James Patterson talks about the importance of reading.
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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
Our guest today is the most prolific novelist or writer of any creed on the planet.. In our libraries and on our e-readers, you will find the seemingly endless volumes of James Patterson’s books…psychological thrillers that have gripped the American public and become a staple of our cultural diet.
As Todd Purdum profiled in the Vanity Fair story, “How James Patterson Became the Ultimate Storyteller,” the best-selling author is our Henry Ford of the contemporary book world. Beneath his creative pulse, however, is an entrepreneurial genius, honed over a three-decade-long tenure as an ad executive for the J. Walter Thompson Company.
Alongside his stable of collaborators, Patterson confines himself to a rigorous regimen of writing and editing … marinating in ideas for his next blockbuster novel … over 300 million sold and counting…a dream author for an industry hampered by the digital revolution.
Through fatherhood, the act of instilling the value of books in his son, Patterson discovered a new found passion for youth literacy … the topic of our conversation today. He founded the organization ReadKiddoRead, authored a slew of children’s volumes and companion lesson plans and undertook philanthropy to support student scholarships. Despite being the last standing titan of commercial publishing, Patterson has invested in independent bookstores. And today, after welcoming him, thank you for being here …
PATTERSON: You’re welcome. I was in advertising, but I’ve been clean for almost 20 years …
PATTERSON: … now, so … you know.
HEFFNER: Independent book stores.
HEFFNER: … to preserve the unfettered written word, as I said in a program with the Director …
HEFFNER: …of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop … is that why you’re after investing in …
PATTERSON: The thing with independent book stores, for me … one, we help a couple hundred book stores. And that’s terrific because what happens in those stores is … it’s just a … you know what … I mean something physically happens in some cases, a store could buy a van, or you know … a used van … and it would make it easier for them to bring books to schools … so, things like that.
But it’s just, it’s so motivating to them, the idea that somebody cares. So that’s one piece of it.
Secondly, in those stores, it allows them to get local publicity, which they can almost never get. Because it gets picked up. But the most important thing to me is to shine a light on the problem. Because a lot of newspapers, a lot.. what we’re talking about it now … just shining a light on, on, on the problem that if we don’t have independent book stores or book stores in general … Barnes & Noble … books in Walmart, etc., etc. it, it’s going to be a problem.
If we don’t have competent readers in this country, if kids aren’t reading, there’ll be no PBS in the future, in my opinion, because there will be nobody to support it.
HEFFNER: In other words, books should never be obsolete. The physical …
PATTERSON: Well, no … I don’t …
HEFFNER: … written material …
PATTERSON: … I don’t care whether … the physical book may become obsolete. I don’t know and I, I don’t really care.
HEFFNER: But paper and pen, do they facilitate, foster, breed a culture of literacy that e-books will never accomplish.
PATTERSON: I, I don’t know. The only thing … I mean recently there have been some studies that people retain information better when they read it in a book versus an eBook. I suspect that that may partly have to do just with the newness of the machine and … it may just be a little more distracting to people initially. Over time I have a feeling that will go away.
I don’t care ultimately whether, you know, in, in some future decade, it, it’s all done online. But right now we’re not ready for that transition, we need books stores, we desperately need new book stores, we need libraries. We need school libraries. You know, all over the country our school libraries … our libraries that are underfunded either don’t have enough books or don’t have any books in some cases, that don’t have a librarian.
HEFFNER: In other words, the education, the educational vehicle that books present us … they have to keep pace with the technology.
PATTERSON: Ah, yeah … well, you know … funding in schools in always going to be a problem … unfortunately. You know local governments and the government at large … we’re not taking seriously …education and yet, yet we wind up spending a fair amount of money per student. But we don’t seem to be spending it very wisely.
The next thing that I’m going to do … next year … we’ll continue to support independent book stores … but I’m going to make a big move toward supporting school libraries … so that, that’s going to be the next thing.
HEFFNER: Todd Purdum wrote in Vanity Fair that writers block never presents a problem for you. If you get bored or stymied with a project you turn your attention to dozens of other ideas.
PATTERSON: If you come to my office, what you will see is two desks, but surrounded by shelves. And on the shelves there will be anywhere from 40 to 55 manuscripts that are all “alive.” They’re all happening at this, at this moment.
And, you know, people are funny about co-writing and the notion of it. I mean, you start … you know what is, what who are co-writers? Well, you know, Rogers and Hammerstein, Simon and Garfunkel, Lennon and McCarthy. It’s absolutely … you know, collaborating is a good thing.
The Internet is all about collaboration … if there wasn’t’ collaboration, there wouldn’t an Internet. So that’s not a bad thing per se.
The way it works with me, I mean this passed year in addition to two books that I wrote by myself … I wrote over a thousand pages of outlines. And all of my outlines are three or four drafts … because that’s the heart of the story. And, and the outlines are 60 to 90 pages. So that’s misunderstood a little bit just in terms of what it is and … recently … we, we have a TV show which is, which is being short starting in January. And I went out to Hollywood and I went to the Writers’ Room, and, and you know, these are guys who … or men and women who write for 40 page … 44 page scripts. There were 10 writers in the Writers’ Room … collaboration once again.
And, and, and out there … you know most … any TV show you like, whether it’s Homeland or The Good Wife, chances are it’s, it’s all collaboration in terms of the screen plays, the teleplays.
HEFFNER: I mention this quote because it … to stick with the subject of youth literacy for a moment … it seems like we have a reader’s block. There is an obstacle in front of us in terms of our inability to embrace a new generation of readers. How do we get to this problem? Through curricula? Through lesson plans? Through your books …especially the children’s books, and young adult readers that you’re targeting now. Because it seems to be a cultural shift as we move away from the written word in a physical presence that, that we’re having a more difficult time attracting readers.
PATTERSON: Ahh …
HEFFNER: And maturing readers.
PATTERSON: I, I, I think one of the things, especially in … I, I think middle school is vital, that’s why I write a lot of books toward middle school kids.
I …there’s two sides …one, you know, bright kids … if, if they don’t … you want them to have broad reading tastes. So that’s the important thing in terms of bright kids … to make sure that they read a lot so that their … I mean right now we have a society where it’s so like “right, left, black and white.” Well things aren’t black and white, things aren’t right and left”, they’re …and the more you read, the more you, you understand that. And I think the wiser you become, I think the better citizen you become, I think the better spouse you become, I think the better parent you become. You know, if you … and, and I think reading certainly is one way to that. So, so for …
HEFFNER: It’s a form of engagement …
PATTERSON: … absolutely, for kids who are, you know, good readers already … it’s important that they’re reading broadly. Just as important or maybe more important are kids who, if they don’t become competent readers in middle school … not great readers, but competent readers … how are they going to get through high school? Seriously … Ab…ra…ham Lincoln … and it’s not that they’re stupid, it’s just that they’re not good readers. And, and you know … look … there are a lot of problems in the world … health care, global warming … as individuals we can’t do much about it. But almost all of us can do something about the reading problem.
In … start with your house … are your kids or your grandkids or your nieces and nephews … are they competent readers or good readers … are you, you know, making sure that they go to the library, encouraging them to read. Are you every holiday or birthday … are you considering a book being one of the, the gifts. Why not? How crazy that is? If your … look, most parents wouldn’t send their kids out with a handicap out into the world if they could do something about it.
Well, if you send your kids out into the world and, and they’re not competent readers, you’re sending them out there with a handicap. And that’s your job. That’s your job. You know … teach your kid how to ride a bike … fine. Not a bad thing to do.
Teach him how to throw a baseball? Okay. Teach him how to cook a little bit … terrific. You, you must teach them how … you must help them, you must get them books, you must force the issue if you have to. When our son Jack … Jack’s a, a bright guy …but, he wasn’t a big reader and that summer and summer is a great time to do this stuff, and we said, “You know … Jack … you’re going to read every day.” And his response was, “Do I have to?” and we said, “Yeah, unless you want to live out in the garage? We, we read in our house. But, we’re going to go out and get cool books for you. And we got everything from Percy Jackson to Wrinkle in Time to My Maximum Ride. And by the end of the summer he had read a dozen books. And his reading skills improved dramatically. When he took his, his SSATs, which you do … he got an 800 in reading. Which is a perfect score. So there’s what happens when you get a bright kid and you force the issue a little bit … in a fun way.
The fun way being … “Yes, you’re going to read, but we’re going to get you cool books. And they’re going to be as good or better than the movies that you might see, or the TV shows, or whatever.” And, and with kids that aren’t competent it’s absolutely crucial. And you … you know, parents will come up all the time … “I can’t get my kids reading”. And I’m like … “Well, do you get them to the dinner table? Yeah? Well, you just have to make it a thing in your house.”. I mean do you have rules in the house, like you can’t rack mud on the living room rug? Yeah. Okay, you have to have a rule. The kids have to read. Because, if they’re not reading, they’re just going to have trouble in life.
HEFFNER: Are we too distractible? Is … do you encounter that in your mission to …
PATTERSON: What? Distractible …
PATTERSON: What? Yeah, yeah. I mean it’s a fact of life now. It’s a fact of life … yes … I, I think people are easily distracted. I mean obviously … you have TV commercials saying “It’s wrong to do one thing at a time”. What?
Kids should be doing two … no kids should not be doing two things at a time. No you should not be texting and driving. And, and, and drinking a coffee. (Laughter) You should be driving. Maybe sipping a coffee … maybe. Yeah, we’re, we’re very distracted, but we just have to live with that now. I mean that’s just a fact of life. So, what’s the … how do you deal with that, you know, in a pragmatic manner, given that that’s just the way it is … now?
HEFFNER: How do you?
PATTERSON: Ahhhh …
HEFFNER: Cool books.
PATTERSON: (Laughter) Yeah.
HEFFNER: Devices that …
PATTERSON: Yes, yeah because you’ll find … yes, if … once, once you hook somebody into a story, they’re hooked and they’re not distractible. I think one of, one of the issues … and this has gone on forever, I mean it was true when I was in school … is not enough stories and books that the kids really get into and love.
I mean, for Jack … when he was 11 or so … Unbroken was a book and he just went “This is great”. I mean a 400 or 500 page book. But he, he really got hooked on it. Harry Potter, obviously. Harry … J.K. Rowling saved a lot of lives, because if you’ve read the 8 books, you’re a competent reader. That’s terrific. What a wonderful thing she did by creating that story, that big story.
I mean when I was a kid Lord of the Rings was something that a lot of us read. Those kinds of series … but that solves the, to some extent, the distraction problem.
HEFFNER: It seems to me that our schools may be too rigid in enforcing an idea of what literature should be.
PATTERSON: Yeah. I mean you have the problem now of, of the Common Core … where … does it go too far? I think one of the things now is, I wish we’d just stop totally reinventing the wheel every four years. Okay, fine, we have this common core thing now. How do we evolve it? What are the problems with it? Obviously one of the problems is some schools aren’t ready as fast as other schools. So how do you deal with that? You just can’t say, “Well, all of them, you know … two years from now, we’re lowering the boom and we’re going to flunk half the …” you know, you can’t do that in my opinion. And, and we can’t take, we, we can’t demotivate teachers. Teachers have to be motivated to feel that they’re contributing.
And I, I think we’re … I think at least initially … the power of stories is, is, is not valued as much as it should be. I think even in, in some of the better prep schools and colleges now, kids don’t read as widely … they’re more into like “Well, we’re going spend two months analyzing one Shakespeare play.” And there’s some value in that. You learn, you know, critical thinking … you’re really getting deep into things. But there’s also value in the notion of … in a college or in a prep school … that anybody who goes there, they’re going to be exposed to 200 or 300 voices … writers, different ways of looking at the world. Here’s the way J. K. Rowling … here’s the way Doris Lessing, here’s the way Stephen King … here’s … they’re all different ways of looking at the world and different ways of expressing themselves.
And I think it’s really important that students get … especially students at, at universities or, or … good schools, that they are exposed and begin to understand the value of different ways of looking at the world.
HEFFNER: I’ve heard from a mutual friend that you’re a master scribbler and that you observe the surroundings and have, even before you began in earnest your …
PATTERSON: I actually wrote a novel about this show before we did it.
HEFFNER: (Laughter) I believe it. So, from your scribbling … the senses around you … what, what … from what do you find the most inspiration … in, in constructing your characters and storylines.
PATTERSON: There, there’s so much that stimulates me. I have at home a file about this thick (shows wide fingers) and cleverly entitled “Ideas”. And, it’s just page after page, after page of ideas. I’m constantly … I mean I’ll be driving here and I’ll have an idea and I’ll just scribble down an idea for a book or half a book or something … or a character … or something that might turn into something. And, and that’s why I really got into doing, you know, more than one book.
It’s just that I had so many ideas that I felt were really cool and interesting and needed to be, to be written and, and I couldn’t do all of them by myself.
HEFFNER: But what is the creative process in your mind … because people are riveted when they read you. There’s an element of suspense, there’s an element of … kind of multiple layers of …
PATTERSON: Well, I, I think, you know, I mean it’s, you know the three laws of real estate … you know, location, location, location. I think for, for me the rules of… of writing the kind of books that I write is story, story, story.
And, and when I’m writing a story I like to think there’s one person sitting across from me and I don’t want them to get up until I’m finished …the story.
That’s, that’s my … so I, I want to keep it, it moving along. Michael Connelly, who’s a very good mystery writer said, What Jim does is every scene, literally every single scene is … is created to move both the characterization and the action forward. And to turn on the movie projector in our heads.
PATTERSON: And I think that’s very accurate and, and I think he said it better than I could.
HEFFNER: Hmmmm. These gifts to local libraries, to return to the subject of, of literacy…ou mentioned before that you’re focusing on those in need in local communities and kind of enriching the cultural milieu of, of these communities. Where, where are we most in dire need of that?
PATTERSON: Sigh. Everywhere.
HEFFNER: Is it really everywhere?
PATTERSON: Yeah …
HEFFNER: A universal truth?
PATTERSON: No, it’s not a universal thing, but there, there are pockets in, in … obviously in the big cities, there are always … you know there are parts of the big cities, you know, whether it’s New York, or Los Angeles, Chicago that are just not doing well.
About six weeks ago I did a talk for all of the middle school principals in New York City, which was great. And interestingly what, what the Board of Education wanted me to talk about was encouraging the principals to get their students to read for fun.
PATTERSON: That was what they wanted them to do. Because they know, they’re smart enough to know that, that’s what … that’s how you hook kids. Look, if we … if they taught movies … in, in school … it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world … you could, you could deal with characterization and story lines and arcs and all sorts of interesting things.
But if we started with like Ingmar Bergman films … we’d all go – Ahh, I don’t really like movies … – you know …
PATTERSON: … so, you know, there need to be more stories written that kids can relate to. And they go – This is really interesting – … I … that, that moved me, as opposed to, you know, well we must read The Red Badge of Courage … Ahhh, we don’t have to read … it’s okay … or we must read, Great Expectations You don’t have to read Great Expectations, and we certainly don’t have to memorize the names of the characters and – you know – do those sorts of .. who cares? Doesn’t matter.
I mean in some kids, they memorize automatically and that’s one of the problems with how kids do or don’t get into the better colleges. You know a lot of kids who retain information … that’s looked at as intelligence and it isn’t necessarily intelligence. They retain …
HEFFNER: And that standardization of curricula is troubling to you … that’s standardized that we so insistently enforce A Raisin in the Sun, The Great Gatsby … there’s not … to use the name of this program … an openmindedness towards …
PATTERSON: Yeah … open mind … yeah I, I mean … obviously a brand name for, for the show, and much needed. It’s, it’s the … this show and, and the title … it’s the opposite of, of what’s all over television. It’s the closed mind and the closed mind and the open mind … yeah, we do need to be more open to … to how we … and obviously on a local level, I said this before, but teachers need to have some leeway in terms of what they teach and how they teach. And … and they can’t spend the whole year preparing for a test … because if … you know … that’s, that’s not the way to get kids involved, in my opinion.
HEFFNER: Maybe you’re so flexible because you craft so many disparate story lines and, and weave them together both in single volumes and sequels, that there can be an idea of an allegory, say … there’s Plato’s Cave, obviously and there … the doctor’s eyes in Gatsby, but fundamentally you can create truths in, in multiple allegories. Should we not be so restrictive in terms of what … I’m thinking about my …
PATTERSON: Well, look …you can’t … (laugh) in, in this … at this stage, no body can, can read everything. So nobody will have covered everything, anyway.
So, so let’s just … let’s give, let’s give tastes … lets give a taste to Shakespeare and let’s give a taste of John Cheever and let’s give a taste of J. K. Rowling … you what I mean … taste, and, and then … eventually, you know, we’ll go out and follow up on some of those things as, as we get older.
HEFFNER: I would ask what’s next, but you have the volumes of books here for us …
PATTERSON: You know, one of the things that next are a lot of kid’s books … you know, more, more kids books than ever … I, I’m really going to get, you know, a lot more … the publisher just dug up a thing that … which a lot of people aren’t aware of … but I have … I have more number one best selling children’s books than any living author, which I think people aren’t aware of. And, that comes out of a passion … it’s just totally a passion to, to write books where kids are going to read the book and go – “give me another book” – …
PATTERSON: it’s that simple. That was … I really enjoyed that. And there’s always, there’s always something going on in the books that I write … you know I-Funny … that series. It’s about a kid who decides he want to be a stand-up comedian. Well what do you have to do when you decide you want to do something… You need to study. So he studies every comedian in the history of mankind. And he studies every joke. And then he starts writing his own jokes. Well, that’s how you approach anything … whatever you want … you know, you must study … you must … so that’s a good thing for kids to be learning and thinking about.
Now the complication here is this boy can never be a stand-up comedian because he’s in a wheel chair. Now … and, and what is the role of humor in dealing with tough breaks in life. Ah, ah … you know … and where’s that all going to go. And he’s in The World’s Funniest Kid Contest and can he do well in that or is that going to be a limitation the fact that he’s in a wheel chair and you know … so there’s a story to grab on to … there’s, there’s a lesson to be learned … so everything I write for kids, it’s of that sort. There, there’s something to think about, there’s something to talk about, there’s something to talk about in the classrooms.
HEFFNER: I think your focus on middle school and we were saying here in the studio is spot on. Because it’s, it’s a phase of life when, if you don’t have that book …
HEFFNER: … to gravitate towards, that idea, that passion is not born then, it may never been borne.
PATTERSON: And part of it is the kids, most of the kids are old enough to actually focus and concentrate at that point. When they’re … some … a lot of kids when they’re younger, they really can’t … they’re not ready to focus yet … that’s why … I mean … but a lot of schools can’t afford it. But these schools that will do these contests where you’re going to read 40,50, 60 whoever gets the most, gets the pizza party … a lot of schools can’t afford to do that, unfortunately … but that’s very valuable, because those kids … they just get competent.
It’s like anything … I went to school … say, Who likes soccer? – Yay!! – Are you better now or four years ago … We’re better now!!! – Why? We play a lot. – Exactly. It’s the same with reading. You need to practice it, but the great thing about reading is … look, you want to be Chuck Berry, you want to be a great guitar player … it’s painful for a while … you want to be a great reader? It can be interesting right from the get-go. The first book you … I mean it can be a little slow going through it, but it can be a pretty cool story. So you can … you know, you can, you can be stimulated right from the beginning in terms of reading.
HEFFNER: I was so interested in what you said, and we’re wrapping up now … but about speaking to middle school principals … it, it does seem that with the implementation of the Common Core curriculum, vocabulary has become more advanced at an earlier stage and therefore middle school students may be more equipped to …
HEFFNER: … handle, not necessarily, your adult volumes, but more advanced … reading responsibilities and opportunities. Is that in accordance with what you’ve seen?
PATTERSON: Yeah. No, …yeah … kids are … yeah … vocab … well, it depends … once again it’s school to school to school.
HEFFNER: But in New York, in particular …
PATTERSON: And in New York, it’s school to school to school …
HEFFNER: (Laughter) … school to school.
HEFFNER: Well, it’s admirable, it’s so fascinating to hear you comment on books and learning and, and the future of both. And thank you …
PATTERSON: Oh, you’re very welcome.
HEFFNER: … for being on the program today, James Patterson …
PATTERSON: And thank you for having an open mind.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.
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