Saturday 7 December 2019

Books: Reaching behind the typewriter

Thriller: Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Me, Andy Martin, Bantum Press, hdbk, 303 pages, €28.50

Writer's life: Child usually pens about 1,500 words a day, puffing incessantly on cigarettes
Writer's life: Child usually pens about 1,500 words a day, puffing incessantly on cigarettes
Reacher Said Nothing

Myles McWeeney

On the first day of September every year, Lee Child sits down in front of his computer and starts a new Jack Reacher novel. It is an important ritual for him, because on September 1, 1994, Child, aged 39 and on notice from his job with Granada Television, went out and bought a pencil and paper and started writing the first Jack Reacher tale, Killing Floor.

So, on September 1, 2014, Lee started writing the 20th in the worldwide bestselling Reacher series, Make Me. This time, however, there was a big difference. For the first time ever, Child had a spectator. Professor Andy Martin, a British lecturer in French literature and philosophy at Cambridge University, was quite literally looking over his shoulder while he went about creating a bestseller. Martin is an uber Reacher fan and, by way of a flurry of emails, managed to persuade Child that a virtually day-by-day examination of how he goes about his job would be a good thing. Reacher Said Nothing is the result.

Like the curate's egg, the result of Martin's observation of those 222 days of creation- Child typed 'The End' beneath 109,427 words of terse prose on April 11, 2015 - is good in parts. On the one hand, it is fascinating to find out exactly how perhaps the most successful contemporary thriller writer in the world goes about his work. Less gripping, perhaps, are Martin's perhaps too frequent professorial musings, interjections and references to philosophers and literary critics such as Barthes, Derrida and Heidgger. According to Martin, like many writers, Child will find lots to do before he actually has to begin to write. On September 1 in 2014 he actually did a TV studio interview before returning to his huge Manhattan apartment to sit at his desk. It is 2.06pm in the afternoon. The night before he had come up with Make Me as the title for his new book, but he only had the vaguest of ideas for a plot. After all these years, now a multi-millionaire with beautiful homes in New York, Southern France and England, Child is still a two-finger typist, stabbing at the keys with his index fingers and keeping his eyes for the most part on the keyboard. He takes a deep drag on his cigarette, stubs it out and attacks the keyboard. Nine words later - Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn't easy - and Reacher number 20 was under way.

In less than an hour, the word count was up to 500 and the first day's work was done. The first draft is the only draft. Child revises as he goes, and does not rewrite the previous day's work the next morning. On a good day he hopes to write about 1,500 words. It is very clear that Lee Child is hugely aware of what he is doing and works very hard to keep the rhythm and pace of his novels taut and suspenseful.

While he's writing, Child smokes incessantly. It's not just two packs of Camel cigarettes a day. He smokes a lot of weed, too, and believes that not only should marijuana be legalised, it should be made compulsory. He is also a coffee junkie, drinking up to 20 cups a day. Fortunately for his stomach, he only drinks weak American-style coffee.

"I am writing on the verge of a stroke. I am teetering on the edge," he tells Martin.

The book is full of fascinating Lee Child/Jack Reacher trivia. Child is really Jim Grant, and his pen name came about when an American friend bought a little Renault which he called 'le car', pronouncing the le as 'lee'. Jim and his wife began to call everything lee, and when their son was born he became lee child. His hero was named after a little old lady asked the 6ft 4in Grant to get her a tin off a high shelf.

"If this writing doesn't work out", his wife remarked. "You could always get a job as a supermarket reacher."

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