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James Patterson: The world's busiest best-selling writer

By Christian DuChateau, CNN
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Fri March 23, 2012
James Patterson co-wrote his latest,
James Patterson co-wrote his latest, "Guilty Wives," with David Ellis.
  • James Patterson currently has three books on the best-seller lists
  • Patterson turns out 10 books a year, with help from co-writers
  • His latest, "Guilty Wives," arrives in stores next week

(CNN) -- James Patterson may be the top-selling writer in the world; he might very well be the busiest, too. Patterson has three books near the top of the bestseller lists right now. His latest, "Guilty Wives," arrives in stores next week.

With the help of his co-writers, Patterson is turning out about 10 books a year. Patterson holds the world record for the most No. 1 bestsellers of any author. He's also the first author to reach 5 million e-books sold. All together, he's sold an astounding 220 million books worldwide.

Adult fans love Patterson for novels such as "The Women's Murder Club" or his Alex Cross series. A new movie starring Tyler Perry as the detective is coming this year.

Younger readers love Patterson for titles like "Maximum Ride" and "Witch & Wizard" or his Middle School series.

When he's not writing books, Patterson is working to get more kids to read through his website, He's also sent thousands of books to U.S. troops overseas. This month. Patterson donated 200,000 books that are now on their way to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with the help of organizations like Operation Gratitude and Books for Heroes.

CNN recently caught up with the bestselling writer to talk to him about his latest novel and his philanthropic efforts. The following is an edited transcript.

CNN: Let's start by talking about Operation Gratitude and how you recently donated thousands of books to U.S. troops.

Patterson: Books are on the way overseas this week, which is the big subject for me. It started in part because a friend of mine, a partner in my entertainment company, was a captain in Vietnam, and his son did a couple of tours in Iraq. He's a bright guy; he used to send letters home every week and also letters from his friends. I read a lot of them, and they were really kind of mind-blowing in terms of just putting you in touch with what it's like to be a soldier overseas right now.

It really got me interested. If I could, I would like to shake the hands of everybody over there, because I don't think they get the attention that they should. I can't do that, so we're going to put 200,000 books in the hands of thousands of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan instead, which I think is a big deal.

Patterson has donated thousands of books to the troops and strives to get kids involved.
Patterson has donated thousands of books to the troops and strives to get kids involved.

CNN: What kind of feedback have you received from U.S. servicemen and -women for your efforts?

Patterson: We've been doing this on a smaller scale for five or six years now, 20 or 30,000 books, so I've had hundreds and hundreds of letters and ... lots of pictures, with troops saying, 'here I am reading your book in some sort of foxhole or in my truck or jeep or whatever.'

I also hear from families, people from home saying, 'I got a note from our son, and he talked about getting a couple of your books,' and that's very cool. It's very rewarding.

CNN: You're also a big believer in getting kids to read.

Patterson: It's a huge thing with me. Getting the books out, going to schools, talking to kids about how important it is for them to read so that they really become better human beings. I think at this stage in our civilization, I think books are probably the best place to get varying points of view on things, understand how other people think and live their lives and have more understanding and compassion for people.

Obviously, if a kid can't read well by the time they get out of middle school, most likely they're going to have problems. It's just so much harder to go through school and get a decent job. The implications are huge.

There are a lot of things we as individuals can't do much about. We can't solve global warming as individuals or health care problems, but as individuals, most of us can get our kids reading. We can do that.

Patterson's recent essay on getting your kid to read

CNN: You have several books on the bestseller list right now, a new novel coming out and a handful of others in the works, plus your other projects. So how do you keep up with everything?

Patterson: Oh, yeah, the books, too. I don't know. I don't feel stressed out. It's just a pattern I am comfortable with. I get up every morning and chop wood, and I pretty much do it seven days a week, and I like to do it. I still have time for my wife and my son, who's 14, and at this point, my head is still above water. I think part of it is, you can take on more, and you do, but at a certain point I may say, that's it. I can't do anymore. I read a fair amount, but I don't read as much as I used to, so that's suffered a little.

CNN: You work with a number of co-authors on some of your books. How do you divide the workload?

Patterson: We alternate words. Just kidding. Actually, I write an outline of about 50 to 60 pages that will lay out every chapter. I then ask the co-writer to contribute to the outline. I want their opinions, and I want them to feel they're part of the process right from the get-go. Then they will write a draft.

I like to look at things every two weeks. That way you can say 'that part's great' or 'hold it, let's talk about this.' I was just talking to Mike Ledwidge a little while ago; he and I do the Michael Bennett books. When I have a first draft, then I will do another, and in some cases I've done, seven, eight, nine drafts. And that's the process. I do the outline, the co-writer does the first draft, and I'll do subsequent drafts. Although my co-writers might call it 'Jim screwing up the book,' but so far, it's working well.

CNN: "Guilty Wives" comes out next week. What was the spark behind this book?

Patterson: I had this idea of four women going off on a cool vacation and getting in big trouble, really big trouble. They're accused of murder in France, and it's a huge, huge trial, and I don't want to give too much away, but I really liked that idea.

CNN: What are you working on next?

Patterson: There's the next Alex Cross and then a couple of kids books, a follow-up to "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life." I'm trying to write books that are really funny but also have things for kids to sink their teeth into and think about. I'm writing one now about middle school and summer camp, and then right around Christmas, I'll have a book about a middle school kid who desperately wants to be a stand-up comedian, and he knows every joke in the history of mankind, so that's kind of a fun one.

CNN: How is the Alex Cross movie coming together?

Patterson: I've been to two test screenings, and I visited the set, and it's looking really, really good. Tyler Perry is going to blow everybody's mind. He's very, very good. Not that you wouldn't expect that, but he hasn't done this kind of a movie before.

You'll see him as a very dramatic, very physical actor. Also, Matthew Fox is going to blow people's minds as the bad guy. It's unusual for a thriller, because it's both exciting and very emotional. I think it's going to do extremely well.

CNN: How do you come up with all of your story ideas?

Patterson: Sometimes it can just be a title, or I just have a sense that I can build a story around something and I'm going to like the story. I have to feel emotional about it to do it. I used to, like a lot of writers, get up at 2:30 in the morning and start scribbling stuff down.

I've kind of stopped doing that, because the good ideas I tend to remember. I have more than enough ideas right now. I have a folder in my office with about 400 ideas in it. So it will take me another 40 years to get through those.

Read an excerpt from "Guilty Wives"

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