This really happened. But it’s sort of an allegory of what Lee feels about editing.
It was when he was living in the apartment downtown, the one that looked out on the Empire State Building, the one that made me think of a cartoon with Clark Kent at a window in Metropolis. He was going away for a week or two and he wouldn’t really need his housemaid to clean the house while he was gone. On the other hand, he didn’t want to put her out of a job either. She needed the money. So he said, ‘Why don’t you do the stuff you don’t normally do? Concentrate on cleaning up the paintwork.’
He had in mind the kitchen units, which were the kind with push-push cupboard doors. Naturally they would get a little grubby over time. They would benefit from a thorough clean with some kind of fingerprint-removing detergent. All well and good.
Except that maybe he should have been just a little more explicit about exactly what he meant by ‘paintwork’.
He had recently bought a wonderful painting by a certain American artist, then little known, but who went on to become a superstar. A street scene done with bravura and spontaneity, full of wild colour, layer upon layer of paint, brushstrokes characterised by a high degree of swashbuckling freedom. Somewhere between impressionist and abstract expressionist. The artist had begun by using pencil to provide him with a rough guideline and he didn’t always bother to cover the marks entirely with paint, so there was a glorious rough-hewn feel to the canvas. And Lee really loved those scrappy little pencil marks, the ones that weren’t really supposed to be there at all, maybe because they showed the sheer labour that had gone into the work.
Lee returned from his trip. The apartment looked spick and span. He went to bed. But there was something amiss he couldn’t quite put his finger on that kept him awake. Even in the darkness.
He flipped the light back on. Some instinct guided him to the great work of art. But (a moment of confusion and disbelief) what had become of the beloved pencil marks? Surely there used to be a mark here and here! But, now… He saw it all: the housemaid, in pursuit of her mission to improve the ‘paintwork’ had inspected the painting carefully, spotted the pencil marks, and gone out and bought an eraser. It was definitely an improvement. But she was determined to finish the job for Señor Child. Properly. So she went out again and bought some Tipp-ex whitener. And applied that liberally wherever the artist had failed to cover up his own original marks – really, as grubby as any fingerprints you could find on a kitchen cupboard.
The masterpiece had been corrected, erased, Tipp-exed, and rectified and thus deprived of all the brio and creativity and spirit that had gone into it. Lee couldn’t live without those pencil marks.
‘I couldn’t explain to her where she had gone wrong. I think she might have actually committed suicide. At best she would have felt terrible and would have been punishing herself forever. No one ever told her that she was not supposed to “fix” a work of art.’
So he had the room re-decorated instead, re-arranged all the furniture, and quietly had the ‘cleaned-up’ paintwork removed and given to someone who didn’t know what it was like to start with and would, in all probability be able to live without the pencil. He hoped.
But ever after he was careful not to leave the maid alone in a room with any ‘paintwork’.
‘You seen the play Art?’ he said. ‘The one with the all-white canvas.’ We were having dinner in the Union Square café.
‘I’ve seen Red.’
‘Nobody much liked it in the play. But I would buy a canvas like that. White on white. In fact I think I may go out and buy some canvases and paint them all white and hang them on a wall. A white wall.’
REACHER SAID NOTHING: LEE CHILD AND THE MAKING OF ‘MAKE ME’ (extract)