Q & A WITH TOP THRILLER WRITER LEE CHILD
Sara Helen Binney: Tell us about your writing methods- do you edit as you go along or go back on your drafts?
Lee Child: I’m a total editor as I go along- that is my actual method. Regarding my writing process: I start at around lunchtime, and I begin by re-reading what I did the day before, combing-back and smoothing out, and then carrying on. When I reach the end, that’s the end. I never read it again, and I never do a second draft as each part has already been very carefully and consistently edited as I go along.
Colette Sensier: Does that mean you dedicate a lot of time to planning your plot before you start writing?
LC: No, I never plan anything. I want the same excitement I would get as a reader. I don’t want to know what happens. If I plotted it all out and planned it I would have told myself the whole story already and be ready to move on. There would be much less excitement for me in the writing process and the plot would come out flat and wooden to the reader.
Kim Sherwood: In your last few books, Reacher is making his way to Virginia- time is quite compressed. Two books later he’s not there yet. Is that constraint because you’re slowing down the character’s adventures to kind of keep him in his forties?
LC: That was a part of it. When I started out, I had no idea the series would still be running 20 years later. I made Reacher 36 years old in the first book, for 2 main reasons: firstly that I recall feeling that my mental and physical capabilities were at their composite peak in my mid-thirties. Secondly, as an affectionate homage to Dick Francis. Technically Francis didn’t write a series with the same character, but had the same hero in different guises, who was always 36.
Regarding the compression of time- I think it’s because the world is speeding up. Entertainment has sped up to such a great extent. Subconsciously or consciously we speed up as well.
Kim Sherwood: The Jack Reacher books explore a lot about the character’s mythology and past in the army, particularly in The Affair. What was it like formulating these origins?
LC: It was a little intense. I liked doing the prequels, as an exercise in going backward. When you go back in time you have to make a more naïve version of the same character- and that interested me. It is probably easier to write a character that progressively ages than duck back 20 years and do a younger version- I really enjoyed that challenge.
JS: How do you create such great suspense in your novels?
Creating suspense is astonishingly much simpler than we are led to believe. The question posed of how to create suspense, already leads you down the wrong path. It has the same interrogatory shape as “How do you bake a cake?” as if suspense is a thing to be made.
We all know in theory how to bake a cake- with good ingredients, mixed well and put in the oven, with the right temperature and timing. This focus on ingredients and process translates to characters and situations- but that is a bit of blind alley.
It comes from the fact that the question has the wrong form. It is not “how do you bake a cake?”, but rather, “how do you make your family hungry?”
The answer is: you make them wait four hours for dinner. And that is how you create suspense. You somehow ask or imply a question, and do no answer it. You do this in a macro and micro sense- from plot to even the shape of a sentence.
Asking questions and not answering them leaves readers in suspense. People just want to know the answer to a question- it doesn’t matter what the question is. They love to know the answer.
Matthew McGuinness: Back in the gestation period of Jack Reacher and before the books- what kind of writing were you doing? Who were you showing your work to and getting feedback from?
LC: I wasn’t really doing much writing; I was working mostly in television. The first line of Killing Floor- “I was arrested in Eno’s Diner”- is the first line of fiction I ever wrote.