Literary giant James Patterson joins Zibby to talk about his autobiography, James Patterson by James Patterson. The two discuss the impact the two major loves of James’ life have had on him, why encouraging children to read and promoting literacy in schools are so important to him, and a handful of some of James’ very funny stories. James also shares what it’s like to go out in public and be recognized—just not as James Patterson.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, James. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss James Patterson by James Patterson: The Stories of My Life.

James Patterson: That’s what they are, lots of stories. I know you say mothers don’t have time, but they kind of make time, especially if they love books. I think people that really do love books and love reading and love stories will enjoy this.

Zibby: I think so too, particularly the length of all the stories, which are very short. You could read one and then put the purse down, go pick up your kid, go read another one. They’re so engaging. You’re just such an engaging reader. You just jump right in. You read it. You’re funny. Then you move on to the next story. You never know what you’re going to get, from presidents to deeply emotional moments to ad campaigns.

James: There’s a lot. It’s family stuff and different stops that I’ve made along the way, working my way through college at McLean Hospital, which was interesting because I met Robert Lowell, the poet, and James Taylor. When James was here, he wasn’t famous yet. He used to sing in a coffee shop and would sing “Fire and Rain” and “Sweet Baby James” and some of those songs he’d already written. You’d sit ten feet away from him. It was great. You knew he was wonderful. You didn’t expect, necessarily, he would make it that big. What I try to do is just — it’s not the usual kind of autobiography, I don’t think, or memoir. It’s just these couple of stories from when I’m growing up, a couple stories when I was trapped in advertising. About advertising, I can say I’ve been clean for over twenty-five years now.

Zibby: You told such a funny story, too, by the way, of when you went on a business trip. The other account executive you were with when you were staying over at the hotel ended up sneaking into your bed in the middle of the night.

James: That was a little shocker. It wasn’t funny at the time. Like a lot of stories, eventually, it becomes funnier. At the time, it was kind of like, wow, this is not good. He was my boss, which made it even more surprising, shall we say.

Zibby: I didn’t realize you had come up with the Toys “R” Us kid slogan.

James: The line. Linda Kaplan was the big brain there because she wrote the jingle and everything. I did write the line. “I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid.”

Zibby: That’s pretty cool.

James: Speaking of advertising, which I .

Zibby: Okay, sorry, we’ll move on.

James: No, that’s okay. It’s perfect.

Zibby: Throughout the stories, you talk about your writing process and the inspiration for all the different books that you wrote, from looking at your wife’s photo albums of your son Jack and coming up with that idea to more of the mystery ideas and the shotgun and even somebody from the audience talking about if they would shoot someone for two million dollars. You have all these hilarious little stories and bits of inspiration. I was really interested in what happened to BookShot, your attempt to — tell me more about BookShot.

James: It struck me that a lot of people — this relates to the title of your show — don’t have as much time as they’d like to to read, so I thought it would be a good idea to write a lot of novellas, 140, 150-page. It’s sort of like going and watching a movie. You can do it in a couple of hours. I thought it was a good idea. I remember, at one point, one of the journalists was here. I had written seventy. It was crazy. It was an insane thing. At any rate, I’m pulling out all these drawers and showing this journalist. He’s going, “This is crazy. This is crazy.” Then he looked at me. He said, “James, you are crazy.” I had done all these. There was one year where I wrote, I think it was 2,450 pages of outlines plus two books. Somebody said you’re lucky if you find something that you love to do, and then it’s a miracle if somebody will pay you to do it. That’s my gig. It goes from not thinking that I could ever make any money doing this. There’s one scene where I’m probably just out of college and going to graduate school at Vanderbilt. I was up in Ipswich. I pull into this little crab shack, and there’s John Updike. He’s sitting there eating clams and drinking iced tea. I love the Rabbit novels. I’d just read Rabbit Redux or one of them. I didn’t want to bother him. I just sat there three or four tables away watching him eat clams and drink his iced tea and then leave. That was it. I never forgot it. That’s how impressionable and so far away from whatever the hell I am now in terms of, I don’t know if I can do this thing, but I love it, this thing writing.

Zibby: You also told a story, though, about a writer who — now I’m forgetting who it was — who you approached, and they were like, yeah, so? So you resolved to be much nicer.

James: That was Jimmy Breslin.

Zibby: Yes, Jimmy Breslin.

James: I never would go to author signings, but there was signing on Fifth Avenue very close to where I was working. I went over. It was a rainy, awful day. I get up there. I’m nervous. I don’t know what to say to him. I say, “I just finished the book.” He doesn’t even look up. He’s goes, “Yeah, so?” That’s another one. It could be a very funny line or cruel. I don’t know which. I’m always very nice to people who come up and say — this is a funny story. This is a true story. It’s just so weird. My wife had to go out to University of Wisconsin. She wasn’t around, so I went to our favorite Italian restaurant. This is absolutely true. It’s so nuts. I’m walking. They take me to this little table. I’m walking there. This woman jumps up. She takes off her mask. She goes, “You’re our insurance agent.” I go, “Not really.” She said, “Oh, my god, you’ve got to meet him. He’s your lookalike.” This is all true. Then I sit down. I have my appetizer. The people behind me, they go, “Are you from Boston?” I turn around and go, “No.” I had this on, so they go, “We thought you were from Boston. Are you Tom Clancy?” I go, “No, I’m not Tom Clancy.” I tell them who I was. They said, “Oh, yeah, I’m sorry. I’ve read all your books.” Then the waiter comes with the check, and they paid for it. I go, “Thank you,” but it wasn’t them. It was the table behind them. I went back and I said, “Please don’t do this. I’m good. Please don’t. I’ll come back and talk, but only if you don’t pay my check.” Then I went back. Their daughter was with them. They said, “You got our daughter reading. She loved all your books when she was a kid. We just wanted to pay you back.” I’m walking out. There was another table looking at me. I go, “I should get an appearance fee for tonight.” They said, “You ought to.” At any rate, it’s so weird.

Zibby: James Patterson, the insurance broker.

James: Insurance broker, Tom Clancy, whatever. That’s the kind of stories I tell in the book. They’re kind of funny. They have a beginning and middle and an end. As you said, they go very quickly. They’re three or four pages. I think a piece of it is, I wanted to — I wrote it during COVID. I wasn’t planning to write it. I just started writing these stories and said, you know, I kind of like this process. I like these stories. A lot of people like my books. Some people are a little unpleasant toward my books. I go, read this damn thing because I think you’re going to like it. Stephen King, you can no longer say I’m a terrible writer because a terrible writer did not write this book. I’m sorry.

Zibby: That was funny. He said you’re a terrible writer. You’re like, well, I am a writer.

James: There was a book I wrote early on. I said it was terrible, and I did write it.

Zibby: Exactly. It was terrible, and I did write it. There you go. I wanted to talk, actually, about your conviction, widely held, that kids need to read more and that it’s crazy that — you have this whole passage about Amazon. I was going to just read this little section. You said, “With all due respect to Jeff Bezos, I don’t think Amazon has been on it when it comes to getting kids reading. Amazon has done many good things, but getting kids reading and loving what they read isn’t one of them. There’s still time, but maybe not a lot of time. You may have noticed that our country is on fire again. At least part of the reason for that is that so many of our kids can’t read. Think about it for a second. Over half of our country’s kids aren’t reading at grade level. Amazon could help solve that problem. Why the heck won’t they?”

James: Why won’t they? I’ve been working for about five years now with the University of Florida. They have a program that — this is in the book briefly too. Something like forty-six percent of the kids in the country are reading at grade level at this point. It’s probably less than that given what’s happened in the last couple of years. They have a program where they can bring it up into the mid-eighties. It has to do with making teachers even better at what they do. It’s not difficult. It works. We’ve tested it now in six counties in Florida. They’ve tested it in South Carolina. It works. We have the vaccine. Now all the states have to do is use the vaccine. They won’t do it. You just can’t get them because, oh, we got to do money for this. We got to do money for this. They have the money. They’ll spend it on education, but they spend it in goofy ways. Some of the billionaires have given all this big money, but they’re just doing it wrong. University of Florida has figured out how to deal with this particular problem, which is getting kids reading at grade level. That will save thousands of lives, literally save lives. When I go in and talk about this stuff, I say, I’m here to save lives, because that’s what it is. I go to prisons sometimes.

Zibby: Recreationally, you should say, not like you have to go to prison. You visit prisons. You’re not incarcerated.

James: That’s correct. I visit prisons on occasion. What you find are a lot of young people. They read a lot now because they’re in their cells for long periods. If they did that when they were in grade school and whatever, a lot of them wouldn’t be there. They just wouldn’t be because they’d have more options. If you can’t read competently, your options are just so limited. We could save so many lives. It would affect the economy. It would do all sorts of good stuff. We don’t do it. What are we, crazy? The answer is yes. We are crazy.

Zibby: How do we get the states to adopt that? Who has to do that?

James: I don’t know. We’re beating on them. A piece of it, I won’t even reach out — I know some wealthy people. I won’t reach out to them until I feel that the states are ready. I don’t want to make fake promises. It won’t work unless the state commits to it. I’ve talked to DeSantis. The first time I talked to him, he seemed reasonable about it, but it didn’t happen. I don’t know. We’ll see. Big deal.

Zibby: It is. It is a very big deal. You wrote really poignantly, beautifully, emotionally about the loss of your late wife.

James: Not my wife. I lived with Jane when I was twenty-six to thirty-four, thirty-five, something like that. She’d been married. I write at the end, she got a — we were going for a walk on Saturday morning. We went to the post office. She fell over in the post office. She was shaking. There happened to be a nurse in there. She didn’t know whether it was my wife or my girlfriend. She said whatever she said. “I think she’s having a seizure.” It turned out she had a brain tumor. They gave her about a year to live. She wound up living for over two years, which was a blessing. She was the love of my life. I am married now. Sue is the love of my life now. She was just such a special person. She would wear all these funny hats because she never wanted people, her friends, she didn’t want them to see her and get depressed and feel sad. That’s just the way she was. Her parents had a house down on the Jersey Shore. I mention this, it’s one these things, I’ll never forget this.

I had to go to work. I would get down and visit on Friday and then head back to New York on Sunday. This was in the summer. She would stay there maybe for a month or so. I was taking this cab back to the train station. I’m just looking out of the window. She was in a wheelchair in the street. She was just getting smaller and smaller and smaller in the window. I never forgot that. Anytime I left, I never knew whether I would ever see her again. It was just horrifying. Growing up, I remember my grandfather — I was very close to my grandfather. When he died, I remember going into the woods outside of my grandparents’ house up in Newburgh, New York; woods, woods, woods. I couldn’t cry. I just wanted to cry. I couldn’t cry, couldn’t cry. After Jane got sick, I cried every day. After she died, I cried every day for a couple of years. Every day. It was ridiculous. Now I go to the stupidest movie in the world, I’m like, . I don’t know why. It was a weird thing. I don’t know what it did to me. That was the only good thing about it. I can cry now. I’ll probably cry during this, maybe.

Zibby: Go ahead. You do have this funny way of turning every story into something you can laugh at at the end.

James: I like to, within reason, if you can. There’s so many things in the world, like what’s going on right now with Ukraine. It’s a beautiful day today. It’s a really sunny day. Now, you can give some money. You can really do something positive. You could go there. A friend of mine went over there to do some reporting. If you’re not going to do something, it’s not doing any good for you to sit there and feel bad about it, if you can manage that with your brain. It’s a nice day. I’m going to take my kids out. I’m going to, whatever the heck it is. That’s a terrible thing, but if I can’t do anything — remember when Princess Diana — oh, my god. Yeah, that’s terrible. Really, a waste. Seemed like a very wonderful woman in a lot of ways. You have to move on somehow. Try.

Zibby: Do you feel like your early loss equipped you for moving on? How do you think that really affected you going forward?

James: What I think it did is it gave me a sense that, one, I was loveable, and two, that I could love back. I became very positive about the possibilities for being with someone. I think that’s a gift. Not everybody is lucky enough to meet the kind of person and get in that kind of wonderful relationship where they go, okay, I can do this. I think a piece of it was when you’re with somebody like that, and with Sue now too, I don’t want to mess it up. It’s so precious to me that I — my funny line about Sue is if Sue ever leaves me, I’m going with her. I mention this a couple times in the book. It’s true. We fall asleep every night holding hands, which is great. We’re both so lucky. It is luck. You know. You go and you think you — whatever. Something happened. The attraction was whatever. Whatever happens. We’re all subject to that. I’ve been very lucky with Jane and Sue. Very lucky.

Zibby: I loved your story, too, about getting kicked out of the matchmaker.

James: Oh, my god, we won’t name the group. I went in. I was so desperate. I didn’t think it was that desperate. I went into one of these places. Let’s call it the matchmaker. They had this long form. I’m reading this form. Really, I’m just a little confused by some of the questions. Obviously, I want to do it as honestly as I can because I’m there. I’d like to meet somebody. I couldn’t answer some of the questions. I went up to the woman who had given me — I don’t know why she thought that I was — she said, “You can just leave. You can just leave.” I wasn’t insulting. I said, “It’s not the questionnaire. I just want to be –” I couldn’t even get a date with the matchmaking company. That’s how bad it was.

Zibby: You did say something so beautiful about Jane in terms of dating. You said when you go out looking for somebody to fall in love with, you don’t see, necessarily, a person who has lost all their hair or they’re in a wheelchair or they’re in this state, but you’d never loved someone so much as when she was going through that.

James: This is when Jane got sick.

Zibby: It was so beautiful.

James: Here I was with this woman. She’s in a wheelchair. She’s lost all her hair. If it was a blind date and that person, a male or female, came up, you’d have trouble. That’s understandable up to a point, but it’s like, no, here I was just — I’d never been more in love with her.

Zibby: It’s so beautiful. I like the idea that you have this whole file of ideas. You just go in and look through all your clever ideas. That’s how you start your next book. Is it full right now, or is it more on the slim side?

James: Oh, yeah, it’s always full. It’s ridiculous. It has the clever title “Ideas” on it. There’s always something. Off to the side here, there are just piles of manuscripts. There’s usually a couple that I’m doing myself and then — one of the nice things about doing the autobiography is I really focused. I focused more than I had in several years. I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed anything in a while. I think it really got me going. The books I’ve done recently, I’ve done a couple with Mike Lupica that are coming out next year. I think they’re the best stuff I’ve ever done. It’s great. At a certain age — I’m almost fifty now, or some other age. To be that stimulated and that excited about doing things — obviously, I just did the book with Dolly Parton. That was just spectacular in every way. I thought maybe we might do a kids’ book because we both try to get kids reading. I talked to her manager. He talked to Dolly. She said, “Come on down.” I went down to Nashville. I like Nashville anyway because I went to Vanderbilt, as I mentioned. We sat around for a couple hours in her little office, which is very down-home kind of office. We made the deal right there, just the two of us. No lawyers, no agents, no BS. That was the deal. We stuck to it. We’re both “go chop wood” kind of people. Get it done. My grandmother used to say — it’s in the book. Hungry dogs run faster. Dolly are kind of like that. We’ve become great friends.

Within two weeks, we had done five drafts of the outline of this book, Run, Rose, Run. She had literally written seven songs. This is a cool thing. Actually, for my last birthday, she sang “Happy Birthday” over the phone. For this birthday, she sent me a poem. It’s twelve lines. She calls me JJ, Jimmy James, JJ. She calls it New Old Friends. She says, “Happy birthday, JJ. I’ve come to love you so even though we only met a year or so ago. I feel I’ve always known you. That’s how it happens when you’re meant to be together. I’ve made a new old friend. I sang a song with Kenny –” Kenny Rogers — “saying you can’t make old friends, and I believed that to be true to the day that you walked in. Happy birthday again, my new old friend. I will always love you. Dolly.” How can you beat that? Versus all the Hollywood crap and whatever, to be with — I have a really nice relationship with President Clinton because we did a couple of books together. We talk pretty much every week. What he gave me for Christmas, Monopoly for Socialists. It’s funny. We both like to smile at stuff. Hillary has become a nice friend too. That’s very special and cool. I’m very lucky in that I look at the world with the eyes of this kid from Newburgh, New York. It’s like, isn’t this cool? Now I’m with Zibby Owens. This is cool. This is a neat thing, or Dolly Parton or whatever the heck it is or, oh, my god, I just put out a book. I’ll be corny about it, but I think it’s a nice way to go through life.

Zibby: That is a nice way. That’s amazing. You’ve done so much to help booksellers. You wrote about it in the book, but of course, I knew about it already, and even just how difficult it is for booksellers to make it and how you got notes about how now they could go to the dentist because of the gift that you gave at the holidays or something like that. Talk a little bit about —

James: — The holiday gifts are, all we do is ask somebody in the bookstore or patrons, you just send us a note, and then we try to send out checks to these booksellers. The amazing thing is almost everyone writes back. They write these amazing — literally, I got to go to the dentist, and I wouldn’t be able to. For their first time in five years, I bought my parents a Christmas present, or something like that. People don’t realize how hard that job is, the bookstore job, in terms of, here come the new books every day. We got to get them stocked. People think they’re going to just sit there and read all day. They don’t. They don’t have time for it. For the most part, they don’t make much money. It’s hard work, not much money. They just do it for passion. I have this series of books started with Walk in my Combat Boots. It’s true stories. My objective was, at the end of it, people would actually understand the military, which they don’t. I’m doing one about cops. We’re just finishing one about booksellers and librarians. I work with Matt Eversmann. Matt was the actual sergeant in Black Hawk Down, the real guy, not the movie guy. I watched him interviewing some soldiers when they — they don’t like to talk about what they’ve done, but he could get it out of them. Then we did ER nurses. He could get it out. Then what I do is I’ll take those stories and turn them into these five, six, seven-pages things. You get a sense for that soldier or that nurse or that librarian, whatever, very quickly and one or two of their stories. You really get a sense for it. With librarians and booksellers, you get a sense for how hard they work and what it’s like and the passion and what books they love. It’s going to be a cool book. We’ll see what happens with it. I’m glad that we’re doing it.

Zibby: That’s exciting. When is that coming out? Do you know when it’s coming out?

James: It’s coming out next year. I think relatively early next year.

Zibby: Oh, good. I’m excited for that one. You’ve been in the publishing world for a long time. What changes, if any, do you think there need to be in the way things are set up?

James: Oh, gee, I don’t know. Bricks and mortar, who knows if that will go on and on and on? What’s great about it is you can go in and talk to somebody. They’re passionate. They read a lot. For a lot of people, that’s really helpful. For all of us, I think it’s helpful. I don’t know how long that will go on. It’s doable, probably, on the internet eventually if somebody really brings the passion and the love to it. Look, you’re doing stuff now. You’re bringing that passion for reading and books and everything. It’s doable. I think that’s what would be really useful in the book world, is if a spokesperson, really a great leader evolved from one of the book companies, just somebody who could capture people’s imagination, go on television, talk about it. People are, the movies, the movies, the movies. Movies are good, but books are better. We don’t have anybody out there shouting book news. There’s almost no book reviews anymore. You got The Times and the LA Times a little bit. Most of them have closed down. You’ll get The New York Times. They’ll do whatever, not much. USA Today, it does as much as anybody. We can’t get the word out. That’s a big problem. A lot of good books out there, but how do people find out about them? That’s huge. How do we have somebody there and trumpeting? Books are great. Books are wonderful. Books are exciting. Movies have not caught up to books yet. There are some terrific movies. They’re easier to sit down with for a couple hours. They’re good. I like a lot of that. I think getting the word out is huge. I think it’s harder than it’s ever been.

I think that even the autobiography is interesting in the sense that there was a time — not that I’m a star, but there was a time when there were, here’s Fitzgerald. Here’s Hemmingway. People would talk about them. They’d be interested in them. They’d want to hear their stories. Why should a writer’s story be less interesting than an actor’s story? I’m a freaking writer. I’m going to write a better book than an actor, maybe. Better than a lot of them. That’s a cool thing about this book. There should be more of them. They give that sense of, what’s it like to be a nobody and to desperately want your book published? and how difficult. The first book, The Thomas Berryman Number, was turned down by thirty-one publishers. It then won an Edgar as Best First Mystery, so go figure that. Obviously, it had something going for it. Yet thirty-one publishers turned it down. God knows how many incredible books have never surfaced, how many Infinite Jests or whatever. They never got published. I think that’s one of the huge problems. On some level, it’s good that people can go on the internet and get their stuff published now. It may not get much of an audience, but there it is. It’s out there. If you’re lucky — I know a couple of people who have broken books on the internet. It’s better than nothing. There aren’t enough publishers. When I was first starting out, there were thirty or forty publishers. There were so many. I could get so many rejections. Now you get five rejections, and that’s all there is. There is no more. At any rate, that’s a piece of it. I don’t know how elegant that was. That’s a little piece of the puzzle, or maybe more than a little piece.

Zibby: I totally agree. I think writing is the most — reading, rather, is the most magical thing. I think it needs a rebrand. Maybe you should put on your advertising hat, go back for a sec. It’s magic. You’re inside someone else’s head immediately. That is the coolest thing ever.

James: Especially in this time now where we seem to have less and less tolerance for the way other people live their lives. What easier way is there to find out, what’s it like to live in Pakistan? What’s it’s like to be such-and-such? What’s it’s like to be a they? What’s it’s like to whatever? We can meet all these people and expand our knowledge of what they are and have a realistic point of view of how we really feel about it as opposed to these — you get just a little soundbite, and people make up their minds. It’s insane. Books can save us from that. I don’t know if they will. That was the whole thing behind BookShots, this notion of — the problem with it was the publishers were afraid of it because they were $4.99 or something. Oh, my god, what if people start buying the $4.99 books? They did it, but they were afraid. It made a profit in the first year. New things don’t necessarily make profits. What I ultimately did, I bundle them now. I’ll take three of them and put them in a book. They go, okay, now we can charge whatever. People like them because people like stories. That’s the thing with the autobiography. It’s just story after story after story. In fact, I even make fun of the usual kind of — I like Robert Caro very much, but that kind of — I write that one long paragraph about, if you’re looking for that, it’s not going to be here. It’s a thing about Newburgh and all the different historical whatever the heck. It’s not happening.

Zibby: That was so funny. Thank you so much.

James: Thank you. This was great. Is that actually your office?

Zibby: It is, yeah.

James: It’s great. I need an office like that, damn it.

Zibby: I’ll come down and rearrange your bookshelves.

James: Is it that simple? Maybe.

Zibby: It’s that simple. These are just my books. I just reorganized them by color.

James: Thank you very much. This was very nice and a really fun talk.

Zibby: Thank you for your time. I appreciate it. Good. Thanks so much. Take care.

James: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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