Stood outside the Crown Hotel swigging from a smuggled bottle of champagne, Lee Child doesn’t live by the rules. You’re Booked caught up with him during his time in Harrogate in 2009 to find out what makes the man tick…
Lee Child lounges in a chair in the green room at the Crown Hotel where he is appearing as a Special Guest at the 2009 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Dressed in dark trousers, t-shirt and suit jacket, his transatlantic drawl is almost hypnotic. Sat on a sofa behind him, is his younger brother, Andrew Grant, who is hot on Lee’s (real name Jim Grant) heels with his David Trevellyan novels.
Child speaks his mind. He once said we’d all love to go up to someone and shoot them in the head. That there was no doubt about that. Does he truly believe that?
“Yeah, I absolutely do, I think certainly for myself and you know however civilised everybody is I think the revenge motive is extremely strong.”
So who’s on his hit list?
“Well I can’t say just in case I succeed and I’ll be a suspect afterwards.”
Slightly tanned, his blonde hair and laid-back lanky posture suggest somebody who seems comfortable with luxury and success.
Child has said thrillers trade on death, money, power and sex. How does that match up with his real life?
“Death, money, power and sex? Well apart from the death and the power and the sex, it probably matches it pretty well,” he grinned.
Later, when Lee is interviewed on stage by author, N J Cooper, she remarked that Child sells a book every second somewhere in the world, to which he coolly responded – by silently counting to five on his fingers.
“This isn’t about selling books for me, this is about hanging out with my friends. And the thing about writing is that writers are interested in one another because we share unique stresses and unique habits, it’s like any professional association where other writers are the only people that can understand exactly what we’re doing, and so it’s like hanging out with friends. And the thing about writing is writing the book is the thing, how well it sells is just in the lap of the Gods, you know that’s luck, and so there’s no hierarchy amongst writers. You can have writers hanging out, one sells a hundred times more than the other and they’re still equal in their own eyes because they’re doing the same job.”
His hugely popular hero, Jack Reacher is the ultimate drifter, a man with an enormous capacity for violence who doesn’t believe in God and isn’t chained by society’s rules – in his working or personal life.
When Lee saw a sign in the Crown Hotel requesting patrons not to bring in food and drink bought outside the hotel premises inside, his immediate reaction was to go buy some food, even if he wasn’t hungry, and wait for the fight.
Does Reacher get into his head? Does he go around doing mad calculations and sussing out how to kill a traffic warden with his bare hands when he gets a ticket?
“It’s kind of the other way round, if somebody annoys you it’s kind of a comforting fantasy to think about taking revenge on that person. And of course you don’t do it in real life but you can put it in the book. And more importantly the reader can read about it in the book and feel better about their own day; you know maybe they’ve got a traffic ticket and they’re all frustrated and upset, then they read the book and they can imagine themselves as Reacher doing what needs doing.”
I wonder what Lee’s own political beliefs are and how they fit with his thrillers – Reacher is all about achieving justice and righting wrongs, but by using guns and violence.
“I’m pretty much a Trotskyite.”
Really? With guns?
“They had guns back in those days too. Trotsky said if you cannot acquaint a fascist with reason, you must acquaint his head with the sidewalk. And he also said, spread love and understanding; use force if necessary.”
It’s easy to see Reacher as a man’s man. But most of Lee’s truly passionate readers are women. Does he think this is because he writes strong female roles or that his readers are tired of the meterosexual bloke?
“I think they are kind of tired of that, I think women respond well to the rough, tough guy. But I think the main reason is that women care passionately about injustice, women are very fair. And if something is not fair, women are very cross about it. And that’s the same as Reacher, Reacher’s actually very feminine in his sense of injustice, and so women like to see somebody standing up for justice. Also the women in the books, the supporting characters are all strong, capable women, they’re not decorative bimbos like the traditional thriller women, and I think women respect that. And I think women respect the fact that Reacher respects women. Reacher treats women as absolute equals, he doesn’t cut them any slack but he’s not rude to them. So I think women like the books simply for the tone in them.”
During his interview with NJ Cooper, we discovered that his books are in the film production process, with Hugh Jackman currently being considered for the role of Reacher. That Child was claustrophobic, and that sure, he has used real people from his old job in TV as villains in his books – Child goes where most writers fear to tread because of libel. Who, he says, would take him to court claiming to be the heinous, nasty piece of work in one of his novels, standing up saying, yeah that broken toothed, thinning haired villain is me!
I imagine a lot of people out there relate to the impulse of casting ex-boss’s as villains what with the current climate of redundancy. Did you turn to writing crime novels as a way to get revenge through fiction for being fired from the Granada job he loved?
“Yeah, it was partly that. It was expressing frustration and anger through fiction. It was partly a continuation of the performing idea that instead of being backstage in television, I’d be backstage in the world of books. And it was also partly a necessity to earn a living; you know I had to think of something else to do. And you know it’s happening all over again for a lot of people, you’re right, fifteen years later it’s happening once again, and it’s a tough time, it’s very miserable and I know how it feels, but it’s also an opportunity. If it’s happening to someone right now, it’s very bad, but it’s also a kind of gift, you know – maybe this time I’ve got a reason to do what I really want to do.”
“It’s an interesting question I think because entertainment is a transaction, you’re producing it and somebody has got to buy it and consume it, and if they won’t do the second half then the whole deal collapses. So I think that, yeah I mean if I hadn’t got to the first agent, I might have tried the second agent or the third agent, and the same thing with publishers – if the first one turned it down, maybe the second one or the third one, I could take it. But I would not have carried on for years hoping eventually to get picked up because that is essentially failure. If you’re producing it and nobody is buying it then you should not be in that business.”
There’s no business like show. Lee has said he loved the idea of being on stage, an entertainer. There are writers like Mark Billingham, Stella Duffy and Martyn Waites who have acted or done stand up – but writing is so solitary – how does he reconcile that?
“For me actually they come together because I do actually have a performance gene, I’d love to be a performer in front of an audience but I have no on stage talent, I can’t sing, I can’t act, I can’t tell jokes, I can’t dance, therefore I’m a backstage person. And actually writing is the ideal job for a shy performer. They say politics is show business for ugly people, well writing is show business for shy people, because it’s the book that’s out there on the stage and the writer is in the shadows, and so that’s why I like it so much. People like Mark Billingham who do have on-stage talent and on-stage confidence, they’re doing it for a slightly different reason, they don’t need to hide. Whereas most writers are very shy.”
Lee has been described as Dan Brown ‘but better’ by the Telegraph. Some critics seem to be derisive about mass market thrillers, does he come across that kind of snobbery?
“I think I come across a little less snobbery then is popularly assumed, but I know what you mean that it’s regarded as not serious, not worthy of attention. And I don’t care. I’m not writing these books so that critics can pay attention to them, I’m writing them so that the public can enjoy reading them. And it makes absolutely no difference to me one way or the other whether a critic pays any attention or not.”
So you don’t read reviews?
“I read reviews, because I read everything that’s written about me because it’s interesting. But it makes no difference to my life if some critic says this is rubbish or some critic says this is great – why do I care? It’s the public that I care about. I care about, am I’m number one or number two on the bestseller list, you know, that’s the indication that I’m interested in.”
Child has said that he could write a literary work of fiction in three weeks if he wanted. What would the book be about? Isn’t he intrigued to try it as an experiment to prove that point?
“Well when I said that, that was really in relation to that earlier question you asked, which was you know do we get respect, are the critics snobbish, and that’s driven mainly by the literary tradition. And that’s really a jealously issue because the key fact there is that we, crime writers, genre writers – whatever they are, crime, mystery, thriller – I know these people very well, and we definitely could write a literary book. There’s no question about it. You look around this festival and these people are incredibly smart, incredibly accomplished, well read, very intelligent: they could write a literary book. But the literary people could not write our books, they couldn’t do it, because it’s a whole different thing, and when they try it’s always an embarrassing failure. They often do, you know, they’ll say, I’m going to write a crime novel because they think they’re going to cash in for a year and they fail, because it’s not easy. And that’s the source of the bad reviews and the snobbery, it’s simply jealously. We can do what they can, they can’t do what we can. And they get wound up about it. So I said that as a way to illustrate the point. I mean there are probably two dozen writers here who could write a really solid literary novel in about three weeks and it would be as good as anybody else’s and it would sell a small number of copies and get the good reviews and all that kind of stuff.”
You don’t need to have Reacher’s mathematical genius to work out Child tops the sales charts. Take a beach holiday and every other person is clutching a Lee Child or Michael Connolly. It may be easy to read a good thriller, but it’s hard to write. Does he share Reacher’s mathematical brain?
“I’m a little slower then him in terms of the math, but I’m logical like he is and you know thoughtful and observant and so on, there’s a lot of me in Reacher. And you know you’re right, the reasons why thrillers are easy to read are because they’re hard to write. I know Michael and I share exactly the same opinion that we do the work and the reader enjoys the ride. If the reader has to do too much work, figuring out who’s who, or what’s going on, what was that thing, what was this thing, if that happens then the writer has failed to do his job. You know, Michael says he’s the driver of the car and he’s going to give somebody an exciting ride, and I feel exactly the same thing.”
It seems right that Lee lives, as well as sets his novels, in the States. His attitude to success seems un-British. Does he think he could write American based hits if he were still living in northern England?
“Yeah I think so, the first two I actually did write while I was still in northern England, and a couple of the others I wrote while I was in the south of France, so writing is all about where you are in your head, not about where you are literally.”
There’s a breed of crime writers that go by the write what you know mantra and do a lot of research. David Simon is of course incredibly journalistic, but of course the Reacher novels are far removed from real life.
“I think that write what you know, that’s not the same thing as research – you don’t research so that you know something. Research is just filling in the details. Write what you know really means that I should be writing mysteries set in the world of television. I worked in television for twenty years, and then stopped, so typically a write-what-you-know person would be having the production assistant as being murdered in a corner of the studio: who did it? That’s what write what you know means. And I think that’s terrible advice because none of us really know anything exciting enough to go into a book. And therefore you’ve got to abandon that, you don’t do write what you know, but write what you feel. That’s what you actually have to do – write what you feel – what are you scared of, what are you excited about, take those real emotions and blow them up to a larger size to fit whatever plot you’re creating.”
Reacher works more on a mythical level, as a hero rather than anything based in the real world.
“The Reacher books on one level are absolutely realistic, it’s a real man walking through a real landscape dealing with real things, with cars and restaurants and with guns – real objects – but on another level he’s a myth, a legend, a legendary character who has always existed. And so it looks real, but it’s really tapping into a much older tradition of myth and legend.”
Does Lee see himself as an American or is there still an element of the Brit abroad?
“I see myself as a citizen of the world and I like it to be that way. I don’t want to belong to where I’m living, I like to be a bit of an outsider. And you know a bit of an observer rather than a participant, so it’s ideal for me to be living in New York; it gives you that feeling of not quite belonging. But then New York as a whole is full of foreigners and so, it’s a real melting pot.”
I read you only really missed Marmite in the UK, is there any part of American life you don’t like?
“Well a lot of it yeah, America is a gigantic continent and it’s very diverse and so there are pockets of it that I don’t particularly like, some regional things that I don’t like and some political and intellectual things that I don’t like, but you know that’s pretty much like everywhere, you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth.”
Male thriller writers often have characters like Reacher who are unattached and free from the mundane things, from commitment, marriage – epitomized by James Bond. What do their spouses think about that? Is it wish fulfilment?
“It is but I think the wish fulfilment works both ways. Yeah the wife of the thriller writer might feel a little miffed because the thriller hero is unattached but at the same time the wife of the thriller writer would be pretty open if some big handsome guy came to her door – you know if I’m away – comes to my house, and has a good time for two days never to be seen again. That’s a pretty attractive proposition from the woman’s point of view too. Because you know the only problem with affairs is that you get found out about it, but if you could guarantee that the guy would never show up again, never write, never call, it’s a much safer proposition.”
Lee Child may share a few qualities with his alter ego, but unlike Child, Reacher is always broke with nothing but a toothbrush to his name. Does being so successful live up to the dream that people have about success?
“It’s easy to forget actually how good it is, because for me I just wanted to replace what I had been earning before and as soon as I passed that point then it really doesn’t matter very much. But what is hard to remember is actually the grind of everyday life, you know being slightly scared of when the postman comes? What bill is going to be there, if you get two bills on the same day can you pay them? You know those ordinary strains and pressures are gone. And that’s a huge thing, your life is now very relaxed. So I would say yeah, it’s a great thing.”
He may be living the high life but does he still reach for products on the top of supermarket shelves for little old ladies?
“Yes I do, I’m very conscious of the origin of that name Reacher and I try to keep it alive.”
Is it true he plans to kill off Jack Reacher in Die Lonely?
“Die Lonely will be the last title, and he will be dead at the end of that book.”
Is he expecting a deluge of letters from fans? “I’m expecting them to be upset at the time but I think in the larger sense they understand that Reacher is a noble old warhorse, and that he can’t just settle down with his pipe and slippers. He’s gotta go out in a blaze of glory. But hopefully it won’t be too soon.”
And will he do a JK Rowling and cry when he’s written that last page?
Without missing a beat, Chid grins: “No, I think I’ll do a Lee Child, which will be to buy a ticket to the beach somewhere and live happily ever after.”
Visit Lee Child’s official website here.