Top of the Featured Guest Authors tier at CrimeFest 2018 in Bristol, celebrity crime and thriller writers Lee Child and Jeffery Deaver delivered a sustained paean to the joys of reading, and writing – in any genre or form. Asked by interviewer Jake Kerridge, Child explained his appearance by saying, “I just love to meet people that read books. It’s a kind of self-selecting population. The nicest, the best, the best informed, the most thoughtful, the most fun people are readers.” Deaver noted, “I spend most of my time in a dark room talking to myself and my dogs,” adding, “it’s very helpful to be able to get feedback from fans.”

On reading and writing, Child said, “what people forget about being a writer is, they see your identity as a writer, and you’re not: you’re far more of a reader than a writer, always. I write one book a year, and I read possibly two or three hundred. So I’m two or three hundred times more a reader than I am a writer. I intensely admire other writers… We read each other all the time. I read everybody I know.” On new authors, he said, “new authors are where the energy is, the excitement is, where the new ideas are.” As a teacher of creative writing as well as a writer, Deaver remarked, “if I could distill it down to one lesson for my students, one word: Read.” And he added, “there are a number of students who want to have written a book as opposed to write a book… You don’t get into this business without having loved books, and someone who doesn’t have a love of books isn’t going to go very far… You can see right away who a reader is, and who is not.”

On the state of books, the reading audience, and the publishing market, Deaver was very positive both on self-publishing and the current market. “There are more titles published now than ever before. The independent bookshops – speaking primarily about America as I don’t know the English markets that well – are burgeoning. We certainly have very good sales on ebooks, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ebooks.” Child added, “I’m certainly not worried about the future of story: there is a tremendous appetite for story… The hunger for story will never go away. How that story will be delivered is subject to all kinds of different things.” He did note, though, how the approach to reading has changed, especially due to time demands. “People consume books in a different way.  They read for 15-20 minutes on the train to work, maybe get another 15 minutes in their lunch hour… how that is consumed in a way alters how we deliver.”

Related to this, Child said, “I’ve been super interested in the progress of ebooks.” On ebooks’ emergence in America, he said, “I’ve never seen a technology so enthusiastically adopted and tried out in the initial phase than ebook reading.” He sees 2012 as “peak digital in America,” based on what he saw on the New York subway. “People have tried it, and they have said, you know what, this is pretty good, but not that good.” The public, in his media-seasoned customer-facing point of view, is “a stubborn beast,” and has concluded that ebooks “are pretty good, but not great. They are fabulous for travel… My metaphor is this. They are like those tiny tubes of toothpaste. They are essential for travel, but nobody uses them at home. That’s how it’s panning out. Deep in our soul, somehow, deep in our culture, the physicality of the book is very germane, very central. People talk about going to ‘get’ a book, going to get it, as if they’re hunting it down, like hunter-gatherers.” Therefore, “physical books are never going to go away. They’re subject to all kinds of business pressures that are very difficult to place in terms of price expectations. It really pisses me off that people expect that my book that I’ve laboured over for several months should be cheaper than a cup of coffee.” That said, “in my experience, publishers are like farmers: There has never been a good year. Everything is always a permanent disaster. I remain reasonably optimistic, just because of that deeply human characteristic: We want story. We want to consume it. We will always find ways.”

Deaver described his creative process as “clumsy,” with a long outline, and extensive edits and rewrites. “Probably the first 20 edits, I do on the screen, because it’s easy to move things around.” Then, however, he always prints it out and finishes the corrections on paper. “You would be astonished how much richer the experience is reading on paper… which tells me, that to have a piece of paper with words printed on it, is a better reading experience for the reader as well.” Child added that “there are no two writers more different,” with his own approach involving “no outline, no plan, no clue whatsoever. There’s a saying that writing a novel is like driving across country at night. You pretty much know you’re going to get from where you started to where you finish. But any one time, you can only see as far as your headlight beams. And in my case, those headlight beams are like two arthritic glowworms.” Once his stories are finished, he sees them as what really happened, unchangeable. “To change that seems to me dishonest: it’s like changing your biography, to say I didn’t do that bad thing. I write one draft, and that is it. The editors often say: Well, wouldn’t it be better if this happened after that? And I say, yes probably, but it didn’t.” Deaver noted that “the world of writing is divided into two schools of thought: pantsers and plotters; pantsers as in seat-of-the, and plotters, as in the organizers.” He references Lee Child in his courses, “when I tell my students there is no right way to do a story. The right way is your way to do it.”

Despite his headlong approach, Child conceded that “you obsess which word; where does the comma go; why is that word uglier than this other word, why is it less mellifluous.” He tries to help his readers along by keeping his craft “completely invisible,” but does “have the rhythm of each sentence constantly tumbling forward. Jeff is a musician as well as everything else; we all aspire to be musicians. All writers love music. I think there is a very strong connection with writing. It’s an art form that has a time base: it starts somewhere and goes on for several hours. So I put a lot of effort into making sure that each sentence pushes forward.” He finds great satisfaction “as a mass market writer,” when “people who are not very good readers, who are not very habitual readers,” say, “‘I loved your book: I finished it’; which to them, is a huge boost to their self-esteem.” Deaver added, “once somebody gets hooked on the magic of books, they’re hooked for ever… Reading, whether you’re listening to a book or reading it on paper on a screen, is the highest emotional experience in the creative arts that you can have. Why? Because we are partners with the author. We envision the scenes. We hear the sounds, we smell the smells that the author has put in.” He quoted Lee Child to the effect that, “Don’t get it right: get it written,” while observing that “I have tended to make my chapters shorter, use more staccato words and shorter paragraphs.” Child reported that he has gradually changed his sub-chapters to complete chapters to conform with public reading behaviour. As for literary fiction, he noted that “I’ve got no problem with the actual A-list literary writers… but then there’s the second- and third-rate literary writers, and certain critics and reviewers, who are very sniffy about genre fiction. And I honestly do believe that they can’t write genre fiction, they just can’t do it: otherwise why wouldn’t they?… It’s a whole different skill. Could I write what Martin Amis writes? Yes, you just take out the plot and the narrative.” Deaver concurred that “it’s all about story… It’s creating living, breathing characters… and have them confront different levels of conflict… Shakespeare was a genre writer of his time.” And, he cautioned, “there is so much self-indulgence out there in the creative arts… I want something that I can dive into with my teeth and hands, and enjoy, rather than respect.” Child noted that “the content of literary novels has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Those big heavyweight writers, William Styron, E.L. Doctorow… they would create books with  issues,  and stories, and meat… Now it seems it’s all technique and very little meat; stuff with very, very little point.” Deaver cited the literary sub-sub-genre of “books about divorced professors in academia having affairs, written by divorced professors in academia.”

For writing itself, though, Child said that “it is absolutely the best job in the world. It is impossible to conceive of a better job than this. To complain about it is shamelessly self-indulgent. But I would say, yes, it is lonely.” Deaver struggles with anxieties that: “Am I going to disappoint my readers? Am I going to write a flop? Am I going to write something that doesn’t work for them? And it hovers over you all the time.” According to Child, “I see this as a partnership. The writer and reader are in this together.”

The whole panel could be summed up in Child’s citation of Stephen King and his legendary 12-hour working day: “six hours of writing – and six hours of reading. He has never forgotten that it’s about reading.”