Thursday, December 10, 2015

Lee Child and the Writing of "Make Me"

On September 1, 1994, an aspiring author went to the store and bought the paper on which he would write Killing Floor, the first novel to feature the protagonist who would become the legendary Jack Reacher. 

Oh, what a difference a couple of decades can make. On that date in 1994, Jim Grant had been recently fired from British television and was virtually broke. Hoping desperately that he might find something he could do to support himself and his family, he sat down with a pencil and a pad of paper, attempting to reinvent himself as a novelist. Twenty years later, having created one of the most successful franchises in the history of thriller novels, "Lee Child" sat down at his sleek Apple computer in his very expensive home in New York City (one of several that he has around the world) to begin the twentieth book in the series.

In this case, he was accompanied by Andy Martin, a literary scholar from the University of Cambridge who also happens to be a huge fan of both Jack Reacher and the man who created him. From the first line to the last, Martin would shadow Child through the process of writing the book that became Make Me

I came to this book, immediately after reading Make Me, both as a fan of the Reacher series and as a writer who was very interested to see how someone much more successful than I at this business approached his craft. It's both encouraging and at the same time very frustrating to see that Lee Child and I work in much the same way, although he obviously makes it work much better than I. 

It's nice to see, for example, that his work habits are at least as loose as my own--actually maybe even worse. He allows himself to be constantly distracted, especially in the early stages of the process. There's always email to check, coffee to drink, and a fair amount of time spent doing things totally unrelated to the project at hand.

Like me, and like most other writers, I suspect, Child would argue that even when he's watching soccer or doing something equally mindless, the novel is constantly working itself out somewhere in the subconscious regions of his mind. As with most of us, that's probably true some of the time and not so much true at others.

Fledgling writers who've gone out and bought five or six of those books that purport to tell you the formula for writing a novel, will probably be gravely disappointed to learn that one of the most commercially successful writers of the modern age does virtually none of the things that those books advise: He doesn't outline; he doesn't create complex biographies for each of his characters; he doesn't post notes all over the place tracking the plot; the man just sits down and starts writing without the slightest idea where the book might be going. He figures that it will all work itself out somehow, and so far it has, for the most part brilliantly.

It's a lot of fun to watch the new Reacher novel take shape but certainly no fan of the series would want to read this book without first reading Make Me. There are way too many spoilers, which is no doubt inevitable in a book like this. One might argue that Martin sometimes gets carried away discussing literary theory and other such matters that might be of interest principally to academics like himself, but that's a fairly small complaint.

Martin devotes one chapter of the book to a trip on which he accompanied Child to the 2014 Bouchercon Convention in Long Beach, California. Bouchercon is a Major Deal--a huge convention that annually brings together several hundred crime fiction writers and fans. 

Child was still in the process of promoting Personal, the nineteenth of the Reacher novels, and he was very much in evidence as the convention progressed. I remember that we had a drink together in the hotel bar at that Bouchercon--along with about eight thousand other people, of course. As always, there were a lot of other big names in attendance--people like Michael Connelly, for example--but watching Child and the crowd of writers and fans orbiting around him, I remember thinking that Child was something like a supernova while the rest of us, especially people like me, were rank pretenders who had drifted in from some galaxy far, far away.

I doubt very much that reading this book is going to make me a better or more successful writer. But in the several times I have seen him, Lee Child has always impressed me as a genuinely nice guy, and it's good to see that someone who, like so many of the rest of us, was once down on his luck and only dreaming of being a hugely successful author was smart enough--and lucky enough--to make it work. Reacher Said Nothing is a very interesting book that should appeal to large numbers of "Reacher Creatures" and other writers as well.

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