- Jennifer May
- Maxine Paetro
It’s hard to approach Maxine Paetro’s Amenia home without gasping out loud. The driveway comes out of the woods between an iris-ringed pond and a 300-foot rose border, in full June bloom. At the top of a sweeping lawn sits a tidy white cottage, framed by tall pines and surrounded by peony blossoms the size of small melons. Between the main cottage and its wisteria-draped guesthouse—once a garage—is a courtyard garden with a bubbling fountain. An espaliered apple tunnel leads off to a hedge-framed phlox garden, where a professional gardener (identified only as “Heather” by her employer) is tidying up for the upcoming Garden Conservancy Tour.The gardens at Broccoli Hall comprise a full acre of plantings, with only one spot that looks less than wellgroomed. There’s a small vegetable patch tucked out of sight behind the guesthouse where, Paetro quips, “We do stupid plant tricks.” In one shady corner sits a cafe table with a vintage typewriter. There’s a single chair pulled up to the table, and a box on its seat sprouts catnip and weeds. “That’s my homage to the ghostwriter,” Paetro says with a satisfied grin.
Paetro has done time as a ghost in the machine, penning uncredited books for business writers, celebrity bios, and high-profile thrillers before hooking up with James Patterson as co-author of New York Times bestsellers 4th of July and The 5th Horseman, part of his Women’s Murder Club series. Patterson and Paetro just topped the charts for the second week running with The 6th Target. “It feels great,” she exults. “No one can take that away from you.”
Dubbed by Time magazine “The Man Who Can’t Miss,” Patterson is a publishing phenomenon. His books have sold an estimated 130 million copies worldwide, with three different series—the Alex Cross detective novels, the Women’s Murder Club, and young adult Maximum Ride—all reaching the number one spot. He and Paetro will continue the Women’s Murder Club series with 7th Heaven, forthcoming in February 2008, and an untitled eighth due in 2009. She’s also collaborating with Patterson on a stand-alone “scary thriller.”
But Max, as she’s known to friends, doesn’t want to talk about any of that. There are gardens to tour.
“It’s an English garden, so I wanted a Wind in the Willows, English fairy-tale, children’s book name—whimsical, not pretentious,” she says of Broccoli Hall, “It’s an Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, woman-who-never-had-kids-of-her-own kind of fantasy.” She leads her two guests past a sign that says “Please Back Out Slowly—Watch For Cats” and into a woodland “wild garden” of native plants such as jack-in-the-pulpit and meadow rue. Next comes the rose border, a breathtaking mix of rugosa, beach roses, heirloom “French ladies” from the 1700s, and wild dog roses (“That guy came in off the road by himself, and he gives the border a lot of heft,” she says, telling another interloper. “I did not plant you, and I think you’re getting carried away”).
A winding trail leads to the Teddy Bears’ Picnic, a rustic cedar pavilion tucked into a grove. Then it’s up the stone steps to the koi pond and on to the five-sided treehouse for “the long view.” Gazing down from above, Paetro says, “There are no murders here. Unlike my actual work, where I can kill off 20, 30 people, whatever it takes. The only people doing murders here are the cats.” (She has six at the moment, including an avian serial killer named Harry.)
Paetro’s gardening and literary lives merged when she married consultant John Duffy—where else?—in the gardens at Broccoli Hall. Her wedding photo shows a beaming James Patterson and numerous publishing-world heavy hitters among the guests. The newlyweds, 55 and 53, were both marrying for the first time.
Deeply entrenched in their independent lives, they've forged a sort of inverted "Green Acres" arrangement. Paetro spends time in her husband's Manhattan apartment when pressed, but prefers to stay upstate, where the inverterate New Yorker tries to cope with the bucolic beauty. "He has a real Woody Allen relationshiop to the country: hates bugs, dirt, insect bites, rain, weather," laughs Paetro.
Born in Miami to Hungarian-Jewish parents, Maxine Paetro dropped out of college and moved to New York in the 1970s. She found work in advertising, eventually becoming an executive headhunter. Her first publication, How to Put Your Book Together and Get a Job in Advertising, debuted in 1980 and has since been reprinted at least 15 times.
Paetro also published three novels, Manshare, Babydreams, and Windfall, smart-girl urban romances in the proto-feminist mode of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Emboldened by her success, she left work to write fulltime, freelancing for New Woman, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, and other glossies. Unable to place her fourth novel, she turned to ghostwriting such works as Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Dreams of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee by Their Son, Dodd Darin. (Perhaps spooked by his ghostwriter’s prowess, the nominal author included his name in the title.)
Paetro calls these “the skinny cow years.” “It’s a shock to leave corporate life,” she recalls with a shudder. “Life becomes much, much more real.”
In 1992, she moved upstate year-round. Before that, Broccoli Hall was a weekend escape, where she’d tried in vain to teach boyfriends to weed. (She commuted by train, sometimes wending her way through Grand Central Station with three cat kennels stacked on a luggage wheelie.) Now it was home. “You find out how squirrely you really are,” Paetro says of that first long winter. “Writers are squirrelly anyway. Some of us are really shouting for high eccentricity.”
She serves cookies and tea, apologizing for her instant coffee. “I actually can’t taste the difference,” she says, dropping tea bags in mugs. “Martha Stewart does not live in Broccoli Hall.”
During the ‘90s, Paetro rekindled her friendship with an advertising legend she’d met back when he was a young copywriter from Newburgh. Coining the phrase “I’m a ToysRUs kid,” James Patterson rose through the ranks to become worldwide creative director at J. Walter Thompson. He also wrote books on the side, and before long, his Alex Cross novels were notching their way up the bestseller lists.
Patterson’s oeuvre is geared to the airport-lounge attention span, with fast-flipping plotlines and many short chapters; Stephen King once called them “dopey thrillers.” Paetro says, “We never let the adrenaline flag. They’re page turners. People read them in two or three days.”
In a recent appearance on “Larry King Live,” a relaxed-looking Patterson said he had “more ideas than I could possibly do.” He’s published literally dozens of books, sometimes as many as six in one year. There are rumors on Internet book sites, and even in certain reviews, that the maestro no longer writes all his books, but farms out ideas to his writing staff—Paetro is one of five credited co-authors—as a TV showrunner might. (Indeed, Patterson is executive producer of ABC’s upcoming “Women’s Murder Club” series.) But Paetro insists that every book begins and ends with James Patterson.
“He comes up with the idea for the novel and a detailed story structure,” she explains. “I work on this idea and structure, sending the writing to him as the novel progresses and receiving input over the entire life of the work in progress.” In practical terms, this means turning in pages every two weeks to Patterson’s Palm Beach home base, with numerous phone calls along the way. Paetro spends the first week working out plot kinks and doing research, and the second in a single-minded frenzy, “writing as hard as I can.” She turns off the TV, ignores the cats’ clamor, cuts phone conversations short. “It gets a little bit maniacal around here,” she admits.
Patterson gives her extensive notes, “kicking some ideas to the curb and giving me new ones.” Once she’s completed a first draft and polish, “Jim takes full possession of the novel, editing, writing, and shepherding the book through to publication.”
He also does all the author appearances and gets all the press, which Paetro claims she doesn’t mind. “I’ve had my name big on bookjackets before,” she asserts, “I’ve been taken out to dinner by publishers, done booksignings. If not, I might wonder what I was missing, but having done that, I’ve done that. I love working with Jim because he’s so fricking smart. And I can move on to the next book and know that it’s not going to fail.”
She has no ambition to write solo thrillers, though she dreams of writing a memoir about Broccoli Hall. Finding time may be tricky, though: Paetro’s day job proceeds at the same breakneck pace as a Patterson thriller. Asked how many Women’s Murder Club titles will follow the eighth, she gushes, “Oh, man, I hope 30 or 40. I love writing this series, I love the girls. I can feel these characters, what they care about, what pisses them off. For a writer, it’s divine.”
Recently, Paetro told a friend she’s reached the point where her name will be linked to Patterson’s in her obituary. The friend said, “They’ll probably be linked on your tombstone: Maxine Paetro, with James Patterson.” Paetro told this to Patterson, who deadpanned, “Why should your name be first?”
Paetro demurred, “Well...it’s my body,” to which he replied, “I see it as ‘James Patterson Presents.’”
Retelling the story, she laughs long and hard, shaking her head with affection. “How could you not love working with a guy like that?”
The gardens at Broccoli Hall will be open to the public on July 14 as part of Amenia’s Hidden Gardens Tour. Visit www.broccolihall.com for details.
- Jennifer May
- Maxine Paetro
- Jennifer May
- A French rose from a 300-foot-long border at Broccoli Hall.