Lee Child was born in 1954 in Coventry, England, and spent his formative years in Birmingham. He studied Law here at the University of Sheffield and, after part-time work in a theatre, he joined Granada Television in Manchester where he worked for 20 years before taking up writing.
Today, it’s said that one of Lee Child’s novels featuring hero Jack Reacher sells somewhere in the world every nine seconds. Navya Hebbar caught up with him to discuss his work and creative process.
What are you reading at the moment?
There is a series of books from Oxford University Press called Very Short Introductions and I’m reading Rivers: A Very Short Introduction right now. There are hundreds of books in the series, so my wife and I decided we were going to read our way through them all and discuss them like a miniature book club.
You are an Englishman in America and in Britain you are an American success. Is that a strange experience for you?
I’m an Englishman in New York. New York is a city state all of its own and very cosmopolitan, very mobile, with a fluid population. I’ve been there 20 years which means I’ve been there longer than about half the population in New York. So I feel very at home there because it is a very welcoming place.
Here, especially professionally, I’m seen as an American input into Britain in terms of books, which is a peculiar sort of institutional reaction. Typically, an author who has been around as long as I have, in Britain, would be offered the OBE or something like that. I get none of that because I’m seen as a foreigner here, which is fine because I like to feel that I belong everywhere, or conversely I like to feel that I don’t belong anywhere.
I noticed that last year Theresa May said the stupidest thing, “If you think you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” and that to be is the exact opposite of what I want to be.
With the Jack Reacher novels, you seem to have had a great time with his invulnerability. Would you ever consider finishing the novels off and ending the series or the character?
That is a very complicated question because the question is about the role of an author. Am I here to please myself or am I writing for the readers? I believe an author is a servant of the reader, that I am here to provide what the reader wants.
I will keep the Reacher series going as long as anyone wants it, and when they stop wanting it, I probably wouldn’t write anything else because I will be very old by then and I’ll say, “You know what, I’ll just retire and go to the beach.”
A very small segment of literature addresses the experience of being a man. How far do you feel the Reacher novels go in exploring what it is to be a man in the 21st century?
When I first started out, initially, I thought this was a masculine series for men. But most fiction is read by women and about 65% of my readers are women.
I felt that the idea of walking away from responsibility, of having no commitments, no mortgage, nothing else to worry about, I thought that was a male fantasy, but it turns out it is equally a woman’s fantasy. So what I am learning, really, is that there is no real difference between men and women readers in terms of what they want and what they desire.
How do you start a Reacher novel? How do you confront the very first page?
Starting the novel is the best part of it because one of the things that any artist finds is that any art you are making never comes out as good as you hope. It is never quite as good as it could be.
To put it bluntly, I haven’t screwed it up yet. And that is the best part of it: the possibilities are infinite. Also, the story possibilities are infinite.
It is really a funnelling process, which means that I love the middle, I love the end, but the beginning has a special magic of its own. It’s all new, we don’t know where we are going yet, and it could be the perfect book. Probably won’t be, but it could be.
How do you go about doing research on a book?
I don’t research as I go along because, with a commercial schedule like mine, it is a book a year. And I feel that if you research specifically for that book, you don’t give yourself enough time to work out what the significant part of the research is.
So what I do is rely on what I already know, what I’ve learned years ago and that has had the time to percolate and to sort itself out into what is important and what is not. I will certainly research trivial details, but major things have to be something I have been interested in for a long time.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out writing?
The only way that writing will ever work is if you are you and only you, and you are completely happy about it. If you are writing what you feel is right, and you are absolutely certain everyone else will hate it, the book will have a vivid beating heart. And then, it stands a chance. If you are worrying about what you should or ought to be doing, then it is a dead product from the start.