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FACEOFF: Joseph Finder vs. Lee Child

12/17/2013

Fans of mystery fiction will be thrilled next June by FACEOFF, a collection of short stories edited by David Baldacci that pairs up the genre’s most beloved detectives. Joseph Finder‘s Nick Heller joins Lee Child‘s Jack Reacher in "Good and Valuable Consideration," a story about rooting for the underdog in more ways than one. Here, Joe and Lee discuss the process of working together.

Joseph Finder: I have always loved series characters, though it took me a long time to decide to try my hand at one. I love Robert B. Parker’s iconic Spenser and John D. McDonald’s great Travis McGee and John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport, just to name a few that jump to mind. And from when I first discovered Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, I thought he was the coolest. What I loved most about Reacher was not just the fisticuffs, the way he’ll beat the crap out of anyone who stands in his way. (Although I enjoy that.) I love the moral undercurrent: that Reacher is a guy who won’t put up with people being treated unfairly. He likes to settle scores, to “put things right,” as Lee Child says. He’s the Avenger for our time. But the cool thing about Reacher is his brain, his terse, dry sense of humor, his no-B.S. attitude, the way he can look at a situation of potential combat and figure out how he’s going to win before throwing the first punch. The thing about Reacher, really, is his interiority: the real action is behind his eyes.

I also think that Lee Child is one of our very finest writers of suspense fiction. Actually, I think he’s just flat out one of our best novelists. His prose is second to none, and that actually makes a difference. His books are always a pleasure to read: never a wasted word, never the wrong word, always a great rhythm and cadence to the dialogue.

When I decided to try a series character, I spent a long time creating one who I knew could last for book after book. I called him Nick Heller, and he’s deliberately unlike his comrades in the series-character biz. He’s not a private eye, he’s a “private spy” — he works for politicians and governments and corporations, sometimes digging up secrets they’d rather keep buried. He works as a private spy, but his investigations are fueled by his own sense of justice. He’s part blue-collar and part white-collar: the son of a notorious Wall Street criminal, raised in immense wealth that all went away when his father went to prison. He spent his formative years in a split-level ranch house in a working-class suburb of Boston.

Heller, by virtue of his background, is a chameleon. He can blend in among the corporate elite as easily as he does among the jarheads. He roots for the Boston Red Sox.

Jack Reacher is a Yankees fan. His background is different, if equally scattered. He’s an army brat, raised on U.S. military bases around the world, a man without a country, yet still an American. He’s a loner who prefers to avoid attachments, yet he’s as loyal as can be.

Nick Heller and Jack Reacher, it seemed to me, would be a cool pairing. Chalk and cheese, as the Brits say. Couldn’t be more different. Yet very much the same.

Plus I happen to like Lee Child a lot. I have many writer pals—thriller writers are a collegial and congenial bunch—and Lee Child is someone I consider a good friend. We respect each other. We rib each other mercilessly about our respective baseball loyalties. I knew we’d work together well and with mutual respect.

And one more thing, which has to do with process. Lee Child does not outline his books. Nor does he outline his stories. They just emerge naturally. To me, that’s walking on a wire without a net. So I figured it would be a useful learning experience to collaborate with someone whose work habits are so different from mine. And it was. Lee came up with the premise of the two guys in a bar in Boston. Reacher would be an out-of-towner, as he always is. Heller would be in Boston, the city he loves. Lee was taken by the notion of the mirror at the back of a bar: the way you can look at the reflection of the person next to you and talk with both intimacy and distance. Heller and Reacher would both end up talking to and about and around someone who’s in trouble, and they’d decide to help the guy out, because that’s what they do. And they’d help him in their very different ways. Reacher would be the better fighter, I figured, because Reacher is . . . Reacher.

Lee Child: Joe Finder and I are good friends, in the sense that we talk about more than just the business. Baseball, obviously (even though Joe is hopelessly misguided there) … and on top of everything else we have an ongoing quest for America’s best burger. Not a gourmet burger – let’s make that clear from the start – but just the best plain, honest, normal burger. I remember some years ago we were trying a contender in a Spanish restaurant (yeah, go figure) on 22nd Street in New York, and talk turned to upcoming projects, as it does, and Joe started riffing and thinking out loud about maybe starting a series character.

And what I heard from him was a lengthy and penetrating analysis that covered every cost and benefit, every desirable and undesirable characteristic, every strength and weakness … I wish I’d had a voice recorder running. I could have sold the transcript to Writers Digest. It would have become the Rosetta Stone for all such decisions.

And obviously he went ahead with it, and the first Nick Heller book came out, written with Joe’s trademark blend of freewheeling imagination mixed with iron self-discipline. I liked it a lot. So that when ITW proposed pairing up two series characters I thought of Heller immediately. As it happened I saw Joe minutes after I’d heard about the proposition (and evidently the same number of minutes after he had) and I said, “So are we doing this?” He said, “I guess.” And that was it. No lengthy preamble, no rules … which was just as well, because I’m not a planner. But Joe is, so I was interested to see what would happen.

We did it by e-mail. I sent the first chunk, and naturally I got back an inquiry: “What do you see happening next?” No idea, Joe, until you’ve written it. But he coped just fine. Obviously the biggest problem was who would win the Yankees-Sox game that kicks the whole thing off. I decided to do the decent thing and throw the guy a bone. That’s what fiction is for, right? Getting what you don’t get in real life?

Get more information about FACEOFF here.