Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Seat Beside the Master

Imagine having had the chance to sit at a desk next to Shakespeare as he wrote Hamlet? Or Nabokov while he dreamt up his nymphet? Or Agatha Christie while she composed stories starring Mrs. Marple or Hercule Poirot? That is precisely the privilege Cambridge lecturer Andy Martin was treated to over the course of a year during which internationally bestselling author Lee Child wrote Make Me, the 20th book in his Jack Reacher series. The result of their Johnson-Boswell-style partnership is Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me, subject of a recent QA between Child and Martin in The New York Times.

I’ve been writing about Child’s Reacher series since 2007, and believe that the six-foot-five-inch former military major is one of fiction’s heroic figures. A brooding nomad blessed with both principle and pragmatism. For these reasons, this behind-the-scenes look into the largely invisible creative process of writing a book represents priceless value.

Why would so successful an author as Child lift the curtain? “I sort of thought: Maybe I can explain it, I’ve been doing it long enough,” he says. “Lots of readers ask me how I do this or that. I thought this was an opportunity to tell them. Or at least to figure it out for myself. Which is the main thing, to be honest. Normally, I operate in a fog of instinct.”

A fan of the Reacher novels, Martin explains that he chose Child for this world-first experiment of literary criticism conducted in real time because the academic “liked [Child’s] economy of style—very degree zero.” What you learn in the piece is what a considerate, conspicuous craftsman Child is. The opposite of a potboiler writer, Child—whom Martin describes as “clearly a frustrated academic” who has seen Waiting for Godot 39 times—is an author very much invested in the technical aspects of literature, the weight of words, the calibration of punctuation. (Martin marvels at Child’s “almost Flaubertian” care with commas.)

“Here is the fundamental reality about the writing business,” Child explains in the piece. “It’s lonely. You spend all your time writing and then wondering whether what you just wrote is any good. [Martin] gave me instant feedback. If I write a nicely balanced four-word sentence with good rhythm and cadence, most critics will skip right over it.” Not Professor Martin! Looking together at the first sentence of Lee’s in-progress Reacher novel, Night School, Martin marvels: “Hold on. Eleven syllables, each side of the caesura. Diminished alexandrine. Nicely symmetrical. And that rhythm. Like a limerick. Did you know you were doing that?” Answers the master: “See, I’ll miss all that.”

The Times piece also includes a brilliant interactive feature: the opening page of Make Me, with an annotated dialogue between the author and academic discussing each of Child’s choices. Across their exchange comes to life the notion that good prose is the result of a series of questions and answers, a kind of ongoing interrogation the author conducts with his material. Over the course of this footnoted page the reader learns why it’s good to start sentences with transitive verbs; why “wrestling a king-size mattress off a waterbed” is a killer metaphor; the vital difference between “nothing” and “nothingness”; why an absence of dialogue is a bold choice for an opening scene; and the importance of the folding toothbrush.

“It’s a funny old job, mine,” Child tells the professor perched on his shoulder. “I actually get paid to sit around and daydream. Everything else is just typing.”Reacher Said Nothing belongs on the short shelf of great texts about literary craft that includes Stephen King’s On Writing, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Image source: amazon.com

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