3 Questions for James Patterson

An author known for thrillers and mysteries turns his eyes (and pen) toward one of golf’s greats.

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Prolific and popular, James Patterson has written hundreds of books, many of which have been bestsellers and adapted for movies and television. Pencil in hand (no computer or even a typewriter for this 77-year-old), he’s found success in every genre, from crime novels — like his endlessly popular Alex Cross series — to children’s books, while also co-writing a few books with famous faces like President Clinton and Dolly Parton.

Now Patterson is taking on a real-life sports phenom in his new, unauthorized biography, Tiger, Tiger, which is billed as “a hole-in-one thriller.” In it, he explores the rises and falls of one of the world’s greatest golfers: Tiger Woods.

Jeanne Wolf: You witnessed “Tigermania” as you put together your book. What was it that propelled Tiger to the top and then nearly destroyed him?

James Patterson: I’m not trying to pick on him. I don’t need the snark that a lot of sports writers put into their stories. It’s not one of those 500-pages-of-everything books that you don’t particularly care about unless you’re fanatic about golf.

His father, Earl, was very present everywhere in his life, of course. He relentlessly worked on Tiger’s game and his mental toughness: “We have to show those country club kids.” What I found fascinating was that his mother was a major influence too. Tilda was of the “Go out there and kill them; you must crush them” school. As a result, Tiger was nothing if not competitive. He was on TV at five years old sinking putts and saying, “When I’m older I’m going to beat Jack Nicklaus.” But by the time he was in his 20s, he really hadn’t experienced life. He hadn’t dated much before he got married. He was, surprisingly, very sheltered.

It was sad when we started to see mood changes in tournaments and news of drugs and women that tarnished his image. I remember what he said in that fateful press conference after an assault by the media: “I had affairs, I cheated. I was wrong. I don’t get to play by different rules.”

But Tiger overcame a lot growing up. He was so nearsighted he was practically legally blind and had to wear thick corrective “Coke bottle” lenses. Kids teased him by calling him Urkel. At school and on white-dominated golf courses, he was stared at and called names because he was Black. Yet, even now, he’s got that competitive edge.

JW: Tiger had a hefty price to pay for fame. I’ve never heard you say that it’s hard to be a public figure. Has success made you a target too?

JP: One of the very positive things about my life is that I grew up in a small town, so one of my blessings is that I still look at the world through the eyes of this kid from Newburgh, New York. I’m like, “Isn’t this cool?” I try to be as positive as I can but not naive. If reviews of my books are negative but fair and honest, that’s okay. I might learn something from them. I advise making a list of all the stuff that really irritates and makes you see red. Then, the things you can’t do something about, you just cross off the list and forget about them. But do work at what you can help fix.

I had a really hard time selling my first book, The Thomas Berryman Number. When I finally got it published, it won an Edgar. [Editor’s note: An Edgar Allan Poe Award, which is awarded annually by the Mystery Writers of America] It was my first novel. I was 27, just a kid. I remember my speech. All I said was, “I guess I’m a writer now.” But it took a long time to get where I am.

JW: You said of Tiger, as he tried to keep his career afloat, “Sometimes you can’t think and swing at the same time.” Is that true of you too?

JP: Unfortunately, I have not mastered that myself. I think way too much. I’m in competition with myself, trying to make my next book the best one that I’ve ever done. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out, but you always hope it’s going to be great. My second novel with President Clinton took a while to get going. It just sucked. But you keep trying and trying. And then suddenly, it got good.

There’s a big difference between Alex Cross’s books, the Tiger book, and the kids’ books that I do. The voices are all different. Whenever I’m doing a new book, I’m really thinking about that voice. What’s the voice? I’m doing one on Hitler now. Weird, isn’t it? And I’m searching for his voice.

I came across this quote: “My time here is short. What can I do most beautifully?” That really drives my choices now. I feel it is mostly to be a good husband, a good dad, and to write stories. I can’t imagine my life without writing.

 

An abridged version of this interview is featured in the July/August 2024 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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