Andy Martin: The Magic WHSmith Pencil Lee Child Bought to Write Killing Floor

Andy Martin: The Magic WHSmith Pencil Lee Child Bought to Write Killing Floor

I’ve actually seen the pencil. He keeps it in a glass tube in his apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, on a shelf between the plate bearing the black-and-white faces of John, Paul, George and Ringo, and a hollow-nose bullet. It’s yellow, seriously worn down, but still perfectly functional. And if you look carefully, you can just make out the letters S-M-I-T-H on what’s left of it, together with the word ‘SHORTHAND’.

After Killing Floor Lee graduated to a typewriter and then a computer, because he could afford one by then. But he is still fond of the old pencil and paper – which is what I was using. I didn’t use a recording device at all. I had a notebook and a pencil or pen, not a tape recorder. And I couldn’t type either because I was right there in the room with him, high above Central Park. I had to keep quiet, I was trying not to breathe too hard.

In 1994 he was still employed by Granada TV. But he knew he was getting the sack. Writing was his Plan B. Which worked out pretty well for him. He has just in recent days finished his 21st in the series (‘ Night School’). And will be starting on his 22nd (no plot, no title) on September 1 2016.

He wrote the first page and half of Make Me – now out in paperback – on September 1 2014. Between 2.26 and 3.07 pm. As per his usual routine. The slight anomaly was that I was sitting right behind him, perched on a couch. Two yards behind. About one yard away from total insanity for both of us, I guess. Amazing really, that he took the risk. His publishers were worried I was going to put him off his stroke. I ended up spending the next seven months hanging about in his apartment or neighbourhood cafés watching him write his next bestseller.

He has this methodology which he summarises in one word – ‘clueless’. I suppose that can’t be quite right after so many global no. 1 hits, but the fact is when he starts he really doesn’t know where he is going with the narrative. He has no plot in mind. In the case of Make Me, he was completely stumped as to what was happening behind the scenes in Mother’s Rest until around the middle of January, when it all became clear in his head and he gave me the big reveal – which killed me. He hates to work it out too soon because then it kills all the suspense for him. He likes not knowing what is going on.

I remember one afternoon when he stopped rather abruptly after 700 words or so. ‘Why did you stop there?’ I said, feeling he hadn’t really done his quota. ‘I had to stop there,’ he replied. ‘I have no idea who that guy in the Cadillac is.’

Which may be why he tolerated having me around a lot of the time: because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing either. I knew I wanted to observe the creative process right from the beginning through to the end. I had written books before, about Napoleon, Jules Verne, Brigitte Bardot, Sartre, Camus, and surfing. But I had no plot and no title either. I knew I wanted to do it in real time. But I hadn’t written a synopsis and I hadn’t applied for funding or approval or a contract. It was one of those crazy ideas that just came to me, and I wondered out loud (via email) if Lee could be up for it, and he said, ‘Well, I’m starting Monday, so if you want to do this, get on over here.’

It just so happened that the vision of shadowing a novelist for the duration of one entire book came to me towards the end of August. He was starting on September 1. So I had to start on September 1. And I finished on the day he finished too (well, maybe one day later – I didn’t want to muscle in on his big finale too much.) It was a rule of the game. Never go back. No re-drafting.

Lee Child had written a lot of books and wanted to do something a bit different. I had written quite a few myself and also wanted to do something completely different. So there was a meeting of minds. And we spent the rest of the year talking about commas, the four-word sentence, and how to beat up bad guys.

My book, Reacher Said Nothing, all about the making of Make Me, does I think capture something of the spirit of how Lee Child writes his books. It’s like, as Lee says, ‘the diary of my year’ or the ‘soundtrack to my book’. It’s as clueless, but also suspenseful, as one of his, because I had no idea how it was all going to work out, till we got to his final page, and mine. But, to quote the master again, I had a ‘gorgeous feeling’.