I Don’t Write Realism: James Patterson on Alex Cross

The importance of creating an African American hero, the one story change he doesn't agree with and his favorite mystery movies.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


The new Alex Cross movie franchise gave us a chance to talk to author James Patterson about the character he created in his series of mystery novels. Morgan Freeman played Cross in the movies of Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, and now Rob Cohen directs Tyler Perry in the film adaptation of Cross. Patterson seemed a gentle man and a loving storyteller when we spoke about the enduring legend of Alex Cross.


CraveOnline: Alex Cross has become a great role for African-American actors to play in movies.

James Patterson: Well, the funny thing was when I wrote the first book, Along Came a Spider, and somebody out here wanted to buy it, a big studio, I won’t get into what studio it was, but they said, “The only thing is we’d like you to change it to a white man.” And I said, “Sorry.”

So that’s not the studio that ended up making Along Came a Spider.

No, no, no. We didn’t sell it until the second book was out.

Why was making Alex Cross an African-American detective important in the first place?

It was important to me because at that time in our history, I just saw so much stimulus. I grew up in this town, it was sort of half black, half white. I had a lot of friends, I played a lot of basketball, I went to people’s houses who were African-American although in those days it was [called] black and white. I just felt that the portrayal of African-Americans was just stereotypical with a boom box on their shoulder and stuff like that. I said I hate that, it’s just ludicrous. So I wanted to create a hero, a larger than life African American who was educated and actually had a very powerful family life, very involved with his kids and particularly involved because his wife was dead. A good relationship with his grandmother, good relationship with the community and solve things more with his head than his fists. I didn’t want to write realism. I don’t write realism. I write larger than life. It’s what I do. It’s opera but I think it rings true for people. I think the family stuff rings true for people and I will always have detectives and FBI, whatever. It doesn’t necessarily happen that way but you get the emotions right. You’ve got the feeling for what it’s like to be out here on the street. You get the feelings for what it’s like to go home after you’ve been on the street.

When they cast Morgan Freeman in the first movies, was that like, “Score!?”

That was like, on the positive side, great actor. Took the role because, at least Morgan said, because Alex did solve stuff with his head, because he was a psychologist. The only issue was Morgan was a lot older than the character in the books.

Was there ever going to be a third movie with Morgan Freeman?

You’d have to ask Paramount. I think they had done some scripts and I’m not exactly sure what happened there.

Which of your books did they base those scripts on?

Roses are Red was one and I think Morgan actually had a script written on Mary, Mary. Just Morgan’s company.

So when Tyler Perry said he wanted to do Alex Cross, was that again, “Score!?”

Yeah, well I didn’t have anything to do with Tyler getting in the movie other than months before I had raised Tyler’s name and people said, “There’s no way you’ll ever get Tyler.” But I thought that Tyler, if he wanted to do it and if he wanted to do a different kind of a role, I thought that he could do it. Then when I went to meet him, he’s so strong willed and focused and he said, “Jim, I have too much to lose. I wouldn’t do this unless I was 100% sure that I could pull it off. And I really am going to submit to the director. The fact that I’ve directed, I’m taking my ego out of this in terms of being a director and I’m going to go in there and try to do this as dramatically and powerfully as I can.” And I believe that’s what he did.

This Alex Cross definitely still has his detective skills but he uses his fists more and is more of a brawler. Was that important to you that that side come out in this movie?

No, that’s what happened. That was a little more Rob than me but I’m comfortable with it. Rob was much more, I think just personally, he’s a little more that way. I just think he believed that if this tragedy happened that Alex would be much more affected by it and that he would really get caught up in the revenge side of it and looking for, even if it wasn’t totally justice, that he would just go and get the job done.

Were you glad Nana Mama was in this movie?

Yeah, and the family. Actually, it was a regret of Joe Wizan and David Brown who produced the first two that for whatever reason, they hadn’t been able to work the family into the first two. Part of that was Morgan’s age so it became harder. How old would the kids be? I think that was one of the problems. They just couldn’t get past the fact that Morgan was older.

Was the book Cross a lot more graphic? I believe Picasso actually rapes his victims in your book.

The books are usually I think a little bit more graphic.

Are there more victims of Picasso in the book than there was time for in a movie?


Has it been so long since you wrote it that seeing the movie is kind of a new thing?

Yeah, I think with the books, and not just the books, with all the books it does get harder for me to recall exactly what was in the original.

Is that good because you can be less precious about it?

It’s fine. I’m not precious about it anyway. The book is the book. There it is. It’s not changing. We haven’t changed the book and the movie is the movie. Yeah, I think they’re both good and they exist in their own realms and that’s fine with me.

Does making Picasso the killer of Alex’s wife in this movie change his backstory significantly?

No. It’s not like Looper where they’re really connected. No, I don't think it changes. In terms of future movies, obviously one of the big changes is they set it in Detroit.

That was my next question. He’s not in D.C. yet. What did you think of that idea?

That one I went along with. I can’t say that I was too crazy about that one. That’s the one where some fans are going to go, “huh?”

Is it sort of like the Batman Begins moment where he gets the Joker card? He says he’s going to take the job in D.C.

There’s too much known about Alex that it will never track that somehow he started in Detroit in terms of the books. So that will always be where the books and the movies go their separate ways. But as I made the joke about Alex Cross’s sister, the movies are always going to stretch. They’re going to change certain things about the books, because they can.

There’s so much information available now about killers and murderers and psychological profiles. Does that make it easier to have more research information, or harder to come up with new things?

I think it’s harder to come up with new things. There’s plenty of information. I find and people I know at the FBI find a lot of it is bullsh*t. In terms of people say, “We have it down to a science what psychopaths are like or what they’re motivated by or how it happens.” I think in some cases there’s truth to it but a lot of cases, especially cases where they’re not catching the people, I remember talking to an FBI guy about Son of Sam and he finally went up and talked to him in the penitentiary about hearing the dogs and all that stuff. Berkowtiz just looked at him and clearly he was playing games.

Have books and movies that made people more aware of pleading insanity increased the incidence of psychopaths with lavish backstories that may or may not be fake?

Not that I’m aware of. We know the book that’s been the most influential with serial killers.

Catcher in the Rye?

The Bible. I mean, for what it’s worth.

What are your favorite movie mysteries to watch?

There are a lot of good mysteries. Not as much lately because, I don't know why, but I think to some extent Hollywood has forgotten how to make good thrillers, mysteries, whatever. I’m not sure. I think it’s political to be honest with you. They somehow think it’s right wing males who go to those and it’s not. It’s women more than males. My audience is, I don't know, 70-some % women and high 60s college graduates. So it’s not what people somehow project an audience that is not the audience. Hitchcock stuff I loved. Not every one but most of them. I just saw Chinatown again in the last year or so. It hadn’t struck me how wonderfully well it’s constructed, just scene after scene after scene, the opening, everything about the scene is just so brilliantly put together. I was stunned at how amazingly good it is. Hitchcock stands out. Not as much for me the Dashiell Hammetts and the Chandlers but I’m sure some of those I liked as well. Noir. James Cain I like. I don’t like, when you get a writer and people go, “He’s the new Chandler” or whatever, I always feel like what, is he a plagiarist? Seriously, what happened there? You mean he’s taken that style? I think that’s one of the curious things where people, writers and studios get into [a rhythm] da da dun da da, da da dun da da, da da dun da dan, da da dun da da, where you know [what’s going to happen]. Well, guess what? I don’t like to do that. I like to. Do something. A little different. Because I just don’t like it when it’s paying homage, plagiarism, to Chandler. It’s that beat. So I like doing something that’s very different.

So what should the author described as the next James Patterson do to stand out?

Stop. Do something else. Find your own voice. Find your own style. My style is very colloquial. Obviously it’s very pacey and it’s colloquial. It’s the way we tell stories. If you wrote down two or three or four stories that you tell that everybody loves at parties or whatever, chances are there wouldn’t be any good sentences, but the stories would be good. That’s kind of what I do. I know the story’s good, I know it has a beginning, a middle and an end. I know that it moves along. I know that the characters, or I think, I could be deluding myself, that the characters are interesting and I’m less interested in the style.

Does that just come to you, or do you write more formally and then adapt it to your colloquial style?

I think it comes to me and I can feel it. What my editor, who’s actually the publisher at Little, Brown, what he says about me is that, one, I’ve created more enduring characters than probably any author there is right now in terms of Cross and Women’s Murder Club and Maximum [Ride] or whatever. And also that in his opinion, there is not a writer who combines plot and emotion more than I do. I’m very emotional. I do feel stuff, for better or worse. If you don’t like maudlin, that could be a problem or if you don’t like sentimental, that could be a problem but I do believe in feeling stuff. I think to some extent you have so many people going through life not feeling anything right now and craving feelings. They want to feel. They want to feel something because it reminds them that they’re alive.

Are you a 9 to 5 writer?

No, I’m a 5 to 9 writer. Seven days a week. I tend to write early.

Oh, 5AM to 9PM?

Yeah, then I’ll break off for a while and then write again later in the morning and then maybe write from maybe four to six or something like that.