Basic Instinct: Lee Child on Story’s Roots

Lee Child. Photo by Nick Doll.
Lee Child. Photo by Nick Doll.

When Lee Child’s daughter was a small child, she loved the appearance of danger, he told a packed house this morning at the San Carlos Institute during his address on the “Prehistoric Roots of Storytelling.” When he threw her up in the air, she would shriek in delight and terror. Ultimately, she knew she was safe, and nothing was more satisfying.

“We love to experience fear, danger, peril as long as we know things will be all right,” he said of the universal hard-wiring that has drawn human beings to suspense stories since the advent of language 200,000 years ago. In his talk of the inborn hunger for thrilling narrative, there were echoes of last night’s keynote address by Elizabeth George to open the “Final Chapter,” the second session of “The Dark Side.”

“I have to write as I have to breathe, eat, and drink,” George said of recognizing the instinct in childhood amid the profound loneliness of her family. “Through storytelling, countless psychological burdens are lifted from me, and I am free.”

In Child’s case, it was freedom from professional routine that propelled him to begin writing suspense stories in earnest in 1995, when at the age of forty, he was laid off from a job in the British television industry. With six dollars’ worth of paper and pencils, he began to write Killing Floor, the first in his now eighteen-book Jack Reacher series with more than a billion dollars in gross sales.

“Because of language we prospered,” he said, zooming back in time to point out that a single homo sapiens is useless, but a like-minded crowd can be the most powerful, dangerous thing in the world. Empowered through communication to kill off the Neanderthals, our species was saved, he explained, exhibiting the “simple, immaculate logic that makes this [Jack Reacher] series utterly addictive,” as described by New York Times book critic Janet Maslin in a 2007 review of his novel Bad Luck and Trouble.

It’s unclear whether the enlarged brains that accompanied our acquisition of language were cause or effect in such a profound, relatively rapid progression in human history, but Child is certain of one thing: “Nothing happened 100,000 years ago unless it had an evolutionary function.”

If you told and heard stories, you had a slightly increased chance of survival, and much of that learned perseverance was based in emotion, he said. The encouraging, empowering, and consoling qualities of storytelling—“A guy was chased by a tiger! He killed the tiger!”—resulted in a more confident and resilient population (and in the instance of Elizabeth George, a more determined child writer).

“There are only two kinds of books. Those that make you miss your stop on the subway, and those that don’t,” Child commented during the Q&A that followed his talk, inducing laughs of recognition from his audience. Those “propulsive, tremendously readable” stories that you’re annoyed to put down? Listen to that elemental urge, and stay with them against all odds, he advises. We survived because of thriller fiction, and he’s happy to be a part of the tradition.

2 thoughts on “Basic Instinct: Lee Child on Story’s Roots

  1. This was a wondrous way to compress several hundred thousand years of story evolution in less than 40 minutes. The surprise of the week. Will it be up in audio archives soon?

    • Arlo Haskell says:

      Thanks, Warrene! And yes, we hope to have it up in the archives later this week. March is almost here and we’re finally drifting back to normal….

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