The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Ask the Author | Author James Patterson says we shouldn’t be too worried about book banning

Ahead of his visit to Iowa City, the prolific and highly successful author spoke with The Daily Iowan regarding the reality of book banning in the U.S. and how he keeps his imagination so alive at 77.
Ava Neumaier
Bestselling author James Patterson speaks about his life and craft to Lan Samantha Chang at the Dey House on Thursday, April 11, 2024. Staff, undergraduates, and Writing Workshop students were in attendance.

With more than 425 million copies sold; more than 260 New York Times’ best-sellers; and an oeuvre of nearly 400 books spanning from murder mystery to middle-grade fiction, James Patterson is, by many accounts, one of the most prolific contemporary authors.

Best known for his crime fiction series, “Alex Cross,” “Maximum Ride,” and “Women’s Murder Club,” his humorous children’s books such as “I Funny” and “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life,” and his Emmy Award-winning memoir, “James Patterson by James Patterson,” Patterson competes in all literary genres.

As one of the wealthiest authors of the 21st century, Patterson, nearing his 80s, is a resident philanthropist. Jane VanVoorhis, the assistant vice president for development at the University of Iowa Center for Advancement, cited that Patterson donates his year-end bonuses to booksellers at independently owned bookstores across the U.S.

VanVoorhis got word that a bookseller at Prairie Lights in Iowa City received a bonus, and decided to further research Patterson’s philanthropy and enlightened him on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Patterson began funding scholarships for 10 first and second-year workshop students, then 14 students. Next year, VanVoorhis forecasts he will fund 30 students.

“He really believes that reading saves lives,” VanVoorhis said.

The Daily Iowan spoke to Patterson ahead of his talk at the Writers’ Workshop and Prairie Lights on April 4. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

*The Daily Iowan:* I remember, back in high school, I was reading “Instinct” — you described the interior of a restaurant and I remember feeling wowed at how tangible your imagery felt. How do you approach describing visual scenes without overwriting the details?

James Patterson: I don’t think about it too much. My big thing is just telling stories. There’s a line that’s been guiding most of my choices recently, and I think it’s actually more relevant for kids who are studying at Iowa than it is for me. The line is: “My time here is short — what can I do most beautifully?” And I love that. I just think it’s such a motivator, it focuses you, and it could be anything; it could be what you do for a living, a hobby — there’s a lot of ways to go with it, but trying to try to be honest with yourself and realize that, even if you’re 20, your time here, is short. This isn’t something to stress people out or put pressure on people, but it focused me on the projects that I do or don’t do.

You’re a very versatile writer; How do you switch gears between books like “I Funny” and “Filthy Rich: The Shocking True Story of Jeffrey Epstein – The Billionaire’s Sex Scandal”?

I don’t [write] anything that I don’t fully understand how it works. Like, I could not write a book about a military general; I just don’t know how they think or talk. I just couldn’t do it. I’ve written love stories, but I couldn’t write a classic romance because I don’t entirely understand it. I mean, the kids books I do are all humorous. “Alex Cross” — not so funny. But with the kids [books], I mean with a title like “I Funny,” presumably it should be somewhat funny. I enjoyed that. I just like writing more humorous stuff.

Regarding your non-fiction book about Jefferey Epstein, how did writing this very real account of crime compare to the process of writing fictitious crime?

The truth for me with non-fiction is I love to make sh** up. Like, I wrote about the murder of King Tut and I wanted him to live, but I know not to [change] that. Regarding the book about Epstein — my friend, a journalist, was in New York City when Epstein was initially sent to prison. He thought the story was amazing, but I’d never heard of him. When I did learn of him, I thought, wow, this is an unbelievable story. My friend originally thought of doing a documentary, but I said this is really a book. So, we sat down and put the book together. We had police interviews with these young victims and they were heartbreaking — some people really can’t finish the book.

When we put it out in 2016, we went around to all these places — CBS, NBC, Fox — and nobody thought it was much of a story. The Wall Street Journal and the Miami Herald were kind of the only places that covered it. The weird thing was, about three to four years later, the lawyer for some of those victims wanted a lot of publicity because he was in the middle of lawsuits against Epstein, so he went to the Miami Herald and got a series written down there which drew a lot of awareness to it. Because Donald Trump was involved, suddenly that story was everywhere. Then, we did the Netflix documentary, “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich,” and, in the first 10 days, 100 million people watched that documentary.

Regarding your fictional characters, like Alex Cross, whom you’ve seen come to life on screen, how do they compare to the way you intended them to appear in your books?

When we were shooting “Kiss the Girls,” I remember being on the set and I soon found out that the novelists on a movie set rank somewhere below the caterer. Except, they know why the caterer is there, but they’re not sure what the novelist is bringing to the party. Everybody was nice and it was a fun experience, but the directors couldn’t care less what the novelist has to say in most cases. Occasionally, you’ll get a director who does care, but it’s kind of rare. Now, I’m more involved. We just finished and shot a new Alex Cross series for Amazon Prime Video; I wanted it to be edgier than the books, and it is. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

You have a famously dark imagination. How do you feed it and keep it healthy?

It’s just there. I can walk on the street and write a whole story about someone I saw get arrested. Mike Lupica and I wrote a book about a year ago that has a really great character in our opinion, Jane Smith, and we were out touring. It was a horrendous day on the Jersey Shore; unbelievable rain and wind, and it was just horrifying. I had a poor performance one night so I went out for a walk. I got about 100 yards and said “I’m not doing this.” On the walk back to the hotel, an old guy was paddling along on a bicycle into the wind and rain. As I watched him, just one word came into my head — I won’t tell you which word — so I went inside and wrote a five-page outline for a book. But yeah, pretty much anything could set me off.

I grew up in the country and, as a kid, there were no there kids around other than my sisters, whom I couldn’t play with. So, I would just go out into the woods and make up story after story. That ability stayed with me; stuff just comes kind of instantly to me. It’s a gift and a curse.

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Some of your work, most notably your book “Maximum Ride,” was banned in some Florida elementary schools last year. What do you feel the removal of your book, and many other authors’ books, represents about the trajectory of the United States’ appreciation and dissemination of literature?

I think we’re blowing this thing up a little bigger than it is. This is not Nazi Germany. However, it’s just ridiculous. But there is really no value in preaching to the converted. What we need to do is move people who are kind of on the fence or don’t know that they’re on the fence. When I talk about banned books, I try to do it from the point of view of people.

A lot of people out there don’t want the government in their face — or so they say — but they’re okay with banning books. My thing is: I don’t want the people in my family to have a stranger come in and tell us what we should or shouldn’t read. That’s what people like that would say, except when it’s something like banning books or abortion, they go “Oh, no, we should ban that.” I’m like, wait a minute, so you don’t want the government in your face but you want it in other people’s faces? Right.

What power do authors like yourself have against this removal of literature from schools?

We make some noise. We tell some stories. But once again, it’s not as bad as we make it. The [banning of] abortions is as bad as we make it, but this problem is just bubbling. It’s a bad bubble and it shouldn’t happen; it’s directional, it’s a “stop this, stop it now before it really does get there.” “Maximum Ride” getting banned? Not the end of the world. Toni Morrison getting banned? Yeah, that’s really bad.

Parents should totally be involved. I want parents to be involved, especially with kids on the internet. If your eight-year-old brings home “Hunger Games,” you can say, “Let’s talk about this” — that’s a parent paying attention.

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About the Contributors
Avi Lapchick
Avi Lapchick, Arts Editor
Avi Lapchick is an arts editor at The Daily Iowan. A fourth-year student studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, she previously held the positions of staff photojournalist, summer arts editor, and assistant arts editor at the DI. She is happiest when she is writing or painting.
Ava Neumaier
Ava Neumaier, Photojournalist
Ava Neumaier is a first-year student at the University of Iowa, majoring in English & Creative Writing. She was the Editor-in-Chief of her high school yearbook in New York, and has interned for a New York Times photographer. She enjoys taking pictures of performances and student life.