" I asked.
The man was not yet a legend. But he was definitely on the cusp. By then Jim had four novels published, but they hadn't sold nearly enough for him to quit his day job. And a mighty impressive job it was. I don't remember his exact title, but it was something like, God of All Things Creative at J. Walter Thompson Worldwide, the Largest Advertising Agency in The Known Universe.
I myself had been in advertising, but in 1987 I gave up writing commercials to write the parts people actually turn on their television to watch - the shows.
For the next two years I was bi-coastal. It sounds glamorous - until you actually do it. I was writing and producing sitcoms in Hollywood, eating take-out food with the rest of the writers five nights a week, and making a 6,000 mile round trip once a month, just so I could spend a few nights with my wife and kids in New York.
Timing is everything in life, and just when that headhunter called, I was headed back to New York for a four-week holiday hiatus. And while I wasn't particularly happy to be writing commercials for Goodyear tires and Ragu spaghetti sauce, I was thrilled to be living at home, close to my family for a month, instead of having to raise my children by phone, fax, and FedEx.
On my first day at J. Walter Thompson I was escorted into Jim's office to meet the boss. It was more Casual Conference Room than Executive Suite, because Jim spent so much of his time working with the troops. As Creative Director, his job was to look at every single newspaper ad, magazine spread, and TV commercial while they were still in their raw idea stage. If he liked it, you got a green light to develop it further and present it to the client. If he didn't like it, he'd send you back to the drawing board - usually with some insight or creative direction that would help you solve it the next time.
When you have that much power, there are bound to be some people who don't appreciate you. Nobody doubted Jim's ability, but there were definitely a few whiners who thought he set the bar too high. One of them cornered me that first day."He's a tough nut to crack. He's not very friendly. He doesn't warm up to you."
Boy, was that dude wrong. I told you the guy was a whiner, and my best guess is that he wasn't a particularly talented whiner, so he never connected with the boss. On the other hand, Jim and I hit it off from the get-go. More than hit it off - there was genuine mutual respect.
When I sat down to write this piece I called Jim and asked him how come we got along so well from the beginning. He said, "Because I could tell that you were reasonably intelligent, and you didn't act like a jerk."
Now you may think that's not such a high standard to ask people to measure up to, but in advertising (and even more so in Hollywood) a lot of people don't. Oh, they may be intelligent, but a lot of them just can't clear that Not-A-Jerk bar.
Back in 1989, Jim didn't look like the classic movie-version of a slick advertising executive. He was much more the rumpled college professor type. He had a shaggy salt and pepper beard, (which you can see on the back cover of some of his early Alex Cross novels) and kind of a shy, understated style. And smart? His fans think of him as one of the best writers they ever read. I think of him as the smartest marketing guy I ever met.
Jim is also a natural born mentor. The sign on the door to his office said, "Surprise me." A lot of advertising tends to be safe, predictable, and entirely too easy to ignore. Jim encouraged his creative teams to be original, to think outside the box. If your idea didn't surprise him, he knew it wouldn't cut through the clutter of the hundreds of commercials we're bombarded with every day.
I worked for Jim for several weeks, then after New Year's, I went back to L.A. where I worked on Baby Talk, a sitcom starring George Clooney. I'll level with you. Clooney is much better looking, but Patterson was more fun to work with. In the summer of 1990, I moved back to New York, and freelanced for Jim for the next few years.
By then, we had developed the key to a successful business relationship. Jim trusted me to deliver good work, and I trusted him to help me make it even better. Somewhere along the way, he handed me a thick ream of paper, and asked if I'd read his latest manuscript.
It was called "Along Came A Spider."
Wow. I had heard the word page-turner before, but I'm a slow reader - kind of a page dragger. But this book was different. The short chapters. The non-stop action. The heart-pounding pace. I couldn't put it down. Duh.but since you're a James Patterson fan, I guess you've figured that one out for yourself.
But at least I got to go to Jim's office the day after I read it, and say, "I think you may have a future writing thrillers."
Spider was published and literally flew off the shelves. Not only did the book find a following, so did the author. Jim had fans, and they wanted more. Lots more. Jim happily accommodated them. I remember one afternoon Jim stopped by my office and told me he was flying down to North Carolina to do some research for another book. Of course, it wasn't just another book. It was another bestseller. Kiss The Girls.
There are two things you should know about James Patterson. The first is that success never changed him. He was an easy-going, affable guy when I met him, and fifty mega-hits later, he's still the same guy. The second is that his books are even more surprising when you know him personally. Those grisly murders, those demented killers, those twisted plot turns - none of it is anything like the real Jim. It's as if somewhere in Jim's head is C.S. Lewis's wardrobe. It looks straightforward enough, but then you open it, and there's Narnia.
Did you ever read about those multi-million dollar lottery winners? What do they do the very first day they check the winning numbers and find out that they hit it big? They quit their jobs. Not Jim. He had a commitment to his advertising agency, and he didn't bail out overnight. He was a multiple best selling author before he phased himself out to write novels full time.
Remember I said Jim was a natural born mentor? He helped a lot of advertising copywriters either get started in the business, or get better at it. He does the same for novelists. My turn came in 1996. Jim and I had lunch, and I told him I had a good idea for a thriller.
I gave him the basics. Someone gets killed. Then a second person who works for the same company also gets murdered. The detectives suspect that the real target is the corporation these people work for. After the third homicide, they're positive that someone is trying to bring down the entire company.
"What kind of company is it?" Jim asked me.
"I don't know yet," I answered."Maybe a phone company or something like that."
"Boring," he said."The company has to be in an exciting business. Something people will love to read about."
I went home and thought about it. What kind of business do I know about that people think is exciting and glamorous? And then the light bulb went on. Well, not just one light bulb. What went off was a bunch of million candlepower, five-foot wide, sky tracking, opening-night-on-the-red-carpet, swivel-based searchlights. Hollywood!
The one business that people never get tired of reading about is show business, and I've been on the inside long enough to know some totally cool stuff that most writers don't. And so, Jim helped me come up with a solution that became my first novel, The Rabbit Factory. I created a Disneyesque (but totally fictional) company. In chapter One, the killer is in their theme park, and murders one of their employees - the guy who has been walking through the park dressed up as the company icon, Rambunctious Rabbit.
When I told Jim the rest of the plot, and I got to my big finish, he said, "That's good, but don't let it end there. Kick it up a notch." And right there, just casually eating his Chef's salad, he suggested a classic Patterson twist that I think made the difference between me having an unpublished manuscript in my drawer, and me having a successful career as a novelist.
Jim continues to give me encouragement, advice and support, and recently he asked me to help him develop a television show. That's the great thing about Jim - his inherent sense of marketing helps him spread the Patterson magic to film, TV, video games, young adult books, and coming soon, the complete Alex Cross Bed and Bath Collection. (Just kidding, but let's face it folks, the guy is unstoppable.)
A few weeks ago, I was watching Jeopardy on TV and the contestant said, "I'll take Authors for $800, Alex."
Alex Trebek then read the answer."He's the author of Roses Are Red, and he created The Women's Murder Club TV series."
One contestant immediately buzzed in, and she asked the very same question I asked that headhunter back in 1989.
"Who is James Patterson?"
But, of course, these days, that's a question that just about everybody can answer.