Lee Child: Behind the Scenes of Success

Bestselling Jack Reacher creator Lee Child isn’t big on structured outlines, formal research or (fortunately for his fans) writer’s block. Learn more about how it all works for him in these online-exclusive outtakes from our January 2013 issue.
Author:
Publish date:

YOU LAUNCHED YOUR FICTION CAREER AFTER BEING FIRED FROM YOUR LONGTIME TV JOB. WHAT DO YOU THINK READERS CAN LEARN FROM YOUR STORY ABOUT THE POWER OF REBOUNDING?

I think they can learn a lot. It’s a terrible feeling. We’re sort of trained or accustomed to thinking it’s a disaster—and it is, you know, it’s a major disruption. … You’ve got to look on the positive side. I was about to turn 40, and that’s halfway through your working life, basically: You’ve been to college, you’re going to work till you’re in your 60s, so you’re exactly halfway through. That’s not a bad time to start something else. It’s not too late. You’ve built up 20 years of work habits, skills, all that kind of thing. You’re not the jerk that you were when you were 22. It’s good in some ways, especially for writing. I honestly believe that writing is possibly the only thing that not only can you, but you should do it later. I think writing fiction especially is something that is unnatural when you’re young, because you haven’t absorbed enough, you haven’t seen enough, you haven’t developed your own mental space or your thoughts and all that kind of thing.

PEOPLE ARE SOMETIMES SURPRISED THAT YOU DON’T DO FORMAL RESEARCH FOR YOUR NOVELS, BUT I’M SURE HAVING LIFE EXPERIENCE PLAYS INTO THAT.

Yeah, totally. You know, I honestly think that it’s a serious point. If you’re on any kind of a frequent schedule—one a year, which is what I have been, and I always will be on one a year; I’m not going to fall for this two, three books a year thing—you don’t have time to do the fresh, blank-page research. I mean, yeah, you could do it, you could organize it, but the point is, you haven’t lived with it long enough to know what’s significant and what isn’t. And so you get those books that are kind of just a pile of research. It’s obvious that the guy hasn’t been with it long enough to know which part is telling, and which part isn’t. And so they put it all in there and it doesn’t really work. What I do is, I’m insatiably curious all the time about everything. You know, everything—I’m just fascinated by how anything works, and what’s the inside knowledge, what are the tricks of the trade, all this kind of stuff. And so if that is ongoing all through your life in a parallel way, then you draw on it. I’ve got 50-odd years of research, and something will always be useful.

DO YOU EVER GET WRITER’S BLOCK, OR WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE STUCK?

I don’t get writer’s block. I think that—with absolute respect to the craft and art and all of that—absolutely it is deep down a job. Does a nurse get nurse’s block? Does a truck driver get truck driver’s block? And the answer is, yes, they do. They wake up plenty of times and they don’t want to go to work, but they’ve gotta go to work. So the truck driver gets in the truck, and he clips on his seatbelt, he starts up the motor, checks his mirror and all that, and that whole muscle-memory thing then gets him into his day, and off he goes. And it’s the same thing for a writer. Absolutely you wake up in the morning and you don’t want to do it, you feel like a day off. But it’s your job. You have to do it. So you go downstairs, you sit down, you boot up the computer, you do whatever your little ritual is—you know, make a cup of coffee, have a cigarette, play Minesweeper, or whatever it may be—and then the muscle memory gets you into it, and off you go.

PEOPLE ARE ALSO OFTEN SURPRISED ABOUT YOUR OUTLINING PROCESS, OR LACK THEREOF—HOW YOU WRITE SCENE BY SCENE. HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN SUCH A PACE OR A THROTTLE IN YOUR WRITING WITHOUT AN OUTLINE?

I think pace is just about always moving on to the next thing. And whether or not it’s outlined, it’s not going to really affect that. Pace is a subtle thing in my opinion. And when people talk about pace, they’re gratified by the idea of fast momentum. Pace equals fast, to most people. And I agree with that, but it’s an overall fast, and within the novel itself I think you’ve got to have a significant variation. You’ve got to have slow and patient scenes, or slow and patient paragraphs at least, or sentences at least, or observations. The pace sort of means nothing unless it’s contrasted with a calmness inside the novel. So it’s a sort of slow, slow, quick, quick, slow thing. And I’ve read novels by people that are all pace and nothing but pace, and it’s just relentless, you know, it’s just like getting beaten over the head all the time. And so I think pace has nothing to do with outlining, it’s really just getting on with it when you need to, but taking the time to pause and smell the roses once in a while.

HOW DO YOU THINK YOUR WRITING AND YOU HAVE CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?

I try very hard not to change it. I’m very clear in my mind that a series is liked, hopefully, for whatever reason. And having established that reason, then why change it? Reacher, in particular, the type of character that Reacher is, he runs counter to almost every literary theory. The theory of a novel is that the protagonist must end up different at the end than at the beginning. And he must learn something. And I run counter to both of those things. The appeal of Reacher is that he’s not different. He’s exactly the same at the end that he was at the beginning and he hasn’t learned anything because he knew it all to start with. It’s that impregnability that’s important with Reacher. So I try very hard not to change anything. I think inevitably something does change. I think the writing gets—you just get a little bit more confident about it. And I think also that having established a series, whatever you’re doing to establish it, you’re really hitting hard at the beginning, saying, hey, this is a new character, this is a new style, this is a new voice. Pay attention to this. Once that job is done in that respect, then you do relax a little bit, and you can become a little more … you can trust that the character and the voice and the style is established in people’s minds, you can take that for granted now, so you can just relax a little bit and be a little more expansive within the form.