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Lee Child on Writing, Reacher & The Affair

This Interview posted by Sam Blake on 15 October 2011.

So there’s this guy called Jack Reacher (no middle name) whose mother was French, who’s ex US Army Military Police, who travels across the USA with nothing except a toothbrush. He’s 6’5’’and weighs 220-250lbs, has dirty blonde hair, ice blue eyes. And he knows how to kill people.

And then there’s this guy called Lee Child (not his real name) who is originally from Birmingham in the UK, who lost his job in TV and went to New York, with possibly not much more than a toothbrush. He’s damn close to 6’5’’, had sandy blonde hair and ice blue eyes. And he writes books. About a guy called Reacher who knows how to kill people.

But these aren’t just any books, Lee Child’s Reacher series  began with The Killing Floor which won the Anthony Award in 1998, and have gone on to sell in their millions. Child became the Visiting Professor at the University of Sheffield in 2008, and in 2009, funded 52 Jack Reacher scholarships for students at the university. In 2009 too, he was elected as President of the Mystery Writers of America.

Each one of the now sixteen Reacher novels is a standalone, enabling a reader dip into the series at any stage. And each one is guaranteed to keep you hooked from the opening line and will astound you with detail, plot twists and masses of interesting information. Reacher is a character who is larger than life, a true comic book hero, but who, like Child, has a logical mind that retains facts, facts he uses in true Holmesian style to inform him in every situation….

It’s a balmy evening in Dublin, the lights of the restaurants and shops on Grafton Street are bright in the dusk and the luxurious Westbury Hotel is gleaming.  I’m about to meet Lee Child who has literally just got off the plane and out of a taxi and his heading up the stairs to reception. But before I start there are a few things you need to know:  1. Lee Child is possibly my absolute most favourite author of all time. 2. His books have been described as more addictive than chocolate. 3. It’s my birthday tomorrow.

Now you’ve got the full picture.

As we sat down at a quiet table, I started by asking Lee Child why he chose to write novels – with a successful career in TV as a presentation director at Granada behind him, working on shows like Brideshead Revisited, Prime Suspect and Cracker, wouldn’t it have been a more logical move into script writing? Easy to chat to and charming, Child told me candidly,

“The real reason I started writing was that I was out of work and needed a job. But if I step back from that, I wanted to come out of the team work situation – teams are great and I loved everyone I worked with – they were bright, attractive intelligent people who were a lot of fun – but ultimately working in a team is a little bit deadening. You never really get the credit for anything, or get to take the blame for anything.

I really fancied working on my own. Writing is fundamentally about being one on one with the reader.  Ultimately if it doesn’t work it’s your fault, and if it does work you can say, yeah I did a pretty good job. Screen writing would have been back to the TV thing but even worse as screen writers are always treated really badly.”

For anyone changing career, there is a risk involved, even more so perhaps with writing where the risk of rejection is an ever present demon. Determination and self-belief are as essential ingredients as talent. I put this to Child. He smiled, his response conveying a full appreciation with hindsight, of the leap he was taking, “I’m a confident person, I didn’t see it as a risk actually. I thought – this will definitely work.”

Still based in the UK at this stage, Child set about writing his first novel, and before it was fully written, sent the opening chapters to legendary crime agent Darley Andersen. “I was in a big panic to get it done because I was running out of money. I told him [Darley Andersen] I’d finished it.  I’d heard that they can be very slow to respond so I thought by the time he’d read it, I’d have it finished.  But Darley Andersen is unusual, he’s actually very fast and came back to me straight away and asked to see the rest.” Child laughed, “I told him I was making a few adjustments to the end, i.e. writing it, and got it done as fast as I could.

Looking back on it now, there was a lot of rewriting to done to that first book, rewriting for Darley and for the US editor; it wasn’t a finished product.  Now very little gets changed, maybe a couple of words, but back then there was a lot of work to do.”

The key to Child’s novels is the Reacher character himself – I asked Child where Reacher came from.

“It was a subconscious idea – I knew enough not to over plan it. If you sit down and say I want to write a best seller, or in my case I have to write a best seller, because I was broke, and then you start thinking of the elements you need to add, then the whole thing is ruined because you’re writing a laundry list instead of a novel.  I closed my eyes metaphorically and it was Reacher that came out, but looking back on it, it must have been the influence of decades of reading.  The Reacher character dates back through the ages to westerns, to the Robin Hood character, there’s a strong mythological structure.”

Anyone who has read the series will know that Reacher has a love of statistical information, has a logical, retentive mind that processes every scene. The books appear to be meticulously plotted, with every last detail researched, so I was astounded when Child told me, “I don’t plan it at all, I’m not limited to where or what he’s doing, so each book is a completely clean sheet of paper, it’s just a question of thinking up a good hook for the opening and seeing where it goes.

When I come to a part where there’s an interesting detail, that information influences the rest, so it looks like it’s heading in a predetermined direction.” Child smiled, “It’s like a drunk person wandering from lamp post to lamp post down the street. Sometimes I have an idea for a crucial situation or a line of dialogue, a trick or a reveal, but not always.

In The Killing Floor, I had the idea of a warehouse full of paper money, I thought that’s a great image, what does it means and how do we get there?”

At this point I was starting to feel like I was in the presence of an absolute master – between the intricacies and layers of the Reacher character and Child’s ability to pull a gripping thriller together with no structure in mind from the outset, there had to be an army of researchers pulling together the minute detail – didn’t there?

Child shook his head, “Apart from very trivial things – like specifying the names of a gun for instance, when I’ll pull a book down and select a gun – that would be part of Reacher’s professional interest, his precision of mind – it’s mainly stuff I already know. I often get asked this research question and the flippant answer is that I don’t do any; the pretentious answer is that a writer’s whole life is research. Everything you ever see, every movie, every book you read there will be something that sticks in your mind.”

I asked Child if he had a photographic memory, he laughed, “Semi photographic maybe, I spend ages scrabbling through books knowing I saw something on the bottom half of the left hand page, but it’s not totally photographic.” Child’s mind obviously works a lot like Reacher’s, as he says himself, the technical detail Reacher retains, “gives him depth. It’s a nice balance between the physicality and the arcane, pedantic nature of his mind. It’s the way he thinks.  The small clues are the tell tales.”

Child explained he was just too impatient to have an army of people doing his research, “I write in a frenzy, I couldn’t wait for someone to find out the detail, I have to know there and then. I’m not one of these writers that can leave TBA and come back to it, it has to be done. As soon as I’ve written it, I never go back.  It’s just the way my brain works.

Sometimes the editor will say to me, wouldn’t it be better if this happened before that, so I say, well it probably would be, but it didn’t. This is how it happened; it’s as if it’s real to me.”

Child’s attention to detail is no clearer than in the opening chapters of Gone Tomorrow, his 13th book, where Reacher spots a man he suspects to be a suicide bomber. If you haven’t read it – do, you’ll never look at an individual in a heavy coat on a hot day in quite the same way again. Child told me “I’m not a geek, I don’t especially like trains but in an opening like that you need the suspense to build, you need the painstaking detail. I used that technique, the detail, to build the suspense.”

But how on earth, I asked, did you know so much about the tell-tale signs of a suicide bomber?

Child told me “I found out serendipitously, following links to an American Police Department site – they’d published this list of tell tales. It was supposed to be a public service I guess but there was no chance of it happening in their area. The thing I just adore is that there were 12 points [of what to look for] for a man and 11 points for a women,  immediately you think wow that’s cool,  what’s the difference?  And you get into it. I think readers love information, they love to learn a little, pick things up as they go along. Readers are a sophisticated audience.”

I’m always intrigued how writers structure their writing day, so that was my next question. Child starts late (by his own admission), around 11.30 or 12.00.  He said, “I’ve learned over the years that it’s fruitless to work past that first fatigue bump – you could of course, you could work around the clock, but the quality suffers and you have to delete it tomorrow. For me the bump comes after five hours, then that’s it. I’m not that fast – the best I ever did was 4000 words in a day. The worst was 600. The average would be maybe 1800.”

I wondered if Child ever set himself a word target – he admitted when he was on a deadline, he’d know he had to write 2000 words every day, but he smiled, “the problem with a target is that you tend to stop at 2000.”

It usually takes Child 80-85 working days to complete a book – not every day is a working day though. He says “I can’t do more that 3-4 intensive days in a row. It’s a real Catch 22 – you feel that you would burn out if you wrote continuously, so you need to step away, but I always regret it because I feel I was absolutely in the groove when I stopped and I’ve got to recapture that. “

Child’s latest book is The Affair, and in fact happens before The Killing Floor. He told me, “There was a gap that needed to be filled, people have always been curious about why Reacher left the army. I never make a plan for the series, but the way the last two books have worked out are sort of an odyssey – Reacher’s trying to get to Virginia. In a macro sense this book builds the tension – the current day books are now going to be one after another in real time until he gets there.”

I asked Child, if after sixteen books, he ever felt like writing one without Reacher in the lead role. He replied, “Every writer has ninety nine half-baked ideas but I think that this is a job, it’s a transaction. It seems odd that you’d spend years and years building a character like Reacher and then say, do you know what, I’m going to step away from Reacher; it makes no sense. If you respect your reader, you appreciate that they have a right to want what they want, and they want Reacher, so it’s up to me to provide it. If they want other stories, they can read other people.  The best thing about writers is that whether you’re me, or Alex Barclay, or whoever, you’re the best in the world at doing what you do, nobody else can do it that way. So if someone wants a break from Reacher, they can read someone else and come back to me.”

Locations play a key role in all of Child’s books, the action is coloured by the landscape. I wondered if Child had been to every location he wrote about. He said “Most of them – not because I wanted to write about them, I will have been there for some other reason, maybe years before, it sort of sticks in your mind.

I never plan it, but when I sit down to write a book I always have a feel for the mood of the book, what the temperature will be, what will the colour be – will it be a cold grey book, or a hot glaring book? A composer would call it the key, all books have a mood or a feel and I think location is really important. I have a sort of mental database of where is going to fit the mood.”

Reacher fans were delighted to find out that he will soon be coming to the silver screen.  In fact every one of Child’s books have been optioned for movies, but there was some surprise to find out that Tom Cruise (shortish and dark) will be playing Reacher (statuesque and blonde).  Child assured me, “I’m very excited – my perspective is different from the book fans. In a funny way I don’t want it [the movie] to be the same as the book – it’s a bit like Bob Dylan writing a song and hearing that there’s going to be a cover version;  what’s he more interested in hearing – a Bob Dylan clone or for instance, Jimmy Hendrix  doing it, giving it a radically different take. I think the book readers will be like that too. They have powerful imaginations and have created their own movie in their head but that movie is different for everyone. A movie is like a fourth dimension and this one is an immense production with a solid gold A list. ”

When USA Today asked Child if Cruise could pull it off, he told them  “just trust me on this. … What you need for a great movie is the best actor you can find, the best director, the best producer, the best writer. It’s a bit like putting together a fantasy baseball team, and I’m really thrilled with the people who are working on it.”

One Shot, ninth in the series, began filming the day The Affair went on sale. And I for one am going to be re-reading it in anticipation.

But what was the most intriguing thing about meeting Lee Child just as he was booking into his hotel?

He didn’t have a suitcase…

© Vanessa O’Loughlin October 2011

Lee Child’s The Affair is available now in all good bookshops. Find out more at Lee’s excellent website – click here to visit. To get a flavour of The Affair, check out my review.