The bibliophilic pursuit is a turbulent one. Of the books that made a lasting impression on me, I initially despised many of them. Left them alone on the shelf for months, even. Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke and Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa come to mind. Some I haven’t even finished; it’s been more than a year, yet I still haven’t mustered the grit to get through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.
Perhaps the reason I was able to complete and appreciate [two of] the afore-mentioned scrolls is because I involuntarily gave them some time to stew in the back of my mind. Some books just aren’t supposed to go down easily – they need to be chewed in bite-sized chunks and digested slowly. They ought to be hated and thrown down on the floor. They must be savoured over an extended period of time for the reader to gain their full worth.
I blame this notion for why Doctor Andy Martin’s transgressional tome, Reacher Said Nothing, pissed me off so much. I had an interview to conduct, and it was therefore imperative that I finish the damn thing on time. But a week simply wasn’t enough; there was no room for loving it, fighting it or having make-up sex with it. I was confined to an uncontentious approach.
I was treading a fairly narrow line- a bit of a tightrope, really, between getting inside and seeing the process at work, and driving him bonkers and getting my arse kicked
Doctor Martin, (“Please, just Andy”) a Cambridge University academic, embarked upon what sounds like a journalistic flight of fancy. By means of prior acquaintanceship and a few emails, he managed to get himself in the position of observing world-renowned author Lee Child during the writing of the 20th Jack Reacher novel, Make Me. Andy’s book revolves around not only liaising with Child, but also physically sitting in on him during the writing process. He had Lee’s back, as it were.
This encounter is probably the closest any observer has ever gotten to a novelist’s creative process, and with good reason; the whole idea screams “this shouldn’t work!”
I met Andy on a Friday afternoon in the lobby of the Townhouse Hotel in Cape Town during the Open Book Festival, his reason for visiting South Africa.
On arrival he looks formidable; broad-shouldered, fit, strong wearing jeans and an unbuttoned waistcoat. He runs twenty flights of stairs for exercise, but his building only has ten floors so he does them twice. Upon that he has written two highly acclaimed books on surfing, biographies on Napoleon and Brigitte Bardot, and various philosophical tomes.
But the undertaking of the book at hand was unchartered waters.
“I suppose the issue that would trouble any prospective reader of Reacher Said Nothing is that watching a writer write does not sound very dramatic,” Andy inadvertently acknowledged as soon as our discussion kicked off. “But, when you’re together in the same room for so long, there is always the possibility of a fight. Sort of like being married. I’ll admit that I was treading a fairly narrow line- a bit of a tightrope, really, between getting inside and seeing the process at work, and driving him bonkers and getting my arse kicked.”
At 6”4”, Lee Child (Jim Grant’s pseudonym) is only an inch shy of Jack Reacher’s abnormal height and, like Reacher, has been known to be prone to a scrap. “But he’s not big, like Reacher. More on the stringy side,” Andy pointed out.
I enquired whether he undertook the project as a study, or did it purely out of interest. “As soon as I decided I was going to do this, I imposed a rule upon myself: I stop writing my book when he stops writing his. That way there would be no way to weigh the book down with additional research. What the reader gets is an honest account of what actually happened at the moment when it happened. I was determined not to add anything to make it look better than it actually was at the time.”
It’s more of a documentary than a biography, then?
“Yes,” Andy said. “That’s a good way of putting it. Documentaries have that sense of simultaneity about them. I was one of the gang; Lee Child was the gang leader, tolerating me with my camera in hand, so to speak. The book reads very chronologically. You get the feeling that it’s actually happening in sequence.”
I was one of the gang; Lee Child was the gang leader, tolerating me with my camera in hand, so to speak
“Do you think you’ve created a new genre, or form?” I enquired. “I think so,” he agreed. “People have gotten accustomed to social media and instant gratification. They want to know, what’s happening now? This book is about what’s happening to Jack Reacher right now, straight from the source.”
Inevitably the conversation drifted to Stephen King’s On Writing. “There’s a lot of mutual respect between King and Lee. They’ve hung out together at a baseball match. But Lee has no idea how King churns out so many words every day. Nor how he can write with loud rock music playing in the background! Lee says that, should he attempt to do that, the rhythm of the music would inevitably cut across the rhythm of his own prose.”
But was Andy trying to do something similar to King’s book? “One side of On Writing is autobiographical, the second is an instruction manual. I tried to stay away from the second aspect, but Lee often had bits of advice to offer, so, in a way, there is a reminiscence of that too. I actually read King’s book while I was writing mine.”
We went on to discuss why the thriller genre has become so popular in the literary world, and what makes Lee Child vastly successful in such a competitive market.
“People will read this book thinking I’m the nerdy academic, and Lee is the cool, hip writer. But the irony is, he has a very academic side to him and an astounding vocabulary to boot. He has an ear and a sense for the melody of words. He likes to think of himself as a failed rock star, and brings that to his writing.
“Also, he has managed to retain his artistic integrity. Lee has resisted to do more than he feels is necessary, because he truly loves his own unique process and doesn’t want to lose control. He writes one book a year and that’s it. Doing more would be forcing it, and he can’t force the pace of his writing. Even though he is weary of becoming a kind of public intellectual, he does feel he has a responsibility to his readers.”
And the appeal of Jack Reacher?
“Reacher, in his own way, is a poet and at the same time he’s a big bad guy who can really hurt you. But his violent nature is usually brought about to avenge others; people are attracted to this evolutionary inclination, to the noble savage. Lee likes to think of Reacher as a gorilla, but a gorilla who can paint.”
Lee likes to think of Reacher as a gorilla, but a gorilla who can paint
I asked Andy what he thought about the Open Book Festival.
“Book festivals are wonderful because they allow readers the intimacy of encountering an author in person. It’s almost like having an opportunity to talk to a book. It’s an open refutation of Roland Barth’s theory that the author is dead!
“Also, an interview with an artist is an ongoing conversation. Any great book is an arena of struggle. In general we have to love it, but we must also have our own argument against it if it is a good book. Lee Child certainly prefers a skeptical, argumentative reader, rather than a fan; I think that’s why he let me in.”
Contrary to the etiquette of the page turner which Doctor Martin has taken great care to dissect, Reacher Said Nothing is delicatessen that should not be rushed. It is a vital document for the discerning reader, and can only be appreciated if savoured patiently. Take your time with it; it’s a beautiful thing.