Friday Night Drinks with… Heather Martin

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Tonight I am delighted to be joined for Friday Night Drinks by an author whose authorised biography of Lee Child has just been published in paperback, so we are enjoying a big celebration tonight. Please welcome to the blog… Heather Martin.

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Heather, welcome to the Little Book Problem  virtual bar and thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?

Thank you for the invitation! Since we are celebrating the launch of The Reacher Guy in paperback, I thought I’d crack open something bubbly, but a rosé, because when not drinking coffee, black, my biographical subject Lee Child has a sneaking preference for pink drinks. If he’s eating a hamburger he’ll wash it down with strawberry milkshake.

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If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?

I think I would whisk you off to Balthazar on Spring Street in downtown Manhattan. I lived just round the corner from there for a year while I was working on the biography, in a New York University complex on Bleecker Street known as Silver Towers. Weirdly and by complete coincidence, my apartment number was the same as Lee’s on the Upper West Side. It’s noisy at Balthazar, but irresistibly glamorous – full of beautiful people and gleaming with brass and mirrors. On our way out we might pick up a loaf from the bakery, or stop by the deli counter at Dean and DeLuca on Broadway. Except I fear it may be a casualty of COVID …

If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?

I think immediately of my all-time literary hero the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who already inhabits my head, but I doubt I’d be able to lure him out of the library. So I’ll probably go for Pep Guardiola or Arsène Wenger: they’ve never heard of me, so they don’t realise how much we have in common, but I think we’d hit it off. And then Toni Morrison. I was supposed to meet her at a literary gala in New York, but sadly she was unwell on the night. The intensity of writing in Beloved rivals that of Nina Simone live at the Montreux Jazz Festival.  

So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?

In some ways it started a year ago, when The Reacher Guy was first published in hardback. But really it started five years before that, when I first met Lee Child over dinner at the old Union Square Café in New York. Or maybe even earlier, when I picked up my first Reacher book and couldn’t put it down. Or when I learned to speak Spanish in London last century, since it was when I read Reacher in Spanish that Lee and I first started talking seriously about his work. Origins are always mysterious: who knows where things begin? Right now I’m exploring some of the more literary angles of my subject, themes I couldn’t pursue in the original book. I’m not looking too far ahead.

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What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?

Many proud moments, but I think I’ll go for the time Lee Child interviewed me for The Big Thrill, which is the monthly magazine of the International Thriller Writers organisation. That was pretty cool, and is all thanks to the lovely Kimberley Howe and editor Dawn Ius. The hardest thing has been signing books: I always worry I’ll spoil them. And overcoming the multiple disappointments of releasing my book during (virtual) lockdown.  

What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, it’s just us talking after all!

I’m happy with what I’ve achieved. And I’m not sure I have an arena. But bearing in mind my answer to your last question, I suppose I still dream of doing just one big live event with Lee, so we can celebrate my story of his life in the same room, and so I can finally rise to the challenge of signing books for people in person! I’ve had so many heartwarming messages from readers: I’d love a chance to meet them. Otherwise my biggest personal ambition is to help my two musician sons buy a place they can convert into a rehearsal and performance space …

Two great things to aim for there, and not unrealistic! What do you have planned that you are really excited about?

I think many of us have got out of the habit of making plans. I’m looking forward to seeing my first short story in Everyday Kindness, an anthology edited by the amazing L. J. Ross in aid of Shelter – that’s coming out in November, and my story, inspired by an act of compassion within a local community, is called ‘Goodbye, Wendy’. And I’m excited about the first ever Lee Child Symposium at the University of East Anglia next spring and the official opening of his archive at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing. That should be pretty special. 

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Everyday Kindness is a charity anthology of short, fictional stories of kindness, edited by LJ Ross. These uplifting tales of hope and of small, everyday kindnesses are intended to support wider, positive mental health goals and foster wellbeing through the act of reading tales of goodwill inspired by others. Featuring authors across the spectrum of literature, some international bestsellers and award-winning writers amongst them, this is a unique collection of words.

All proceeds from the book will be donated to Shelter, a charity that helps millions of people a year struggling with bad housing or homelessness.

Authors include: LJ Ross, Adam Hamdy, Alex Smith, Alexander Gordon Smith, Alison Stockham, Anne O’Leary, Barbara Copperthwaite, JD Kirk, CL Taylor, Caroline Mitchell, Chris McDonald, CK McDonnell, Claire Sheehy, Clare Flynn, Darren O’Sullivan, David Leadbeater, Debbie Young, Deborah Carr, Emma Robinson, Graham Brack, Hannah Lynn, Heather Martin, Holly Martin, Ian Sainsbury, Imogen Clark, James Gilbert, Jane Corry, Jean Gill, JJ Marsh, Judith O’Reilly, Kelly Clayton, Kim Nash, Leah Mercer, Liz Fenwick, Louise Beech, Lousie Jensen, Louise Mumford, Malcolm Hollingdrake, Marcia Woolf, Mark Stay, Marcie Steele, Natasha Bache, Nick Jackson, Nick Quantrill, Nicky Black, Patricia Gibney, Rachel Sargeant, Rob Parker, Rob Scragg, SE Lynes, Shelley Day, Casey Kelleher, Sophie Hannah, Victoria Connelly, Victoria Cooke, Will Dean.

I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?

I always find favourites tricky, as I’ve been fortunate to experience many wonderful things. I’ll always have a soft spot for Aix-en-Provence in France, where I spent two seemingly blissful years as a very young child, and more than once I’ve dreamed of going to live in Sevilla, in Andalusia. I love Hawaii’s Waimea Bay, especially if I can stay again at the house on the point and watch pods of dolphins at play from my garden. But right now I’d love just to go home to Perth, and sit on Cottesloe Beach listening to the rainbow lorikeets as the sun sets over the Indian Ocean, and fall asleep to the sound of the waves, then maybe drive 250 miles north up the coast to Geraldton to visit the place where I was born. It could be a round trip, come to think of it: Oahu to West Australia via a stopover in New Zealand … 

Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

As a young teenager I was a member of the West Australian Junior Ballet Company. But then I gave up ballet for music and spent a year in Paris taking lessons with two famous Latin American guitarists, the Brazilian Turibio Santos and the Uruguayan Óscar Cáceres. I had a guitar made for me by legendary Paris luthier Daniel Friederich. I still have it today – a true collectors’ item.

Wow, that sounds like a fascinating period of your life. Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?

Right now my big recommendation is The Sound Mirror, by Heidi James, the exquisitely interwoven tale of the wounded Tamara and her two grandmothers, one a first-generation immigrant from India and the other of Italian descent. It’s a long time since I read a book that blew me away from the opening page, the opening sentence, even. This story is both instructive and deeply moving, accommodating not just one but three distinctive voices, each of equal authenticity. It’s a true tour de force and a reading experience of almost violent intensity. After that you’ll probably want to read her previous one, So the Doves, also published by Bluemoose Books, which is an equally gripping read and was featured as a Sunday Times Crime Book of the Month.

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Tamara is going to kill her mother but she isn’t the villain. Tamara just has to finish what began before her, and put an end to the damage encoded in her blood.

So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?

Hey, the conversation has been so enjoyable, and I’ve been nibbling on these delicious canapés from the menu I had planned for my 2020 launch party at the Groucho Club, so I think a hangover is the least of my worries. 

Great news. After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?

I think you’ve set the tone, so there will be books, and chat about them, and music. A bit of sunshine if I’m lucky. Maybe I’ll walk across London Fields to All Saints in Haggerston to hear my son play the organ on Sunday morning; perhaps the younger one will cook lunch or dinner. Is Endeavour still showing on television? 

Haether, I have had an absolute blast, you are a fascinating drinking companion and I only wish we could have done this for real. Thank you so much for joining me tonight.

Heather’s biography of Lee Child, The Reacher Guy, is out now in all formats, including paperback, and you can buy a copy here.

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Lee Child is the enigmatic powerhouse behind the bestselling Jack Reacher novels. With millions of devoted fans across the globe, and over a hundred million copies of his books sold in more than forty languages, he is that rarity, a writer who is lauded by critics and revered by readers. And yet curiously little has been written about the man himself.

The Reacher Guy is a compelling and authoritative portrait of the artist as a young man, refracted through the life of his fictional avatar, Jack Reacher. Through parallels drawn between Child and his literary creation, it tells the story of how a boy from Birmingham with a ferocious appetite for reading grew up to become a high-flying TV executive, before coming full circle and establishing himself as the strongest brand in publishing.

Heather Martin explores Child’s lifelong fascination with America, and shows how the Reacher novels fed and fuelled this obsession, shedding light on the opaque process of publishing a novel along the way. Drawing on her conversations and correspondence with Child over a number of years, as well as interviews with his friends, teachers and colleagues, she forensically pieces together his life, traversing back through the generations to Northern Ireland and County Durham, and following the trajectory of his extraordinary career via New York and Hollywood until the climactic moment when, in 2020, having written a continuous series of twenty-four books, he finally breaks free of his fictional creation.

Heather Martin is a lapsed guitarist, a linguist and literary critic, and the authorised biographer of legendary thriller writer Lee Child. She writes regularly for CrimeReads and her short story ‘Goodbye, Wendy’ will appear in Everyday Kindness edited by L. J. Ross and released on November 13 by Dark Skies Publishing. She lives in London and tweets @drheathermartin. 

The Reacher Guy was published in 2020 by Little, Brown UK and Pegasus Books (US) to critical acclaim from The Times, The Telegraph, The Irish Times and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is due out in paperback on October 21. Kenilworth Books have pristine first-edition hardbacks with double-signed bespoke book prints; Blackwell Books have the paperback with double-signed bookplates. Ian Rankin writes: ‘Here is a biography as gripping as one of Lee Child’s own bestsellers. Heather Martin digs deep to uncover nugget after nugget. Trust me, this is gold.’ 

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