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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.”