Photos by Brian Killigrew
In Part 1 of this interview, #1 New York Times best-selling author Lee Child introduced us to the lone-wolf, sometime-vigilante hero of his ongoing thriller series, Jack Reacher. He also described his early life growing up on the rough-and-tumble streets of Birmingham, England, and how those experiences contributed to the development of the Reacher character.
In Part 2, Lee describes the literary influences that shaped his own heroic fiction; his long career as a TV presentation director; and the mid-life career crisis that led to his gutsy leap to writing his first novel–and to the birth of Jack Reacher. (If you click on the photos, your browser may show them in an enlarged view.)
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: Elaborate on that.
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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: His feminine side.
Child: The day we catch Reacher cooking, I will hang up my pen.
The Vigilante Author: Yes. His fare is normally Denny’s. The only thing he carries with him is his toothbrush.
FROM LAW TO THEATER TO TV
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: So you were a constant disappointment to your parents.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: You were fighting for what?
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.”
The Vigilante Author: So you went “Birmingham” on them?
Child: Yes. For the next year, every trick in the book.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
THE BIRTH OF A THRILLER
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: Legend has it that you went out and bought yourself five dollars worth of pencils and some paper.
Child: Six dollars.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: You got the termination notice in ’95.
The Vigilante Author: Bought your pencils and paper with this monstrous investment of capital.
Child: Sank this huge overhead into it, yes.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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?”
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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 eye 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.”
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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: Do you think it’s a useful psychological trick?
Child: It worked for me.
The Vigilante Author: Clearly.
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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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.
The Vigilante Author: 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 [note: now 14 years]. Even with a great start like that, it takes you ten years to become “an overnight success.” It really does.
Coming in Part 3: In the concluding installment of this compelling interview, Lee Child discusses the art of writing fiction; the roots of his stories in Western mythology; his controversial political views; and his unusual advice for budding writers. You won’t want to miss it.
(This interview was first published in the July/August 2007 issue of The New Individualist, (c) 2007 by The Atlas Society, and is reprinted with permission.)