Sunday, April 8, 2001
Los Angeles James Patterson writes his thrillers as if he were building roller coasters.
He grounds the stories with a bare-bones plot, then builds them over the top and tries to throw readers for a loop a few times along the way.
"I like a lot of twists and turns," said Patterson, a smile crossing his pleasant, droopy-dog face. "I want people to get on, scream and yell and then get off and say, 'Hey, that was cool."'
The 52-year-old writer has reached a peak of his own with a new book, "1st to Die," topping best-seller lists and the movie version of his thriller "Along Came a Spider" heading to theaters.
Patterson is polite and sunny during an interview to promote the movie at Los Angeles' W Hotel, where the dark, dim hallways seem ripped from a noir thriller themselves.
"Along Came a Spider" stars Morgan Freeman as the compassionate investigator Alex Cross, a role he also played in another Patterson adaptation, the 1997 "Kiss the Girls." Cross is Patterson's equivalent to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe ï¿½ both recurring gumshoes with keen eyes and penchants for getting dragged into danger.
Yet Patterson bristles at comparisons to other mystery authors.
"I would hate it if somebody said about my work, 'This guy is the new Chandler,"' Patterson said. "I hope nobody compares my stuff to anybody because it's its own thing, for better or worse."
Humphrey Bogart brought Marlowe to life on the screen in "The Big Sleep," and Patterson said he likes the way Freeman has embodied his good guy with stoicism and heart.
Fans of Patterson's books may be disappointed in the new film, however: Hollywood has made significant changes to the tale of a high-profile kidnapping gone awry.
"I read it once and never went back to it again," director Lee Tamahori said of the book. "James Patterson fans may get upset with us, but I think we made a better thriller than the one that's on paper."
Tamahori said he liked the story's twists, but toned them down because he thought they were too fantastical for the screen.
Patterson shrugs off the reworking of his story.
"Nobody puts a gun to your head and says you have to sell your book to the movies," he said. "There's always a chance that it may not turn out too well."
"I'm not doing 'Madame Bovary' or 'War and Peace,"' he continued. "I want people to walk out of the cineplex saying, 'That was fun.' That's pretty much what (the filmmakers) did with my book."
"1st to Die" is already being developed as a miniseries for NBC.
Capturing the emotions
Since Patterson had been writing for nearly 20 years before Hollywood came knocking, he said it is easy not to think about moviemaking when he's at the keyboard.
"I don't think about my stories cinematically," he said. "And it's funny because the one I thought was most cinematic, 'When the Wind Blows,' hasn't made it to the screen."
But he welcomes film adaptations, especially if it piques the interest of new readers.
The advertising-executive-turned-mystery-writer makes no excuses for penning popular fiction. Some of his fans tell him they never finished a book before they discovered his stories.
"My gravestone should say: 'Jim kept a lot of people up late at night,"' he said. "I think it's a nice thing to do. I don't think it's all that serious."
He enjoys the idea of fans killing time on an airplane with his books or spending an evening in an armchair with a story that helps them escape the real world.
Critics who sneer at the genre don't bother him. "I get more good reviews than I probably deserve," he confides.
Yet he is irked at criticism that his stories are "unrealistic."
"Of course it's unrealistic. This is an opera!" the writer said with a laugh. "Everything is bigger than life in these books. Cross is too good to be true, the bad guys are too bad to be true!"
Only the characters' feelings, he said, ring true.
"The emotions are real," Patterson said. "Even if the scenarios are larger than life and over the top."
Emotions? In mysteries about kidnappers and serial-killers?
What happened to hardboiled?
The word makes Patterson wrinkle his brow.
"I'm too sentimental for hardboiled," he said. "A lot of mystery buffs may not like sentimental, but I do. I grew up that way."
"The family, in my books, is always the moral center," Patterson said. "Family is very important to Cross, and he's a sensitive man, unlike a lot of detectives."
Readers have told him they identify with the idealized families in his stories. "They understand the fears that the people in my books have about things that go on in the world, the uncertainty, the dangers," Patterson said.
Not so different
Many fans ask how a white man from Newburgh, N.Y., can write so thoughtfully from the perspective of a black, inner-city detective like Cross.
"It's funny," he said, "because people ask that, but they just assume that I can write from the perspective of a serial killer."
One of Cross' most dangerous foes has been racism. "Along Came a Spider," for example, contained a subplot about an interracial romance for the detective. It was cut from the movie version; Tamahori said mainstream audiences would find it too complicated.
Patterson, however, said he thinks his readers identify with that aspect of his novels.
When the Cross books were first published, the dust jackets didn't feature the writer's picture. "I know a lot of them, particularly the women, hoped I looked like Denzel Washington," he joked.
"1st to Die" introduces a new set of investigators, "The Women's Murder Club" ï¿½ four female professionals in San Francisco who solve a string of newlywed slayings.
Now Patterson gets asked: How do you write from a woman's point of view?
"One of the things that makes it easy to write about these women, or about Cross, is that they're not that different from me," Patterson said.
Unlike thrillers and roller coasters, he said, the things that separate people shouldn't be built up "to be bigger than they are."
"Unfortunately," he said, "the way the world works, we concentrate a lot more on the differences."