I was cycling along King’s Parade, one day in August 2014, when it hit me. If only Jean-Paul Sartre had been looking over Albert Camus’ shoulder when he wrote The Outsider! He wrote a good essay on the subject, to be fair, but how much better could it have been, and rather less speculative, if he had been present at the time of writing, keeping a close eye on the writer, pitching in occasional questions, and getting reasonable answers in return. More empirical, less metaphysical.
True, I said to myself, but they’re all dead. So much for that great idea. On the other hand, could it still be done? Right now, with a living writer? Follow the writing of a single book, from first word to last, catch the creative process on the wing, bear witness to the moment of genesis?
I told Lee Child that I first checked with Martin Amis and Jonathan Franzen and they were busy, so I called him. But the truth is that Lee Child is the first writer I thought of. No idea why, it just came to me. I relied totally on the whim of inspiration.
Which was the right thing to do. When I dropped him a line, with ‘wild idea’ in the subject box, he said, ‘OK, I’m starting Monday, so you’d better get over here.’ Just like that. Obviously I had to go. He lives in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side, in an apartment overlooking Central Park, so it was a bit of a step from King’s Parade (Cambridge, UK), but still… It was like a novel, pure coincidence, or fate. It was meant to be.
The thing that struck me above all, and which I completely identified with, was this: Lee had no idea what he was doing. Which might seem surprising. But he likes not to plan or work it out in advance. He compares starting a new book to flinging himself off a cliff and praying for a soft landing. His one-word description of his methodology is this: clueless.
Presumably, having a string of bestsellers behind you, and a recurring hero – in the muscular shape of Jack Reacher – does wonders for the sublime confidence.
I came across him once lying stretched out on a sofa, eyes closed, legs everywhere. The only sign of life was the cigarette in one hand, smoke corkscrewing up to the ceiling. ‘I am working you know!’ he said. And it was true. 90% of his work is done daydreaming. ‘The rest,’ as he says, ‘is typing.’
Lee always starts on September 1. It’s a ritual with him. A celebration of the day he went out to buy the pencil and paper with which to write his first book, Killing Floor.
He didn’t manage to work out what was going on in Make Me until half-way through January. He gave me the big reveal. The secret behind the mysterious goings-on at Mother’s Rest. ‘You evil mastermind!’ I blurted out. I realised then what I should have realised long before. Lee Child is not just Jack Reacher: he is every bad guy he has ever dreamed up. He is Hook Hobie, he is Little Joey, he is the gorgeous and seductive Lila Hoth. As much Moriarty as Holmes. Just as well he sublimates all his plotting into being a no. 1 writer.
Lee said this was my one big insight in Reacher Said Nothing. The funny thing is that in the next book he has made the bad guy more sympathetic, because he now realises that at some level it is basically him.
He has just completed Night School, his 21st, due out later this year. I remember how he celebrated reaching the end of Make Me, in April 2015: ‘I’m going out to buy kitchen towel and toothpaste. This is getting ridiculous.’