Author James Patterson on the moment his life changed direction, his working style, and his best career advice

Author James Patterson on the moment his life changed direction, his working style, and his best career advice
James Patterson is the author of bestselling books like "Alex Cross" and "Michael Bennett."Stephanie Diani
  • Dan Schawbel is a bestselling author, speaker, entrepreneur, and host of the "5 Questions with Dan Schawbel" podcast, where he interviews world-class humans by asking them just five questions in under 10 minutes.
  • He recently spoke with James Patterson, author of numerous New York Times bestselling books including the recently released "The Last Days of John Lennon."
  • Patterson says the biggest turning point in his career happened when he was sitting in New York City traffic and made the decision to fully dedicate his time to writing novels.
  • When writing, Patterson says he imagines the audience as one person sitting across from him. He wants to keep that person engaged and interested so they don't get up and leave, just as he hopes readers won't want to put down his books.

James Patterson has written 147 novels since 1976. He's had 114 New York Times bestselling novels and holds The New York Times record for most No. 1 New York Times bestsellers by a single author, a total of 67, which is also a Guinness World Record. But what he's most known for are his enduring fictional characters like Alex Cross and Michael Bennett.

In our conversation, James Patterson talked about the turning point in his career, his connection to historical figures, writing approach, love for childhood education, and his best career advice.

What would you say the biggest turning point in your life and career was that led to you being so motivated to become the CEO of a large ad agency and a bestselling author?

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Weirdly, I was in advertising but I've been clean for a long time now. On a Sunday, I had to drive from my house on the ocean to New York City to do advertising stuff. I was on the Garden State and it was wall-to-wall traffic going five miles an hour. On the other side of the road a car would go past every 15 seconds.

After about an hour and a half, I understood something that changed my life, which was I needed to get on that side of the road. I was going the wrong way. I was in traffic, it was busy and hectic. I'm going to a job I don't love, I need to get on that side. That's when I made the decision, "Okay, I'm going to do nothing but write novels." Honestly, that's where it happened. There were other things I decided around the same time, but it was just looking at the thing going, "I'm on the wrong side, man. I'm on the wrong side of the road. I'm going in the wrong direction."


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You've written about historical figures such as your recent books with John Lennon, the Kennedys, Muhammad Ali, and even collaborated with former US President Bill Clinton. Why are you so fascinated with their lives, and how have you been able to tell their stories in a unique way?

Doing the Kennedy book, for example, was interesting because a lot of people who've lived through it, when they read the book they go, "I forgot about a lot of that stuff" or "I never knew it in the first place." And then a lot of people under 40, they don't really know the story, just a little bit.

With the Lennon book, I was living on Central Park West when he got shot that night. That night I went and stood outside The Dakota with 100 other people after it was announced that he'd died, so I was there. The next couple of days I was in Central Park, and they had these people mourning and crying and weeping. Somebody was holding up a sign, "Why."

A friend of mine, a photographer who'd been involved with the Beatles a lot, took that photograph and I have it in my office now. Then weirdly I'm in Florida and the house that we have is connected by a bridge to the house next door. That house next door was owned by John Lennon and Yoko when he died, and they were redoing it and they plan to basically live.


They were bringing up Sean [John Lennon's son], and [how] John had really become much more of a father than he'd ever been in his past and he'd found himself again musically, or so he said he had.

Then the love story with Yoko, which at the time a lot of people pissed all over it. But nowadays we would say, "You know what, it was a beautiful love story and God bless him." In those days they didn't want to accept it, they didn't want to accept that John was with Yoko, but they were really in love and that comes out in the book too.

I talked to Paul McCartney and it was fascinating. And with McCartney, those two, they vied for who's the leader of the band and that was probably a little bit of what broke up The Beatles initially. I think there was some guilt about that with both of them and in later years they got closer again.

Paul still regrets that it dissolved the way it did. If he could have done it over, he would have tried to figure out a way to stay closer because initially after the Beatles broke up they were mean-spirited toward one another for a few years.

How do you decide on your approach to writing each book and which collaborators will be the best fit for each genre and audience?


Here's what I think about in terms of the audience: I pretend there's one person sitting across from me. I'm telling them a story, I don't want them to get up until I'm finished so it's really important to me in terms of what I do, I don't want to bore them.

That was the thing with the Kennedy book. How do you tell this story and just keep it moving along? It's the way I do the Alex Cross books and the kids' books that I do, it's vital that the kids don't get bored. That's a big part of it and probably the most important part of it.

With the kids' books I do a lot with Chris Grabenstein. We're good friends, and we both have a good sense of humor, so we click nicely. There's a writer I work with, J.D. Barker, and he's a loose cannon and I'm a sniper, very disciplined and whatever, so it's a nice combo. Nobody leaves and it's a nice environment and there's not a lot of pressure. I had a nice back and forth with President Clinton, it was very comfortable.

You've donated to libraries, classrooms, and indie bookstores. Why is childhood education the most important cause that you champion?

There are a lot of things we could try to do. I don't know that I can have any effect on global warming, but in terms of education we can actually affect stuff right now. If we taught movies in classrooms and it wouldn't be a bad thing, we could talk about character and plot and how you structure a story, et cetera. But if we start with Ingmar Bergman movies, kids will go, "Oh, I don't like movies."


Unfortunately in a lot of schools, we spent so much time on grammar and the rules, and then we give them stories that they don't necessarily relate to and I think it's a mistake.

I think we need to give them more stories where they go, "That was a cool story. Let's read another story." We're not preparing everybody for Harvard but what we want them to do is certainly come out of grade school and be competent readers.

The percentage of kids' reading at grade level in this country is under 50%. I'm working with the University of Florida - they've been working at a program for five years now - and they have that number up to the mid 80s. We know how to fix this problem and now it's just an issue of getting state governments to go, "Okay, we're going to fix it."

We're working with the government in Florida now, because if we can get 70% of the kids in this country reading at grade level, man, that's going to save lives. More kids will wind up going to higher education, at least certainly getting through high school. They'll be better prepared to go into the workforce when the time comes and take care of their families. If they can't read, they're starting life behind the eight ball.

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What's your best piece of career advice?

Somebody said, "You're lucky if you find something you like to do, and then it's a miracle if somebody will pay you to do it." The first part of it is try to find things that you really like to do: Look for things that you have a passion for, and you've got to work at it.

I used to work at a mental hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. I worked my way through college there, and I worked a lot at night shifts. I wasn't a big reader before that and I just started reading like crazy because a lot of nights there wasn't a whole lot to do, [during] the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, and then I started scrubbing stories and I loved it. I'd really never thought about being a writer, but I loved doing it, it was that simple.

Try to find something you have a passion for or some job where at least part of it fulfills the passion that you have. I love to solve problems or I'm a problem-solver. I'm a people person. Okay, well what are people-person jobs where that skill, that love that you have, that whatever can be used? And if that doesn't work, you get a regular job like the rest of us.

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