Born in England in 1954, Lee Child grew up on the tough streets of Birmingham. He took his childhood love of fiction into a 20-year career as a presentation director for Granada Television. But when industry downsizing led to a major layoff, his career came to an abrupt halt in 1995.
At age 40—jobless, broke, with a family to feed, yet supremely confident—Child did the unthinkable. Rather than seek a new job, he sat down to write a novel in longhand. The result was a gripping thriller, Killing Floor, that won awards, rave reviews, and the first of millions of avid fans who now call themselves “Reacher Creatures.” Ten novels have followed, all with terse, edgy titles: Die Trying, Tripwire, Running Blind, Echo Burning, Without Fail, Persuader, The Enemy, One Shot, The Hard Way, and, this past May, Bad Luck and Trouble —another instant bestseller.
Child now lives the good life with his wife in Manhattan and in the south of France. Between novels, he reads, listens to music, and watches the Yankees—all addictively. Tall, slim, with sky-blue eyes and a keen intellect, he clearly has exported much of himself into the Reacher character. On May 1, 2007 in New York City, Child sat down with TNI editor Robert Bidinotto and photographer Brian Killigrew at Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers , and later at Da Umberto Restaurant, for a wide-ranging, captivating, and inspiring interview.
The editor wishes to thank Maggie Griffin, proprietor of Partners & Crime and “Webmaven” for www.LeeChild.com , for making the interview arrangements and for hosting our photo shoot in her bookstore. And, of course, to Lee Child for generously taking an afternoon from his hectic writing and book-tour schedule to accommodate us.
“For a so-called noir or hard-boiled writer, my books aren’t really very gray. There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys win—count on it.”
TNI: I love a quotation from one of your previous interviews about how in your books, the good guys always win.
Lee Child: Well, that quotation was referring partly to the genre descriptions that we’re all saddled with. The retail trade is always keen on specifying exactly what kind of book it is. Is it a mystery, is it suspense, is it crime fiction, is it hard-boiled, is it noir? Most of those genres involve a certain amount of grayness. Typically, hard-boiled fiction is about bad things happening to bad people. Crime fiction is about the effect of a crime on a family or a community.
I’m not really into that at all. My books are straightforward, old-fashioned adventures where there is a clear-cut, binary choice: You are either with the hero or against him, and that determines your fate. And Jack Reacher will never lose, and he will never be gray in any way.
TNI: Does that grow out of something in you? People would not want to hear that it grows out of any kind of marketplace calculation. But I’m curious.
Child: I think it’s a universal truth that, for all writers, it grows out of what they’ve read. I have a particular impatience with bandwagon-jumping. At the time that I was starting out, we were going through a long period where, maybe fifteen years before, people had started experimenting with “the flawed hero.” It had just gotten totally out of hand. Heroes were becoming more and more miserable—flawed, dysfunctional, dragging themselves miserably from page to page.
I’m a contrarian and a skeptic, and as soon as I saw everybody doing that, I thought that I wanted to do something much more pure and old-fashioned. When people say old-fashioned, they tend to think it means from the ’50s or the ’30s eras. But I’m talking about stuff from the Middle Ages and way back farther than that. These are universal paradigms of human myths.
TNI: Talk about this character, Jack Reacher.
Child: Well, he’s an ex-military policeman, and he was demobilized in his middle thirties after having served all of his adult life in the [U.S.] Army and having grown up on Marine bases, because his father was a Marine. The idea was to have a character that was plausibly rootless. Most people who are wanderers do it for other reasons—they are mentally ill, or something like that. Reacher is completely competent, but he’s just habituated to this fragmented life in the military, so he can’t settle into civilian society. The idea of staying anywhere for more than a few days is anathema to him.
TNI: It’s a reaction.
Child: Yes. So he lives frugally, doesn’t participate in the consumer society, is bemused by most things. He just travels from place to place pursuing his own interests, which are largely introspective, and keeping himself to himself.
TNI: In these travels, he falls into all of these adventures. He doesn’t seek them out; circumstances just seem to thrust him into situations where his involvement becomes irresistible. And it’s always a matter of honor, or some injustice, that pulls him in. Why this strong sense of rebellion against injustice?
Child: I don’t know why. But some people—and I think I’m one of them—you see something developing, and you cannot stay away. You’ve got to react; you can’t just pass by on the other side of the street. And he’s like that.
People have said that it’s unrealistic that he constantly runs into so much trouble. And I’ve said, “Well, not really. I write perhaps only one week out of his year. If I write the other fifty-one books where nothing happens for four hundred pages, publishers won’t publish it.”
TNI: Jack Reacher doesn’t come with any baggage.
Child: Right. He literally comes with no baggage—
TNI: That’s what I meant.
Child: —which is a metaphor for the fact that he comes with no emotional baggage, either. Which takes me back to what I said before—about trying to get away from these damaged heroes.
TNI: What do you think is Jack Reacher’s core appeal? What do you think people see in the character?
Child: I think it comes down to wish fulfillment, pure and simple. I mean, anecdotally, all I really go on is what people tell me. I’ve had so many guys say to me—and these are normal guys, and they’ve probably been working all day in the bank or on Wall Street or wherever—and they come to a book signing and they look a little bit plaintive. They say, “Boy, I wish that I could live like Jack Reacher lives.” Because we all reach a point where we’re burdened down with responsibilities and chores and errands and bureaucracy, and wouldn’t it be great just to get rid of it all and walk off into the sunset? So for the guys, it’s a lot of wish fulfillment.
And for the women, I think it’s the same thing, wish fulfillment—but the other way around. They wish that he would walk up their path and knock on their door, specifically because he won’t stay very long.
"Women wish that Jack Reacher would knock on their door, specifically because he won’t stay very long."
A couple of years ago, I was on tour and stopped in Scottsdale, Arizona, on a Saturday afternoon. I was unsure how many people we would get, because it was like 120 degrees. It ended up the store was absolutely full—120 people, standing room only—and all of them were women. So, instead of doing the regular event, I just said, “Look, I cannot help but notice that you are all women. So, I want to know, why are you here?” It turned into a kind of massive book-club discussion about the appeal of Reacher to women.
They came out with four specific conclusions. One was that women, even now in the twenty-first century, find it difficult to express anger. An angry man is seen as assertive, and an angry woman is seen as shrill. So, they are perpetually conflicted about anger, and they love to read about it on the page, vicariously—they want to see somebody kick somebody else’s butt, because they actually can’t do it themselves.
Point number two was that Reacher responds in an almost feminine way to injustice. I’ve noticed that if you ever hear somebody bang the table in exasperation and say, “It’s just not fair,” it will always be a woman. Men are much more ready to accommodate the gray areas—I don’t know why. But women are capable of getting upset about injustice, and Reacher does the same thing. If Reacher sees something that’s unfair, he doesn’t accommodate it; he reacts to it. And, by the end of the book, it is fair—big time—and he’s made it fair. I think that women love that story arc.
The third reason they gave is that Reacher likes strong, realistic women, and he treats women with respect. Reacher is a post-feminist. He doesn’t cut them any slack, but also he has no negative preconceptions. If you’re a woman, he will be your friend; but if necessary, he will kill you. He doesn’t make any gender distinctions.
And the fourth reason they gave is that he was hot. I think this is something universal. We all want a little bit of variety and adventure. I think everybody, however up-tight you are, is somewhat open to the idea of having a love affair. We don’t, because having love affairs is generally very, very messy. Everything falls apart; you lose your house, you lose the kids, you get divorced; it’s all a mess. So we don’t do it.
But in theory, suppose we could do it with absolutely no comeback? That’s what Reacher offers. Reacher will be an intensely fun companion for three or four days, and then he will be gone, and you will never, ever see him again. You can absolutely guarantee that. He won’t write; he won’t call; you will never see him again.
TNI: You couldn’t reach him if you tried.
Child: Right. He’s in your life and then out of your life, and that’s a very reassuring fantasy.
TNI: Reacher’s code of justice hearkens back, mythically, to the “knight errant” character. How might that have shaped your thinking?
Child: It was a paradigm that I was always attracted to reading about. And not surprisingly, because if a character has survived three thousand years of human story-telling, it’s got to be a good character—it’s market-tested already. That’s just a very attractive paradigm: The knight errant who shows up in time to save the day.
The code-of-justice thing—that’s existed for a very long time. Recently, it’s been somewhat corrupted, because we’re now into this relativistic thing, where out of some kind of liberal obligation we have to say, “A is as good as B—it’s just different; C is just as good as D.” But nobody’s allowed to make a positive choice anymore.
I’m as liberal as they come, but I also don’t like relativism. At some point you have to be able to say: “I’m sorry, but A is better than B.” Or: “I’m sorry, but C is worse than D.” No argument. I’m impatient with having to say that everything is as good as everything else. And Reacher’s the same. He looks at a situation, and he will say, “This is right, and this is wrong.”
TNI: And he’s adamantine in his sense of self—his security in his values.
Child: Yeah, absolutely. He’s not in the least bit insecure. He’s way beyond examining his navel and worrying about himself. In many ways, he’s arrogant. That’s another valuable lesson that I learned from reading, which is that it’s a fatal mistake to start to like your character too much. So he’s an arrogant guy. I mean, it’s arrogant to walk into a situation and say, “I will decide what is right and what is wrong—I will be judge, jury, and executioner.”
"I’m as liberal as they come, but I also don’t like relativism."
And really, every book—if you analyze it carefully—is a contest between Reacher’s arrogance and the bad guy’s arrogance, because he responds particularly to the idea of some shadowy figure in the background who thinks he can get away with something, thinks he can put one over. Reacher’s basic response is to say, “Well, we’ll see about that.” So then it becomes a contest for supremacy.
Arrogance is not an attractive characteristic; but if you start to leach out all of the negative things about a character, you end up with this sugary confection, and the reader’s going to get diabetes just by reading it.
TNI: But there’s a supreme self-confidence about Reacher that I think is very attractive in a postmodern world where you have relativistic values—where people aren’t sure; where they say, “What’s ‘right’ for you is not necessarily ‘right’ for me.” This man’s iron certainty, I think, is tremendously appealing to people: It’s an anchor in a rudderless world.
Child: It is. People are either frustrated because they can’t make up their mind all day, or frustrated that they have to conceal their true judgment. That’s the entire focus of fiction: to give people what they can’t get out of their real life. That’s absolutely what fiction is for.
You see that all of the time in any romantic thread in a novel. I go somewhere on the subway, and I see some pretty girl sitting opposite me. The reality is that I’m not going to take her to dinner; I’m not going to sleep with her that night; we’re not going to live happily ever after on a desert island. I’m not even going to talk to her—because if you start talking to somebody on the subway, you’ll probably get arrested. So the reality is frustration.
So, you read a book where you do talk to her, you do start a relationship. Fiction gives you what you don’t get. It’s the same thing with Reacher. People’s real lives, they’re not certain; they’re constantly stymied and frustrated; so they love to watch Reacher being certain and getting his own way.
TNI: You said once that, as a writer, you’re not in this for validation and approval. I get the same sense out of Reacher, as a character.
Child: Yeah. I just read a very interesting book by David Mamet called Bambi versus Godzilla. It’s his ramblings about the screenwriting business. Mamet said the basic transaction in a story is this: The main character appears and says, “Hi, I’m the main character.” And the audience then says, “Are we going to like you?” What happens next becomes crucial. The worst possible choice is for the main character to say, “Yeah, you’re really gonna love me, and I’ll tell you why!” Instead, the best screenplays and actors say, “Are you gonna to like me? You know—I don’t care. Like me or not, it makes no difference to me.”
That’s how to be confident and attractive on the screen, and it’s the same thing in a book. The audience asks Reacher, “Are we gonna like you?”—and Reacher says, “You might; you might not; and either way is fine with me.”
TNI: He’s extraordinarily independent, a real individualist. He thinks for himself and faces reality without seeing it through the eyeballs of anyone else. He has a direct relationship with facts and lets chips fall where they may.
Child: Yes, he’s very fact-driven, reality-driven, rational. And so am I, which is why it’s absolutely not rational to look for validation from critics or insiders in the business. That’s another fatal mistake. You can sometimes tell people are writing to impress their friends or some kind of inner circle. That’s stupid. Your friends—how many are they? They’re going to buy, like, six books. What you need is to impress the audience out there.
So I don’t care what a critic says. Critics can say whatever they like, it makes no difference to me. It also doesn’t tell me anything. I’ve lived with the book for a year; I know whether it’s good or bad; I know where it’s weak or strong; I don’t need somebody else to tell me. So, it’s a matter of total indifference to me what anybody says. It sounds very cynical, but all that I care about is: How many copies does the book sell? And not because I’m greedy for the money, but because that’s the only true measure: Are real people actually reading this book?
TNI: A measure of what?
Child: A measure of success. We’re here to entertain the audience. The audience comes first, second, and third. If you ever lose sight of that, you are sunk.
TNI: That’s your sense of responsibility as a writer?
Child: Yeah, absolutely. I learned that in television: that nothing matters except the audience. That’s the only true reward—sell a few more books than last year. It means everybody liked it enough to come back and get a copy, and it also means that they’ll tell their friends about it.
TNI: We’ve talked about Jack Reacher. Talk about Lee Child.
Child: For me, really, the important parts are growing up in Birmingham, England. It’s entirely a manufacturing city. There’s no heavy industry—they don’t make steel there, it’s all metal bashing. There are no thatched cottages, no thousand-year-old buildings. So it has a very un-English feel. It was about people making useful things, and there was no point in anything if it wasn’t useful. It was all pragmatic, artisan stuff. That’s what I loved about that place. It was completely unpretentious—just get the job done, no fuss, no drama, in a really workmanlike fashion. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be—a workman in that old-fashioned sense.
TNI: You’ve described your childhood there quite colorfully.
Child: It was a rough, tough place. There was no solution to anything except instinctive violence. Whatever your dispute with another guy was, it would be settled by violence. We didn’t have guns or anything like that, but we had knives, and we had bicycle chains, and all that kind of stuff.
"That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be—a workman."
But to me, it was not all that rough, because by some genetic accident, I was enormous—I was huge as a kid. I really have not grown very much since I was ten or eleven; I was a giant, a freak. And in a sense, that’s where Reacher comes from, because I was, as a kid, physically unchallengeable. I try to give that same feeling to Reacher.
TNI: Physically, he’s like a human wrecking ball.
Child: Yes he is.
TNI: He’s a very intelligent guy—the wheels are always turning, so there’s a lot more to him than just the brute force—but he’s a force of nature.
Child: Yes, because the brute force i
s there if he needs it. I wanted to convey the feeling that this is a guy who can turn any corner anywhere in the world, and whatever lies in front of him, it would be an amazing coincidence to come across anybody as tough as him, or tougher. He breezes through life pretty much certain that he’ll never be physically vulnerable.
We all walk down the street and we’re all worried, in some way or another—worried, scared, humiliated. We get used to that feeling. It’s really nice when you hear about a guy who isn’t. And that was me at the age of nine. I was this big [raises his hand overhead], and everybody else was, like, this big [lowers it below shoulders]. So, although it was a rough place, I was hardly ever the victim.
One time my great-aunt was visiting from London and I was supposed to meet her and my mother at the local library. To get to the library, you had to go up some steps and then through this alley. And waiting in the alley were five tough guys who had a beef with me. I can remember walking in this alley and thinking, “Damn. I’m going to be late to the library.” That was my only concern: I was going to be late now, because I have to take out these five guys. And my next thought was: “Well, let’s do it as fast and as efficiently as possible.” So, it was just like mayhem for two or three minutes, and then I carried on.
TNI: You grew up in a household you’ve described as white-collar, but struggling. What were some of the seminal influences on you?
Child: First of all, just reading itself. This was a time when there was very little television; we only had two channels, and they were off for periods of the day. So there was nothing else to do except read books. We had books in the house, but there was no real possibility of buying books. It was all about the library.
It was almost like a pilgrimage, that weekly trip to the library, like you were going into this other world that was so great. Just the idea of getting books and reading them was always magical to me. I read every book in the library because we only had a very small library. After two, three years, my mother would take us to the next municipality, which had a bigger library.
I just read all the normal stuff that kids read, nothing out of the ordinary. So much bullshit goes on in author interviews—you know, they say, “Oh, yeah, I was reading Dostoevsky when I was six,” and all that kind of stuff. Some say that they always wanted to be a writer. The truth is that I never wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to be an entertainer, and this just happens to be the medium that I’m working in.
But as far as reading goes, I would just read all of the usual middle-of-the-road stuff. There was this children’s author, Enid Blyton, who wrote literally hundreds of books. There was “The Secret Seven,” in particular, which was a prototype mystery series that involved clues, disguises, tricks like how to get out of a locked room, that kind of stuff. And then there was a guy called W.E. Johns who wrote a series about tough guys, commandos in World War II. Then I moved pretty much straight on to Alistair MacLean, and he was probably my greatest early influence.
TNI: There seem to be echoes of MacLean in the Jack Reacher character. Is that true?
Child: Yes, because what MacLean could do better than anybody was to write a hero that, in every possible way, should have been a cartoon character—too perfect. It should have been laughable, but for some reason, it was always just the right side of the line. He could do, unashamed, these one-hundred-percent heroes better than anybody, without them appearing grotesque. And the same with villains: He clearly had a weakness for extremely huge, freakishly strong people. He could write adventure as good as anybody, in a way that ought to be toe-curlingly embarrassing but actually is really good to read.
TNI: I found some of his lesser-known titles, like Night Without End, just sensational.
Child: Night Without End is one of the best that he ever wrote. It’s almost a primer. It takes place on the Arctic ice pack, where a plane in distress comes down next to a weather station. You’ve got a tiny cast of characters from the weather station and a handful of people who survived the plane crash, and one of them is a killer. So it’s really like an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery, except that it’s in the most dramatic physical environment that you could imagine.
TNI: Other influences besides MacLean, early on?
Child: Not early on. Later, I read the Spenser series by Robert Parker and the Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald. They were all very influential, either proactively or reactively.
TNI: Elaborate on that.
"The truth is that I never wanted to be a writer."
Child: Well, John D. MacDonald with Travis McGee—he just had this stealthy way of sucking you into the story. There’s only one of those books where anything sensational happens on page one. Mostly, what happens on page one is nothing at all; and yet by page two, there’s no physical way that you can put the book down. That was a trick that I studied for a long time: How was he doing it? I never really figured out what he was doing.
The other thing I knew that I could not do is, he wrote twenty-one books all basically starting from the same place. Travis McGee lived on a houseboat in Florida. So it was all very similar in terms of beginnings; but he kept that fresh for twenty-one books, which was amazing. One of the reasons I made Reacher rootless is that I didn’t want to always be starting from the same place every page one.
TNI: The-beautiful-dame-walks-into-the-detective’s-office type of thing.
Child: Yes. That traps you. From Robert Parker I learned some negative stuff. He was clearly one of these guys who was into it for the first eight or so books and then just completely lost interest. I’m not exclusively negative. I really liked Spenser’s impregnable sense of self. He didn’t spend any time at all worrying or agonizing. That I liked. All of the details, I didn’t like—like, Spenser is forever cooking.
TNI: His feminine side.
Child: The day we catch Reacher cooking, I will hang up my pen.
TNI: Yes. His fare is normally Denny’s. The only thing he carries with him is his toothbrush.
After childhood, you went to school and studied law, right?
Child: Yes, but not because I wanted to be a lawyer. Because it ties together all kinds of things—politics, economics, history, sociology, language—in a way that’s fascinating. It also gives you a kind of healthy relationship with the world. You know what is likely to be true or not, you know what is likely to be legal or not. It gives you a certain kind of self-confidence in relation to the world. So that’s what I did. But my parents knew pretty much that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer or an accountant or whatever else they wanted me to be.
TNI: So you were a constant disappointment to your parents.
Child: And I feel bad about it, because they were just products of their time, and they had this fantastically aspirational dream.
TNI: You got out of law and went on and did what?
Child: I did theater before and during college, which really made it obvious that I was not going to be a lawyer. I was always going to be in the world of entertainment. So, directly after college, I joined the television business.
TNI: How did that come about?
Child: It was actually a fairly intellectual process. I loved the theater—that was my first love, and in some ways it still is. But I wasn’t an on-stage performer, and at that point I was not a writer. When you really think about it, all the theater needs is a script and some actors—the rest is fluff. If you’re a backstage technician in the theater, which is what I was, you’re not essential.
So, I moved to television, where backstage technicians are absolutely essential. I assumed that would be my job forever. I was with Granada Television for half a career. I just assumed that that was it forever. But it was around the middle ’90s, with the discovery of shareholder value, and new management decided the best way to obtain it was to fire everybody.
TNI: Before the new management pointed you toward the door, you became the union steward there, right?
Child: Yes. Shop steward, which was an unpaid job on top of your regular day job. The new management wanted to destroy the union. They did that by firing a previous shop steward on very specious grounds, and then firing his replacement after one week. So the message was pretty clear.
This was my real-life Reacher moment. I said that I was going to be shop steward, and let them try to fire me. I ran unopposed for election. One of the managers took me to one side and told me that I would be out of work next week if I took this. I told him that we would see about that. And I hung on there for two years, fighting this desperate, rear-guard battle.
TNI: You were fighting for what?
"All right—if you’re stooping to those depths, I will show you what the gutter is really all about."
Child: Initially, I was fighting for some kind of common-sense rationality about how they treated the business—because this was a business built up by two generations of talented and dedicated people, built up to an unbelievably high standard. In the years ’78 through about ’91, thirteen years, we won probably four hundred Emmys. It was a factory that produced the most marvelous product—and they were vandalizing it, just trashing it from top to bottom. So initially, I was trying to protect the legacy, I guess. And then it was about protecting the actual people who were being just appallingly treated. I felt we could help them out, in terms of outplacement, or we could get better severance deals, better pensions for them, and all of that kind of stuff.
It started out civilized, but then there was one particular incident where they revealed that they were not playing by the rules. They did this thing that was just absolutely illegal, underhanded, and totally unethical. It caught me off guard, gave me a very bad day, because they sucker-punched me. So I thought, “All right—if you’re stooping to those depths, I will show you what the gutter is really all about.”
TNI: So you went “Birmingham” on them?
Child: Yes. For the next year, every trick in the book.
TNI: For instance?
Child: Well, they worked 9 to 5, five days a week, and the rest of us worked 24 /7. So we would wait for the last one of them to leave the parking lot, and then I had this SWAT team of people—the entire cleaning staff—search every trash bin and bring me anything that looked like a torn-up first draft of a memo. We steamed open their mail. I had engineers hacking into their computers. They caught on to that after a little while and put keyboard locks on. So then I had the engineers take the hard drives out of the back of the computers, drag them home, copy them, and bring them back. I mean, we would do anything, and it was just hilarious. Also, the legal background helped, because they were doing one thing that was, on a technicality, clearly illegal, misinterpreting the contract term.
TNI: You got a precursor to your pink slip in ’95—a warning shot across the bow that your days were numbered.
Child: I was very upset at that time. Not for myself, particularly, because I always believe that I will survive and move on.
TNI: So you decided to become a writer. But you were married and had a child.
Child: Yes. My daughter was just turning fifteen. So yes, we had the family, the mortgage, and all of that kind of stuff.
TNI: Legend has it that you went out and bought yourself five dollars worth of pencils and some paper.
Child: Six dollars.
TNI: Okay, so I see that you were really investing in this thing.
Child: I was. That was a serious point—because a lot of other guys would buy their own cameras and they would become cameramen, but that was like twenty grand for a camera. Or some people would become video editors, but that was like fifty grand for an editing suite. And I had no money—I’m a terrible spendthrift—no money, no savings, and I had nothing to invest.
So I thought, “What is the minimum investment here?” And I thought: “A writer has no overheads.” So it was three pads of paper, one pencil, an eraser, and a pencil sharpener. The total bill—£3.99 in British money, which at that time was six bucks. I’ve still got the pencil: It was a yellow shorthand pencil, and it started out the regular length, and now it’s this long [spreads fingers a tiny distance]. I’ve still got it.
TNI: Do you keep it in a shrine?
Child: No, I put two pegs in a bulletin board, and I have it cradled across the middle of the exhibit. I should put it in a Lucite cube or something like that, like a baby shoe.
TNI: You got the termination notice in ’95.
TNI: Bought your pencils and paper with this monstrous investment of capital.
Child: Sank this huge overhead into it, yes.
TNI: And you sat at your kitchen table?
Child: I didn’t have a kitchen table, I had a dining room table. Yes, I just sat there and started writing the book.
TNI: Tell me about the gestation of Jack Reacher.
Child: All of the years I was reading, I suppose he was subconsciously brewing. There’s an element of calculation that goes into it, because you can only start a series once. But I also figured that you can’t put too much calculation into it; otherwise you’re going to end up with a wooden character, where you’re too conscious of such things as: “I’ve got to satisfy women of a certain age. I’ve got to satisfy males, age 16 to 24. What about libraries? What about foreign sales?”
TNI: So you didn’t do a focus group.
Child: I don’t like focus groups for anything, because focus groups tell you what people liked last year, and there’s no telling what they’re going to like next year. So, if you think about it too much, you’re going to end up with a tortured figure that’s going to wear too many hats at once.
Even though I had to make this work, I was aware that I couldn’t in any way focus on what I might imagine was promotional necessity. I just had to forget all of that, because unless you’ve got this vital, living, organic product, it’s just not going to get published. And the only way to make it vital, organic, and living is to just write it from the gut.
So I ignored all of the precepts about what I thought I needed and just saw what came out. And Reacher was what came out. I didn’t plan it out too carefully because I didn’t want to put him in a straightjacket.
TNI: But Reacher’s ex-M.P. background was pretty specific.
Child: That was a purely tactical choice. I thought that I would do a book that’s not the same as everybody else’s. Everybody else had their guy working: a private guy in Boston or a police lieutenant in L.A., or wherever. I thought, “Well, he won’t be working, and he won’t live anywhere, and let’s just take it from there.”
"I made Reacher the toughest SOB in the valley."
This idea of the rootless alienation has got to come from somewhere, and I noticed that the most alienated people are always ex-military, because it’s like going from one solar system to the other, it’s so different. So that was an easy choice: Make him ex-military. Then make him ex-military police because, broadly speaking, these would be crime novels, and he had to have some investigative experience, and he had to understand procedures and forensics and so on. So that part was all set in stone; but his actual personality and characteristics, I just let happen spontaneously.
TNI: Well, it’s pretty clear that he grew out of that great big nine-year-old, to some extent.
Child: Yes. That again was something I wanted to do differently. All books are about conflict, and obviously most conflict paradigms are based on the greatest of all, which is David versus Goliath. I thought, “Suppose we have Goliath versus Goliath. How is that going to work?” So I made Reacher the toughest SOB in the valley. Just to do it differently.
TNI: Were you concerned that your plan to become a successful writer wouldn’t work out?
Child: I was absolutely not worried about it. It was an absurd position to take, looking back on it, but I thought it would happen like night follows day. I thought it was inevitable that it would work, and later I realized that that was just sort of a psychological trick I was playing on myself to make sure it happened.
TNI: Do you think it’s a useful psychological trick?
Child: It worked for me.
Child: There was no question in my mind that, yes, it was going to happen, and the only question was how soon and how big. And that’s how it worked out.
TNI: I understand that you were maybe half-way through writing it when you decided that it was time to get an agent.
Child: Yes. I was broke, out of work, and had no savings, so this had to happen fast. I had heard that if you send something to an agent, it can be months before you hear anything. So I thought, “All right, I’ve got to telescope this process, so I will send it off. I will tell him it’s finished. It’s really only half finished; but by the time he gets back to me, it will be finished.”
So, I sent off the first three chapters, and said, “This is from my finished novel.” The guy I selected was very atypical, and one of the ways he stays ahead of the curve is he reads everything the day it comes in. He read the sample the day it came in, liked it a lot, and called me straightaway and asked, Could I send him the rest?
I said, Sure—I was just adjusting something at the end. Then I wrote like crazy for five weeks. He phoned me up a couple of times and said, “Did you send it yet?” And I said, “Well, I’m just working out this kink in the second half.” Then, as soon as it was done, I sent it in.
TNI: He then shopped it around, and you had quick nibbles for it—isn’t that correct?
Child: Yes. It was again unusual. Most people are rejected many, many times in this industry—maybe it’s an average of twelve times that people get rejected. But, of course, if twelve is the average, that means that some people are getting rejected twenty-four times and some people are getting rejected zero times. I was the zero-time guy.
TNI: This was your first novel, Killing Floor, which introduced the character of Jack Reacher to the world. It was an amazing first book.
Child: Well, to be honest about it, it was a good first book. And it could not have been a better first publication experience. But that was ten books ago. Even with a great start like that, it takes you ten years to become “an overnight success.” It really does.
TNI: What, to you, is a thriller?
Child: That’s an incredibly difficult question. Ultimately, there are only two kinds of books. There’s the kind of book where reading it on the subway you end up on Coney Island because you missed your stop, and there’s the kind of book where you don’t. That’s all. It has got to be a matter of degree. If suspense becomes the preeminent factor, then it’s a suspense book. If suspense is managed by having dramatic situations and danger and violence, then it probably is a thriller.
TNI: So, you think the defining characteristics would be action, adventure, and involvement with violence in some way?
Child: Yes. The best technical answer I can give is probably that the character relationships follow some kind of mythical, legendary path. But the more important thing is the time management in the book. A thriller or a suspense book or my kind of book, it starts and it carries on. There is never a moment unaccounted for.
TNI: The pace is unrelenting.
Child: Yes. The pace might not be fast, but it doesn’t relent. If you read other books, like traditional mysteries, crime books, or P.I. books, often there’s a chapter that says, “On Friday, I did my invoices and did my laundry, took a shower, went to a movie—”
TNI: Or cooked a meal.
Child: Or cooked a meal. In other words, whatever is urgent in the book is actually not all that urgent, because they’ve just taken a day or week or three weeks off. The thrill comes from managing the pace so that it’s clear the events are urgent.
TNI: What about the issue of comparing thrillers and commercial fiction with so-called literary fiction?
Child: It’s an issue that doesn’t come from our side. We’re happy to let those guys do whatever it is they want to do. The issue always comes from their side, because they’re jealous about our sales. They get all stirred up about it, and quite rightly. I probably have more books shoplifted out of every title than they sell in their entire lives. They start to feel troubled over it, and they want a bit of our action; so they go slumming and try to write a thriller. And it’s always an embarrassing failure. Whereas any one of us—I know this for a fact, having talked to my writer friends, and we are not idiots—have read all the great books in the world, and we could write a literary novel easily. Michael Connelly, anybody like that, could invent a different name, write a literary book. Him or me, it would probably take three weeks to write that kind of book. It would sell three thousand copies like theirs do, and it would probably be well-respected. We can do what they can do, but they can’t do what we do; and that’s where the friction comes from.
TNI: What do you guys do that they can’t?
Child: Well, we have things like characters and stories—and beginnings, middles, and ends—all of that kind of stuff. Somebody asked me, How would I write one of these literary books? And I said, “Just take out the characters, the pace, the excitement, and the story, and that’s pretty much it.”
But good luck to them—I mean, it’s history that will judge eventually. I’m quite prepared to imagine that one hundred years from now at Yale, they’ll be talking about Martin Amis and they won’t be talking about Lee Child. That’s fine by me. But at the moment, I would rather have my sales than his sales, because I don’t care what comes one hundred years from now.
What I love about the book business is there’s room for an infinite number of people. The public consumption of books—we always worry that it’s going down, that nobody reads anymore. But actually, globally, the consumption of books is so enormous that for the individual author, we can all make a good living. We’re not cannibalizing each other, and I’m really happy to pass my readers to somebody else and vice-versa, because that’s how it happens.
TNI: It’s not a zero-sum game.
Child: It absolutely isn’t.
TNI: In terms of what you think is primary in storytelling, you’ve said there are plot people, and character people, and you’re a character person.
Child: Yes, and I think that all readers are character people. It’s almost impossible to remember a book solely for its plot or its plot device. You say “Agatha Christie,” and people remember Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. Almost every book is remembered for character. I know that’s true from the example of the Reacher books. People say to me, “Oh, I love Jack Reacher; I love that time where he did this or that.” But the this or that is actually not in my book; it’s in somebody else’s book. They’re remembering the character and confusing the plot.
TNI: So, you consciously thought about a character-driven series from the beginning?
Child: Yes, simply because as a reader, that’s what I loved.
TNI: What about the issue of realism versus stylization in literature? Your dialogue, for example, is not a literal transcription of exactly the way people talk. You stylize.
Child: Yes. I actually once won an award, a newspaper poll or something, in Fort Worth, Texas, for great dialogue; my dialogue was allegedly the most realistic. Actually, nobody’s printed dialogue is anywhere near realistic—it’s a million miles away from realistic. Because we all know that if you listen carefully to how people actually talk, it’s endless stops, starts, incoherencies, stumbles, ums, ers—much worse than you think.
Also, I don’t use any ellipses or dashes at the end of lines to imply interruptions or incomplete sentences. It’s always either a period or a question mark. I don’t use any dialects, deliberate misspellings to suggest dialect or accent. It’s all just plain English, and yet people say it’s realistic. It’s really not—it’s about the convention of how people read dialogue.
But I also work very hard at it. There’s a very subtle effect that you can get by the order of words—in particular, the rhythm of the sentence. You can have the same word written three different ways, and it will appear that it’s three different people speaking it, simply by the order of the words and where the emphasis lies rhythmically. I love doing that, because it’s the ultimate conjuring trick to make people think that your dialogue is realistic.
TNI: But it’s always stylized.
Child: Always. It’s highly, highly formalized.
TNI: Persuader was my introduction to your novels, and it was a wonderful introduction to Reacher because it was told first-person. Rather than looking at him from the outside, you can get right inside his skull. Killing Floor also was a first-person story, which was a great way to launch the series. Do you plan to return to first-person narrative some day?
"I think that all readers are character people."
Child: I would always do first-person if it were possible to tell that story in first-person. Most of the time, it’s not possible, because you need some third-party point of view in order to do the plot that you want to do. But if it’s possible to do first-person, I always will do first-person, because I agree—it’s very intimate, a very fast connection between the character and the reader.
TNI: I understand that you don’t do a lot of advance outlining in your stories. Instead, you look for some hook or some key.
Child: Yes, I have what I call The Thing, which is the main trick or surprise or scenario or whatever. You just have to start somewhere and works towards it and feed off it.
TNI: But you have an idea of where you are headed, the idea of a climax?
Child: Kind of, but that can change totally. With the book I’m writing for next year, Play Dirty [now retitled Nothing to Lose], I’m just about hitting the climax time and setting up the final scene, and I have no clue what’s going to happen—no idea whatsoever how it’s going to unfold.
TNI: Of your own work, do you have a favorite, one that you say, “This one I really hit out of the park; it’s closer to everything that I wanted to get down on paper than any of the others”?
Child: You know, the honest answer to that is: the next one. I think all writers are not satisfied with what they’ve done in the whole. The thing that propels you is the thought that next time, maybe I’ll nail it. And writers are genuinely most interested in what they’re going to do next rather than what they have done.
But of the ones that exist already, probably Persuader. It does not hit the target for me 100 percent; but there’s only one element in it that I now regret, and it was pretty close to a total success in terms of what I wanted to do.
TNI: It worked for me!
Child: If I look back on it, I wish I could write it again, over and over again.
TNI: Anything you want to say about the next book?
Child: Nothing to Lose will be a Reacher book dealing with the flip side of the Iraq war—people coming home maimed, people not wanting to go back. You know, Reacher is career military; Reacher has got a very strong sense of duty; so what’s Reacher’s take on Iraq? It’s a book that’s going to get me in a lot of trouble. My career might be over next year.
TNI: I doubt it.
Child: But it’s a book that had to be written.
TNI: You walk a very interesting tightrope in the political area in your books. You’ve got this tough guy—a strong, independent, iconic, individualist character. Like The Man with No Name, he rides in with the sunrise and rides off into the sunset. Totally self-contained, which appeals to the rugged American individualist spirit that I think resonates with many conservatives.
On the other side of it, though, you have him involved with any number of different causes that are normally liberal—in Echo Burning, it was illegal immigrants, and elsewhere you’ve had battered women. Is this just something that flows out of who you are?
Child: Yes, it flows out of what I am. I tread relatively cautiously because I don’t want to make them political books, in that sense. I see Reacher as post-everything—he’s almost post-political. In fact, America has a tremendous amount of self-delusion going on, and I try and use Reacher to illustrate that. Because America is reckoned to be about 50 percent conservative; but in terms of how we think of each other and our innate instincts, America is probably 75 or 80 percent liberal. I mean, usually amongst American people, there’s no real desire to harm or mistreat each other; in fact, there’s a desire to look after each other and respect each other—which is actually a kind of liberal position, even though people don’t characterize themselves as liberals.
So, I try and use Reacher—instinctively attractive to the redneck right—and I have him try and do stuff that just pokes them a little bit with a stick, as if to say, “This is what you should be doing, too.”
"America has a tremendous amount of self-delusion."
But the same for the left. Reacher is a person of liberal instincts, but absolutely not an organization man. He doesn’t want to belong to anything, he’s anti-social. He’s not a member of society, he stays out of society—which is inherently not a liberal position.
I love the idea that self-reliance is identified especially as a Western-style characteristic. Because what I’ve noticed anecdotally is the states that describe themselves as most self-reliant are the states taking the most welfare handouts out of Washington. In terms of federal funding, you’ve got a binary possibility: You either send more than you receive, or you receive more than you send. The states that receive more than they send are on welfare—let’s be honest about that. Those are the states where people shout the loudest, “I’m self-reliant; get the government off my back.” I’m like, “I would love to get the government off your back, because then I could keep my money.”
TNI: Are you talking about agricultural-subsidy states?
Child: Places like South Dakota, for instance. Every single person I’ve ever met from South Dakota says, “You know, we’re a pretty self-reliant people.” I’m saying, “So why are New Yorkers building your roads and your bridges and that kind of stuff?”
Child: End of rant.
TNI: It’s a rant that will resonate with our readers.
This business of the Western ethos: Even though you were born in Britain, I never would have guessed from reading a book like Persuader that it was by anyone but an American, born and bred—maybe somebody from Wyoming. You seem to have nurtured in yourself from an early age a fundamental American sensibility or sympathy—or maybe it’s the “Old West” sympathy.
Child: I think that “the Old West” is a good way of describing it. You know, a chimpanzee shares 99 point something of our DNA. That’s not because humans are descended from chimpanzees, okay? Technically, what happened is both humans and chimpanzees are descended from a much earlier common ancestor.
It’s the same thing with me and the Old West sensibility, because the Old West sensibility was not invented in America in the Old West. It’s actually pretty much a lock, stock, and barrel import from medieval chivalrous sagas in Europe, back when Europe was under-populated, and much of it wild and dangerous in the same way that the West was considered to be. The same stories were told in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Europe. Exactly the same ethos applied there.
"Plutarch’s Theseus story is a blueprint for all of the James Bond books."
So the Westerns are really the descendents of much earlier chivalric stories, which in turn were descendents of much earlier Nordic sagas, and so on. The point is that all storytelling is basically on the same track. I could prove that, if we have time. Read the Theseus story as written by Plutarch. Plutarch’s Theseus story is word-for-word Dr. No—it absolutely is. That’s thirty-five hundred years old, that story, and it’s absolutely a blueprint for all of the James Bond books.
TNI: Your comments on the distinction between American reactions to your work and European reactions fascinated me.
Child: The British are in the same camp as the Americans: they’re happy with it. But the Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians—they buy the books, but they are appalled that they love him. He is such a vigilante; they don’t approve of him. It’s like the lovable but awful cousin or something like that.
TNI: Your latest novel, Bad Luck and Trouble. Given the way it starts, with that opening helicopter scene, I had a hunch that it would have to end in the same kind of situation. I said, “I know where this is going—but the ride is going to be fun!”
Child: Yes, Bad Luck and Trouble opens with the helicopter, and because of the nature of revenge, you would be kind of surprised if they didn’t opt to use a helicopter at the end.
It’s really a perfect example of “The Thing” that I mentioned earlier. The Thing for Bad Luck and Trouble is a reunion. In the military, Reacher, operating as a member of a team, had trusted equals rather than being a loner. Ten years later, he’s been very confident about the path he’s chosen. Now, he’s meeting with these people that at one time meant everything to him. These are true comparisons for him. But Reacher is perpetually a bit marginal about money. So he meets with these people again after ten years, and he’s going to think: “Who’s made the right choice here, me or them? Are they dumb, or am I dumb?” There’s a kind of wobble in his self-confidence, because only these people could induce that.
So, it was all about reunions—the good, the bad, the emotion, that special bond he gets from people that he’s worked with very, very closely.
TNI: Also, a bit of self-assessment.
Child: Like I say, nothing would provoke that except for this situation. So the issue was how to get into the reunion situation, and that’s just the way I chose to do it.
TNI: What advice would you give aspiring novelists?
Child: Normally what I say is: Ignore all advice. Like I said before to another question, it’s about producing an organic product, and you cannot do it by committee.
You cannot think, “Okay, what I would really like to do here is have my character pull out a gun and shoot this guy in the head. But this book says, It’s too early to introduce that; and this book says, That should happen in the second act; and this book says, You should never show your character in a bad light where he would do something underhanded like that. So, maybe I should have him provoked—no, maybe I should have him provoked by two people, or—no, maybe I should leave it for a little bit later in the book.”
"Write exactly what you want, even if you’re certain that everyone else will hate it."
If you do that, you’re going down a slippery slope. If you want to have the guy pull a gun and shoot somebody in the head, then that’s what you do. If you make every single decision based on your own 100 percent personal preference, then, at the end of the book, you’ve got a living, breathing, organic piece of work. If one human being likes it—i.e., you—and if one human being in the world likes it—the chances are very strong that others will, too.
So that’s what I say: Ignore all advice, write exactly what you want, even if you’re certain that everyone else will hate it.
TNI: You see no value in fiction-writing courses and books?
Child: I’m very skeptical about that, to be honest. I read fiction-writing books out of interest and because I’m a compulsive reader. I’ve never found anything in them of any value. Very occasionally something comes through that clarifies something you’re already thinking or short-circuits you into a conclusion that you were already on your way to. But really, of very little practical value.
I’m out of sympathy with the American way of endless education. And in a sense, I think education is a bit of a cop-out. Somebody says they really want to write a book, and then the next sentence is that they will go and do an MFA. Well, if you want to really write a book, then write a book. The MFA is just a way of putting it off; it’s procrastination.
And who is teaching this MFA? Are these major bestselling authors who have actually walked the walk? No, they’re not, because major bestselling authors don’t teach at college; they’re doing their next book, or they’re sitting on a beach somewhere having a good time.
So I’m not totally convinced about the value of it. I see the only qualification as having read a lot. Ignore all the classes, and write exactly what you want to write. Otherwise, it’s a dead product, dead at its heart because it carries no conviction.
And if you react to what you think the market wants, you’re way behind the curve. If you studied the market right now, by the time you’ve written and sold your book, and it’s gone through the sausage machine and become published, that’s four years from now. So a product four years in the future is trying to match something four years out of date, and that’s stupid.
TNI: And there is a lack of authenticity.
Child: Yeah, absolutely. And authenticity is so subtle. Most people call it “voice,” and to me, voice and authenticity are kind of the same thing. If it’s strong and true, it works perfectly; if it’s in any way slightly fractured by any kind of a compromise, then it just falls apart.
The nearest analogy I can give is baseball batters. There’s absolutely no consensus whatsoever about batting stance or swing or style—everybody does it themselves. Take any batter you like; imagine saying, “Okay, you can’t swing like that; you’ve got to swing like these other guys.” It just ruins them completely. They would just never get anywhere.
TNI: They’d become so self-conscious.
Child: Absolutely. Baseball is highly coached and highly ritualistic; and yet there’s no attempt whatsoever to standardize your swing, because it’s just got to be what works for you. It’s the same thing with writing. You’ve just got to do it your own way.
TNI: And you have. Listen, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much.