James Patterson Talks His New, Portland-Set Thriller

The 74-year-old discusses his latest book, The Noise, plus his relationships with Bill Clinton, Stephen King, Dolly Parton, and the works of James Joyce.

By Conner Reed August 13, 2021

The Noise hits shelves August 16

James Patterson's latest thriller imagines Portland, Oregon facing down just about the only disaster we've managed to avoid in the last year: a zombie apocalypse. That's an oversimplification of what the 74-year-old is up to in The Noise, which he co-authored with horror writer J.D. Barker (Patterson usually draws up story outlines and then works with other writers to execute his books), but it's most of the way there. 
The Noise centers on two sisters, Tennant and Sophie, who live in an off-the-grid survivalist village in the eastern shadow of Mt Hood. While checking rabbit traps, the girls are subjected to a soul-piercing sound that drives one of them insane, flattens their village, and slowly whips up a threat that brings national attention to Portland.
The book (out August 16) has won the praises of Stephen King, Patterson's perennial frenemy, and has intense echoes of a few M. Night Shyamalan properties—look at this book trailer Patterson tweeted out and tell me it does not give you strong The Happening teas. It also, intentionally or not, plays on the average Oregonian's fears of the Big One and climate disaster, and has startling echoes of the events of the past year with its talk of "infection" and the deployment of federal agents to downtown Portland.
We called Patterson up and discussed his choice to zero in on the Beaver State, plus his collaborations with Dolly Parton and Bill Clinton, his feelings about Stephen King, and his reservations about James Joyce. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

PORTLAND MONTHLY: Can I ask where you’re calling from?

JAMES PATTERSON: I’m in New York, on the Hudson River, maybe 20 miles north of New York City. Where are you calling from? 

I am in a hot house in Portland, Oregon. Which I guess leads me to my first question: What moved you to set The Noise in Oregon?

It felt good in terms of setting up this initial village of survivalists, to put it in deep, pretty woods. I always liked the idea of bad things happening in unusually pretty locations, and bad things happening to people who seem to be pretty good. 

Have you spent much time out here before? 

Oh sure, I’ve been to Portland, I don’t know, 7, 8, 9 times. Lot of book tours. I like the city. I like cities where you can feel what the city was a while back, and you can feel what it’s becoming. Where they don’t just rub out what was.

How much of the book was conceived in the last year? As I was reading, it was hard not to overlay current events: all this talk about infection, this military presence in Portland. 

No, no, this one’s older. It was finished about a year and a half ago. 

How does it feel to roll it out now, amid all these new resonances?

Portland, it’s such a strange—as you know, with the floods back in 2019 or so, and then obviously the fires, and the unrest in the city. Obviously all of those things are unfortunate. And then of course, I add in this evil noise. How dare I? 

The Noise is more in the horror space than a lot of your other books. What moved you to explore that?

You don’t like to be in a rut. And obviously with Alex Cross and the Women’s Murder Club, they’re series, and they’re gonna remain mysteries, and it’s a little confining. I like to open up the floodgates. I’m sort of playing in this horror arena, and Stephen King is sort of playing in the detective arena a little bit now. It’s kind of fun.

On that note, I saw that Stephen King called out The Noise on a list of his favorite new thrillers for Apple Books. How did that feel?

Uhhhhhh, yeah, good. Look, I mean: he has had some trouble with me. I have not had trouble with him, it’s just not my nature. I’m all for the other person doing what they do, and I’m pretty open to things, and he’s been a little less open. But he liked the book. I didn’t want to publicize that, so we haven’t done much with it. I think it would’ve been kind of big news if we chose to, but we chose not to. 

I saw on Deadline that The Noise is the first book in development for an adaptation as part of your new deal with eOne. Do you have any ideas what that might look like? 

Yeah, there are a couple of streaming services bidding for it now. The guy who created The 100 is involved, so hopefully we’ll be shooting around Portland at some point. That’ll come to fruition in the next couple weeks. There are two offers right now, but I can’t say much more. You know how that works. I wouldn’t bring it up if it wasn’t real; I guess maybe some lying person would. 

I also saw that yesterday, you announced a new collaboration with Dolly Parton, and I have to ask how working with Dolly has been.

It’s been great. I had a notion for a book: I like the idea of people succeeding against all odds. And to some extent, both Dolly and I have done that. She comes from a town that’s not even a town in the hill country in Tennessee, I come from a small town up the Hudson River, and the odds of either one of us doing as well as we have is miniscule. I had an idea for a story like that, which happened to be about a woman who writes and sings and plays instruments on country western stuff. So I contacted her and said, ‘Let’s talk.’ Her fear was, ‘I’m not just gonna sign my name to something,’ and I said, ‘Oh no, trust me, I want you to be involved.’ So I went down to Nashville, and we spent about an hour and a half together, no lawyers, no agents, and we really hit it off. It’s been great.

I gave her a rough outline, and two days later, she sent me notes on the outline, and she had written seven songs already that came out of the outline. And I just went, ‘Oo, this is my kind of person.’ And she is. We’ve become really nice friends. She calls me ‘JJ’ or ‘Jimmy James,’ and for my birthday, she sang happy birthday over the telephone to me, which is kind of cool.

That’s everyone’s dream birthday gift.

Kinda like JFK and Judy Garland, or whoever it was. And then the morning before my birthday, this big box arrived, and I opened it up, and it’s a guitar. I do not play. And she had engraved on it, ‘Happy birthday JJ, I will always love you.’ We get along really, really well. Similar to [President Bill] Clinton and I, we also have become pretty good friends.

I mentioned growing up in a little town—I still see the world through the eyes of a kid from Newburgh. It’s still like, ‘Oh man, are you kidding me? Dolly Parton. Oh wow, President Clinton!’ It’s cool. Or even writing a book and getting it published. I refuse to get jaded about it. 

In these working relationships with super high-profile people like Dolly Parton and President Clinton, what’s been the most surprising aspect of seeing them in writer/storytelling mode? 

I don’t know about “surprising,” because I always feel that people don’t—we’re in this whole era where we’re demonizing people. I’ll give you an example of just the humanity. I wasn’t surprised by the humanity, it’s just how it comes out that sometimes can be surprising.

We’ve been out to dinner now with President Clinton and Hillary several times, my wife and I. But the first time we went out, it was a long meal, 3, 4 hours, and it was great. Really interesting. Hillary in particular, she’s really warm, funny, and down to earth. She’s a real Illinois girl, and my wife is actually from Illinois too. But 3 or 4 times during dinner, they were holding hands under the table. And that’s not how people think of them. And with Dolly, just as an example, she came to the airport and picked us up, and we stayed at her place. Then the next morning, at 7:15, she rode back with us out to the airport.

That kind of stuff. Down to earth. And it depends on the person. But in all cases, it’s really getting an inside peek at what these people are like. 

Talk about your working relationship with J.D. Barker, who helped you write The Noise. 

That’s an interesting one. We couldn’t be more different. He’s totally like, fire, ready, aim, and I’m kind of ready, aim, fire. That’s a constant thing. I really want to outline like crazy, try to figure it out, and he just wants to go and write shit down. And you know, it worked for James Joyce, but I don’t think it’s actually the best—well, it didn’t even work for Joyce. I’ve gotten through Ulysses a few times, but not … what’s the next one? 

Finnegans Wake?

Finnegans Wake, yeah. [Laughs] J.D.’s a little more Finnegans Wake, and I’m a little more Portrait of the Artist. But it’s interesting, and I think ultimately some good things come out of it. With The Noise, there was more discipline to that one.

Any favorite horror/sci-fi stories that you were using as a lodestone, or an inspiration, for The Noise?

Not consciously. I like a lot of King’s stuff. Actually, the real long ones I’m not as keen on, like The Stand and some of these that are like, ‘My god, it’s more than I want.’ But King, there was a period there where he wrote 3, 4, 5 in a row, and I liked all of them, and I can’t exactly tell you why. Maybe somehow he had an editor where the combination was working particularly well.

Obviously, you’re very prolific. How has the pandemic, and being more indoors than usual in the last year, impacted your productivity?

One thing is that I wrote an autobiography, which I would never have done. And it’s just story after story after story. I deal with my hometown maybe a little bit, but it’s just cool stories. I have one, a three-pager about my dad, but that’s it. It’s not like, ‘Newburgh was built in such-and-such,’ I actually make fun of that kind of writing. Not that I don’t approve of it, but I’m just not gonna do it. I was at Woodstock, which was kind of cool. Everybody my age says they were, but I was actually there. Saw Hendrix, everybody. 

And then the other thing is I think it just got me more focused as a writer, honestly. Because since then, especially with the standalones, I’ve done some really cool, different, top of my game standalones.

Could you name a couple you’re particularly proud of that you’ve gotten through in this past year?

Well, they’re not coming out for a while. The autobiography’s gonna be next year. The Noise, as I said, I think we were just putting the final touches on that. The Dolly book. There’s a book coming out next year called Blowback. I’m not gonna get into it, but it’s a cool idea. Like a lot of these things: it’s a cool idea, but then did it work?  [Laughs] I think it did work very well. Sometimes they don’t, which is tragic. A year later, you’re like, ‘Oh, shit man.’

I can absolutely relate to that as a journalist. Well, I don’t want to take up any more of your time, I’ve already gone a few minutes over.

Yeah yeah yeah, cool, well I hope nobody’s offended [by The Noise] in Portland, I think people will get a kick out of it. Especially if you like kind of light, accessible horror, I think it pays off. Good luck with your column. Be gentle. Don’t beat me up too much.

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