In 1763 a noticeably nervous James Boswell made the acquaintance of poet-editor-essayist-lexicographer Samuel Johnson in Davies’ Bookshop in Covent Garden. Boswell’s subsequent years of intense observation of the great man led to the publication of the momentous Life of Samuel Johnson, a landmark in literary biography.
More than two centuries later, Andy Martin’s approach to Lee Child worked a bit differently. On Aug. 22, 2014, Martin, an author and Cambridge lecturer, sent an eloquent and amusing 320-word email to the bestselling author proposing “a kind of literary criticism in real time” by his coming to New York City to observe Child writing his 20th book. The next-day email response: “Very interesting idea. Much to discuss. Detailed answer Tuesday from New York. Lee.”
After not too much more back and forth, Child agreed to Martin’s proposal and the result is REACHER SAID NOTHING: LEE CHILD AND THE MAKING OF MAKE ME (with a quote opening the book from Boswell). It is a fascinating book that not only shows exactly how the sausage is made in the creation of a Lee Child novel but also reveals, with complete honesty, how Martin pulled off such an unusual project. Observing Child in action was not without its challenges. In Chapter 21, we learn that Child’s publishing team was having second thoughts about Martin’s book. “They think I should stop talking to you,” Lee informed him. “They are worried that the stuff you are writing is going to be picked up and turned into a thousand different ways of destroying me.” Fortunately, Martin’s research did not stop there; he was able to follow Child for a year through his creative process. And there is no destruction. From literally watching the author come up with his sentences and imagine his plot to tagging along on his book tour appearances and conference dates, Martin is present.
We asked Martin to take us behind the scenes of his going behind the scenes, and he graciously complied.
Why did you choose Lee Child as your subject and not the author of another type of successful genre or an author of literary fiction? Why Lee?
Lee Child was not the first writer I thought of. He was third. The first two were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. So I guess Lee was the first living author. But he reminded me a lot of the other two. There was something about his style or his voice or maybe just his attitude that I don’t find in Jonathan Franzen. And he said “Yes.” So that helped. And he was starting the following week. The pieces just fell into place. Almost like a novel.
Almost! I sensed throughout the book that you admire Lee’s method of working, his being fueled by pure spontaneous inspiration and no advance outlining, but that his essential fiction high-wire life shocked you, even intimidated you. Is that accurate?
If you think in terms of Star Wars, it’s like watching a guy who has the Force with him. Somewhere between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. Maybe with a touch of the Dark Side, come to think of it. I would describe my own feelings as more awestruck and a little mystified. I was watching a writer with a hotline straight to the muse. That is always going to be impressive.
Do you think of the art of storytelling in a different way after observing Lee?
It’s paleo-literature. Mythic realism. It’s not just that Reacher is a bit of a primitive–”a gorilla who can paint”–but that the Child oeuvre packs in a lot of evolutionary history. You can almost feel the nomadic hunter gatherers roaming around the savanna and huddling in a cave listening to tales of bravery and derring-do.
You seem ambivalent about the mystery/thriller genre. You describe Bouchercon as the scene of a “noir literary underworld, desperately looking for the clue that would make sense of it all.” Do you mean the clue to creating a great book or the clue to making money?
I’m ambivalent about the very notion of a genre. I like what Reacher says in Make Me, when he wanders into a bookstore, still reeling from concussion, and says that there are only two kinds of book: “Either shit happens or it doesn’t.” Bouchercon was a great party. I liked the idea of there being a certain unresolvable mystery attached to all those whose fundamental belief system hinges on resolving mysteries.
In the book you evidenced a lot of compassion for authors who struggle for success and are envious of Lee. What will they take away from your book?
Just about everyone is less successful than Lee. He never disses other writers (OK, almost never–I can think of one big exception). I remember one line of his that I think other writers (including me) should keep in mind: “Name any author. He/she is the best in the world at writing his or her own book.” One more line of his that sticks in the mind: “This is not the first draft–it’s the ONLY draft.” Maybe the rest of us tend to overdo the re-drafting.
Thriller authors are often patronized by the literary community. At one point you said that Lee perhaps accorded you too much respect because of your Cambridge degree. Do you think that if thriller authors are intellectually underrated by society, academics are overrated?
Academics are definitely not overrated by me. Yes, Lee loves academics for their fanaticism. Which is benevolent of him. But there is a real intellectual issue at the core. Jacques Derrida, my old mentor, reckoned there was nothing beyond the text; Lee thinks, in contrast, that there is nothing beyond the voice. The voice is more individual, it has a kind of DNA; the text tends towards the generic and the anonymous. The art of the author lies somewhere between.
Lee has said one of the reasons he agreed to cooperate with your book is he wanted people to understand how hard authors work. Why do you think so many people don’t believe that crafting these novels is difficult?
Fact: There are one or two people out there who are overseeing production in a writing factory. It’s hard, but it’s not quite the same thing that someone like Lee is doing. But beyond that I think there is a widespread myth of the ‘formula’- the secret plot structure. It’s like saying once you’ve worked out it’s fourteen lines, the sonnet is a piece of cake. It isn’t.
Do you think that the cost of Lee Child’s enormous success is having to answer Tom Cruise questions wherever he goes?
He should have a sign around his neck saying, NO MORE TOM CRUISE QUESTIONS, PLEASE! I did suggest he might like to have Tom Cruise play him in the movie of my book. I thought that would be fair. His counter-proposal is Jeremy Irons. I’ve already reserved Liam Neeson for me (OK, with glasses, but still…).
Andy Martin is a British author and academic. He is a regular contributor to BBC radio programmes and sometimes writes for “The Stone” and “Opinionator” columns in The New York Times.
To learn more about Andy Martin, please visit his website.
Photograph of Andy Martin and Lee Child, subway station, by JESSICA LEHRMAN.