What if Lee Child had missed his date with Jack Reacher on September 1 2015?
Night School, Lee Child’s 21st novel in the Jack Reacher series, nearly didn’t get written at all. Child says his method for writing is “clueless” - he really doesn’t know what he is going to write until he writes it. No plotting, no planning. But there is one fixed and immovable cornerstone to his system. He has to start every new book on September 1 without fail (to quote one of his earlier titles). The 1st of September is the anniversary of the day he went out 21 years ago to buy the paper and pencil to start writing Killing Floor, his first book, after he got sacked from television.
Therefore September 1 2015 was cemented in his schedule for the kick-off of the new book, well before it even had a title or an opening line. Oh yes, one other sine qua non - he has to be sitting at his massive metal desk in his office at his apartment high over Central Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He can’t just crank it out sitting at Starbucks (so-called “Starbucks’ writers” being one of his pet hates). It’s a rule.
That is all he needs: the time and the place. Kind of a superstition with him, a good luck charm. So long as those two things are locked in, nothing can go wrong.
In 2015 everything went wrong. It was obvious hubris. Asking for trouble. He left it right to the last moment, cruising around somewhere in the far-flung fjords of Norway. Completely off the grid. No wi-fi, no fans. Completely anonymous. Almost like Jack Reacher himself. He didn’t have to beat any bad guys to death with his elbows, but he did have to take a flight back to New York via Ireland. No problem, he’d be back on August 31, plenty of time to get started the following day. At the crack of noon.
As he sat on the runway at Shannon for several hours, starting to look nervously at his watch, he began to think that maybe he had not left quite enough margin for things to go wrong. Which he thought even more earnestly, in a state of high anxiety, as he and his fellow passengers were bussed off to some hotel in Limerick for the night. A problem with the fuel, apparently. Another plane took off the following day. Child was on it. It landed at Newark shortly after 9 pm. He ran for a taxi and was sitting at the huge silver metal desk some time after 11, coffee in one hand, Camel cigarette in the other. Unusual timing. But technically he was just under the wire. It was still September 1, just.
He index-finger typed the title: NIGHT SCHOOL (which had come to him somewhere over the Atlantic). And the first line. “In the morning they gave Reacher a medal, and in the afternoon they sent him back to school.” He started the second sentence: “The medal was…” Then he stopped. He had no idea what the medal was. He would have to sleep on it.
Had this been Paris, and were he living in a garret round the corner from Notre Dame, then midnight would have chimed. Since it was New York, another melancholy police siren wailed in the distance. Mission accomplished.
Almost. He only had another 100,000 words to go (by the way, for those who take an interest in these matters, he gets paid about $100 per word - you do the math).
There was one other thing that had stuck in his mind from all the conversations we had had while he was writing Make Me, his last novel. This was when he had given me the Big Reveal. He had finally worked out (over half-way through the book) what the bad guys were actually up to in Mother’s Rest. Naturally I called him an “evil mastermind” (amongst other things). But he was a bit taken aback. Shaken.
For years, mainly on account of readers under this impression, he had assumed that he was in fact Jack Reacher, only a lot thinner. I was forced to point out what should be obvious, that he was at least as much Hook Hobie, Little Joey, the beautiful but extremely sadistic Lila Hoth, and every other bad guy he had ever dreamed up. All those heinous conspiracies - they were all his idea, not anyone else’s.
So when it came to Night School, he was determined to make Reacher’s main antagonist a reasonably sympathetic American, Horace Wiley. You almost feel sorry for him. He has a back story. You say to yourself, “Yes, I see how, at a stretch, given sufficient lack of moral fibre, I could end up doing what he is doing.” There but for the grace of God go I. And the neo-Nazis are worse. All this because the author realised, at some level, Wiley is also Lee Child. Shrewd readers will also note that he is wearing the same Levi’s denim jacket that Reacher himself is wearing. And is the same age (35). With “deep-set blue eyes” (like Lee Child himself). So there is greater symmetry between cat and mouse.
One final thing that distinguishes this book. The way he wrote Make Me was “classical”. The home invasion scene, for example, is given a full ten pages. Night School isn’t like that. It’s more “filmic” (Lee’s word). Every scene is fast, then cuts to the next. Even so, readers may be relieved to know, Reacher still doesn’t look a lot like Tom Cruise. On the other hand, it is a prequel, so he is still in the army. Younger and brasher than ever. And he doesn’t like Germans either. Child set himself against the title of his own movie, Never Go Back.
But he made damn sure he was back in New York long before September 1 2016 to start the next one, “A Midnight Line”. You’ll have to wait till fall 2017 to read it though. Especially because he doesn’t have a clue what it’s all about. Yet.
Andy Martin is the author of REACHER SAID NOTHING: LEE CHILD AND THE MAKING OF ‘MAKE ME’