One of the reasons authors sign on to come to the West Virginia Book Festival is that they’ve never really been here, haven’t been to Charleston and maybe haven’t been to West Virginia except to pass through.
New York Times bestseller list juggernaut James Patterson, who headlines this year’s West Virginia Book Festival at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center, didn’t think he’d ever been to Charleston, but he also wanted to come to the festival because of the library that sponsors it.
“Libraries are so vital,” the 72-year-old Florida resident said. “I’m kind of past the point of trying to sell my books. They’re going to sell reasonably well.”
Patterson has written about 150 novels across several genres, including mystery, science fiction and thrillers. He’s known for several book series, including the Alex Cross, Maximum Ride and NYPD Red books.
Among those 150 books, 114 of them have been New York Times bestsellers — and 67 of them have held the top spot on the list, a Guinness world record.
“I’m interested in the state of publishing,” the author said. “But also libraries and people reading.”
People have gotten out of the habit of reading and they don’t appreciate libraries for what they are, he said.
“From my point of view, imagine if there was a store at the mall called the ‘free store,’ and everything there is free.” Patterson said, “There’d be a line out to the parking lot. Well, sh--, that’s what a library is.”
Patterson believed libraries needed to change the perception of what they are. They’re not quiet, dusty halls meant only for contemplation and serious study.
“You need to change it to the free store,” he said.
And the culture needs to encourage reading. Reading is important.
“Reading is cool,” Patterson said. “Reading is a great thing to do. Reading will set you free. Reading will make your soul shine. Reading will make sure your kids don’t end up working jobs they hate.”
He sighed and added, halfway-jokingly, “If the robots don’t take over everything.”
Patterson writes science fiction, but isn’t a big fan of some of the modern technological developments, like in publishing.
Compared to Patterson’s first book, “The Thomas Berryman Number,” which the author said was rejected 31 times before being published in, getting a book out to the public isn’t hard.
Writers can easily and inexpensively self-publish through online sites, including Amazon, but he didn’t think that was necessarily a good thing.
“We need literature. We need publishers,” he said. “We need people who go through all the manuscripts and work with writers. We need publishers and we need libraries and we need book stores.”
And America needs more readers.
Patterson has been a vocal supporter of all three. He’s supported literacy and reading programs with his checkbook, donating millions of dollars for reading programs.
One of the programs he’s proud of is through the University of Florida, which is working to raise grade level reading in schools.
“The percentage of kids reading at grade level in Florida is 43 percent,” Patterson said.
That’s terrible, he said, but added, “The best in the country is 62 percent, which is Massachusetts — and that ain’t too good either.”
The importance of raising grade level reading, the author said, was foundational. If kids can’t read as well as they need to, other educational programs won’t be that effective.
Patterson supports reading but said he doesn’t get in as much reading as he used to. In his office in Florida, he looked around and counted the stacks of manuscripts, screenplays and writing projects he was currently involved with.
They numbered over 30 and he’s busy with a documentary based around his 2016 book on millionaire financier and convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein.
Epstein was arrested again in July on sex trafficking charges and then died in his cell in August. The medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, but investigations were quickly opened by authorities.
“It was an insane story,” he said. “There were 40 interviews with underage girls. I had this story and I went to CNN, CBS and nobody was interested except the Wall Street Journal. 85 percent of the story was in that book.”
The documentary would probably show up on Netflix at some point within the next year, Patterson said.
The author is also working on a film or television series for Showtime based on “The President Is Missing,” a novel he wrote with former President Bill Clinton.
“We didn’t know each other at first, but we became really good friends,” he said.
They exchanged birthday gifts. The former president sent him a humidor, knowing Patterson didn’t smoke and told him to stock it with bubblegum cigars.
The author was baffled at how nasty some people got when they were making appearances together supporting the release of the novel.
Patterson knows and is friends with a couple of presidents, past and present.
“I know the Bushes and I know Trump,” Patterson said. “They’re not devils. They’re trying to do what they think is best.”
Patterson said he was looking forward to coming to Charleston and the West Virginia Book Festival. He joked about how he gets introduced at these kinds of events. He’s always described as prolific, which with 147 novels to his credit, he is.
“We talk quality,” he said. “We’re going to have fun.”