Lee Child and Jack Reacher: Creating the Perfect Hero
REACHER SAID NOTHING: Lee Child and the Making of MAKE ME by Andy Martin Bantam, $25 (368 pp.) ISBN 978-1-101-96545-0
Review by Tim Baker
How do you sit down and write a best-selling thriller from scratch in only eight months? And how do you do that every year for twenty consecutive years?
These are the big questions posed by Cambridge University academic Dr. Andy Martin in his new book, Reacher Said Nothing. At the beginning of the book, Martin makes a promise: “Everyone wants to know how it’s done. And now I was about to find out.”
The way he sets about “finding out” is as wild as it is original: he is allowed extraordinary access to international best-seller Lee Child and accompanies him through the actual writing of one of his novels, from first word to last. Martin’s on the case 24/7 (well, actually more 7-11), peering over Lee Child’s very high shoulder (Child is 6 feet 4 inches) when he begins what will be his twentieth Jack Reacher thriller, Make Me, and is still breathing down Child’s neck when (spoiler alert!) Child finishes the novel 222 days later.
Martin brings wry humor, high style, and a sly voice to proceedings and emerges as more than just a post-modernist Boswell. Much of the book deals with the nature of creation and challenges our preconceptions about writing in general and genre in particular. Contrary to what we’re told about thrillers, Lee Child does not plot—no doubt a shock to readers of Lawrence Block’s bible, Writing the Novel from Plot to Print.
Not only does he not plot, Lee Child doesn’t even know what the story is when he begins his novel. It’s only toward the very last chapters of Make Me that Child actually creates a structural plan of sorts for the last few pages, which can be summarized as: last stand; kill off; wrap up.
So if it’s not plot, what is it? As has always been the case with Child, it’s not so much the story but the confidence of the telling. Unlike the previous Reacher novel, Personal, which was in the first person, this one is told in the third person, which suits the essence of Reacher so much more. In Make Me, there’s a pervading personal tone that saturates the narrative. It’s not Reacher moving through the world so much as us moving through his world. The Reacher landscape is mythic: Monument Valley meets de Chirico in a terrain where flat horizons intersect with towering heights that cast long shadows and create blinding contrasts. And nothing towers higher than Jack Reacher.
A large part of the charm and enjoyment of Reacher Said Nothing comes from the relationship between its two leading characters, Child and Martin. Throughout the book there are several references to one of Lee Child’s favorite literary works, Waiting For Godot (he’s seen it 39 times), and while this duo is definitely not Martin and Lewis—although Martin does come perilously close once or twice to sounding like the Nutty Professor—it may be tempting to compare the Martin and Child act to Vladimir and Estragon, particularly at the beginning of the book when progress on the novel is lagging, and there’s a feeling of waiting for the muse, if not for Godot.
Making such an analogy, however, would be a mistake. The symbiotic relationship between these two writers is far closer to that of another literary classic, The Great Gatsby, with Child in the role of the enigmatic, supremely successful Gatsby and Martin as Nick Carraway, a romantic narrator torn between admiration (how does he do it?), jealousy (how does he do it!) and loyalty (it doesn’t matter how he does it—he just does it). Reacher may be the taciturn type who often says nothing, but Martin and Child have an awful lot to say, often amusing, frequently insightful, and almost always entertaining.
Of course, some of the best stuff, especially for aspiring writers, comes from Child’s words of wisdom on his craft. “You should write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast,” is not just punchy and pithy: it’s perspicacious. Or the epigrammatic “I don’t really have ethics. I have aesthetics.” Crusty old story guru Robert McKee has made a fortune, not from telling stories but from explaining how they should be told. McKee places a lot of emphasis on genre. When quizzed about genre by Martin, Lee Child keeps it simple, concluding that essentially there are only two genres: “shit happens, or it doesn’t.”
When asked what readers are looking for, Child quotes his father, who told him: “I want it to be the same but different.” And how about the distinction as to the way books and movies and TV tell stories? Child keeps going back to the same word: with books it’s all about trust.
Perhaps the best quote from Child comes when he’s talking about the artificial divide between commercial and literary fiction: “There are really only two types of book. There is the one that makes you miss your stop on the subway. And then there is the one that doesn’t.”
We follow all the major developments and plot points in real time, measured out in endless gallons of coffee and entire fields of tobacco. The closer he gets to the end (and to his deadline), the more Child begins to starve himself, existing at the end on a diet of oatmeal raisin cookies (the stick) with the knowledge that once he’s finished, he’ll be able to eat a normal meal again (the carrot).
The suffering is not so much self-inflicted as organically induced by the act of creation. Progress in the novel has to be earned the way a marathon has to be run, and the last part is always the hardest, when self-belief must triumph over the unacceptable notion of not finishing. Child likens the writing process to a trapeze artist. In taking a huge risk, you need to trust your reflexes, training, and eagle eye in order to catch the bar on the other side of the void. Most of all, you need to have a firm grip.
As is appropriate for a book about the creation of a thriller, there is a surprising revelation toward the end, when Child makes a dramatic change to one of his main characters. In explaining his decision, he tells Martin that the change was asserting itself from the very beginning; he’d just missed it at first. It goes to show that before the reader, before even the writer, the page always knows first. It speaks of that ineffable something that all writers know is out there. Call it faith, intuition, or inspiration. It’s what keeps them writing: the belief that they know what they’re doing, even when they can’t explain it.
Reacher Said Nothing is an absolute must for the bookcase of anyone who writes or aspires to. And it is a perfect reading companion for any fan of Lee Child’s thrillers. At twenty “seasons” and counting, the Reacher novels are one hell of a “box-set,” and Reacher Said Nothing makes for some superb “bonus material.” With perhaps one caveat. Unlike TV and movies, this is a book, so it’s all about trust.
Tim Baker’s debut thriller, Fever City (Europa Editions), has just been longlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey New Blood Dagger award.