With his casually cultivated demeanor and plummy British accent—he modestly calls it "standard BBC English"—Lee Child could easily be taken for a foreign diplomat or Masterpiece Theatre host. PW meets the author in a garden-variety Manhattan coffee shop, nearly deserted as the afternoon winds down. Child, 49 ("but if you want to say 30-something, that's OK"), is nattily attired in an Oxford-cloth shirt, blue blazer and neatly pressed jeans, his sandy hair casually tousled. Indeed, "casual" describes Child's demeanor, though a keen intellect and sharp wit clearly reside not far beneath the surface. (Maybe it's that accent.) Born in Coventry, England, Child grew up in Birmingham—"roughly England's Detroit, derided by the rest of the country," he tells us.
After attending college in Sheffield, Child worked as a TV presentation director ("like an air traffic controller of the broadcast network") for 18 years—"and I really loved it for 16." When what Child terms "an ownership revolution" took place, longtime (read, expensive) employees were replaced with recent college grads, and Child, returning home from a European vacation, discovered a phone message telling him his severance check was in the mail.
Though Child feared he had no transferable skills, there was one thing he had definitely learned: "I knew how to tell a story, because I had been around some of the greatest television drama of the period. And I thought, how different is it to put this ability into a novel as opposed to a TV script? So my wife said, 'What are you going to do?' And I said, 'Well, I'm going to be a novelist.' And she took it very well, really."
So in what genre would this aspiring author write? Easy, says Child. "To me there is only one genre: suspense/mystery/crime. It's bit Jesuitical trying to work out exactly which is which. I think there are only two kinds of books. One is the kind you miss your subway stop because of and you stay up too late reading so you're tired the next day at work. Or you don't." Child wanted to be in the former category—"it's where the humanity is. I don't want to be too academic about it, but in human evolution we developed language, we developed storytelling, and that must have been for a serious purpose. I think right from cave man days, we had stories that involved danger and peril, and eventually safety and resolution. To me that is the story. And that's what we're still telling today, 100,000 years later. That's what a page-turner is. Why do we turn the page if we're not in suspense about what's going to happen next?"
It's not surprising that Child's writing influences came from this genre. He cites in particular John D. MacDonald, whose immensely popular Travis McGee series "did two things for me. First, it's totally enthralling, one of the few series that never fell off in quality. Beyond that, it was accessible: those books really showed me how to do it. I saw the skeleton beneath the flesh and I saw the possibilities of doing it for myself, really, because of him."
In creating a central character, Child wanted to avoid what he perceived as "a kind of increasing fad" in the category: a hero who was becoming "more and more miserable and generally down on his luck. It seemed to me that we were on this downward spiral of dysfunctional characters. I wanted to wipe the slate clean and start again with the classical hero, a character that stretches back through the golden age of the private eye, through the Western heroes right through the Middle Ages and all the way back to The Odyssey. I wanted a straightforward, uncomplicated, untroubled hero—mentally and physically capable, not uptight— functional in every way."
Enter Jack Reacher, an ex-army cop who Child calls "a tough, alienated loner" and who clearly fit the author's Rx. He's best summed up, suggests his creator, by an exchange toward the end of Persuader, Child's seventh book. "Reacher is asked, 'Why do you do this?' and he answers, 'I stand up for the little guy.' His questioner is skeptical. Reacher admits, 'OK, I don't really care about the little guy—I just hate the big guy.' Reacher is a political metaphor in the same way that Robin Hood was."
Creating metaphors may come easy to Child; picking names, he admits, does not. So whence came "Reacher," a name that perfectly fits this taciturn hero? Child explains that his first novel, Killing Floor, was written in the first person, "and the character didn't need to be named until some 30 pages in. 'What's your name?' asks the cop, and then... a blank line. Now because I was no longer working, my wife, Jane, thought I was available for shopping any time of the day or night. So she said at that point, 'Let's go to the supermarket.' Every time I'm in a supermarket, because I'm tall, a little old lady will come up and say, 'You're a nice tall fellow. Would you mind reaching me that can?' And Jane said, 'Well, hey, if this writing thing doesn't work out, maybe you can be a reacher in a supermarket.' "
But "this writing thing" did work out. In fact, to hear Child tell it, the gestation of Killing Floor was unusually easy. "I wrote the book in seven months as the final rubble of my job fell around my head. I bought the UK Macmillan Writers Handbook and scrutinized the agent list, trying to decode the person behind the blurbs." He chose Darley Anderson in London, and the pair "made a handshake agreement that endures to this day." After deciding to sell the book first in the U.S., the men made a brief attempt to sell movie rights first. Though that effort failed, the attendant buzz, Child says, "led straight to a two-book sale with the first editor we approached [Putnam's David Highfill]."
Killing Floor, which is set in a small Georgia town that's awash in counterfeit money, appeared in 1997 and was met with a response that was clearly north of mere cult status but south of instant retire-tomorrow bestsellerdom, the kind of response that promised likely reward for continuing the series. (Besides, Child quips, "I figured, we've got a name, better stick with it.") But Child wanted a different kind of series, he says. "All my contemporaries were writing series that had all the familiar ingredients—the hero had a job, a location, a neighborhood, a repertory cast of supporting characters, friends, sidekicks, maybe dogs. I wanted to do something much more freewheeling, much less anchored." Thus the second Reacher novel, 1998's Die Trying, carried over only Reacher himself and was set in a completely different part of the U.S. That's a pattern that Child has continued—in some ways, the novels are all stand-alones as well as series installments.
Child's book-a-year schedule was briefly interrupted in 1998, when he and his wife relocated to the U.S. For his New Yorker wife, Child says, "It was coming home. For me, it was a longstanding dream. Ever since I was a little kid, I knew I was supposed to live in the States and was always kind of puzzled that I didn't." A move of a different sort took place in 2002, when Child switched publishers. "Just after Phyllis Grann left Putnam, Delacorte stepped in with an ambitious vision that Putnam—for all their strengths—didn't seem able to match. So I jumped, and I'm glad I did." Persuader, book seven in the Reacher canon, was the first of a four-book deal with Delacorte. The Enemy, published earlier this month, was the eighth Reacher saga—and the first to hit PW's hardcover fiction list. (The novel debuted on the May 30 New York Times list as well.)
Says Child: "The lists are a thrill, because although the sales difference between jsut missing and just getting on isn't necessarily huge, there's a sense of legitimacy—now I can look people in the eye. And it might heat things up in Hollywood. In the past I've had some great calls from my agent: ice clinking, silverware rattling, 'I'm sitting here with Brad Pitt/Harrison Ford/George Clooney and we're gonna make it happen.' Maybe now I'll get more of those."
Child's latest is notable, too, for another reason. As Marilyn Stasio noted in her May 23 New York Times Book Review "Crime" column, "Here's a shrewd way to rejuvenate a series protagonist: send him into the past to fill in a missing piece of his back story." Thus this prequel (accomplished, says Stasio, with "dazzling effect") is set in 1989, and Jack Reacher is still in the army. The idea came about, says Child, because "Reacher had sort of migrated from being my character to being community property, which is what happens with a lot of these characters—Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, Elvis and Joe by Bob Crais. They all start out as the author's property entirely, and then as readers support them over a period of years, they become community property."
Reacher's steadily growing fan base frequently voiced two queries, says Child: "what made Reacher the way he is, and what must he have been like inside an institution like the army? Instead of an obvious, clichéd reason that turned him into this loner—maybe his dad beat him, his mom hated him, whatever—I wanted something more organic." Child also wanted to put his hero in the midst of a police procedural. "There's a famous quote about police procedurals—about crime novels in general—the best ones don't show the detective working on the case; they show the case working on the detective. I thought if we could find a seminal sort of case that shook Reacher loose, or shattered his trust, or in some way set him on the course as we see him now, that would be very interesting. And it was a lot of fun to write, inasmuch as instead of making him older and wiser, I had to make him younger and dumber—a 29-year-old version. And I couldn't make it night and day; I didn't want him to be changing on a dime."
Child also had to find a specific year for the prequel—"one that was interesting both in the real world, historically, and in Reacher's world." Trawling back through these parallel universes, Child settled on 1989—1990. "It was important to Reacher in his backstory, and it was a very critical period for the U.S. military. The Cold War was won, but now there wasn't the slightest possibility that things would stay the way they had been. So The Enemy is set against the backdrop of the massive, old-fashioned army that's facing certain change. The top brass are worried about their turf and their prestige. They are already fighting the next battle, which is for supremacy inside the new, slimmed-down army, which is really where the book's criminal case comes from."
Readers also meet Reacher's mother, a unique character who's harboring a secret from her past that, says Child, "is far more outrageous than anything Reacher's ever done." And Child is able to resurrect Joe, Reacher's elder brother, whose murder is a key element in Killing Floor. Child, too, has an elder brother, on whom he drew for this aspect of The Enemy. "We have very much the same kind of relationship: he's smarter than me; I'm tougher than him. When I started elementary school, he had already been there a couple of years. Every recess my first duty was to go and drag the bullies off him before I could play with my other friends. So we had that same close relationship; still do, as a matter of fact."
It's clear that Lee Child and Jack Reacher, too, have a special kinship ("Reacher is exactly what I would be if I could get away with it," says his creator), to be continued next year in book nine, One Shot. This one, says Child, is set in Indiana and opens as a sniper kills five passersby from the upper floor of a parking garage. When arrested, the shooter says one sentence only: "Bring Jack Reacher to me." Happily for Lee Child, this seems to be a growing cry heard from thriller readers worldwide.