An Interview with Lee Child, 2003
Your latest book, Persuader, is one of your best yet. Was there anything in particular that energized you while writing it? Perhaps the return to the first-person narrative?
Thanks for the compliment! I guess I find each new book a very energizing experience, but for this one the return to first-person coupled with a powerful idea for the opening couple of sequences gave it extra momentum early in the process. Certainly it was fun to write -- really very linear, and very focused.
Almost all the reviews for Persuader have been dazzling. How do you come off that high and buckle down for the next book? Or is your confidence strong enough that fear no longer enters into it?
Fear is always a part of it. Graham Greene once said "Success for a writer is merely failure delayed." But really, the thing is that a book-a-year writer like me works so far ahead that by the time, say, Persuader comes out, I've already written the following book and am starting the one after that. So in response to Persuader reviews, I'm thinking, what, that old thing? And in general I'm pretty self-confident, for a writer. By now I know I can do this.
Let's talk about the movie deal. Some very well-known writers have been less than thrilled with the movie adaptations of their books. With Reacher, especially, the movie must rise and fall on its casting. Will you have input? If not, why not?
I won't have any input, and I don't really want any. I'm a firm believer in "horses for courses." I write the novels, the graphics people design the jackets, the marketing people write the ads, the movie writers produce the script. We all focus on what we're good at. But I try to avert problems by being very choosy about who I sell the rights to -- I look for people with fine track records. Then I trust them. The pre-selection process means the movie will be at least OK, in my opinion, with the very good chance that it'll be excellent. But you're right, casting is everything. But the thing about acting is that it's never totally predictable. Go back a decade and you'll find Thomas Harris fans puzzled over Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. But that worked out OK, didn't it? Sometimes you just have to let the pros make their choices and work their magic.
Your many fans are known to be a gregarious bunch, easily expressing their opinions on your official website. You seem to be one of the more accessible authors. This interaction has always struck me as a kind of fearlessness on your part. Many authors don't bother. Why do you?
I do it because I want to. I like interacting with people. And all my life I have enjoyed quizzing people that I'm briefly in contact with. Like, a guy comes to paint my house ... I'm asking him about his job, how he does it, what's fun, what isn't, what are the tricks, and so on. I figure other people are the same. They want to ask me things. I don't see writing as a grand profession. It's like being a house painter. It's something I do, like the painting is something he does. So let's indulge our mutual curiosity.
In a way, Jack Reacher represents an ideal most men might find hard to live up to. How much of Lee Child exists in Reacher? In the beginning, were you surprised to find that women flocked to your books? In fact, are you surprised at all by the wide variety of your reading audience?
There's a lot of me in Reacher. If I had his physical invulnerability, I would be him. Absent that physical prowess, I don't think he's hard to live up to. He's just a decent guy who tries to do the right thing. That's something we would all do, I think. I am a little surprised that women love him so much -- I thought he was too uncivilized. That shows how much I know about women! I think two factors are in play: I find women more than men get upset about injustice and unfairness, down at a gut level, so the way Reacher rights wrongs in an old fashioned way must appeal. And he moves on ... much easier to contemplate a mental affair when the reader knows he'll be gone in a week -- thanks for the memories! I am amazed by the spread of my readership. I have fan letters from a 101-yr-old woman and a 10-yr-old boy. That's quite a range. The books have no bad language and Reacher is a classic hero, which I think helps explain it.
Jack Reacher is very much an American hero. Though you live and write in the US, does being British help in some odd way to clarify your insight into American myth and behavior?
Being an outsider with a fresh eye helps, for sure. I feel sometimes I see things that are obscured by familiarity for those that have always been here.
It's no secret that you are a vociferous reader. To what do you attribute your love of reading in general? What is the first book you ever remember reading?
I started reading early, and I can remember why: lack of alternative entertainment sources, and a need to escape a humdrum and boring life. Same for everybody, probably. The first "proper" book I read -- all writing, no pictures -- was Five on Kirrin Island from the Enid Blyton Famous Five series. Classic escapist reading. It was a series about three siblings with no parents who hooked up with their tomboy cousin and had adventures. Years later I was involved in a TV parody called "Five Go Mad on Mescaline." I felt a little bad about it because I had loved the originals so much. They meant a lot to me back then.
How do you avoid being influenced by other genre writers? Or is not something you worry about?
I don't worry about it. Generally writing is such a personal thing that even if you gave ten of us the same outline and the same opening paragraph, the resulting ten books would be totally different from each other.
Commercial fiction seems to have more cachet now than ever. What excites or distresses you about the mystery/thriller genre today?
I'm excited by the way that it's kind of "out of the closet" ... whoever you are, it seems it's now okay to read John Sandford or Michael Connelly (or even a Reacher novel) in the front of the plane. And quite right, I say, because the narrative arc in these books is the fundamental narrative arc going way back in the human brain: the thrill of danger, peril, and then resolution and safety. It's why we learned to tell stories in the first place. The only thing that worries me is a slipshod tendency to make violence sicker and grosser, as a way of trying to be more cutting-edge. It's a poor substitute for genuine suspense.
What's the last book you read? Would you name a few of your favorite authors?
Last book I read was One Last Hit by Nathan Walpow -- outstanding book. I read everybody in the genre. Unfair to mention favorites, but I love Joe Kanon's stuff. Outside the genre, William Styron maybe.
Do you have any thoughts you wish to reveal on what the future holds for Jack Reacher?
The next book is a prequel, which takes place seven years before the events of my first book, Killing Floor. Reacher is 29, serving as a military policeman, the Berlin Wall is coming down, his brother is still alive, his mother is still alive. After that will come more present-day books, with maybe another prequel if people like the first one. Reacher will continue until readers get sick of him, and then he'll go out in a blaze of glory. The final title will be Die Lonely -- but I hope I'm not writing it too soon.
What's next for Lee Child?
Same old same old, except my daughter has moved out and gotten a job and an apartment, so my wife and I might move house for the next phase of our lives. But basically I don't plan anything. I just see what turns up. So far, it's been a great ride.
Lee Child was interviewed by Yvette Banek and David Montgomery. This interview was first published at http://www.mysteryinkonline.com in 2003. It is reproduced with the permission of mysteryinkonline.
An Interview with Lee Child, April, 2002.
When I first saw the cover for Killing Floor, I knew it would be a book I should read. And I was right. I was hooked from page one. I immediately told my friends and soon they were hooked too. I look forward to each and every book and drop whatever Im reading to read the latest adventure with Jack Reacher. As far as Im concerned, he owns the action thriller genre. Ive been lucky enough to meet Lee a few times at conventions and signings. He is such a nice guy that whatever words I use wont do him justice. But I can say that if you get the chance to meet him at an event, do it. Let the Reacher Creature in you out!
When I interviewed you last, in the spring of 2000, you had three books out, and Running Blind on its way. The series was generating a following then, but now it seems like everyone is reading your books. Are you gratified by the success?
You bet I am. That was a significant year - maybe your interview was what made the difference! But it all seemed to take off real big around that time. Now I can't tell you how good it feels to have so many new readers every year. Very, very exciting.
With the large fan base you have, I would imagine that there is a lot of feedback from readers. Do you get a lot of requests for things to do in the books? Like "Can you have Reacher come to Seattle?"
Seattle, and California, and Britain, and Australia, and just about everywhere else. Problem is, there would have to be a really good, organic reason. I don't want to turn the series into a travelog just for the sake of it. I get requests to bring characters back, too, like Roscoe or Jodie or Harper. But equally I don't want to turn the series into a pure soap opera.
Little by little we are getting glimpses into Jack's past. Is this going to continue? Will we ever know everything?
It's a process that will definitely continue, and it might even include an actual "prequel" as one of the upcoming books. It's really the only way we can get to know Reacher better - he's so much of a solo drifter in the present day that his emotional resonance has to come from the past. Will we ever know everything? I hope not, because that would imply the end of the series.
Usually books that come out in the UK don't come out until a year later in the US. Yours are almost at the same time. Why is that?
Because they're really American publications, with the US publisher owning the primary rights. It's actually just a technicality that they appear in the UK first, even by a matter of a few weeks - my contract states that they should be published in the US first, but back in 1999 Putnam merged with Penguin and the new amalgamated company re-jigged its list and moved me back a little, thereby accidentally exposing the UK date as the true first publication. So it's really just a glitch.
With all the traveling you do with touring and such, do you have a favorite city to stay in? A favorite hotel?
I've got a lot of favorite places, mostly connected with how good the local book scene is. Some of them are a lot of fun. I don't care much about hotels - in fact I often ask to be "down-graded" because I like cheap anonymous dives much better than the kind of place that has a dozen obsequious doormen in your face all the time.
Are you working on any other projects besides the Jack Reacher novels?
No, one Reacher a year plus all the attendant promotional hoopla is enough for me. Anything more would start to feel like serious hard work!
These books scream movie to me. Are you getting any interest from Hollywood? Any buzz you could share?
We get constant buzz and interest. I was riding on a train the other day, from Manchester to Norwich on the English tour for "Without Fail", and my cell phone rang and it was Warner Brothers asking about the rights. I'm sure there'll be a movie within a year or two. It's like publishing itself - it takes a long time for momentum to build to the point where something actually happens.
Have you read any books recently that you would recommend?
Lots, some that need no recommendation from me, and maybe some that do. I filled in the gaps in my Michael Connelly reading with "The Concrete Blonde" the other day and loved it. And "The Good German" by Joseph Kanon, and "Tarmac" by Lynne Heitman, and "Flashover" by Suzanne Chazin, and Robin Burcell's new book. All excellent. That's what's so great about this genre - everywhere you look there's talent, be it knew, old, or in-between.
Reacher's Creatures..... What was your first reaction to this group of people? Did you ever think you would see a creation of yours on T-Shirts and spawning fan clubs?
http://www.ReacherCreatures.com is a fan site, nothing to do with me, but of course I'm incredibly flattered. I've seen fans wearing the Reacher fatigue T shirt and camouflage pants at signings. I think it's terrific, because it's about the character passing into public ownership, and there's nothing more flattering than that for a writer.
Where are some of the places you would like to take Jack to?
That depends on the feel and the mood of the story idea. It's got to fit right. I never really have any idea until I catch the "key" of the next book. Ideally I'd like to take him all over the place, a book a year for the rest of my life.
Do you put a lot of effort into getting the title just right for each book?
I think the title is vital (how about that for a catchphrase?) So yes, I put a lot of effort in. But that's not to say I succeed every time. In fact I think a couple of my titles are pretty weak. And there have been compromises with the publishers, which never helps, because a good title is like love, you can't explain it or talk about it. It's either there or it isn't. I'm happy with "Without Fail", even though it contains two negative words and therefore isn't technically ideal as an eye-grabber. Next year's book is a one-worder: "Persuader." I like that, too.
The website is beautiful, and nowadays it's almost a given that most authors have one. Do you find it to be a good way of keeping in touch with the fans?
It's an excellent way. Web site e-mail has totally revolutionized author fan mail. Easy for the reader, easy for the author. And as you say, a web site is now a given, anyway. People just reflexively enter "Author'sName.com" and you better have something waiting there for them. Mine is done by a genius fireball called Maggie Griffin, who shoulders the whole load, which is just as well, because I wouldn't have the time or the skill to do it myself.
What's the coolest part of being an author?
Being on a plane or a beach and seeing somebody reading your book. Being called up on your cell phone on a train by movie producers. Seeing your name in the best-seller lists.
Will we be seeing any more of Frances Neagley in the future?
Like I said, I'm wary of doing the soap-opera thing, and I'm wary of formula, but she was a great character. So yes, maybe she deserves to come back.
Is there anything you won't do in your writing? Any subjects that you just wouldn't write about?
I won't write about gratuitous sexual abuse of children. I'm a tough guy, I'm not squeamish or prudish, but there are some places we don't need to go.
What's the most outrageous thing you've encountered at a signing?
People who follow me from town to town, night after night. I mean, I'm flattered and all, but I'm not that interesting! And there was a woman in New York last year who upbraided me mercilessly for using what she called an old author photo that made me look younger than I really was. Problem was, it wasn't an old photo! Made me feel like I should consider plastic surgery!
The more involved I get in the mystery/thriller/crime genre, the more I can appreciate the writers who do the work. And yet I keep reading on different forums little nit picks about the tiniest things. Do you think it is a safe assumption for an author to expect the readers to remember that they are reading fiction and that certain liberties need to be taken? Because truthfully, a book that was totally absorbed in realism and fact would be pretty dull.
Good point. I joke that the days when nothing happens to Reacher, I still write the books, but the publisher rejects them. But what I learned from my years in TV is that whatever you do, there are people who will write in with objections. Often I find they write with complaints about the parts that are carefully researched and absolutely true! So I trust that most of the audience is responding in the right spirit, and I use the complainers as a rough gauge to how many people I'm actually reaching. Twenty serious complainers as a percentage implies a million satisfied customers, in my experience.
Can you talk about what Jack Reacher is up to in the follow-up to Without Fail?
Next year's book is "Persuader" and it's written in the first-person, like "Killing Floor" was. So it's back to an intensely personal story from Reacher's own point of view - it's a resonance from a disaster ten years ago in his past. A real "this time it's personal" type of thing. It's been a fun book to write.
BookBrowse note: The Enemy was published in the USA in May 2004
How far before publication are the books written?
Usually about a year. I try to hand in next year's final draft just as this year's book comes out. But I'm a little late this year ... 9/11 delayed me somewhat.
And, is raspberry danish still the one thing always in your refrigerator?
I just checked, and there's plenty of Peruvian Organic Shade-Grown coffee in there too. Coffee and danish ... all a writer needs.
Lee Child was interviewed by Jon Jordan in 2003. This interview is reproduced with the permission of MysteryOne and Jon Jordan. Interviews may not be used without permission of Mystery One or Jon Jordan
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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