What I Learnt From Lee Child
The other night, children’s author Tristan Bancks interviewed Andy Martin about his new book Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. Andy documented Lee Child from 1st September, and the blank page, to the final word in Child’s Jack Reacher novel, Make Me.
Apart from this being a really cosy literary night out, I got so much from this chat, despite never having read a Reacher book.
Here’s what I learnt from Lee Child (through Andy Martin, as conduit).
Start with a blank page
On the 1st of every September, Lee Child starts a new novel. The date is partly superstitious, partly habit.
What does he start with? A blank page. He hasn’t got a plan or an outline. In fact, he may not even know what he is writing until months into the novel.
But this is the beginning of the unravelling process.
Writing is 10 per cent typing, and 90 per cent daydreaming
Andy watched over Lee’s shoulder during the entire writing of Make Me. Lee did a lot of Camel smoking, and a lot of other less-legal kinds of smoking. When Andy came into his office once day, he found Lee stretched out on the couch, eyes closed, cigarette in mouth.
‘I’m working,’ said Lee, eyes still closed.
For someone to imagine an entire and complex story like he does, this part of the writing process is just as important as the actual typing. It’s not just about getting words on the page. It’s also getting it all to make sense.
Leave the pencil marks
When you make a squillion dollars from writing books, you can afford to collect valuable art. There was one painting Lee was particularly partial to, especially because he could see the artist’s pencil marks.
Before going away for two weeks, he suggested his maid ‘fix the paintwork’, so she’d have something to do in his absence.
Sometime after returning, he realised there was something wrong with his favourite painting. His maid had fixed his artwork, by erasing the pencil marks, and using white-out to correct the mistakes. Lee didn’t mention anything, but he quietly moved the painting on, giving it to a friend.
When chatting about editing, Andy learnt that Lee doesn’t do much of it. And he strongly advises his editors not to do much of it either.
That’s impressive talent, to imagine a work of that much complexity, and avoid editing. But that grit, and those pencil marks are part of Lee’s artistry.
Write as a reader, not a writer
When Lee was asked about bringing his characters to life, his answer was simple. He doesn’t write as a writer. He writes as a reader. He’s forever at the receiving end of the story.
I like this so much. I guess it’s a bit like that idea of the muse, being an actual entity, that exists outside us, and comes (sometimes) when beckoned. There is a certain magic, when you open yourself up to a story, and become a vessel for it.