It was like being at a cup final. Or a rock festival. There was hysteria in the air. Which is odd, really. Because it was just a couple of guys speaking at Harvard University. You'd think it would be reasonably civilised. But not when the two guys are Stephen King and Lee Child, who were there "in conversation" about books. Specifically one book, Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel, Make Me.
The Sanders Theatre auditorium which hosted the event earlier this month on behalf of the Harvard Book Store is massive, on three separate levels, with room for a thousand. And it was packed with more people than I have ever seen at a book signing in my life. The actual queue of readers lining up to get their copy of Make Me signed by the author was not just hours long: it had strata, like a mille feuille.
While the Harvard Book Store regularly puts on author events that would turn the staff of the average branch of Waterstones green with envy (coming soon: talks from Chelsea Clinton, Salman Rushdie and Patti Smith), the combined star power of King and Child, thriller writers extraordinaire, eclipsed the lot of them.
Even before he took to the stage, word was out that King is a self-declared Reacher fan. In one recent novel, Mr Mercedes, the bad guy, pulls out a Lee Child paperback; in another, Under the Dome, someone suggests calling up "Major Reacher" for advice. In a headline-worthy role reversal, Stephen King announced that he – King, the implacable author of some 50-odd novels, many of them almost physically unbearable (The Shining, anyone?) – had been "shocked" by the surprise ending of Make Me. Then he added, just in case anyone should misunderstand: "The new one is absolutely fuckin' fantastic."
'You're British,' said Stephen King to Lee Child. 'But you really know America – I mean, in a loving sort of way.' Lee Child, it turns out, fell in love with America aged fivewhen he came across a book at the public library in Birmingham called My Home in America. He married an American girl. He lives in Manhattan. He said that the thing that really inspired him was something Brian Epstein had once said to the Beatles: "You're No 1 in America!"Child said, "My plan A was to become one of the Beatles. But this is the next best thing."
King, prolific writer of horror stories, thrillers and science fiction, is first and foremost a patriot. Like a latter-day Mark Twain or Walt Whitman, he sings the song of America. From I Was a Teenage Grave Robber to Finders Keepers (his most recent novel), at the core of even his most terrifying works there is a celebration of ordinary, everyday life in the United States.
Lee Child, meanwhile, now regularly tops the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. Make Me is the new No 1. Child's hero, Jack Reacher (played against 6ft 5in and 250lb-type by Tom Cruise in the film adaptation) drops out of the army to become a drifter vigilante hero, criss-crossing the whole of the United States. The Reacher series, like King's work, is a hymn to a vast imaginary country.
Despite the enthusiasm of the crowd for the authors on stage, it seems that the biggest fans there were the writers themselves. King and Child spent the previous evening watching the Red Sox play baseball. They had rarely met before, but, as Child said: "It was like meeting someone you've known for 40 years. I've read him and he's read me and now we know all we need to know about one another."
'Make Me' by Lee Child (Penguin Random House, £7.99) is out now
Andy Martin's 'Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me', is published in November
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