What happened when Andy Martin tracked Lee Child as he wrote his latest Jack Reacher thriller?by Andy Martin / December 4, 2015 / Leave a comment
Never, at any point, did I threaten Lee Child with sledgehammer, axe or shotgun. Nor did I handcuff him. Or drug him into a stupor. Or run anyone over with a lawnmower. It was all totally consensual and voluntary. My year of being a literary voyeur, I mean
In any case, Child, the 61-year-old British thriller writer, would probably have done a pretty decent job of writing his new book Make Me. Even without me looking over his shoulder in his office in New York, keeping a close eye on his grammar and punctuation, from the first word (“Moving”) through to the last (“needle”). After all, he’d already written 19 previous novels in the bestselling Jack Reacher series, so he probably didn’t need a whole lot of back-up to write the 20th.
On the other hand, the scene definitely looked familiar. A few days earlier, Child and I were at the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway to see a production of Stephen King’s Misery with Bruce Willis in the part of the immobilised writer Paul Sheldon, held prisoner in wintry Colorado, and Laurie Metcalfe as Annie Wilkes, his nurse, tormentor and deranged, obsessional reader.
Unlike Annie Wilkes, I never went about crooning, “I’m your number one fan!” I guess I could be more like number two or three. In fact, now I come to think of it, there are plenty of people who know the collected works better than I do and are more fanatical (and more than a few who are acting them out for real, as we speak).
And, unlike Paul Sheldon, Lee never moaned, “How do you expect me to work with you in the room watching me all the time?”
Still, there was a kind of madness to the whole business of trying to catch the creative process on the wing. It is true that when I saw Annie Wilkes rolling around on the bed in a state of ecstasy as she leafs through Paul Sheldon’s latest chapter, I was bound to think: Annie Wilkes, c’est moi! “You know that bit where Paul Sheldon picks up the typewriter and clobbers her over the head with it,” I said to Child, nervously, at the end. “Did you ever feel like that?” “It was like watching you and me all the way through,” he said.
Kind of worrying. Or it could be. Except I never actually worry about the well-being of Lee Child. Because he sure as hell doesn’t. I must have mentioned to him about 10 times how coffee addiction killed off Balzac. Child’s record is 30-something cups in a day. And if Balzac had smoked a pack of Camels a day à la Child on top then he would probably not have lasted as long as he did. I think Child deserves a medal for putting up with having an academic in his office nearly every day. To be fair, though, I reckon I had to put up with a more-than-doctors-would-advise share of involuntary smoke inhalation. Also I read somewhere that too much black coffee turns you into a psychopath. So there is that. Writing is a dangerous business. But so is reading. Books are all about an intimate, intense relationship that can blow up in your face at any time. Which is what Stephen King was going on about, I think.
Apart from the appeal of gazing at a horror movie mirror-image of the two of us, writer and reader inhabiting the same space while a whole novel is being written, there was another compelling reason for going to the theatre. Bruce Willis, in his early Die Hard persona, was one of the precursors of Child’s hero, Jack Reacher (others include Goliath, Lancelot, Gargantua, Superman, Desperate Dan, King Kong, Travis McGee and Rambo, with just a dash of Rimbaud). But Reacher is a more muscular avatar of Lee Child himself. Very approximately, Child = Reacher = Willis. So it was tough on Lee to see hard man hero John McClane strapped to a bed with smashed-up legs, turned into yet another writer held hostage by an unhinged reader.
King imagines his alter ego Paul Sheldon turning out a series with the recurring protagonist Misery Chastain. But her creator is desperate to get away from Misery and write some different books for a change, so he kills her off, fictionally speaking. Annie Wilkes, the reader, is so attached to Misery that she forces him to bring her back to life, and stands over him, equipped with assorted carrots and sticks, till the job is done. Something similar was true of Conan Doyle—he shoves Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, but his readers insist on summoning the detective back from the dead.
Talking of Conan Doyle, I like to think I’m more like Dr Watson to Lee Child’s Holmes than Wilkes to his Sheldon. “Of course!” I am apt to say, rather annoyingly, Watson-style, when he explains the reasoning behind his latest brilliant move. “It’s obvious.” That sort of thing.
Of course (it becomes a habit), Lee Child doesn’t actually need a Dr Watson because he is perfectly capable of writing his own stuff. Writing is just what he does. But maybe for the same reason he wasn’t averse to the idea of a meta-book either, so that he could explain to himself (as much as to me) what he thought he was doing while he was doing it. It’s a little bit like watching Lionel Messi go on one of his mazy runs while providing simultaneous live commentary.
As we came out of the theatre into the driving rain of a November night on 44th Street, Lee said: “Stephen King really has this writer-paranoia thing to the max, doesn’t he?” It comes up again most recently in his novel Finders Keepers where King has a devoted reader blowing out the brains of the elusive and mystically talented John Rothstein in order to run off with his notebooks (I am not giving anything away—it happens in the first 10 pages).
Lee Child and Stephen King know and respect one another’s work. But I have a feeling that if I had suggested this whole semi-insane project to Stephen King towards the end of August last year (“Hey Stephen, how would it be if I come and watch while you write your next novel?”), he would have run a mile. His worst nightmare. “Yeah, sure, you effin’ freak! – what’s it going to be, axe or shotgun or what?”
Rather like Reacher, Lee Child never loses any sleep over bad guys. Even when this sinister dude in a baseball cap came running up to him just down the street from the building where John Lennon was shot dead by a nutter fan, he took it all calmly in his stride. He likes readers. He doesn’t plot, he doesn’t plan, he just lets it all happen, in some sublimely confident, laissez-faire, stoical, fatalistic way. Like a reader, in fact, more than a writer.
Roland Barthes argued that the reader should be more like a writer; Lee Child thinks that the writer needs to be more like a reader, with no clear idea what is going to happen next, nothing but hazy hypotheses. So his answer was more, ok, whatever, sounds good. “I’m starting Monday,” he said, “so if you want to do this you’d better get over here.”
I’m glad I did.
Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of “Make Me” is published by Transworld