Ledwidge knew that he wanted to go to college and his girlfriend -- who became his wife -- was going to Manhattan College. He decided to do the same.
“I took a history major and a philosophy major and I eventually decided to major in English because the thing I’ve loved to do my whole life is read,” he says.
Ledwidge’s mother is also a voracious reader and is now an English teacher. “There was always books in the house because she’s such a big reader. She actually got her PhD recently,” Ledwidge says.
“My dad was a bridge painter -- he painted the Tappan Zee Bridge -- so he was a hard worker all his life and he actually just passed away. He was a stoic Irish guy. He used to love to walk everywhere and he loved Gaelic football. He was the one who encouraged us to play.”
After college Ledwidge worked as a doorman on 50th Street and Park Avenue. He wanted to become police officer but was frustrated when it became clear that he would have to wait years to realize his ambition.
“I got 105% on the test, but there was some kind of lottery system and it looked like it would take years to work out. Working as a doorman was losing its charm, so I said to myself, you know what, if you want to be a writer now’s the time,” he recalls.
So Ledwidge began his first novel, even writing while on the job.
“If you’re the freight elevator operator you have a lot of free time. That was the best. I could just sit there and write. It was a great job for me,” Ledwidge says.
“I called the book The Narrowback, after a phrase my dad would use to describe Irish Americans, including my bother and I when he was angry.”
Having written the book Ledwidge was stumped as to where to send it. An attorney in the building whom Ledwidge was friendly with passed it on to a successful Irish thriller writer, who was impressed.
Inspired by the ringing endorsement from a professional, Ledwidge returned to his college and asked his old English professor at Manhattan College for her help getting it seen by agents.
In discussion Ledwidge learned that the world’s most famous thriller writer, James Patterson, was a very active alumni of the school, and the professor suggested that he write him a letter of introduction.
Ledwidge sent Patterson a copy of his manuscript. “I’d only written half of the book but I sent it on. A few days later the phone rang and I jokingly said to my wife, ‘I bet this is James Patterson,’” Ledwidge remembers.
It was James Patterson. The mega-successful author called to say he had enjoyed what he had read so far, and agreed to send it to his agent when Ledwidge finished it.
It had taken Ledwidge a year and a half to write the book, but he finished it three weeks after the phone call.
“I thought with my luck Patterson would be hit by a bus before I could finish it. I raced to finish that book and it came out in 1999,” Ledwidge says.
“The Atlantic Monthly Press picked it up. The book got great critical praise but the sales just weren’t there, you know? It’s a hard market.”
Ledwidge wrote two more books in quick succession and the same principle applied – critics loved him, but few people were buying.
All the while he kept in touch with Patterson, who asked him straight out one day -- why don’t you write one with me?
“Since he’s one of the top selling authors in the world it sounded like a good career move. I said I’ll think about it and the answer’s going to be yes,” says Ledwidge laughing.
In 2005 Step On a Crack came out, co-authored by Patterson and Ledwidge, the first in Patterson’s hugely popular Michael Bennett series (featuring an Irish American father of 10) and it was an instant hit.
To give an idea of the level of success that Patterson enjoys -- last year an estimated 14 million copies of his books in 38 different languages were sold around the world. He published nine original hardcover books in 2009 and he will publish at least nine more in 2010.
The word success seems anemic when it comes to describing his achievements. In fact Patterson has reportedly made over $500 million for his publisher Hachette over the last two years alone.
After Patterson and Ledwidge cracked their first book together in 2005, they’ve worked more or less the same way since.
“Usually one of us more than the other will have the original idea. Michael Bennett the character was Jim’s idea. Originally he wrote a 30-page outline,” says Bennett.
“The way he conceptualized it was Die Hard meets Cheaper By the Dozen. Michael Bennett, the hero, is an Irish American NYPD detective with 10 adopted kids. He has a wife who’s dying of cancer in the first book, and this is all happening against the background of a developing terrorist situation.
“It’s over the top, entertainment popcorn stuff. One of the best English critics said the book was like a Bruce Willis movie between two covers. So when the former first lady dies her celebrity filled funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is taken over by terrorists. Patterson likes daring, large scale stuff.”