Eating waffles in San Antonio – with a real-life fictional character

It’s not every day you find a character named after yourself. Andy Martin meets Lydia Lair, the woman who has been immortalised in the pages of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series

Monday 09 September 2019 18:21 BST
Illustration by Tom Ford
Illustration by Tom Ford

I didn’t have to choose the waffle. Could have been pancakes. Or tacos. It could have been banana waffle, but I choose the strawberry. Lydia was having the tacos. The waitress delivered our order. The waffle was punctuated by swirls of whipped cream. And laden with slices of strawberry. It was a thing of beauty. How could I not pull my phone out and take a picture?

“I have a dog called Waffle,” I said. “Really?” said Lydia. “That’s a nice name for a dog.”

We were sitting outside at the Guenther Mill on the river in San Antonio, Texas. At that precise moment a text signalled its arrival with a brief throb. I still had the phone in my hand, but I hadn’t started eating, so I thought it was just about acceptable to check it. It was a message from CambVetGrp (a veterinary service back in Cambridge). “Waffle is due his flea treatment. Our records show that you might need some more. Please call 01223 249331 to order.’’

I went ahead and ate the waffle. What are the chances? I think I can guarantee that this precise set of circumstances will never occur again in the history of the universe. But I believe it comes under the heading of what Jung would call “meaningful coincidences” or “synchronicity”. I eat a waffle in San Antonio, I speak of Waffle, and a text concerning Waffle simultaneously materialises on my phone. Virtually from Waffle himself, doomed to keep on scratching until I do something about his flea treatment.

It was the kind of phenomenon that tended to occur around Lydia Lair. She came to pick me up at the airport in her white Jaguar. About the first thing she said was: “I’m not Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. I don’t have time for love affairs. I’m a business woman.” Lydia Lair was immaculate. She was always immaculate. She was slim with squarish glasses.

“I’m glad you’re not Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. They both came to a fairly sticky end, didn’t they?”

She had been to see the ballet of Anna Karenina in Montréal not too long ago. “What did they do about the train?” I asked, never having seen it. “Oh they had a train all right,” she said. “The train steamed across the stage right at the beginning. And then again at the end.”

The invention of the train had expanded the ways available for unhappy people to commit suicide. I knew at least one guy who had chosen to go out that way (he was an economist, saving on rope or gun). The train was an effective tool, no question. Tough on train drivers, though, who were being used as involuntary executioners.

Child with Lydia Lair, the real one 

Lydia Lair was neither Anna Karenina nor Emma Bovary, but she was Lydia Lair. Which I know sounds like a tautology, but isn’t. She could have been Chang, for instance, or Stashower, or any number of more minor female characters. But she wasn’t. She was Lydia Lair. In fact, she was more Lydia Lair than she had any right to be.

Lydia Lair, readers will recall, is one of the victims of the home invasion scene (chapter 39), in the novel Make Me, part of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. She is married to a doctor by the name of Evan Lair. Her older brother is Peter McCann (also known as “Maloney”), who goes missing. But it could have been different.

Lee Child liked the name Lydia Lair. It reminded him of Lois Lane and Lana Lang in Superman. Back in February 2015, in the midst of writing Make Me, he toyed with the idea of giving the name to his main woman character, now known as “Chang”. But, appealing though the name was, he decided that he didn’t want “Lair said” too often (one “ai” word too many).

She could have died. Which is to say that Child was threatening her with death. “I don’t know if Lydia is going to get through the day,” Child would say. “There are going to be bullets flying every which way.” Or, “Lydia is looking like a goner.” “Let’s put her out of her misery.” And so on.

I like to think that I had a hand in saving Lydia. I happened to be sitting on a couch in his office on the Upper West Side, studying the creative process on the wing. And unable to remain strictly on the sidelines. “Oh come on, give her a chance!” I would say. Or, “You can’t do that! She’s paid thousands of dollars to be in the book. To a good cause as well...”

That was the unvarnished truth. Lydia Lair, the real Lydia Lair, who lived in San Antonio, Texas, had bought the right to have her name in the book at a black-tie charity auction in South Carolina, back in February 2015. She would be immortalised by author Lee Child. She was already a fan of his work, had read all his novels, was half in love with the character of Jack Reacher. Fantasized about him, the way one does. Therefore, she stuck her hand up when it came to the auction of (I imagine) “characters name in the next Lee Child novel’’.

It is the kind of thing big commercial writers (such as Stephen King and John Grisham) do these days: auction off the rights to a character. Maybe they have difficulty dreaming up names anyway. It’s easier this way, and it’s all for charity.

Who knows, maybe Lydia Lair would get to hang out with Reacher. Maybe she would fight Reacher or make love to him. None of that was a given, the novel hadn’t been written yet. It was maybe half-written. Child knew nothing of the existence of Lydia Lair. But, if she put her hand up often enough, he would. It was a popular ticket.

Finally, she saw that it was down to her and one other woman. The price tag was getting ridiculous. She’d never intended to donate this much money. It was crazy. She and her husband, art lovers and collectors, had been to many charitable functions over the years, but this was the first time they had gone out on a limb. They tended to favour “silent auction items” (no bidding wars). The Lairs looked at one another. “One more bid,” she said, and stuck her hand up one last time. The other woman (her merely mortal name unknown) surrendered and dropped out. Lydia Lair had won. She was in.

Her name was duly communicated to Child. It registered in his mind, he typed it out, it appeared on his computer screen, he started playing around with it when he was on vacation in Bermuda, and it ended up in the book.

Lydia Lair, the real Lydia Lair, who lived in San Antonio, Texas, had bought the right to have her name in the book at a black-tie charity auction in South Carolina, back in February 2015. She would be immortalised by author Lee Child

Obviously, I had to have lunch with her. It was the closest I was going to get to having lunch with Reacher himself. I would be breaking bread with a real live fictional character.

But first of all, Lydia emailed me. Imagine if a message from were to drop into your inbox. This was on a par. Lydia Lair had read Make Me. Child had given her a copy, it was all part of the deal. And now she had read the book. Which had shocked her, Child, and me. Lydia Lair really did have an “Evan” in her life; and she had had a brother who died.

“Other than family members and close friends back in 1968, no one has ever known about Evan. You can imagine how shocked I was to read the name in the book as my husband.” Evan: fiancé; car-crash (long ago). Brother: “tragic accident” (recent) on his farm. So reading the book was both pleasure and trauma for her. She was excited whenever she came up against her own name. Hey, look, it’s me! I’m talking to Jack Reacher. And then every time she read the word “Evan,” or the word “brother,” her heart skipped a beat. It was almost unbearable for her. But at the same time a form of catharsis or exorcism, the tragic mix of pity and terror. She was reliving her own life, mediated through the writing of Child. And feeling ripped apart.

There were further parallels. She had been brought up “on a small wheat farm in a dusty town in western Kansas”, similar to Mother’s Rest, the fictional location of the major action of the novel. In Make Me, Lydia Lair is hosting a party for her daughter who is getting married. In the world beyond the novel, Lydia Lair was mother to the groom: her son was due to get married in Colorado on 26 September.

Immortality in fiction

Just donate to charity

You could be shot dead and still achieve immortality. Or you might get to spend a night of bliss with your favourite hero or heroine. All you have to do is make a donation to a charity. Increasingly, authors are auctioning off the right to have your name glued to one of their characters.

Bestselling writers like Stephen King, John Grisham, Margaret Atwood, Tracy Chevalier, and romance novelist Katie Fforde are among those who have joined forces with charities like Freedom from Torture and CLIC Sargent to enable readers to get their names in print and raise money for good causes.

One regular on eBay is Frances Neagley, who has become a serial character, appearing in works by different authors, including Lee Child (who dedicated Bad Luck and Troubleto her) and Ian Rankin. In a recent twist, Child and fellow thriller writer Karin Slaughter paid $5000 each to have their names in Rankin’s next Rebus adventure. Which, given their eminence in the crime genre, could make life awkward for the author. ‘We did it to wind him up,’ says Child. Rankin said: ‘It’s not easy. I’ll find a way though.’

But here was the great mystery: how did Child know? There was no way he could know. He only had the name “Lydia Lair” to work with. That is all he had. That is all he was given. He knew nothing of the woman herself, her life and loves. She was a closed book to him, not even a book, nothing but a few syllables. And yet it was like she was sitting there in the room, posing for a portrait, freely answering questions, and providing far more than name, rank, and serial number.

He liked the sound of the name, but was blissfully unaware of the individual the name was attached to, his character’s objective correlative back in San Antonio. Which was fine as far as he was concerned. I was more curious. I had asked him when he was writing. “Who is Lydia Lair? Where does she come from?” “She is whoever I say she is,” he would reply. Lydia Lair, c’est moi. “She is someone who wrote out a big fat check to have her name in my book.”

I wanted him to find out who she really was, but he couldn’t be bothered. After all, he had to write. The deadline was only a couple of months away.

He wrote Make Me in the third person, using close point of view some of the time, and some of the time the detached omniscient narrator, who sees all and knows all. But the strange thing was, in Child’s case, it wasn’t a metaphor: he really did seem to have attained some measure of omniscience. He knew stuff he had no right to know. Lydia confessed, in her email, to being mystified. “Lee is a brilliant writer who always amazes me with facts, quotations, experiences, so detailed and in depth that I think it must be personal, and then the next year, I read a totally different book in a different location, etc....

'With Child' preview of an interview with best-selling author Lee Child

Of all his books I’ve read, this was clearly the one for a character with my name who would ever have known?”

Sceptics said: “You’re making this up.” I would say, “You can’t make this up.” On the other hand, Child was making it up, wasn’t he? Or maybe he wasn’t making it up at all and the book was pure mimesis.

I had read about Lydia Lair. I had received emails with her name on them. But I had to have more.

I loved San Antonio. It was summer again, in October. The Lairs lived in Alamo Heights. Lydia took me to the Alamo itself, which turned out to be a fairly small but rather beautiful fortress, all in white, in the Spanish hacienda style, downtown, just across the river. A lot of men had died there, heroically, back in the 19th century. Lydia took me on walks along the river and to an archetypal Tex Mex restaurant with amazing murals and real mariachis. I was forced to drink margaritas, champagne and finally Armagnac. But I managed to hold it all together and concen​trate on what I was there for, namely the the book and her role in it. And the meaningful coincidences that linked the character of Lydia Lair and the real Lydia Lair.

It was a phrase Lee had used himself, when he inscribed a copy of the book, “To the real Lydia Lair, with thanks for your kindness.” Which didn’t surprise me. But it did surprise her. “We were flabbergasted,” she said. A word you don’t hear that often. A bit more than surprised. Astonished but (briefly) reduced to confusion and perplexity. The reason being: she didn’t even know that she was supposed to be bestowing her name on a character in the book.

“But wasn’t that the whole point?” I said, utterly mystified. “Wasn’t that exactly what you were paying for?”

She thought she was getting lunch with Lee Child. It said so on the list of auction items. Plane tickets to New York. Three nights in the Roosevelt Hotel on 45th Street. And lunch with Lee Child. No mention of a character’s name, so far as she knew. There had been a breakdown in communication. I knew all about it back in February. As did Lee. We discussed it. Don’t worry, Lee had said. He would find her something to do. “Something poignant. Then she dies. Short and sweet.”

To set the record straight, even if everyone else thought otherwise, Lydia never knew what she was getting in return for her immensely generous contribution to the Heart Foundation. And then, after all those umpteen trillions of choices had been made, and the book existed, she found out, over lunch with this “prince among writers” (Lydia’s words) in New York. I am in your book!? She opened it with mingled excitement and trepidation. What would her character be like? Would she be young or old, ugly or beautiful? Would she step out with Jack Reacher or get taken out by him? “Oh, God,” she blurted out when a particularly unpleasant woman made an appearance, nameless at first. “I hope I’m not her!” She wasn’t.

She was glad too that she wasn’t Chang. Obviously, Chang was Chang. Child had saved Lydia Lair up for the part of...Lydia Lair. In the home invasion scene. Lydia, her husband Evan, the daughter, her pre-wedding party, all thoroughly smothered, like a waffle in maple syrup, with assorted bad guys and guns and Reacher and Chang.

“That really was me,” she said. “If it had been Chang, it would have just been a name, it wouldn’t have been me.” She was completely caught up in it. Heart rate ticking up every time the name Evan came up. “Dr and Mrs Evan Lair.” Pictured at a charity ball, moreover. She had been reading that bit on the plane home. She had to put the book down, she was too emotional. “You’re not going to believe this,” she said to her husband, the one who was not called Evan, when she got back to San Antonio. It was like Child was allowing her to live the life she might have led.

Evan Lair, in the story, was a doctor (of the medical kind). Evan, Lydia’s Evan, had been studying medicine when he was killed in the car crash. Straight A student. She was studying French at Euphoria State, and they had met through singing in the choir. They were both great believers, brought up in the Methodist church, and Evan had thought about becoming a missionary. They were engaged to be married. Then he went and died in April. Aged 22.

On the eve of his death, Lydia had had a terrible premonition. A feeling of agony took possession of her. She was sobbing. Nothing like it had ever happened to her before. “I’m afraid if you leave me tomorrow then I may never see you again,” she said. “How could that be?” (Evan). “Because you would be dead,” (Lydia). “And then I would live forever,” he replied, evenly, quite unperturbed. “I would be with God, so there is nothing to fear, is there?”

He had calmed her down with quotations from the Bible, reassuring her of their eternal life together, whether on earth or in heaven. And she had believed him. Didn’t give it another thought. Then came the knock at her door at 2am. A minister of the church, knocking at 2am. Evan was dead. His car had hit a bridge as he drove home in the darkness. It was all her fault, she felt.

And now Evan, in Make Me, thanks to the divine intervention of the omniscient author, was alive once more. The apprentice medic and missionary had attained eternal life after all, at least for a few glorious pages. (“How did he choose the name Evan?” she asked me. “He needed two syllables,” I said, uselessly. “But,” Lydia again, “why those two?”) How could I (or anyone else) account for these correspondences? Coincidence? Fate? Miracle? It was all entirely uncanny and utterly entrancing for her.

Novel approach: Martin observes while Lee Child works on his latest book

But it was the story of the brother that just about finished her off. Lydia Lair’s brother had gone missing – such was the premise of Make Me – and Reacher and Chang and Westwood were trying to figure out what had become of him. Which, in a way, was equally true of Lydia Lair. Having by this time read the book, she found that she had to reconsider. What, after all, had become of her brother?

It was after lunch. Her husband and his test-pilot friend Art had gone out somewhere. We were alone, seated comfortably in her living room, next to the grand piano, deep in upholstery and cushions. A quiet, spacious house, a tree-lined garden, walls decorated with paintings, many of them by her husband. She wanted me to explain how Lee had come up with all his ideas about the “assisted dying” and all the poor devils who went to Mother’s Rest to die.

She wanted to tell me about her brother. The tragic brother. But first of all, for some reason, she revisited the suicide of her ex-husband. He was a lawyer, specialising in the oil and gas industry. They had kept on moving around, from Albuquerque to Dallas to San Antonio. And then he had to go back to Dallas. “I’m staying here,” she said. She liked it in San Antonio; their kids were happy at school. He could go to Dallas on his own.

Six months later they had divorced. Her ex-husband remarried, but in a year or so he was dead. His second wife killed herself first. In a garage, car engine running, door locked. Exactly three weeks and one day later, he died in exactly the same way. Garage, engine, door. He was an ex-ex-husband. Found lying by the door, not sitting serenely in the driver’s seat, perhaps having had second thoughts, trying to get out and failing. He had told his children that there was no way he would ever commit suicide, so they were not to worry.

Six months later they had divorced. Her ex-husband remarried but in a year or so he was dead. His second wife killed herself first. In a garage, car engine running, door locked. Exactly three weeks and one day later, he died in exactly the same way

Liar! Lydia had read his journal, after he was gone. Like a good lawyer, he had done his research. If the spouse committed suicide within three weeks of his partner, then any life insurance was null and void. He had left it precisely one day more than the three-week waiting period. Looked as though he was impatient to be gone. Only really waited so his kids would collect. The ending was nailed on. Carefully scripted. It was just a question of timing.

It had taken Lydia, unlike her first husband, years before she was ready to remarry. So when Jean-Pierre came along, Lydia told him to go away and leave her alone and never to call her. He duly went back to Paris. Adieu! Then nine months later she called him. She was in the south of France.

But, as I say, it was all about the brother for her. Whenever the question of the mysteriously missing brother came up in the book, she was torn apart. Again and again. Her reading was bliss, and it was torture. In the Kansas that was not in Lee Child’s head, her brother, Duke, had died only three months before. “In a tragic accident on his farm,” as she had written. Maybe she even believed it then. For a while. She wanted to believe it. But Child wouldn’t let her. Make Me told her everything about her brother. On the one hand, Child was giving her Evan back again; on the other, he was taking away her brother, once and for all. It was fair. She needed to know what had happened. And now she did.

She had told me about the “accident” on our walk along the river. Duke had been repairing one of his vehicles in a shed by the wheat field. A big heavy vehicle, a grain feeder. He was fixing the hydraulics, which had a habit of failing. The front part of the vehicle had to be craned up so Duke could slide underneath it and get access. And it was supposed to be supported on blocks so that it couldn’t in any circumstances flop down and squash anyone who happened to be underneath. But Duke had done it “a gazillion times” before, and he was confident. He didn’t bother with the stupid blocks. Inevitably, the engine had collapsed right on top of him and crushed the life out of him. Like he had been stomped on by a giant hoof from above. Aged just 58.

Lydia had been given the job of phoning around all her sisters (there were seven children, six girls and just the one brother, the youngest). It was a “freak occurrence” of the kind that happen on farms all the time: people died in grain elevators, for example (just like the ones in Make Me, “as big as an apartment building”), drowning in wheat. Chopped up into tiny little pieces in giant shredders. Turned to pulp in pulping machines. And so on.

But now we were sitting comfortably, as I say, next to the grand piano. And Lydia changed her story. I wasn’t interrogating her, as such, not much anyway, no third degree, no thumb screws. We were just talking. But there was a recurrent theme in the talk of Make Me and mountains in Austria and all that. “I didn’t really put it together before,” she said. “Not until I read the book. And then I started thinking...”

 It was a “freak occurrence” of the kind that happen on farms all the time: people die in grain elevators, for example, drowning in wheat. Chopped up into tiny little pieces in giant shredders. Turned to pulp in pulping machines. And so on

It was the phone calls. “I love you for ever and ever,” Duke had said to her. Not the kind of thing her brother would often come out with. She knew he had been down recently. He had started putting weight back on. He was due to go into hospital for surgery, and he didn’t want to go into no goddamn hospital for surgery. Hated doctors, didn’t trust them. And the wheat crop had been pretty much destroyed in a storm. He was in trouble with the bank. But he was always in trouble with the bank. He was a farmer. It was normal.

That was his last phone call. But it was the other phone calls that really did it. He had phoned all the sisters (she discovered later). A night or two before. Had said he would love them all forever. “He didn’t call me for two years, and then he called me, and then he died,” said one of her sisters. Or more than one. It was the same thing, over and over again.

That “accident”: he was too smart for an accident. And smart enough to stage one too. It wasn’t a suicide, prima facie; but then again, it was. He was calling them all to say goodbye. Almost like a suicide note. “The last straw was the election.” Duke was a popular guy in town. Perhaps even the most popular. He was always donating stuff to worthy causes. Everybody loved him. He was a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, with a nice wife and son and daughter. He ran for county commissioner. Came in runner-up by about three votes. Laughed about it. Was philosophical about it. Stoical. And then again, maybe he was in fact deeply depressed by it. Felt as if he had been rejected by everyone in the entire community. Betrayed, in a way, after everything he had done for them.

Then he died, flattened like a pancake, under the greasy engine of a grain feeder.

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And she had understood his last text to her. In March 2015, when Child was approaching the climax of Make Me, when Reacher was close to figuring out what had happened to that elusive brother. “Lydia, what are your plans for next week?” Her plans didn’t include her only brother’s funeral. Lydia showed me some pictures of him. Grinning at the camera. Cheekily. Arms around his family. A little overweight, maybe, but he carried it well. He looked cheerful enough. Maybe a little too cheerful?

And now she realised, there were other farmers out there, killing themselves. The shotgun to the head. The horse tranquillizer. “How can you live?” she said, with an air of desperation. “There are no jobs.” It was pure Make Me. Make Me was the story of Lydia’s life. With a few twists. But it was all there. “When I read the book,” she said, “I realised: THIS WAS MY BROTHER!”

“That Child must have googled you!” said her sceptical aunt over the phone. “It’s the only way.”

I knew he hadn’t. He hated to google anything. Preferred to rely on a Velcro memory or sheer blissful ignorance. He knew only two things about her, technically speaking: “Lydia” and “Lair,” in that order. A handful of phonemes. No more. Didn’t have a clue about her, beyond that. Had no idea where she came from or who she was, least of all who her brother was. Or Evan. Or anyone else. And then he had just gone right ahead and written the story of her life (with a few minor deviations). He had done a Cuvier and reassembled the whole creature out of a mere heel bone of a name.

Lydia knew her aunt was wrong. How many Lydia Lairs were there? And even if you zeroed in on the right one, there was never going to be that amount of information about all the other people in her life. The unus mundus Jung liked to call it. Mysterium coniunctionis, recalling the mystic fusions of the old alchemists.

ll those unfathomable connections that went beyond time and space at the level of the collective unconscious. Like wormholes in space, providing a shortcut from one distant galaxy to another. Weaving in and out of black holes. Synchronicity. That non-Cartesian realm in which waffle calls unto waffle across the miles like stranded whales, beached upon foreign shores.

Or maybe like the mosaics that Lydia Lair herself liked to create , sticking together disparate fragments, broken shards, to form some kind of pattern. Lydia Lair had been a cheerleader, a bassoonist, a mother, and a businesswoman. She was a fan of Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow. And she had always been strong in the faith. “Pure honest wholesome unbleached and free from chemicals.” I’d read it in the Guenther Mill, referring to “Pioneer Flour.” But you could as easily apply it to Lydia Lair.

When she had that lunch with Lee Child, it was not in the least like going to meet her Maker. Or maybe it was. To a degree. He was a Maker, after all. He who knew things about her. Things that nobody ought to know and that he had no right knowing. He was, as he said himself, just a “little bit omniscient observer here.” He was a god who smoked, admittedly. A packet of Camels a day. “He is going to die, you know,” said Lydia, with a touch of regret. “Tell him that.”

I went out through the garage of their house, where they kept the great invention behind their business success. And it really was great, I’m not kidding. Their original folding ladder. I saw it in action, and I definitely want one too. Basically everyone is going to want one. It used to be called the “Auto-Lad.”

Now it is known, more prosaically, as The One-Touch Electric Attic Ladder. Retails for around $3,500 or so, and it’s worth every cent. Her idea, designed and built by Jean-Pierre (who apart from being a gifted painter is also an aeronautical engineer). You know all those terrible ladders that come down out of your attic?

Kind of come down, but don’t, not properly. They’re all stiff and useless and awkward. You can’t really work them. They don’t slide. The good news is that they are a thing of the past, thanks to the One-Touch. Press a button and it’s like grace descending. The staircase folds down out of the ceiling. All controlled by a computer, not sensors. It’s like a dream.

And you climb up it with total confidence. Broad steps with excellent grip. You don’t climb, you ascend. Like an electric stairway to heaven.

This article was a collaboration with The Iowa Review Andy Martin’s With Child: Lee Child and the Readers of Jack Reacher is published by Polity and out now

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