By Andy Martin
After observing Lee Child at work for one year as he wrote his 20th thriller, Andy Martin, a Cambridge educator and author, wrote ‘Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me.’ Martin’s book was written and at the printer when that Lee Child novel hit bookstores in September 2015 and made it to the No. 1 spot on bestseller lists. Martin was with Child on tour in Washington, D.C., when the news broke last autumn, and he shares their conversation with The Big Thrill:
Lee Child was having a pizza. As a result of poor parenting, he always leaves the crusts. Followed by some kind of fudge pudding with chocolate ice-cream. And coffee. Black. Room service in the Four Seasons, Georgetown, Washington, D.C. Silver platters and linen napkins. You wouldn’t get that in the Skyline (where I was staying). No big deal, but you have to take note of these small things. I was being Reacher, putting up in grimy motels. He was in the presidential suite. I was sitting there drinking coffee from his silver coffee pot. And helping myself to some of his fries on the side.
Me: And you have a gym.
Lee: I, for one, won’t be making use of it. You use it. Go and do whatever it is you do in there.
Me: What about the pool?
Lee: Nah, can’t be arsed.
He used to be a swimmer, long-distance, international level, with that long reach of his, but dropped out (or climbed out and never dived back in).
The luxury was wasted on him. He basically had to stay in these 5-star palaces, on account of being so huge. Physically, and commercially.
And lo, his forecast had come true. With extra marmalade on top. Make Me, his 20th Jack Reacher novel, was no. 1 in all the English-speaking countries. Without regard to category. It was the best-selling book in the Western world. Bar none. Lagercrantz, Franzen, Harper Lee, all comprehensively trounced.
“For that week at least,” he pointed out. “Maybe not longer. It’s cool for you. You were there when I started the first sentence. And now it’s…”
“Top gun,” I said. “Numero uno. Everywhere. Oddly enough, I know I didn’t write it, but I still feel a kind of semi-paternal pride. It’s groovy. You deserve it, man.” I really meant it, by the way. I was drinking his coffee after all. I didn’t actually get up and slap him on the back, but it was close. “How do you feel about it? I know that is very BBC–‘How do you feel about winning the World Cup?’– but how are you feeling right now?”
“Mmm, good pizza,” he said. “But hold on, let me think… It’s a relief, to be honest. Said he, heaving a sigh.”
” ‘A relief?’ ”
“I wasn’t always a bestseller, you know. I did OK, but it didn’t really take off till about no. 7 or 8. Maybe 11 or 12 over here. Then you set these standards.”
“The bar keeps going up,” I said. “Like a high jump. Or pole vault.”
“There are expectations.”
“Like Federer said, Winning can be a monkey on your back.”
“Can you do what you did the last time…” Lee said.
“Can you?” Stupid question from me about Make Me, since he had just done it.
“It’s gone way past,” Lee answered. “Broken records. They’re happy anyway. I’m still growing.”
“I heard from someone at Waterstones. You’re the only one. Graph still going up.”
“Double-digit in the UK. More modest here. I can’t compare myself to Chelsea any more. Or Villa of course. Maybe Leicester – they’re doing ok.” (Reader’s guide to UK soccer teams: Chelsea, won the league last season, now in the doldrums; Aston Villa, Lee’s team, sinking like a stone; Leicester City, flying high.)
“West Ham,” I said. “They’re right up there.” (West Ham–my team, from East London.)
“Can you keep it going though?” asked Lee. “I doubt it.”
It didn’t seem fair to compare him to a gloriously precarious football team. Fading and dying. Wrong note! I added quickly, “You said it was intoxicating?”
“Yes, intoxicating,” said Lee. “Funny, isn’t it. I’m quite shy really. An anti-social loner. Now I have to perform like a stand-up comedian. It’s a lot of running around. It’s exhausting. But it is intoxicating.”
The reviews were coming in from England. They were all “overwhelmingly positive,” even if the Mail on Sunday reviewer reckoned the dénouement “strained credulity.” “Do you think it strained credulity?” he asked me.
“Didn’t strain mine. They must mean that it was too shocking and they had to look away. You know, the manacles and all that.”
Some lone reader had been kicking up a fuss too. Had emailed Lee: “Why did you call it Make Me? Doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even come up on a word search. I checked.”
“She must have it on Kindle,” said Lee. “Does she have a point? Should the title have to correspond to the text?”
I’d run a word search on “make me” too. It comes up often enough in other works, Personal for example, the previous work (“I said, ‘Make me.”’); similarly, in Worth Dying For. So Make Me can be seen as the continuation of a grand tradition. “It can be oblique,” I said. “Look at the Bible. Ta biblia. Tells you nothing. It’s a book! Or books. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom? That’s just ridiculous. Where are those pillars? I was expecting a map.”
“Am I playing fair? Is it reasonable? Does it matter?”
“The title is just a selling point,” I mumbled. I was having difficulty speaking at the time. Not emotional. I had pinched a caramel from the bag just sitting on the table. Freebies. My teeth were all glued up. “You’re not supposed to say everything on the front cover, otherwise what’s the point of reading the book? Say you were to call it The [Giving-it-all-away title]. You’d just give the whole damn plot away.”
There was something Lee used to say about living in New York. He said the great thing was, whatever you did, you could always find a lot of people doing it better than you, and a lot of people doing it worse. You were always somewhere in the middle. And how he liked that feeling. But now there wasn’t anyone doing it better. Lee was the top top writer in the world right then. Not just New York. He was the Mr Big of literature. He still cared about that lone reader though.
Lee liked to quote from a book of David Mamet’s, Bambi vs Godzilla. When the hero comes on the screen for the first time, he mustn’t have this “I want you to like me look.” He has to not care. “I really don’t care what you think of me,” he has to be saying (without actually saying it). I think Lee tried to be like that: stoney and indifferent. But at some level he really wanted everyone to like him. To love him. He was concerned, perturbed, when they didn’t. (:What is wrong with France!?” he used to groan, where his sales were laughably negligible.)
I went back to the Georgetown Starbucks. In the rain. There were still a few bewildered-looking guys wandering the streets in shorts and flip-flops, but summer was over.
I was thinking about Lee’s “thought experiment.” Imagine, he said, that you had 7 billion pre-orders for your book. The marketing was so good that everyone on the planet wanted a copy. Had to have it. Then, obviously, you’d be number 1 for the week that it was published. Hurrah! But then everyone would have their copy. So, in the second week, you’d be gone. Being no. 1 was nothing (well…) – the real trick was staying there. “It’s like a great start to the season,” Lee said. “You always fear it’s going to fall apart.”
Lee Child’s Make Me has just been published in paperback. Andy Martin is the author of Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of ‘Make Me’. He is currently working on a sequel, With Child.