Ahead of his new thriller, The Midnight Line, Lee Child gives a master class on writing a short story in 12 hours

Andy Martin and Lee Child discuss chapter one of the new Jack Reacher, due out in November

Andy Martin
Friday 29 September 2017 15:40
New Blank Document: Lee Child writes a short story in 24 hours

Lee Child was born James Grant, in Coventry, in 1954. Sacked from his job with Granada TV in 1995, he re-invented himself as Lee Child with his first novel Killing Floor, which launched the career of his XXL hero, ex-military policeman Jack Reacher. Now based in New York, he begins a new novel every September 1st (the day he went out to buy the paper and pencil he used to write the first one).The Midnight Line is his 22nd novel.

Chapter One: Jack Reacher and Michelle Chang spent three days in Milwaukee. On the fourth morning she was gone.

Andy Martin
Not quite a one-night stand. A three-night stand. Roughly par for the course for Reacher. The end of the romance initiated in Make Me. But more importantly, look how precise this is. It’s all about the timing. Reacher has the uncanny ability to know what the time is without checking. The clock is always accessible in his head. You could say that Reacher embodies time. He is a walking, talking (well, not much of that) head-butting principle of temporality. He determines how long bad guys are going to spend in hospital – or possibly eternity. And then consider your titles – Gone Tomorrow, 61 hours – now The Midnight Line. And your next one, the one you just started: Yesterday à la Paul McCartney. Everything is timing.

Lee Child
Well, it’s a chronological art form, propelling the reader through the story a beat, an hour, a day at a time. So a sense of beats, days, and hours passing is important. It grounds the reader against a scale. At this stage, it’s all about postponement. I don’t want to give anything away yet. Really, if Reacher was as smart as some people think he is, the novel would be over on page 2 because he would have worked it all out.

Reacher came back to the room with coffee and found a note on his pillow. He had seen such notes before. They all said the same thing. Either directly or indirectly. Chang's note was indirect. And more elegant than most. Not in terms of presentation. It was a ballpoint scrawl on motel notepaper gone wavy with damp. But elegant in terms of expression. She had used a simile, to explain and flatter and apologize all at once. She had written "You're like New York City. I love to visit, but I could never live there."

AM:The note on the pillow. The text within the text. Reacher as reader. It’s interesting how often he really is just that, a reader (he’s also a bit of a mind-reader). And he notes, in an almost literary critical way, it’s not a metaphor, it’s a “simile”. Not too many tough-guy vigilante drifters would bother with that distinction.

LC: He likes precision. Words have meanings, and he likes to know them. In general people like the contrast between his enormous physicality and his delight at small intellectual diversions.

AM: And Reacher is compared to New York. Big enough perhaps. Space as well as time. Isn’t his ultimate geographical goal to encompass the whole of the United States? The itinerant style. In Make Me he gets off a train to kick-start the novel. This time it’s the bus. Reacher’s trajectory is like a game of hopscotch.

LC: And he’s noticing one person after another telling him his lifestyle is odd. There’s a little introspection in this novel, mostly because of Chang. But mostly he’s happy. He enjoys small pleasures. I think you once called it the “infra-ordinary” - not the extraordinary - that’s what he’s into.

He did what he always did. He let her go. He understood. No apology required. He couldn't live anywhere. His whole life was a visit. Who could put up with that? He drank his coffee, and then hers, and took his toothbrush from the bathroom glass, and walked away, through a knot of streets, left and right, toward the bus depot. She would be in a taxi, he guessed. To the airport. She had a gold card and a cell phone.

At the depot he did what he always did. He bought a ticket for the first bus out, no matter where it was going. Which turned out to be an end-of-the-line place way north and west, on the shore of Lake Superior. Fundamentally the wrong direction. Colder, not warmer. But rules were rules, so he climbed aboard. He sat and watched out the window. Wisconsin flashed by, its hayfields baled and stubbly, its pastures worn, its trees dark and heavy. It was the end of summer.

AM: He picks up the toothbrush. Can’t leave that behind! It’s about the only thing he carries on him, right? One of these days he ought to use it as a weapon, you know, poke someone’s eye out or something.

LC: See, this is the trouble with literary critic types – they’re fundamentally violent. They love to rip people to shreds. Reacher wouldn’t dream of poking anyone’s eye out with his toothbrush. He would use his thumbs for that.

It was the end of several things. She had asked the usual questions. Which were really statements in disguise. She could understand a year. Absolutely. A kid who grew up on bases overseas, and was then deployed to bases overseas, with nothing in between except four years at West Point, which wasn't exactly known as a leisure-heavy institution, then obviously such a guy was going to take a year to travel and see the sights before he settled down. Maybe two years. But not more. And not permanently. Face it. The pathology meter was twitching.

All said with concern, and no judgment. No big deal. Just a two-minute conversation. But the message was clear. As clear as such messages could be. Something about denial. He asked, denial of what? He didn't secretly think his life was a problem.

That proves it, she said.

So he got on the bus to the end-of-the-line place, and he would have ridden it all the way, because rules were rules, except he took a stroll at the second comfort stop, and he saw a ring in a pawn shop window.

AM: You like to start with an “end” (and an “end-of-the-line”). Then it turns out it isn’t. I assume your denial of “denial” and Reacher’s having no “secret” thoughts is your critique of Freudian psychology. There is no unconscious, everything is out there, visible, audible, nothing is hidden, if you’re only aware enough. And then we have it - the ring, the magic ring. I remember you went to the same school as JRR Tolkien (King Edward’s Grammar School in Birmingham) – is this your take on Lord of the Rings? Or did you have Wagner in mind? You set Night School in Germany after all. Or none of the above?

LC: I don’t want to upset any Lord of the Rings fans – or the old school – but I never really read Tolkien. Don’t like Wagner – preposterously overblown. The story is a simple quest narrative, and the ring is the trigger.

The second comfort stop came late in the day, and it was on the sad side of a small town. Possibly a seat of county government. Or some minor part of it. Maybe the county police department was headquartered there. There was a jail in town. That was clear. Reacher could see bail bond offices, and a pawn shop. Full service, right there, side by side on a run-down street beyond the restroom block.

He was stiff from sitting. He scanned the street beyond the restroom block. He started walking toward it. No real reason. Just strolling. Just loosening up. As he got closer he counted the guitars in the pawn shop window. Seven. Sad stories, all of them. Like the songs on country radio. Dreams, unfulfilled. Lower down in the window were glass shelves loaded with smaller stuff. All kinds of jewelry. Including rings. Including class rings. All kinds of high schools. Except one of them wasn't. One of them was West Point 2005.

It was a handsome ring. It was a conventional shape, and a conventional style, with intricate gold filigree, and a black stone, maybe semi-precious, maybe glass, surrounded by an oval hoop that had West Point around the top, and 2005 around the bottom. Old-style letters. A classic approach. Either respect for bygone days, or a lack of imagination. West Pointers designed their own rings. Whatever they wanted. An old tradition. Or an old entitlement, because West Point class rings were the first class rings of all.

It was a very small ring.

Reacher wouldn't have gotten it on any of his fingers. Not even his left-hand pinky, not even past the nail. Certainly not past the first knuckle. It was tiny. It was a woman's ring. Possibly a replica for a girlfriend or a fiancée. That happened. Like a tribute or a souvenir.

But possibly not.

Reacher opened the pawn shop door. He stepped inside. A guy at the register glanced up. He was a big bear of a man, scruffy and unkempt. Maybe in his middle thirties, dark, with plenty of fat over a big frame anyway. With some kind of cunning in his eyes. Enough to calibrate a response to his sudden six-five two-fifty visitor. Driven purely by instinct. He wasn't afraid. He had a loaded gun under the counter. Unless he was an idiot. Which he didn't look. All the same, the guy didn't want to risk sounding aggressive. But he didn't want to sound obsequious, either. A matter of pride.

So he said, "How's it going?"

Not well, Reacher thought. To be honest. Chang would be back in Seattle by then. Back in her life.

But he said, "Can't complain."

AM: Reacher says, “Can’t complain.” Which raises the question of stoicism. In a way Reacher is the most stoical guy on the planet. He always refuses to take an aspirin for example, no matter if someone has just hit him over the head with a blunt instrument. In another way, he is not in the least stoical and he really does complain. “Who could put up with that?” There is always something amiss, something that needs fixing. Something is rotten in the state of… Wisconsin.

LC: That’s just what the world is like. Including Wisconsin. It’s not necessarily pleasant.

"Can I help you?"

"Show me your class rings."

The guy threaded the tray backward off the shelf. He put it on the counter. The West Point ring had rolled over, like a tiny golf ball. Reacher picked it up. It was engraved inside. Which meant it wasn't a replica. Not for a fiancée or a girlfriend. Replicas were never engraved. An old tradition. No one knew why.

Not a tribute, not a souvenir. It was the real deal. A cadet's own ring, earned over four hard years. Worn with pride. Obviously. If you weren't proud of the place, you didn't buy a ring. It wasn't compulsory.

The engraving said SRS 2005.

AM: This is not a magic ring. A pawn shop “on a run-down street beyond the restroom block”. What could be more prosaic? And it’s very small, almost insignificant. And yet here we have the mysterious text which has to be deciphered. Reacher’s exegetical skills being brought to bear. “SRS 2005”. Quite close to SOS.

LC: Reacher deduces from the size that it’s a woman’s ring, and he knows what she went through to get it. His instincts kick in … as always, is he helping the little guy, or assuming the presence of a sinister “big guy”, who needs taking down? Some challenges intrigue him.

The bus blew its horn three times. It was ready to go, but it was a passenger short. Reacher put the ring down and said: "Thank you," and walked out of the store. He hustled back past the restroom block and leaned in the door of the bus and said to the driver, "I'm staying here."

"No refunds."

"Not looking for one."

"You got a bag in the hold?"

"No bag."

"Have a nice day."

The guy pulled a lever and the door sucked shut in Reacher's face. The engine roared and the bus moved off without him. He turned away from the diesel smoke and walked back toward the pawn shop.

AM: I know your alter ego is rock-star. Or rock-star manqué. The fifth Beatle. So here the crucial thing is really the music. You mention songs on the radio. And the guitars. “Dreams, unfulfilled.” Is that you? Lots of short sentences (only three one-worders though). A montage or collage technique. There is not much dialogue until Reacher gets into the pawn shop. But maybe the secret is that there is a lot of implied dialogue, going on in the head of Reacher. Internalised. “She had asked the usual questions. Which were really statements in disguise. She could understand a year. Absolutely.” With you it’s the exact reverse: statements which are more like questions – and answers.

LC: Yeah it’s all about questions at this stage. I don’t know any of the answers. I’ll have to dream some up eventually. Ninety per cent of what I do is daydreaming – the rest is typing.

AM: I feel I ought to do a proper interview, you know, your whole life in a nutshell, your opinions on everything. Would you like to summarise your thoughts on this and that? Art, life, love, Tom Cruise…

LC: I’m with Kafka – the meaning of life is that it ends.

Cinematographer, Quinn Gundersen
Editor, Katharine Stocker
Sound editor, Jack Martin

The Midnight Line will be published on November 7. Andy Martin is the author of Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me, and teaches at the University of Cambridge.

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