Most writers dream of publishing a book in their lifetime, and maybe even selling a few copies. Then there is James Patterson, who has sold over 300 million of them.
The author of such runaway hits as the “Alex Cross” and “Women’s Murder Club” series raked in an estimated $95 million in 2016, according to Forbes, placing him among the highest-paid writers on the planet.
For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, we talked to Patterson about what he has learned from the unbelievable plot of his own life.
Q: Who was your biggest influence as a kid?
A: Probably my grandmother. She was very bright, very tough, and very protective of me. She felt I could do anything I wanted to do, other than play in the NBA. There was absolutely no doubt in her mind.
Q: Which books shaped your thinking early on?
A: When I got a job at a psychiatric hospital, I used to read a whole lot at night. The books that got me going were “Mrs. Bridge” and “Mr. Bridge” by Evan Connell, and “Steps” by Jerzy Kosinski: Very concise and witty, with tight storytelling. Another book that opened my mind up was “Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne. It showed me that anything is possible.
Q: At what point did you realize you could actually make a living at writing?
A: It was when I won an award for best first mystery novel. I was sitting there so nervous, like I was at the Academy Awards. I remember when I got up after the announcement, I said, ‘I guess I’m a writer now.’
Q: Once serious money started coming in, how did you handle that?
A: I have always been pretty practical and frugal. I’ve been poor. I’ve been middle class. And I’ve been rich. On balance, I prefer being rich. But I’m happy I went through all those stages. If you have never been poor, you don’t really understand it in a way that people who lived it can understand it. That’s a huge life lesson.
I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, and that really was its own world. It was a little bit like the book “Hillbilly Elegy”. There must have been some people who got out of there, but I wasn’t aware of any.
Q: What kind of investor would you say you are?
A: I am fairly conservative in my portfolio. We have some real estate here in Florida and a house in New York state. We have some in hedge funds and some in conservative bonds. But there is no real reason to take any big risks.
Q: Where do you put your philanthropic dollars?
A: We have a big foundation and give away between $15-$20 million away every year. A lot of the projects have to do with reading. We award a lot of scholarships to teachers, 450 of them to 26 different universities.
We have also helped with school libraries, and now we are focusing on classroom libraries, with $1.75 million in grants. When we put out the word, we had 82,000 requests for help.
Q: Do you have any role models?
A: I look up to a lot of great writers, like James Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Philip Roth. Also authors of thrillers like Michael Connelly and Nelson DeMille. I particularly love it when there is somebody who handles fame really well - like LeBron James. I also think Oprah has done a terrific job of handling her popularity and money and success. I find her to be pretty heroic.
Q: What life lessons do you try to pass along to your own son Jack, who is 19?
A: To be down to earth and not be impressed that his family has done well. We work on that a lot. I encourage people to understand who you are, and get comfortable with it.
My kid worked at the Clinton Foundation last summer and got to talk to President Clinton for a while. Later the president told me, ‘He has a big heart.’ As a parent, that’s an amazing thing to hear.