Author Interview: Lee Child
Q. Did you always want to be a novelist? Why?
A. I always wanted to be part of some kind of entertainment. One of my earliest memories of elementary school is going to a show they put on at the end of my first semester and thinking Yes! This is great! I want to do this! So I did, every year, right through high school and university. I took vacation jobs in theaters of varying degrees of prestige. I loved them all. Something to do with pleasing an audience, I guess. It's all I've ever wanted to do, probably for all the usual psychological reasons, insecurity, approval seeking, whatever.
So after university I went to work for commercial television in England, at Granada in Manchester. I was there through the great years of British television drama - Brideshead Revisited, Jewel in the Crown, Prime Suspect, Cracker ... all Granada shows. I had a totally inexplicable behind-the-scenes job, which was a blend of editing, operating, supervising, linking, writing commercials ... but the upshot was I dealt with a career total of forty thousand hours of mass-market entertainment. That exposure came in very useful later ...
Then I was downsized out of that job. It was the usual cost-cutting nineties thing: do you want to work for half the money? No, thanks! So I had to do something else, and I was so soured by the whole employment experience I decided I was now going to work for myself and do exactly what I wanted.
Which was to write novels. I had always read voraciously, all my life, especially commercial fiction, and I'd always had the same reaction I'd had at the elementary school show: Yes! I love this! I want to do this! And I thought maybe I could do it, because all my life I always did the Walter Mitty thing ... I daydreamed constantly, right from being able to dream at all. I constructed gigantic narratives in my head, and they had to be obsessively detailed, and plausible, and correct. I played through all the usual kid-stuff fantasies, and then when I was an adult, I kept right on doing it. For instance, I would do the thing we all do: come out of some meeting and immediately think of the brilliant thing I should have said, whereupon I would rewrite history as if I had said it, and rebuild an alternative narrative from that point onward ... all in obsessive, plausible detail. It whiled away lots of commuting time ... and it was fun, and therapeutic, like sometimes - especially during the downsizing thing - I'd feel like breaking some manager's leg, and I would write complex narratives in my head about how exactly to do it. How to contact some tough guys? Where? In a pub? What sort of pub? What to say? How to pay them off without revealing my identity? It burned off the anger and frustration.
I was also interested in architecture - stay with me here - because in England it's pretty rare to rent, so you end up buying, and because you're young and poor, you buy bad places the first few times. So I would be designing better places in my head ... carrying around huge mental blueprints of buildings.
And again, the detail was obsessive. No, I can't hang a shelf there, because there's a wire in that wall, going to that lightswitch. I'll have to move that switch a foot to the left ... I realized later that kind of you-do-this-so-you've-got-to-do-that juggling had been great training for mystery plots.
So yes, I always wanted to be a novelist, but it took me a long time to realize I could just write down on paper the exact thing I was doing anyway in my head. I always thought there must be a lot more to it than that! And so it was a long time before I got the confidence and the motivation to try.
Q. Would you really have given up writing if the first book hadn't sold?
A. The honest answer to that is yes, I would. I don't think you can purport to write in a commercial genre without taking very seriously the reality of being commercial. Highbrow literature, serious fiction, sure, you don't need to worry about it, because that's not the name of the game. But in commercial fiction, it is the name of the game. If you're not selling, you're just not doing it. The idea of popularity is as big a part of the definition of the genre as any other part. It always has been, from Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe onward. And from my days in commercial television, I've always been comfortable with the idea that your first duty is to succeed with the audience. Actually I love that extra frisson that commercial reality brings to anything ... I admire the designers of the Ford Taurus a lot more than the designers of a Rolls-Royce - because they're dealing with something real, like the necessity of selling a million cars rather than a thousand.
Q. So when did you know you'd be writing a second?
A. When Putnam saw Killing Floor, they gave me a two-book contract. That did it for me. It meant a lot. They're a tough, savvy bunch, and it was a clear demonstration of faith. So I wrote the second, and started the third. But the weird thing about the publishing world is that the lead times are so long. It wasn't until I was underway with the third book that the first book came out in hardback. Then I was delighted with the reaction from reviewers, and especially from the bookstores, in particular the specialists like Partners & Crime. I feel like those stores are as close as I can get to a true commercial judgment at this early stage ... because they have a bottom line, too. They have rent to pay. They have limited shelf space. They have to be commercially realistic. But the frustrating thing is that I'm already three years into being a full-time writer, and the paperback of Killing Floor is only just out ... and paperback sales are the true arbiter, aren't they? So I don't really know yet how I'm doing!
Q. How did you find your US and UK agents?
A. I only have one agent, Darley Anderson in London. He handles everything worldwide ... so far, about thirty countries and counting. I found him by buying the Writer's Handbook, basically listing all the agents and publishers in all markets. In the agent's section, they write a paragraph about themselves. The trick is to decode exactly what they're saying ... some of them I obviously avoided - somebody specializing in religious biographies, for instance, wasn't going to be too interested in Jack Reacher! Darley was the only one who used the word 'hardboiled', and given that I was unashamedly interested in being successful, I noticed Darley was the only one who actually mentioned money - he put in how much he'd gotten for his last 'first-time' author. I took that to mean here was a guy not ashamed to be commercial, just like me. So I sent him the manuscript, and he replied immediately, and took me on. And it's worked really well. He looks and sounds like an English country gentleman, or a vicar from Agatha Christie, but he's razor sharp, and a hell of a negotiator. Also, he has a fabulous set of co-agents around the world, including Steven Fisher at Renaissance in Hollywood, who has done a brilliant job for me.
Q. What made you choose an American protagonist in an American setting? Was it difficult to keep Jack Reacher true to his roots instead of yours? What kind of research must you do to sound authentic?
A. The Brit-writing-as-an-American thing was a result of lots of different thought-processes all separately pointing in exactly the same direction. It's hard to put them in order, because I can't really say one was more important than the others. The commercial thing, again, was significant. The US is the world's largest market, so why not start there? Also, story ideas - as a reader, I'm a fan of a lot of British writing, but I wanted bigger, rangier, more expansive plots than Britain really allows for. To a foreigner, the physical size of America is enchanting. It hints at undiscovered corners, where things can happen. A story like Killing Floor - or Die Trying, of course - wouldn't be remotely possible in Britain. Britain would be about tighter, more claustrophobic, more psychological plots, and even if I love 'em as a reader, I don't want to write them.
Also, if you're a writer, you love language, and if you love language, you're fascinated by variety and accent and dialect. So to write in a 'language' that's not strictly your own is actually part of the pleasure. And if you're writing fiction, you're already making big leaps of invention, so to do it against an unfamiliar background is actually helpful, I think. It stops you relaxing into the traps that familiarity can spring on you.
My wife Jane is a New Yorker, and I've made many, many visits to the US with her over twenty-four years. So that persuaded me I could do it, but if you read between the lines, I've been quite careful with Reacher himself. I made him a rootless man, with an all-over-the-world Army brat background - partly because that's the character I wanted him to be, but also partly because it makes it clear that he himself is not totally familiar with his 'home' country. Thus, if I make mistakes, it's plausible he might, too!
I was a little worried about how Americans themselves might react to a foreigner 'pretending' to be one of them. But I have to say nobody has ever said anything remotely negative about it. Everybody has been wonderfully kind and generous and supportive.
The whole research issue is fascinating to me, too. I could write a book about it! As far as 'tone' goes, I pick it up from movies and visits. Like I said, if you're a writer, that stuff is meat and drink. The factual research is an interesting question in its own right. I've got a theory about research. I actually don't think accuracy matters all that much, per se. I think what matters is whether people perceive accuracy. If I wrote a novel set in London, for instance, I could make it really, really, accurate, but my guess is the more accurate I made it, the more people would find it inaccurate, because what matters is not what London is really like, but what people generally think it's like. In other words, the yardstick is a generalized, worldwide construct inside the audience's head. Not reality. So usually, I prefer to be convincing, rather than accurate, and I think the two things are often different.
And I always wonder about other writers - some of them have reputations for meticulous research. But how do we know? Suppose somebody writes a sentence like "Harper Street meets Calvin Square at an exact right-angle, where St Paul's graveyard is fenced by the only eighteenth-century cast iron in New Orleans to escape smelting for Civil War cannons." We think, boy, has this guy done some research! But I just made that sentence up - and who's to know, except a dozen New Orleans readers, only one of which will take the trouble to write in.
Q. Tell us a bit about Jack Reacher. Did you base him on anyone real or fictional? Do you find he surprises you by doing something you didn't expect?
A. Old Reacher is a mixture of a lot of things. Obviously, he's a fictional hero, so you start with a certain element of conscious design. For me, most of that was negative. I knew what I didn't want him to be. I didn't want him to be in any way dysfunctional, alcoholic, divorced, tired, gloomy, recovering from a previous trauma. Nothing like that. I felt that kind of hero is an old, tired concept. Great fifteen years ago, but now it's overdone. So I wanted him to be upbeat, confident in himself, very competent. I wanted him to avoid silly mistakes. I wanted him to be physically and mentally very powerful.
Then, his background. He needed to be footloose and rootless, and rough and uncivilized, and have some background with forensic skills, and some habituation to lawlessness and casual violence. A P.I. or an ex-city cop wouldn't have worked. Too rooted, too settled. So the military police thing evolved. That, actually, was the first surprise. I definitely come from the sixties liberal generation where any kind of affection for military culture was slightly taboo. But having Reacher leave the Army for unspecified reasons (dismissed? dissatisfied?) helps create a little ambiguity. He's definitely not GI Joe.
So once the background was in place, the smart thing to do would be to create a likable character. But I figured very early you can't do that. It's like moving to a new town, or a new job. You can't make people like you. In fact, if you try, the result is usually awful. You can't take the strain, and you end up looking like a jerk. I felt that to try too hard with Reacher would have been the same. He would have been cardboard, like a laundry-list of PC virtues. So I just metaphorically closed my eyes, hoped for the best, and wrote him warts and all. And he's got a lot of warts!
I sort of assumed men might like him, but my big worry was women readers. I so much wanted them to take to him. And happily, they do, generally. He's very violent, and tough, but he has a certain charm and vulnerability. He's very naive about a lot of things. The fan mail I get is about 2:1 women to men.
A piece of advice writers get is to write about what they know. I think that's a terrible idea. In this genre, there are probably 3 people on the planet who know anything exciting enough to write about. But I do try to write about what I know when it comes to Reacher's thoughts and emotions. So to some extent he's based on me. In Killing Floor, there's a backstory mention about how he used to look after his elder brother in schoolyard fights, because he was tougher, albeit younger. That's written from life. I grew up in a tough part of Birmingham, which is a tough city, roughly the equivalent of Detroit. I was a big kid, and my elder brother was what we'd now call a nerd or a geek. From the age of four, my first duty every recess was to haul the bullies off him.
Through Die Trying, and the third book, the main surprises are the things that come out of his past. Little details, which help round him out. Book 3 is set in the present, but results from past events, and we learn a lot more about Reacher as we go. Some of it you won't expect! That's the fun of a series character, for the writer. You've got to re-explain the character each time for new readers, but you don't want to be repetitive, so you find new slants.
Q. In Die Trying, there's a scene that almost made me hyperventilate it was so claustrophobic. Without giving away any critical plot elements, can you explain how you bring that kind of physical sensation to the page?
A. The short answer is by making it physical. Without giving anything away, Reacher's trapped in a tiny dark space, too small to turn himself around in. That's my own particular dread - an example of writing what I know when it comes to feelings. Maybe all people fear it. Reacher certainly does. The way I described it on the page was to concentrate on the physical sensations, his arms trapped, his shoulders wedged, his face grinding on the grit floor, his toes scrabbling for grip, the wailing panic in his lungs trapping him even tighter. I think that's the short-cut to connecting with the reader's own dread. Let them feel the actual physical sensations Reacher is feeling. Then the reader supplies the panic on his behalf.
Q. Any gossip on the possibility of a movie based on Killing Floor? Any candidates to play Reacher?
A. We sold the movie option to Mark Johnson, through Polygram. He won an Oscar for Rain Man and produced Donnie Brasco. I was happy with him - in fact we turned down more money from another producer we liked less. Mark's films have been above all else about character and dialog. No special effects, no computer stuff, just classic storytelling virtues. It's always a worry to writers, I guess. What are they going to do with my book? (Actually, they don't do anything with your book. Your book is right there on the shelves, same as it always was.) But if anybody will make a good film, Mark will.
But will he make it? That, we don't know. Obviously Hollywood develops a lot of stuff that never makes it to the screen. Latest news is they have a script, and they're biding their time. My guess is if the books take off big, they'll make it. Otherwise, perhaps not.
And who would play Reacher? Much too early to say, officially. But it's a great parlor game! My personal vote goes to a kind of Frankenstein's monster - William Hurt's head on a taller pumped-up version of Bruce Willis's body.
Q. Can you tell us something about your current work-in-progress or your plans for the series as a whole?
A. Well, the third Reacher book is all finished and is in production right now at the publisher. I'm just waiting for the copy-editor's corrections. Provisional title right now is The Hook, which might change because Putnam isn't sure if it's punchy enough.
I think it's the best Reacher book so far, by a long way. It combines the separate strengths of the first two, and then adds something to them. There's a lot of resonance from various people's pasts, which adds an emotional richness to it. I can't wait for it to come out, to see what people think of it.
Right now, I'm working on two things at once: book 4, and emigrating from England to the US. Book 4 is Reacher again, displaying the same 'Robin Hood' characteristics, but this time they land him in big trouble. He goes a little too far - definitely on the side of the angels, and for a good cause, and so he can't quite understand why people are so mad at him. He's temporarily come to rest inside civilized society, and doesn't grasp quickly enough that there are rules now. I'm about a quarter of the way through, and it's going well.
Emigrating to the US is literally a lifelong ambition come true. Imagine, if you can, provincial England at the end of the Fifties. I was about four, and I went to the public library with my mother. There was a series of kid's books, vaguely educational, I guess, called "My Home In ...". The only one our library had was "My Home In America." It had twelve board pages, each with a big color picture of a home. There was a prairie farmhouse, a California bungalow, a New England colonial ... and my favorite, a little boy sitting by the window of a Manhattan high-rise, looking down at the city below. I so much wanted to be that boy! In fact, I sort of felt I was him, somehow dislocated and trapped in the wrong country. And back then, it was the wrong country. Very dull, very monochrome, still exhausted after WW2 (I can remember playing on left-over bomb rubble - at least 12 years after the war ended), and very backward-looking, because of WW2 ... the feeling was the future didn't matter, because of the great thing in the past. Soon as I was old enough to think, I admired Britain's role in WW2, but chafed badly at the idea of giving up on the future.
America was like a distant, exciting beacon. Back then, there was very little immediate access to American culture. No transatlantic television. Anything we got was very fragmentary ... sort of archaeological. I remember getting bits of Marvel comics, the back half of Superman and so on. I loved the little ads in the back. Remember those? They hinted at a life we couldn't imagine.
Those feelings abated during the Sixties - Britain became quite a fun place, with the Beatles and the Stones and so on. Then we got jobs, and had a kid in school ... and were trapped in a particular location, like everybody is, I guess. Not too unhappy, because Britain was OK, until the Thatcher years just ripped up everything that made it equable and pleasant. But now our daughter is graduating high school and ready for college, and the books mean I'm earning a living irrespective of physical location ... so we've sold up in England and bought a house near New York City, and we're moving in the week before Die Trying comes out. At last! Only thirty-nine years after I read "My Home In America."
Q. What do you see yourself doing - or writing - a decade from now?
A. I hope I'll still be living in my new house, and still writing. Exactly what I'll be writing, I'm not sure. I'm not looking to write a "serious" book - whatever that means - because I'm totally happy in the mystery/thriller genre. But I think there are serious tactical considerations about keeping one series going too long. I'm sure everybody has their own pet examples of series that just fizzle out - in fact, I can't think of any that keeps up the quality beyond six, maybe eight books. So as soon as Reacher stops doing it for me, he's history. Then it'll have to be something else. Of course, maybe he'll endure ... in fact the sheer unpredictability of the writer's life is one of its most attractive features.
Q. Our most requested query is "How do you write?"
A. When I worked in television, we covered 24 hours a day, on a shift system, which meant that sometimes I was up at 4 in the morning, and sometimes worked all night. So the biggest luxury I allow myself now is to stay in bed every day until about 9:30 or 10 in the morning. Then I have the 'traditional English breakfast' (four cups of black coffee and five Marlboros) and get to work about 11 o'clock.
I wrote Killing Floor in pencil on paper, sitting at the dining room table, and then did a second draft in pen. This was because I wanted to emphasize to myself the commercial reality of what I was doing - I wasn't going to buy equipment until I could pay for it from proceeds. I didn't want it to feel like a hobby. I borrowed my daughter's laptop - a slow old monochrome Lexmark 486/25 - to do the final draft.
When the first check came in I bought my own laptop - a nearly-as-slow monochrome Compaq 486/50 - and a laser printer, and my own desk. But I felt sure that working straight to the computer would somehow alter the 'voice', so again I started Die Trying in pencil on paper. But almost immediately I abandoned that for the sake of efficiency and now I write everything straight into the Compaq. I have never upgraded the computer (I did add 8 extra megs of memory, to get it to print faster) because a slow mono laptop is actually perfect for what is only basic word-processing, really. I use Windows 'Write', which is the freebie that comes with Windows 3.1. I think it's the ideal application for a novelist. The lack of fancy toolbars gives plenty of screen space for writing. I never spell check.
I work at home. I moved from the dining room to a small room in the back of the house and equipped it as a proper office. No phone or fax, though - I'm too much of a technophobe to work out how to install them. Right now in England I have a view over a thousand-year-old church in the valley to the hills beyond. In New York, I'll have a view of my own pond and woods.
I go into the office at 11 o'clock and usually work through until 5 or 6, stopping for lunch around 2:30. If I'm on a roll, I can do 12 or 15 pages. Sometimes I'll just revise what I did yesterday. I probably average around 3 serious work days a week. The farther into a career you get, the more everything snowballs - right now I'm writing book 4, doing final edits on book 3, doing stuff in connection with the hardback launch of book 2, doing stuff for the paperback launch of book 1 in other countries, as well as all the normal stuff like answering mail and doing bills and taxes. So it's all fairly fragmented - and then add to that all the distractions you get working at home anyway.
But actually, I like it that way, and I think it's useful. Because one of the things you need to bear in mind as a writer in this genre is the exact manner in which your books are going to be read. People browsing this website are by definition serious and habitual readers, but most other people read in very awkward circumstances ... ten minutes at a time on the subway or the train, or on planes on the way to vacation with kids crawling over them, or on the beach, or for fifteen minutes in bed at night. Therefore a writer has to accommodate that ... I try to keep the narrative line very clear. I would regard it as a real failure if readers were in doubt page-by-page about who's who or what's what. So writing in a fragmented manner helps, I think. It forces you to keep things straight.
The real fun is the feeling at the end of the day when you've ripped through an epic scene. I'm surprised at how tired it makes me. Then the next morning, I lie in bed for half an hour and wander through what needs to happen today. That's just perfect joy. There can't be anything better than lying in bed, getting paid for making up stories.