Books, Venue

UEA Live: Lee Child and Heather Martin on childhood, industry and the responsibility of the author

This year UEA is proudly celebrating 50 years of its Creative Writing course. UEA’s Autumn Literary Festival has not allowed distancing measures to interrupt their celebration, and instead are holding the seven-week series online, as UEA Live.  Acclaimed crime author Lee Child kicked off the event on Wednesday night (7 October).

Lee Child is a pseudonym for James Grant (one that places his books between crime giants Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie on the shelves). He appeared via YouTube in conversation with his biographer, Heather Martin, in an event bookended by Henry Sutton, director of creative writing at UEA. Over 200 people tuned in to the talk, which ran smoothly and professionally despite the unfamiliar territory.

Child appears world-weary. Writing one novel a year for the past 24 years is an extraordinary feat: he exudes a confidence and resilience moulded by years of media attention. He never once paused before answering the questions, or faltered in his speech. As I’m sure is true of his writing, the words always seem to just be there. Despite this almost inhuman ease, the story of the creation of his first novel, ‘Killing Floor’ is delightful in its normality and simplicity. Lee wrote two full drafts by hand, one in pencil, the second in blue pen, while balancing a full-time career in television. When he was made redundant the following year, he made this book his focus. Despite the aggressive dismissal of his father, Child persevered, and the rest is history. Martin recalls this with the wonder and excitement of a younger sibling.

Photo: Mark Coggins / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

The conversation moved from detailed insights into the publishing industry to Lee’s personal life, where he spoke candidly about his “cold and bleak” childhood. This was afforded by the remarkable dynamic between Child and Martin. Their relationship is one of professional ease – in writing his biography, Martin has delved deep into Child’s early life, contacting school friends and reading letters from his parents. This intimacy is clear in Martin, who prompts Child to tell stories and anecdotes she knows inside out, and knows the listening audience will love.

What was immediately obvious was how much Child knew his audience and his industry. The image of someone curling up with a blanket on their knees to read for hours on end is simply fantasy, Child said. The reality is people grab twenty minutes before sleep, or on their lunch break. With this very much in mind, he sees it as his responsibility as an author to constantly keep his reader understanding: his clear and methodical tone allows readers of all abilities to follow, but most importantly finish, his books. His narratives are rooted in the oral tradition of storytelling, that echoes through our past and remains inherently striking to us all. It is clear he has a formula, knows what works, and sticks to it.

The event concluded with questions submitted by the audience. Messages like ‘Hello from India’ or ‘Hi from Argentina’ remind you that while sacrificing one form of connection, another is fostered. Heather Martin’s biography of Lee Child ‘The Reacher Guy’ is available now.


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08/10/2020

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Izzy Pankhurst


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