One of the perks I got for subscribing to the Daily Telegraph/
Torygraph was last night, when Mrs. Arbel and I spent an enjoyable hour in the online company of thriller writers Lee Child (of Jack Reacher series fame) and none other than Frederick Forsyth.
The event was in honor of the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Day Of The Jackal: I’ve blogged here previously about its genesis. I would be hard-pressed to pick my one favorite fiction book — I’m not nearly as widely read in fiction as some of my online friends — but when it comes to thrillers, TDOTJ would be my #1 choice. I read it first as a teenager: it took very little suspension of disbelief to convince myself I was reading a ‘documentary’ about a failed attempt on the life of Charles de Gaulle, rather than a novel crafted with extraordinary and then-unprecedented verisimilitude.
The latter aspect was the most transformative of the genre: like you can date pop music “pre-Beatles” and “post-Beatles”, you can speak of pre-Jackal and post-Jackal thrillers. Lee Child would agree: he said the genre was ‘stale’ until Forsyth came along.
What did we learn from the hour-long, very amiable chat? (The moderator was doing a great job, BTW.) I already knew Forsyth was a veteran journalist who lost his job with the BBC over refusal to toe the Labour ‘party line’ on the Biafra War: high-flying literary prose was not as prized in that profession as careful research, and reliably being able to turn in clear, competent prose by the daily deadline.
Child, in contrast, came from a background in TV writing, which has its own exigencies.
Child described himself as a total ‘pantser’ (i.e., “flies by the seat of his pants”, just writes the book and evolves the story as he goes). Forsyth, in contrast, is a total plotter: as he puts it, he’d written the whole book in his head before he first sat down at the typewriter. So while the actual writing might go very fast (TDOTJ was written in 33 days), the books go through a very long ‘incubation period’.
The interviewer asked Forsyth if he ever used whiteboards etc. To keep track of characters and (sub)plot lines: Forsyth says he never bothers with these. While it’s evident to anyone who’s ever heard the man that he has a prodigious memory, an answer he left unspoken is: “if I can’t keep it all in my head, neither will the reader”.
A surprise to me was how much attention both writers lavish on their opening sentence. Specifically, to plant several questions in the readers’ heads and ‘hook’ them for the book.
It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.
So we’re in Paris, and the novel begins with an execution, in a manner normally reserved for crimes against the state or the military rather than common crimes. What crime? Against whom?
Forsyth said that if a book hasn’t grabbed him in 50 pages, he gives up reading it, and he assumes so will other readers; Child ruefully commented that this ‘reader patience’ has gotten shorter and shorter with time, until with today’s readership you have 1-2 pages at most, so best to have a good ‘opening hook’.
Child does most of his research remotely; Forsyth believes in visiting locations he is writing about. At age 75, he visited Mogadishu (accompanied by a minder/bodyguard with special forces experience): the one thing about the place that hit him hardest was the smell, which he would never have gotten from books or the internet.
At age 80, his wife wouldn’t allow him to visit perilous places anymore, and he’s done all he can with the thriller genre, so now he’s settling down into a retirement of ‘playing with the Jack Russells and writing a weekly op-ed for the Telegraph’.
Child, on the other hand, is younger and definitely wants to continue writing novels — he just wants to retire Jack Reacher.
A great time was had by all. The only complaint of many online attendees was the poor audio from Forsyth — this is something the Telegraph staff could have prevented by sending over a staffer with a decent podcast microphone and, if necessary, a cellular modem.
And now I will have to check out Lee Child’s Jack Reacher…