Oline Cogdill

With Along Came a Spider in 1993, James Patterson launched the beginning of one of mystery fiction’s most iconic characters—Alex Cross. It hardly seems possible that 20 years have gone by since Cross became involved in the kidnapping of two children by their teacher in Along Came a Spider.

A devoted family man, Cross is a brilliant psychologist who works as a profiler for the FBI and the Washington, D.C., police, a job that brings him into the crosshairs of many a villain.

Alex Cross also relaunched Patterson’s career as a novelist. Patterson’s novels are mega-bestsellers, having sold more than 280 million copies. Patterson has had more New York Times bestsellers than any other writer, ever, according to Guinness World Records. Currently, he is No. 2 on Forbes annual list of the top-earning authors. (E.L. James of 50 Shades is No. 1.)

In addition to the thrillers, Patterson also has several novels for children and young adults and vigorously promotes his ongoing campaign to get children interested in reading. Earlier this year, he teamed up with two-time Miami Heat champion and New York Times bestselling author Dwayne Wade (A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger than Basketball) for a national online webcast for kids across the country.

November 4, 2013, was declared “James Patterson Day” in Washington, D.C., in honor of his donation of books to every middle school in D.C. and for his positive portrayal of the District in the Alex Cross detective series.

Many of Patterson’s best sellers are co-authored by another writer. The only exceptions are Patterson’s Alex Cross novels, which are all his work.

Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, marks the 20th anniversary of Alex Cross’s debut, which will be celebrated by the release of Patterson’s latest novel Cross My Heart. In this novel, Cross becomes the obsession of a madman who wants to prove that he is the greatest criminal mind in history. To achieve this, the criminal will use Cross’ family as a weapon.

Mystery Scene
was able to get an exclusive question and answer interview with Patterson before Cross My Heart lands on the bookshelves and reading devices.

Question: Your first novel The Thomas Berryman Affair won the Edgar when it was published in 1976 and you published regularly until Along Came a Spider; What prompted your to write a series?
Answer: I came up with the idea for Alex and I got hooked. I wanted to keep following him, seeing what he’d do next, how his family would grow and change, and how he might change. It’s like meeting someone you really like and wanting to keep the friendship alive – Alex spoke to me and he hasn’t stopped since that first conversation.

Q: How did you devise the character of Alex Cross?
I wanted to create a character that was multi-faceted; I wanted the audience to care about not just his ability to profile and catch criminals, but his family life, his interior life. I wanted something more than the loner detective who went home to no one and drank himself to sleep at the end of each day. And I think with Alex, you not only care about him and his work, but about that crazy, loud, loving family of his, too.

Q: Is it true in your original manuscript that Alex begun as a woman?
When I first started with Alex, the character was a woman. It started with about 60 pages of a character named "Alexis," though the last name wasn’t "Cross.”

Q: Why did you make Alex Cross an African-American?
Well, I think anyone can agree that at that time African-American men weren’t being realistically and fairly represented in a lot of mainstream writing and definitely not in writing by white authors. Most African-American characters in a lot of these thrillers were drawn as caricatures—as criminals, or as one-note representations of people that showed nothing of a real, human side. And I wanted to write a character who challenged all the stereotypes out there. Alex is responsible, a good father, uses his brains rather than his brawn. But I think what stands out most about Alex is that his being African-American really doesn’t, at the end of the day, matter. He’s a man, committed to his work and his family, and he’s relatable in so many ways, to so many people.

Q: Along Came a Spider became a hit fairly quickly, did this surprise you?
I knew I cared what happened next to Alex—and I was glad to see that others agreed, but I never took it for granted that it would happen. It was a nice surprise.

Q: Why so many standalone novels before Alex Cross?
I enjoyed the standalones I wrote a lot (and still enjoy the ones I write each year), but when I “met” Alex, I found I was intrigued by him—I didn’t have him completely figured out and I wanted to know more about him and so I just kept exploring with him, and I still am.

Q: In looking at your Alex Cross series, is there anything you wished you’d done differently with Alex Cross?
When I look back, I see an evolution with Alex, my own writing and the series, but I don’t think I’d change anything. Alex and I grew together through much of my career over the last 20 years and he feels like an old friend by this point. We’ve learned from one another and I think made each other better.

Q: What pleases you most about the Alex Cross series?
When people tell me that they would never have become a reader if it weren’t for Alex and his adventures – those moments mean a lot. When people discover him and make him, and me, a part of their lives – what’s more satisfying than that?

Q: Which Alex Cross novel are you most proud of?
It’s hard to pick a favorite—Along Came a Spider because it was my first with Alex, is one I really am proud of. I truly enjoyed Cross [also published as Alex Cross] and revisiting Alex’s past, his most personal and painful moments—and seeing it come alive on the big screen was a thrill, as well.

Q: How has Alex Cross changed through the years?
Alex was special because of his ability to use his brain over his brawn; but the fact is, over the years, he did have to learn to become more of a physical fighter, a tougher character, as the world around him changed. I think he’s risen to the challenge quite nicely.

Q: What is the future of Alex Cross?
Are you fishing for spoilers? I’ll never tell! But I will say that there’s a lot more adventure and more of a certain villain we dealt with in Cross My Heart in the next installment out in 2014—Hope To Die. Everything Alex loves most is at stake.

Q: You’ve had a number of co-authors, but not on the Alex Cross novels, right? Why not?
I work really well in a collaborative environment—but I find that with Alex, it just seems to come together so naturally that I’ve kept him for myself. I suppose you could say Alex is the co-author there!

Q: What’s your opinion of the movies based on the Alex Cross novels?
I’ve enjoyed all of the movies based on Alex Cross, especially the actors they’ve cast in each film. It doesn’t get much better than Morgan Freeman, and in the latest movie I was just blown away by Tyler Perry, Ed Burns and Matthew Fox. Watching your characters come to life on the big screen never gets old, and I hope to have more of that in the future.

Q: Your support of literacy programs and young readers are quite famous. How and why did you get involved with literacy?
When my son Jack was 8, he wasn’t a strong reader. He’s a smart, curious kid, but he hadn’t found books that really grabbed his attention. Sue [his wife] and I decided that we’d make him into a reader, and so that summer we told him he didn’t have to do chores, but he did have to read several books. It took time, and effort, and finding the right books, but by the end of the summer he’d read more than a few that he really loved, and that was it—he was hooked. I think it is really up to us, as parents to take this mission into our hands. There’s not a lot we can control or change these days—not the healthcare system, not climate change and not the economy. But getting the kids we love reading? That’s something we can do, and it’s something with a real, lasting impact. Getting our kids reading is saving their lives—period.

Q: How many books will be published under James Patterson this year?
Between my books for grown-ups and the kids stuff, 13. What can I say – I can’t get enough of this stuff!

Photos: Top, James Patterson, photo courtesy Deborah Feingold
second: James Patterson and Dwyane Wade. Photo courtesy Hachette