A Reacher Moment…or two
An interview with Lee Child
in 1994 Child had a problem. One or two problems in fact. Not only did he
have a wife, a daughter and a rather nice house in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria
with a view over a thousand year-old church to the hills beyond, but his 18
year career at Granada Television was about to end. Corporate restructuring
in this case meant that his long-term job as Presentation Director ("like
an air traffic controller of the network airwaves") was about to disappear,
to say nothing of many other jobs around him. And a more recent stint as a
particularly active shop steward meant that "you would definitely definitely
not get another job in the industry." But was there more to his decision to
sit down and write Killing
Floor (1997) the first novel to feature his free-spirited
but principled tough-guy Jack Reacher?
"I didn't want to leave entertainment," says Lee Child. "it's the only thing I've ever done, the only thing I've ever known and the only thing I want to to do. I thought, my type of book, they cost £6.99, about the same as a movie ticket or a DVD rental. How different can it be? Initially I was very limited in my ambitions. I thought I can probably fool a book editor for a year or two and that'll get me two years closer to whatever else I have to do next. So that was the limit of my ambition at the start."
Things have changed enormously for Lee Child since that tentative beginning. Killing Floor was picked up by agent Darley Anderson (unknown to Anderson, it was only half-written), and published by the first publisher they approached (Transworld). It was well reviewed, sold quickly and went on to win several awards. Since then the Jack Reacher books have appeared in April each year, and consistently hit both the hardback and paperback best-seller charts. His 2003 novel Persuader was the 41st most borrowed title last year in Britain's libraries.
Interesting too that the man who fired him from Granada was Charles Allen, now chief executive of ITV, the company that absorbed Granada last year. "There are always a few paragraphs on the business pages about their results" says Child, "and they always mention Charles Allen's remuneration package. So every year I get the opportunity to check: am I making more money than he is? And every year I have!"
We're at a corner table on the second floor of Mash, a minimally decorated upstairs restaurant close to Broadcasting House near London's Oxford Circus where, later today, Child will be interviewed for Radio 4's Front Row. Lee Child is on the first stage of a month-long promotion tour in the UK, Australia and New Zealand to promote One Shot, the latest of nine Reacher novels. His fans will not be disappointed; it's well up to scratch, with an exemplary first chapter and a cracking climax. So it is no surprise to find it, once again, amongst April's best-selling hardbacks.
But Mash's minimal decoration proves to be a problem as the gathering lunch-time crowd pushes up the decibel level, obscuring (on tape at least) many of the questions both I and Mike Ripley, fellow-writer and crime critic for the Birmingham Post, my co-inquisitor today put to Child. Fortunately however, as I discover later, Child's incisive voice is perfectly preserved.
But, I ask, of all the entertainment options (as a student, for example, he was active in theatre), why writing? It seems to have been a three stage process. "My wife," he responds, "was an archaeologist and then her interests migrated to Anglo-Saxon studies, whilst at the same time looking to make some money. So she decided to write a historical novel, and she picked out William the Conqueror's mother, Queen Emma of Normandy, a fascinating historical figure. She started to research and produced her first few pages. She said, "what do you think?" I rewrote the first couple of pages and I had all these people spitting on the floor and fighting and so on. This was years before I actually started, and it went nowhere. But it was then that I realised a) I can do this and b) I liked doing it. And my wife, being who she is, abandoned the novel and went on to get a PhD and an MA in Anglo-Saxon studies."
Another influence was John D MacDonald's Travis McGee series. "There was something about those books that showed me how to do it. Unlike any other series it didn't fall off in quality. For me, anyhow, it was like reading a how-to book, I saw how he was doing it. I've always had this thing that if there is something I'm really enjoying, I would like to do it too. I'd love to play for [Aston] Villa, I would have loved to have been in the Beatles, and I thought I'd like to do this. But I did nothing about it as I was too busy elsewhere. But the thing that really really convinced me…I had started [Killing Floor] before I had formally left Granada because inevitably they said, you're going to be replaced and then they've got to work out how they are going to replace you and that took nine months. I remember I'd written all day on a Friday and my wife said to me, don't forget that you've got to go down to Asda and get whatever, tomorrow morning. And I remember feeling a real jolt of disappointment. And that totally convinced me then that this was totally right for me. It was not a chore. I was actively pissed off that I was going to have to take a morning off from working and I thought that's got to mean something."
And was his approach to writing purely a commercial one? " It wasn't a hobby, it wasn't for fun, it wasn't for satisfaction," he replies frankly. " I wasn't one of these people that felt compelled to write. It had to keep a roof over our heads, so it was totally, totally 110% commercially motivated.
But I realised, as part of the process of thinking about it, that actually you can't approach it like that. Otherwise you end with this long checklist of things that you are supposed to do. I need this for that demographic, and that for this market, and it ends up like a laundry list. In other words, in trying to make it work, you make it fail. So at the same time I simultaneously knew I had to be very commercial, but at the same time I couldn't afford to be commercial at all. It had to be a very organic process or it just doesn't work."
* * * * * * * * *
Lee Child, one of four brothers, was born in Coventry in 1954 in a nursing home "literally a minute's walk from the Jaguar plant." But he left Coventry at the age of four and migrated to Handsworth Wood in Birmingham. His parents "were very aspirational, classic old-fashioned lower middle class, prevented from getting an education for various reasons, and it was still that generation that absolutely revered education. So they did the whole middle-class thing of moving to the right area so that we could go to the right primary school, and then go to the right secondary school."
What were the earliest literary influences on the young Child? He brushes aside the opportunity, as others might not, to claim Dostoievsky's Crime and Punishment. "I'm a completely middlebrow ordinary person, and really the books that impressed me most were by Enid Blyton. Because they were the first books that I ever read that had no pictures, real books. Not so much the Famous Five but the Secret Seven, with that guy Fatty, and that was kind of prototype mystery/crime fiction really, They were influential on me in that they had 'tricks' like how to get out of a locked room, you know, slide the newspaper under the door, push the key out and pull it back under the door. After that it was Captain WE Johns, not the Biggles books but the Gimlet series. Gimlet himself was this rather aristocratic officer type, but it was a three man commando team and the other two were far more interesting. They were Copper and Trapper. Copper was this London policeman, seconded to the Royal Marine Commandos, bitter because his family had been killed in an air-raid andTrapper was a Canadian trapper and between them they were lethal. Trapper was a silent killer with a knife and that was huge influence on me. After that, by the time I was 10 or 11, I was into Alistair Maclean, another big influence."
But not westerns. The name of Zane Grey crops up from time to time in Child interviews, whilst Mike Ripley detects the influence of Jack Schaefer's Shane in Echo Burning. "But that is a curious process of osmosis," responds Childs, "because I'm not aware of ever having seen Shane or read it. I didn't pay any attention really to westerns much beyond The Lone Ranger. And yet Killing Floor is the classic Western. So I read Zane Grey after I'd written most of these books, and recognised many of the same things. But then none of us have actually invented these paradigms. They are ancient, ancient history."
Elsewhere he has spoken of his early school playground training ('never back down, never back off'), training boosted by the need to defend his new allegiance, at the age of seven, to Aston Villa, then a Third Division side. Later would come King Edward's School in Edgbaston, Birmingham ("Jonathan Coe, JRR Tolkien, Ken Tynan, Enoch Powell") and finally the University of Sheffield, reading law which combined his interests in "history, politics, sociology, economics, languages…"
Child speaks (mainly) fondly of his career in television. "Granada was fantastic when I started. In 1977, it was a large-ish company but small by current standards, still run by the Bernstein family. Between me and the chairman, there were probably only two or three layers of management." As for his job as Presentation Director: "It was a great job. Functionally it was the centre of the whole broadcasting operation, very tense, very dramatic and exciting, especially in the old days when equipment was unreliable. News was chaotic back then. The big moment for me was the Falklands War back in 1982. Three months of total seat-of-the-pants transmission, because of constant news flashes, interruptions, rescheduling, the Princes Gate siege the same sort of thing. Years later, by the time of the first Gulf War, which was 1991, [the news] was like an infomercial package by ITN. So in that space of time the live feel, the sense of fun, had totally gone out of the job."
That career ended with a two year stint as the union shop steward. Was this Reacher's radical edge showing up in real life? "This is a question I've thought about over the years and that, I think was my genuine Reacher moment," he says. "It was a noblesse oblige thing. It was absolute suicide to do it. It meant that you would definitely definitely get the sack, and you would definitely definitely not get another job in the industry. Yet it needed doing, and I knew I could do it. So I took it on, knowing that it was the end of my career, but also knowing that I could give them a really hard time, and help out a bunch of people…Those two years were a magnificent achievement. For many, many people I got two more years of employment, more money, got them out-placed better… [The management] were thoroughly unscrupulous, so I thought, fuck it, I'm going to be the same, I'm going to be their worst nightmare. My Reacher moment, yeah."
* * * * * * * *
Jack Reacher was conceived, as fans will know, as an antidote, as he told American interviewer Claire White, to 'all the depressed and miserable alcoholics that increasingly peopled the genre', a decent, normal, uncomplicated guy. For Child the character was (and is) primary: "At book signings I get asked about plot and I say, it's about the character. And I ask everybody if they know who the Lone Ranger was, and everybody puts up their hands. OK, I say, who can remember a specific story line? Nobody. The plot is like a rental car, its got to work for a week and then you forget about it. If it's a Jaguar and not a Ford, well that's great… But it's the character that endures in people's imagination. You can tell, even in my brief career, people say I love Jack Reacher. Then they say, that time when he did this or that was so great and then you realise, it wasn't in any of my books, they're confused with somebody else's."
One great surprise for Child was the way women responded to Reacher and Killing Floor, the first book: "I thought, it's good, it's going to appeal to the rough tough male market. But, it's unfortunate, women are going to hate it - he's too rough, too dirty, too uncivilised, and I think that's a drag because women buy a lot of books. But as it turned out, women loved it from the start, more than men probably. That shows how much I know about women!"
At that early stage, how far had he planned ahead? Had he, for instance, always planned to write a series, or did he have different plans? "It was never a choice for me because I've always loved series. There are plenty of standalone novels that I've really enjoyed but for me the ultimate thrill is somebody gives you a book and you really like it and you find out it's a part of a series. Great! You can go back and find eight or ten more that you are guaranteed to enjoy. So it was always going to be a series. But I didn't reveal that early on because if they like something about your writing but hate the book, it doesn't help to say, I want to write twenty more like this one…
I also remember thinking , should I save some so-called good stuff I had, for the second book. And I thought well no, you can't do that. If you don't put everything into the first book, there won't be a second book. You should make the first as good as you can make it and worry about the second book later. So I had no idea at all what the next book was going to be about. I'm not one of these guys who have boxes of index cards with plot ideas stretching into the future. I finish one book and then I just trust that by the time I start the next book, I'll have an idea."
Why an American hero, an American setting ? asks Mike Ripley. "Part of that was commercial' replies Child. "That's where the bigger market is. And obviously lots of British writers do well there but I figured, why give myself one extra problem. The two nations produce two very different types of books, you know. British crime writing is generally very interior, psychological, claustrophobic, because of the density of the island really. Ian Rankin, for instance, that intimate knowledge of Edinburgh, half a square mile fundamentally where everything happens. I didn't want to do that. I didn't really know how, and it was not what I was interested in, I wanted to take a different approach. And America, given that we've talked about the Western ethos, that's what I was looking for. The huge geography, that ranginess where you can plausibly have these small isolated places."
A remarkable feature of the books to date, alongside the rhythm and natural feel of the dialogue, is the urgent prose (a little rough in the earlier books, now polished and professional) conveyed in short, sharp, sometimes broken sentences. It can be both economical and at the same time convey a lot of information. Yet it is rare that the pace relents or that we feel over-loaded.
Child attributes this mainly to his early training in school - but from a rather unusual source. "I actually learned to write in my physics class, nothing to do with English or anything like that. We had a physics teacher who made us write in the most brief and concise way that we could. You would write a two paragraph description of your practical in the most elegant and concise manner possible. He was an absolute tyrant, scathing about ambiguity and prolixity. And that's actually where I learned to write." The process was refined a little later in his career: "Then endless memos in the jobs I've had, and I wrote a lot of trailers for the television as well, which are all about punchy, elegant one-liners. So putting all that together, you get my sort of style, which is very spare and lean."
Part of that love for detail comes from Child's liking for certain elements of the police procedural. "The idea that you learn how to do something or find out the significance of something, that is appealing to me. I love the minutiae of procedure and crime solving. I notice that some reviewers are now calling my books procedural thrillers."
Elsewhere Child has talked about the process of writing, about whilst never outlining, how he looks for the trick, surprise or pivotal fact that will form the basis for the new book. A casual question about the irrigation booms in One Shot (introduced as Reacher travels through the Indiana farmlands, and playing a crucial role later in the book) brings forth an illuminating answer. "It's about how I write.' says Child. "I've said I would only reveal this after I'd retired. When I worked in television, one of the really really bad shows that we did was Ready Steady Cook, or at least a precursor of it. In that show there was a competition between two celebrity or professional chefs to cook a meal out of random ingredients. So we would stuff the two refrigerators on the set with random ingredients. And the point of the competition was not only to cook the best meal, but to get points for using as many ingredients as possible. And that's how I write. The first half or two thirds of the book, I just put in whatever I feel like. Then, when I get to that halfway point, then it becomes a competition with myself to use all that stuff in the last part of the book. And of course I have the luxury that if there is anything I can't use, then I can just go back and erase it. You are out in the countryside. So you describe the surroundings, the circular irrigation booms. And then later on, in the big scene at the end you think, yeah I can use that. So it was certainly not premeditated. Something will always present itself as useful. And I've always worked like that."
One hazard for a British writer writing novels set in the USA is getting that detail right. Child is well-known for down-playing the role of research, a fact that his fans on Amazon sometimes pick up on. "Well, Amazon is the ultimate democracy, everybody gets a say," he responds. "But what is interesting about it is that they are just as likely to be wrong as right. In fact, most of the time they are simply wrong. It can drive you nuts. You've done the work, you've done the research and you know you are right. But in a sense it's not about being right, it's about being convincing. Killing Floor, for instance, people generally like it but if there is any complaint about it, it's about the method of counterfeiting that is described in the book. And that is the only part of that book that is true, everything else is made up."
Thematically, Child's books have featured, amongst others, America's fundamentalist militias in 1998's Die Trying, the legacy of Vietnam in 1999's Tripwire, sexual harassment within the Army in 2000's The Visitor (Running Blind in the US) along with marital abuse in 2001's Echo Burning. These can be risky themes for a mainstream commercial writer. But has he ever thought of writing an overtly political novel? "Strategically, it's too difficult to get away with," he replies. "But there are things that come at you unexpectedly. In Echo Burning for instance, there is this illegal immigrant family that has struggled up from central America. They are scratching a living and then their truck is wrecked by a drunk driver, and they're fucked. That was supposed to be a poignant story about some decent folks - and I got this shit-storm of letters from especially the South-West, saying 'How can you be sticking up for these bastards, they're the scum of the earth.' So politics raises its head even when you don't intend it to. But the thing about Reacher is that because he's a man's man, and so violent fundamentally, he has tremendous support amongst the rednecks. So he can say things that other people couldn't get away with.
Even to the point of introducing a corrupt Secretary of Defence in the prequel Reacher novel The Enemy (2004). The period when the book was set was early 1990, and the Secretary of Defence was Dick Cheney. I did that quite specifically. Had the Army Chief of Staff say, he's a nasty little man. And he comes across as a nasty little guy. I didn't name him, but plenty of people picked up on it. Plenty of mail pro and con that as well." On gun control however, Child is content to live with the status quo. In Persuader, for instance, he contents himself with giving Reacher the line 'Don't ever tell a soldier guns are fun.' And in One Shot he conducts what he calls "a little technical exercise on my part. You know, it had to have the usual bang-up finale with the high body count. But I thought, can I do it this time without him shooting anybody? And actually in that book he shoots nobody; he crushes one guy to death, he slits the throat of another, he throws another guy out of a window and he doesn't use a gun at all."
The lunch is drawing to a close, and it seems that his appointment with the BBC's Mark Lawson is imminent. Time for the ritual 'what next' question, with Book Ten looming, more crucial for Child perhaps than most. "I've been telling people that I'm going to do twenty-one," he replies, "because that's how many Travis McGee's there were. I would like to emulate that. But I'm really screwed because years ago, on tour I would say, the danger of writing a series is that they go bad, they fall off in quality. So I'd say, can you think of a series that lasted longer than six to eight books and stayed really good. And now I'm on book nine, hoist by my own petard, really.
"But my series, I don't think, has got any worse. I'm not making claims for it being brilliant in the first place, but it hasn't got any worse. So I'm happy to keep on going."
Will they be Reachers? asks Mike Ripley. "You've got to stick with what you can do." says Child. "Reacher has become an iconic character. I'd be a fool to turn my back on him. Although with the end of the series, he will die. Unequivocally. The last title is going to be Die Lonely…He will end up bleeding to death in a hotel somewhere."
One more lonely American death…it's a sobering thought. But Child is quick to reassure. " You'll be glad to know that in next year's book, which is called The Hard Way, the big climax is in England. For the first time ever he leaves the United States during a story, lands in London and follows the trail out to an isolated farm near Norwich…"
As the tall, blue jean-clad writer gathers his (minimal) belongings and exits from the restaurant, publicist in tow, I reflect that, at least, England can still lay claim to a few places where claustrophobia is not endemic.
Lee Child, thanks very much.