In Andrew Grant’s newest thriller, we meet Paul McGrath, a man who rebelled against his pacifist father by becoming a standout Army recruit and the star of his military intelligence unit. But lingering regrets about their relationship make him return home, only to find his father dead, seemingly murdered. When the case ends in a mistrial, McGrath puts his arsenal of skills to work to find out just how corrupt the legal system is. And to keep digging, he gets a job at the courthouse. But not as a lawyer or a clerk …
Now, McGrath is a janitor. The perfect cover, it gives him security clearance and access to the entire building. No one notices him, but he notices everyone. He notices when witnesses suddenly change their stories. When jury members reverse their votes during deliberation. While McGrath knows that nothing he discovers can save his father, he finds his new calling brings the chance to right wrongs and save others. And by doing so, to redeem himself . . . if the powerful and corrupt don’t kill him first.
Recently, Andrew and his brother, the thriller master Lee Child, spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright, touching on everything from their escape into books at a young age to the catharsis we get through fiction, and why you’ll never see Jack Reacher reach for DayQuil.
READ IT FORWARD: Welcome both of you. So, tell me your relationship to one another.
LEE CHILD: Well, it’s a very good relationship. Andrew is my brother and probably my best friend. I’m so glad we’re working together in the same business.
RIF: Andrew, your new book, Invisible, is the lead-off to a new series, is that correct?
ANDREW GRANT: Yes it is, yeah.
RIF: So how did this character come together for you, and why did you decide to follow him for multiple books?
AG: That’s a very good question. I was writing a series about a police detective in Birmingham, Alabama. I thought it had some really fun, unique aspects to it, particularly relating to the hero Cooper Devereaux’s character. But the more I continued with that series, the more I felt that his job was constrained by the issues he was dealing with and the kinds of crimes he was involved with. I felt over the last few years that there’s been a real sea change in society, and that we were collectively in need of a new kind of hero. Somebody that’ll go to any length to do what’s right for someone who might otherwise slip through the cracks of justice. That’s really where the idea for Invisible came from, to create a hero that was most suited for current times.
RIF: I love that. Andrew, what storylines are you most excited to follow through with Paul McGrath through the series?
AG: The storylines that are going to be the most fun are the ones that have a certain amount of moral ambiguity to them, because anybody who reads crime fiction is familiar with the idea that there’s sometimes a conflict between the law and what is just. With somebody whose role is a little bit more fluid and ambiguous, you’ve got the opportunity to explore those kinds of issues and say to yourself, “Rather than what the rules say, what is actually right in this situation?” There are lots of things that are going to resonate with people as they look at the state of play in the country today that we’re going to be able to explore and perhaps bring satisfaction and closure to people, even though it’s in the pages of the book rather than necessarily on the streets or in government.
RIF: What was your upbringing like? Was it very literary? Was there a focus on reading and books?
LC: To be absolutely honest, it was not terrible. We always had three meals a day and shoes to wear and so on, but it was pretty dull. And we escaped into reading, I would say. With the library, we had a pretty wide choice so we could read whatever we want. I think we both did. In contrast to our other two brothers who were much more scientific-based.
AG: It was either escaping into the pages of the book or escaping into the realms of your own make-believe. And if you fast forward a few years, what is writing other than escaping into the pages of the book and make-believe. It’s another thing where you don’t realize that you’re going through this incredible apprenticeship for this job that you have no idea even exists yet, and you find yourself combining those two things that you were doing instinctively since you were a kid.
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RIF: Going back to what you were discussing, part of the appeal of thrillers seems to be a form of escapism, especially from the current political climate. Both of your books feature protagonists who feel very timely and grounded in the current culture. How do you balance that line of relevancy, while also allowing readers who want to lose themselves in the story to do that?
LC: I think it’s been a couple of years actually, since 2016, that people have needed to escape, and I’ve already noticed that obviously, I read all of my friends’ stuff, new stuff as it comes out. It’s all good. Andrew’s new book is fantastic for that. It’s that feeling of frustration and helplessness that regular people have. Wouldn’t it be great if somebody showed up and solved that problem for you? You’ve got to root it in contemporary reality, sometimes social realism. I’m very aware with Jack Reacher that it is a constant balancing act of the mythic and legendary character, and interfacing with actual problems of the real world.
AG: Yeah, I think the trick to making it work is having that parallel. It’s like a balancing act with two weighted dumbbells, on the one side we’ve got the link to the knight character that has been around for as long as humans have told stories. There are many other archetypes like that, but people somehow instinctively respond, they see these people as necessary, they’re needed in their lives, the people who are putting right the wrongs and looking after them. But at the same time, you have to balance that by having a jumping off point which is realistic, which is recognizable, and which is timely.
LC: I was asked if Reacher could be humanized by, let’s say he’s got the flu or something. And it’s just not possible. The main character has got to remain mythic in some way, and mythic characters don’t get the flu. So he slightly remains outside of realism, but the rest of the book is.
RIF: Right, because who is really tuning in to read Jack Reacher in bed sniffling?
LC: People read fiction to get what they can’t get in real life. This time of year everybody is in bed sipping lemon drinks. They don’t want to read about it.
RIF: As you envision your roles as writers, what does that mean in 2019?
AG: It’s a great question, and it’s a very broad question. From my point of view, I just try to keep it simple and throughout my life, I’m really most interested in just telling stories. For a period of time that was through the theater. Then, it became through writing. And my role really is simply entertaining people and hopefully leaving them feeling better than they were when they started.
LC: Yeah, I would say exactly the same, plus desperately trying to make a living. These are not especially great times for the book business, which is strange because the appetite for story is always there. People love and people want them, but mechanically the system has got some sand in the gears right now.
RIF: So where do you both get your inspiration? Certainly, it’s a little beyond what you’re each living in your everyday lives.
LC: I don’t know about that. That sounds like a joke, but in a way, there is a serious point there, because all of the things that go into books, they all start somewhere in the real world and with something that we’ve seen, or that we’ve read. You start off with an idea and you dream about it. You percolate and start adding some of these bits and pieces together, and then the big writing tool really is the question ‘What if?’
I liken it to those old Polaroid photographs, where the actual physical photograph would come out of the camera and at first, it would be all blurry and milky and you wouldn’t be able to see anything, but you’d know there was something there. And the more you stare at it, gradually it comes into focus and the final image emerges. It really feels like that to me when you’re getting ready to write a book, plus the other aspect, which is that if you don’t write it, you don’t get paid.
LC: The standard driving advice is to write what you know, and I think that’s terrible advice. What I say is write what you feel, and you pick up on those feelings. You may be in a restaurant and there’s some lonesome guy being rude to his table, or rude to the waiter. You can see that he’s an arrogant, awful type of person and you just want to walk across the restaurant and punch him in the face. So you store away that feeling, and then you use that feeling for an unjust situation or somebody being abused or exploited. You ramp it up to a much larger level, but you retain the spine of that feeling of anger, that such a person could be doing this to other people.
AG: When people say write what you know, I think they fall into the trap of defining what they know too narrowly. For example, you’re writing a story about a spy working for the CIA and a new spy’s introduced into the department and the person doesn’t know whether they can trust him or not. None of us will know what it would feel like for another spy to come and work with you, but we’ve all had jobs somewhere. If you work in an office and the new employee arrives and you wonder whether he’s aiming to take your job.
There are all kinds of parallels to everything in life. It’s not going to be exactly the same, but it’s going to be close enough that you can take the emotions and you can turn that into something which is credible and will sustain the story.
RIF: That’s what makes it so appealing for a reader as well, we all haven’t been through high-speed chases, but we’ve all felt fear and adrenaline. There has to be something in each story for us to identify with, no matter how small.
AG: What you’re aiming for is what’s plausible to the reader. A couple of years ago, my father-in-law had an operation and wanted me to collect him at the hospital and bring him home. So, I show up at 8 o’clock and there are no nurses anywhere. There are no doctors anywhere. I’m wandering around the corner looking for his ward to retrieve him, and hanging on the wall is a row of four white doctor’s coats with stethoscopes hung around them. If I had wanted to, I could have taken one and I would have had my hospital credentials. I could have gone anywhere.
I remember I stood in the corridor fuming. I was in an absolute rage because I was thinking, if I was writing this scene in a book and I needed my hero to have hospital I.D., I would have to come up with some vastly complicated way that he hacks into the system. If I had just written, “Oh yeah, he needed some I.D. and there was some hanging on a coat on the wall,” you can imagine the emails you would get. It’s not just a question of what really happens, it’s a question of what people will believe really happened. Sometimes the difference between fiction and non-fiction is fiction has to make sense.
RIF: Exactly. So, do you read one another’s drafts? What’s that brotherly editorial relationship like?
LC: Nobody reads my drafts. Usually if it’s an advance copy, I’ll send one to Andrew, but certainly, nobody ever reads my drafts because until it’s finished, I don’t know what it’s about.
AG: Yeah, I do let my wife Tasha read the draft before it goes in. She’s also a novelist, and she’s the only one that sees that. But other than that, there’s something very peculiar about it. Until you press send to your editor on the day that it is due, there’s something intangible about it. It doesn’t really exist until that point.
RIF: I’m so glad we get to see it when it’s all done.
LC: That is what it’s for, the reader, and so the whole process up to that point is kind of silly. And I would say let’s get it to the regular folks and let them read it and let’s see what they think. It’s a very weird thing now because everything is digital. You do a digital draft, you email it in, and you never see any paper anymore until the book is in the store.
RIF: Well, you’ll have to celebrate Pub Day when it comes around, right?
AG: We certainly will.
LC: I’ve got 23 books out, but each pub day is very special, and now we’ve got three of them in the family, and so three times a year, we get that special buzz. Even after all these years, it’s a lovely day when the new book comes out.
AG: One of the things about writing a book is that you go a very long time between the idea and a physical product. So that day when you’ve got one in your hand and you can see it in the store if you’re doing an event, it is just lovely to see the way that it transformed itself from this initial half-formed idea into something that hopefully people will buy and enjoy.
LC: And characters work the same way. Initially, nobody knows the character apart from the writer, and then a few people read it and then a few more. The ownership of that character migrates outwards to the readers. The Paul McGrath series, right now only Andrew and a few people have read it, but as far as the public is concerned, it’s unknown. But people are going to relate to him, to think of him as a friend, and it’s going to grow.
AG: I love it when people develop these relationships with the character that you invent and that’s completely independent of you. I think it was my second book, I had a character in that called Macintyre, and somebody at an event saying, “Oh, I loved it when that Mac did this and I loved it when Mac did that.” And I’m thinking, wait a minute, there wasn’t a character called Mac. I realized that they had kind of adopted this guy, and given him her own nickname. I thought that was fantastic.
LC: My agent’s accountant, he was in a bookstore lining up to pay. The woman in front had a Reacher book and he couldn’t resist it and said, “I work for the agency that represents that author.” And she said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well you know, Lee Child, I work for the agency that represents him.” The woman said, “Who is Lee Child?” And he said, “He wrote that book, the new Jack Reacher story.” And she said, “What, like Jack tells him the story and he writes it down?” She totally could not get it. She believed that Reacher was a real person out there somewhere.
RIF: Oh my God.
AG: The world would be a better place if he was, I think.
RIF: Characters do that to us. There are so many characters that I think of fondly as sort of faraway friends.
AG: I think that’s what’s so nice about a series too, because if you develop that relationship with a character, if you generally like books that are set in a particular place, it’s a bit of a gamble. You buy the next one and you don’t really know what you’re letting yourself in for, but if you already have that relationship with the character, if you know that you like that person and you trust them, all of those things, when the next installment comes out you’ll like it because you’re looking forward to spending some time with this guy again.
LC: From my point of view, series are so great. Like Stephen King, I love Stephen and I read his stuff, but each time you’re thinking what is it going to be this time? There is that slight nervousness about it, maybe I won’t like it, whereas when you read a series book, you’re only doing it because you’ve already liked it. It’s like a friend coming over for dinner, you’re all happy about it.
RIF: Right. Andrew, do you have a favorite relationship in this new series?
AG: That’s a really interesting question because like Lee was saying, not really knowing what each Reacher book is about until the end. When I was writing Invisible I realized that ability to form relationships was actually a really significant thing. Paul talks about how since he joined military intelligence, he’s basically lied and deceived people for a living his whole adult life. So when he comes out of the Army, he’s got to readjust to civilian life and start forming relationships with coworkers, friends, law enforcement people.
I read a study about the effects of drug addiction on people, one of the things it was saying was that if you become a drug addict at 16 and till you’re 30 and then you finally get clean, emotionally and in terms of your ability to form relationships, it’s like you’re still 16 because nothing really changed during the time that you were addicted. It’s almost like that for Paul McGrath because he’s hopelessly lonely. He is used to an environment where right and wrong are clearly defined, where people’s roles are clearly defined. So he struggles with this idea in this inhospitable civilian world. How do you get anything done? The conclusion that he reaches is he’s just got to take care of it himself. And that’s something which is going to develop during the subsequent books.
Andrew Grant Author Photo: © Carrie Schechter; Photo of Lee Child and Andrew Grant, courtesy of the authors.