The man with no plot: how I watched Lee Child write a Jack Reacher novel by Andy Martin

British novelist Andy Martin spent much of the past year with author Lee Child as he wrote the 20th novel in his Jack Reacher series. Here he describes Child’s bold (and very, very “seat of the pants”) approach to writing.

Andy Martin, University of Cambridge

This article and the accompanying photos are reprinted by permission from the wonderful UK news website, The Conversation via Creative Commons license.

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Nobody really believes him when he says it. And in the end I guess it is unprovable. But I can put my hand on heart and say, having been there, and watched him at work, that Lee Child is fundamentally clueless when he starts writing. He really is. He has no idea what he is doing or where he is going. And the odd thing is he likes it that way. The question is: Why? I mean, most of us like to have some kind of idea where we are heading, roughly, a hypothesis at least to guide us, even if we are not sticking maps on the wall and suchlike. Whereas he, in contrast, embraces the feeling of just falling off a cliff into the void and relying on some kind of miraculous soft landing.

Of course he is not totally tabula rasa. Because he, and I, had a fair idea that the name Jack Reacher was going to come up somewhere in this, his 20th novel in the series.

It’s probably a defensive reflex gesture, but I sometimes like to joke that, when I had this crazy idea of writing a book about a novelist working on a story from beginning to end, I first contacted Amis/Tartt/Franzen/ Houellebecq and when they were unavailable I only asked Lee Child as a desperate last resort. The reality is he was the first writer I thought of. He has always struck me as a blessed (and I don’t mean by that successful) and exemplary incarnation of what Borges called “the spirit of literature”. He is, more than anyone I can think of, a pure writer, with a degree zero style. Maybe sub-zero. He doesn’t plan. He doesn’t premeditate. He loves to be spontaneous. Which explains two things: One: that he said yes to my proposal. “I’m starting Monday”, he wrote, “so if you want to do this you’d better get over here.” And, two: that he also said: “I have no plot and no title. Nothing.”

When I got there, on September 1 of last year, to his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, overlooking Central Park, just up the street from where John Lennon once lived (and where he was shot dead by a deranged fan), all he had was sublime confidence. And a title, which he had come up with the night before: Make Me. He just liked the sound of it.

Pencilled in

It had to be September 1. It’s a ritual with him: 20 years to the day since he went out and bought the paper and a pencil with which to write his first novel, Killing Floor. (It had to be a pencil: he decided he couldn’t really afford anything better, having just been sacked from his job in television). When he sat down to write the first sentence, all he had in his head was a scene, a glimpse of a scene: a bunch of guys are burying someone, a big guy, using a backhoe (or JCB). He had no idea who they are, why they are doing this, or who the big guy is either, other than that his name is Keever.

So he wrote the following sentence: “Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy.” I was looking over his shoulder, but I was about a couple of yards or so behind him, perched on a couch, so I had to peer hard at the screen. All I could make out was the “-ing”. It was enough for me. Good start I thought: participle, verb, action. I had to know more. But he didn’t know more, at this point. We discussed the first couple of pages, when they popped up out of his printer. He knew it had to be third-person. No dialogue, but he tried to capture something of the vernacular in a Flaubertian style indirect libre. And Reacher, when he gets off the train in the small town of Mother’s Rest, in the midst of “nothingness”, has no absolutely no idea what is going on.

Lee Childs starts with this. EPA/Sergion Barrenechea

Which was exactly how Lee Child felt. For the next few months I looked on with a degree of anxiety. Maybe he would never finish this one. The whole project looked doomed. Reacher was wandering around this small town, trying to work out mainly why it was even called Mother’s Rest. He didn’t even know that Keever was a dead man at this point. He was a fairly useless detective, because he couldn’t even figure out what the crime was, let alone solve it.

Wandering spirit

So too Lee Child. He wandered around New York, then drifted off to the West Coast, then Madrid, then Sussex, and still had no idea what the hell was going on in his book. If it was a book. Around Christmas time I spoke to him on the phone and he said: “Maybe it’ll make a good short story.” And added: “Maybe I should go back and work in television. I hear it’s improved a lot since my day.” And tossed in stray remarks like: “I guess I’m all out of gas.” He was partly winding me up of course – if he didn’t finish then neither would I. But after Phase One in his writing (what he calls “the gorgeous feeling” of the beginning) there is a Phase Two, which puts him in mind of Sisyphus and his travails. He struggles and meanders. Smokes more and drinks more black coffee, if it is possible to drink more black coffee. Puffs on the occasional joint in hope of inspiration finally striking.

Some time in January, it started to crystallise in his mind and he gave me the Big Reveal. Looking back at my notes, I see that I said to him, in a tone of mixed awe and horror: “You evil mastermind bastard.” I realised that there was a simple mistake I had been making all along. I had been mixing him up with his hero Jack Reacher. Whereas I now realised what I should have realised long before that he was also every single bad guy he had ever dreamed up. All those fiendish plots were actually his. The role of Reacher was to stop him plotting and for all I know taking over the world. Reacher keeps the author in check.

‘He stopped, so I stopped’

Then, in his phrase, it was the “marathon sprint” to the end. He got to the final page on April 10, 2015, surviving on a diet of Sugar Smacks and Alpen and toast, garnished with mucho caffeine and nicotine.

The finished product: Make Me / Random House

Having feared he would never get to the end, I was not sure I really wanted him to finish. Or whether I should be there to watch. It really seemed as if I was transgressing and crossing the line into some sacred place. I was bearing witness to the creative process dying. But without which the book itself could never be born. Last word: “needle”. “Moving … needle”. The whole book was there.

He stopped, so I stopped. That was the rule. I started when he started, so I had to finish when he did, or the day after anyway. No additions, no time for further reflection. It all had to be done according to the same principle he had adopted. Even before he had written the first sentence, he turned to me and said: “This is not the first draft, you know”. “Oh – what is it then?” I asked naively. “It’s the ONLY DRAFT!” he replied, with definite upper case or at least italics in his voice. He didn’t want to change anything, so neither could I.

Hence it took me several months to work out why it was that he worked in this fundamentally terrifying, angst-inducing way. Actually several explanations have occurred to me: sloth for one. He just can’t be bothered. And then there is what he says, which is that he would be “bored” if he knew what was coming next. But contained in that statement is a hint of what I think is the case and in fact is the secret of his whole writing.

Made man: Andy Martin’s meta-novel. / Random House

Lee Child writes his books as if he were the reader not the writer. When he is sitting at his desk in that back room in Manhattan he is only typing. The real work takes place when he is “dreaming”, when he is being just another reader, wondering what is coming next, waiting to find out. It probably explains too why he allowed me to look over his shoulder and watch his sentences taking shape even before he knew how they would end. He feels a natural sympathy with readers because he is one.

I sometimes like to claim – with absurd grandiloquence – that my book is some kind of first in the history of mankind, sitting around watching another guy write a whole book: but in fact that would be a lie, because I had to run off from time to time so as not to curl up and die of involuntary inhalation. But the “first” that I really would like to lay claim to is this: I am the first reader of a Lee Child novel to read it slowly. I had to keep stopping because he kept stopping. Because he really had no idea what was coming next. “Why did you stop there?” I asked him one day, feeling he hadn’t really written enough for that day. “I had to stop there,” he said. “I have no idea who that guy in the Cadillac is.”

The Conversation

Andy Martin, Lecturer, Department of French, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A Time to Rest

sabbatical-mug-300x260The word “sabbatical” comes from the same root as the word “sabbath.” Sabbatical means “of the sabbath,” and Sabbath means “rest.” Which is what I am going to be doing for at least the remainder of this year, possibly longer.

I’ve been writing stories since I could hold a pen. Really. My mom had some stories I wrote at the age of maybe ten, all about Ollie the Elephant and my imaginary friend Paula. (Not to be confused with the later real-life friend also known as Paula.) For decades, I wrote nonfiction in the form of newspaper and magazine articles and press releases for WORK and I wrote fiction for FUN.

Around ten years ago, I decided to get serious about fiction. I just wanted to see if I could finish a full-length novel. I did. Then I wanted to see if I could sell it to a big-name publisher. I didn’t. Then I decided it would be nice even to sell it to a small publisher. I did. But the experience with the small publisher was disillusioning to say the least — three changes of editor in the course of editing, a last-minute publication date that allowed no advance time for promotion and a poor job of promoting it once it was published. I started a second book and pitched it to a very big-name publisher  when they held a writing contest. As originally written, the book was a spy adventure with a touch of romance called The Capri Caper. An editor at Very Big Name Publishing took a liking and convinced me to take the characters out of that plot and turn it into a steamy romance. I did. After months of round-the-clock writing and revising to their specifications, Very Big Name Publisher ultimately rejected the novel anyway and I wound up going back to the less-than-satisfying small publisher for an even less satisfying editorial experience than I’d had the first time around.

Then the self-publishing wave hit. I decided it might be cool to get my rights to both books back, get new editors, new book covers and do my own promo. It was fun. The books actually made a bit of money this time. One even made the Amazon Best-Seller List for a little while.

Since that time, about three years ago now, I’ve written and published a couple of short stories and contributed to a cookbook. I’ve started at least three different “chick lit” style novels and failed to complete any of them.

Meanwhile, my nonfiction writing career has picked up enormously in the last year — I’ve been writing half of every issue of a local glossy mag that gets distributed in a major newspaper. I’ve also done a fair amount of PR work for a couple of local clients.

And for the last year, I’ve been struggling to help my son, Dr. Sheldon Cooper as he is called on this blog, transition to adulthood. It is going very so-so at this point. He is still a good kid, still mostly happy, BUT…. And the list of “buts” keeps growing: he rejected offers from two very good local colleges for a major he seemed very sure about in favor of going to community college. Once there he changed his major four times in the first semester until a counselor pretty much ordered him to put down “General Studies” and his father ordered him to not change it again at all if he wants us to continue footing the bill. He has drifted away from a lot of  hobbies he had in high school and refuses to consider even a minor in Music, his one area of true giftedness that could help pay his tuition in the form of scholarships, not to mention leading to a fulfilling career in something he loves and at which he excels. He’s developed a serious and unexpected case of stage fright.

Frankly, life with Dr. Cooper has ever been a roller coaster, but it’s always a worry when the car takes a downhill turn, as it seems to be doing this year. I foresee another season wherein I spend almost every free minute getting him organized, boosting his spirits, cheering him out of his dark moments. A season filled with visits to doctors, counselors, coaches, psychologists, acupuncturists, even priests, trying to get him to Focus! Cheer up! Have confidence! It is an exhausting, time-consuming place to be and it is a place I come back to with him every few years. Many parents of special needs kids or kids with developmental challenges know this place as “Holland,” from the Emily Perle Kingsley essay “Welcome to Holland.” And indeed, Holland is not a bad place to be. But we wouldn’t want to, say, let him take the wrong train entirely and wind up leaving Holland for Outer Slobovia or something even less appealing.

So I will put aside much of my self again and make one last push to try and help him acquire the confidence, the optimism, and the social skills he will need to succeed at an independent life without me someday. I will fit that around the newspaper, magazine  and PR writing that pays so much better than novel writing now (although ironically it was the opposite just three years ago). I will fit it around that stuff because it’s what I do. The Boy Who Was Autistic eventually graduated from a mainstream private high school with a 3.6 GPA and a bright future. I believe he can still find that future, but he needs a few more years of coaxing and coaching and maybe even a little hand-holding to do so.

But the coaxing and coaching of Dr. Cooper takes a lot of time and mental energy away from things like novel-writing. And then there are all the market changes in the novel-writing world. Self-publishing was fun, but I’m pretty burnt out on the whole phenomenon now. The market is flooded with new self-pubbed authors who have no professional background whatsoever in writing or editing and just hope to hit it rich “like that 50 Shades writer.” Unfortunately, the market is definitely not flooded with an equal influx of new readers, leading to entire sets of full-length books being sold for as little as $0.99. You can see, then, why novel-writing isn’t even on the back burner for me right now. It’s in the freezer, cats and kitties. A freezer in the basement. In the back. And the stairs to the basement are missing.

The bottom line, cats and kitties, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now is: no new chick noir novel in 2015. Probably not in 2016 either. Even if I get back to novel writing at some point in the future, I suspect it won’t be chick lit. Maybe it will be horror or steampunk or my old first love, science fiction. Maybe it will be a weepy women’s novel or an edgy action thriller. There’s a good chance it will be something for kids or teens, since I’m reading and enjoying more and more of that stuff these days.  But all that is in the vague future. Right now, the focus is on Dr. Cooper and my freelance business.

There will probably be book review posts in the future, and there may be some short stories and another cookbook contribution coming in the next year, but I don’t see a novel coming soon. And trying to pretend I even want to write another one right now has become another thing just making me tired and stressing me out. And so this post: a confession and an acclamation: Lynn Reynolds the novelist is on sabbatical.

The White Man’s Burden Just Never Stops

white-mans-problems.w250Funniest quote about books this week  (or possibly ever) has to go to Michael Wolff of USA Today. . .

In a recent article, Wolff bemoans the fate of middle-aged white guy Kevin Morris who, despite being a successful entertainment lawyer, couldn’t get a book contract with a mainstream publisher. The article goes on at length to talk about what a hard thing it is to be a white guy in the entertainment industry these days (?!) and how little entertainment is geared toward such folk.

Because you know, Jack Reacher, Tom Clancy, Liam Neeson, Duck Dynasty, football  — apparently none of that counts. Although if those things are not for middle-aged men, I can’t imagine who they’re actually for.

And if you’re grousing about wanting a more literary level to your middle-aged white guy entertainment, what about Updike, Cheever, Jonathan Franzen, and almost any freaking short story published in The New Yorker? What about the hundreds of years of accumulated writing and work that has already been written by and aimed at middle-aged white guys? I guess Mr. Wolff has already read all of that.

Now I have no idea of the quality of Kevin Morris’ writing. I haven’t read his book yet. And I have to confess that as a non-middle-aged-white-man, it’s not at the top of my list. My quibble is not with the quality of his writing, the state of entertainment for middle-aged men, or his feeling of being marginalized.

In fact, I applaud Morris for doing what so many other successful writers of all ages and colors (myself included) are now doing — self-publishing his collection of stories, White Man’s Problems. My quibble is not with Morris at all, but rather with this truly priceless line, found near the end of Michael Wolff’s bafflingly outraged column about this book:

“Amazon’s legion of self-published authors is perhaps just more evidence of our infinitely fractured culture. Too many stories is just another sign of a broken world.”

That’s right, the same columnist complaining about the lack of representation for middle-aged white men in literature and praising the brilliance of Kevin Morris’ self-published book is the same columnist suggesting it’s a BAD THING that absolutely anyone can now self-publish a collection of short stories whenever they so desire.

Wait, what?

Telling more stories is bad? The fact that human beings have stories to tell and new ways to share them is a BAD THING?! A sign of a broken world?

If a burning desire to tell your story and the ability to share it with anyone is a sign of disaster and brokenness, I guess it’s clearly been one long downhill slide since the first caveman picked up his brush. And frankly, if more people wanting to tell stories is a sign of a broken world, then I’d be happy to live in one that’s crumbling to pieces.

Rant done. Thanks for the laugh, USA Today.