Many of my friends will know this story: last year, after my husband died, reading became one of my grief’s casualties. For weeks, I struggled to open a book. That changed when I turned to Lee Child’s Killing Floor. It was just the right kind of light but intelligent and thrilling entertainment that I needed to get hooked on reading again. In the following nine months, I read all other nineteen novels in the Jack Reacher series, and many others.
Having become such a passionate fan, I was excited to find out about Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. The author, the Cambridge academic Andy Martin, asked Child whether he could shadow him during his writing of Make Me, the twentieth and latest Reacher novel. He was keen to observe and record Child’s creative process as it happened, proposing “a kind of literary criticism but in the moment, in real time, rather than picking it up afterwards…trying to capture the very moment of creation…you would have someone (i.e. me) looking over your shoulder as you are typing the words.” Five days before the first word of Make Me appeared on Child’s computer screen, he agreed to the literary adventure.
Reacher Said Nothing not only takes us behind the scenes of Make Me’s genesis, but Child’s entire career. It goes back to 1994 and the day when Child bought the paper and pencil with which he wrote Killing Floor, the first in the bestselling series. He now writes on a computer, eating quite a lot of junk food and drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee. With Martin there, literally on the couch behind him, Child attempts to verbalise what happens when a writer picks up a pen, or keyboard, and begins dreaming. In this respect it is as much a book for readers as for writers. When writing, Child thinks like a reader; that’s his thing. But there is no magic formula. Only a lot of doubt, hard work (each Reacher is about 100 000 or more words long), and when you are lucky, a good story to tell. Millions of devoted fans across the world can testify that Child knows how to pick them.
Andy Martin also has a great story to tell. Reacher Said Nothing reads like a thriller. Like a master of the genre, Martin builds up the tension to the moment when Child sits down to write the first sentence. From there, he continues about the power of storytelling – the written word’s extraordinary potentials for both, writers and readers.
“He would have been good around the campfire, Lee – he would definitely make you forget about the wolves or the saber-tooth”, Martin writes. But it’s not only the engrossing plot. One of the things that immediately struck me about Child’s writing is a captivating attention to stylistic details such as word choice, syntax, punctuation – a kind of poetry that I now realise is fully conscious, intentional. “It all mattered, linguistically”, Martin writes. It’s about noticing things. And to see the process unfold is fascinating. Child writes only one draft, but the meticulousness with which he constructs the narrative allows him to.
Martin also accompanies Child to literary events, signings and interviews. He speaks to his fans. They spend a lot of leisure time together, watching football or meeting friends for dinner. I loved the humour of Reacher Said Nothing, the banter between the two authors, and Martin’s often hilarious commentary. An early scene: “‘It’s reverse Freudian,’ Lee said. ‘You’re on the couch and you are analysing me.’ I said nothing. He flexed his fingers. ‘Naturally I’m going to start, like all good writers, by…checking my email!’”
Martin and his subject surface from Reacher Said Nothing as two people who are really passionate about what they are doing, are prepared to work their fingers to the bone in pursuit of their visions, and know how to have fun while doing it: “I live in a permanent daydream. I get paid to daydream narratives”, Child says. Reading the book one is inspired, but also reminded that writing is laborious.
Child’s relationship with his fictional character Jack Reacher is most intriguing, and strangely comforting. Anyone who has non-existent people occupying their heads knows what it’s like. Fiction is a thrill, and all of us, readers and writers alike, are junkies. Together with Martin, Child attempts to unravel the two-decade-old mystery behind his character’s worldwide appeal to men and women alike.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Reacher Said Nothing sparked a craze among authors wanting to have a meta-book written about the creation of their own novels in real time as they emerge on the page. It might become a genre in its own right, but Martin’s and Child’s example will be hard to equal or top.
Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me
by Andy Martin
Bantam Press, 2015
Review first published in the Cape Times on 11 March 2016.