Never Go Back Lee Child Bantam Press, £20
He describes Tom Cruise as ‘a dog for work’, but Lee Child is no slouch himself. He has published a book per year since his award-winning debut, Killing Floor, in 1997, thus creating an iconic character of contemporary fiction. His latest, Never Go Back, is the 18th novel about the hulking loner, Jack Reacher, the ex-military policeman who prowls the highways and byways of America, talking soft and carrying a big stick as he faces down the bad guys.
Reacher sales are in excess of 40m: Child is aware how long Reacher has been on the road, and how implausible his journey becomes with each story. “Technically, I’m probably better at it than I was when I started out, so it won’t be for a lack of ability,” he says when I ask how long he can continue with Reacher. “But, yeah, I am somewhat floored by the absurdity of it all by now — I mean, how many books can you write about the same guy? And that’s something that’s on my mind, at the moment. I do not want to be the guy who sticks around one year too long.”
NEVER GO BACK a nominee for SpecSavers Natl Book Award Crime & Thriller of the Year. Congrats to all nominees! http://t.co/sF3HmVIFpB— Lee Child (@LeeChildReacher) November 19, 2013
We meet in Derry, where Child is appearing at Killer Books, a crime-writing festival held as part of the City of Culture 2013 celebrations. He is forthright, and shares Reacher’s impressive physical presence, laconic sense of humour and reluctance to suffer fools gladly.
That reluctance came to the fore last year, when Cruise played the lead role in the movie, Jack Reacher, despite protests from fans that Cruise simply wasn’t tall enough.
“We all knew — Tom included — that he didn’t look like Reacher as he’s written in the books,” he says, “but we gambled he could nail the internals and the intangibles of the character, and I think he succeeded 100%. I got to know him a little bit, over the months, and what struck me was two things: he’s a trooper, who works like a dog, and he has an unbelievable instinct for story.”
Child made his storytelling bones as Jim Grant, working as a presentation director for Granada TV from 1977 to 1995, on shows such as Brideshead Revisited, and Prime Suspect. “It was real fun to be back on a set,” he says of his cameo as a desk sergeant in Jack Reacher, and it won’t be his last. “The team that put the first movie together did so because they’re Reacher fans, simple as that,” he says. “So their desire is to make lots of them. Will the money men agree? Probably, because the financials on the first were respectable. And, yes, I’m going to insist on a ‘Hitchcock’ every time.”
Made redundant from Granada in 1995, Grant turned to writing thrillers to pay the mortgage, choosing the pen-name Child, because it placed him on the bookshelves between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie.
“I’ve always been in showbiz,” he says, “so a pseudonym is not a new thing for me. Over the years, I’ve had five or six different names I’ve worked under. I was contracted to Granada for a long time, so if I wanted to do anything else, moonlighting, I had to do it under a pseudonym. So this is perfectly normal for me. People ask why I chose to use a pen-name, and it’s actually the other way around — as in, why wouldn’t I? It frees you up. It’s not quite you, and therefore the praise doesn’t quite turn your head and the criticism doesn’t really hurt.”
The praise has been effusive , and includes a plethora of awards, but Child takes exception to the criticism of the crime/thriller genre. “One of the things that the genre gets criticised for is the writing,” he says. “I mean, you’ll get a review that says, ‘This is not great writing, but it’s a hell of a page-turner.’ And I think that that is, objectively, a very stupid comment. Because if a book is a page-turner, then why is it a page-turner? I think every writer, deliberately or instinctively, writes to a certain style, so that the story is propulsive, like a sprung rhythm, always moving forward. So the technique is actually the best part of it. And it’s extremely efficient, purposeful writing that produces that kind of result.”
The latest novel, Never Go Back, has a tongue-in-cheek title. For the past four books, since 2010’s 61 Hours, Reacher has been making his way back from the wild west to Washington DC to meet Susan Turner, whom he knows only from his dealings on the phone. Turner holds Reacher’s former position with the military police. Things do not go to plan.
Four books after he first imagined her, Turner also arrived on the page differently to how Child had originally perceived her.
“Yeah, and part of the reason is that she had a different name in the first draft of that book, where we first meet her. Then, there was a charity auction, where someone could ‘buy’ their name into one of my stories, and the character’s name changed to Susan Turner.
“And that’s a kind of plain name, so that did have an effect on how I saw her.
“The interesting thing about Susan, for me, is how easily she dismisses Reacher,” he says, “which I think is good for him. And I think that’s good for me, as a writer, as well, because I think the biggest possible mistake you can make with a series is to fall in love with your character. To always let him have his own way.
“I’m perfectly happy for people to say ‘no’ to Reacher, or that he occasionally fails, or gets disappointed. That’s fine. I mean, maybe readers are going to think, ‘How can any woman turn Reacher down?’ But I’m like, ‘screw it, turn him down’. That’s life. Even for Reacher.”
I ask about the British tabloid quote that Child writes his books while high as a kite. “I’ve never written high,” he says. “Actually, what bothered me about that piece was how it made me sound — I mean, what a half-hearted drug fiend I am. I only smoke weed five nights a week, and take the weekend off. No, they got it backwards. I’ll have a smoke in the evenings, sure, which relaxes me, and it also helps to unwind plot points in the story. It’s a great clarifier. But I don’t write while I’m stoned, because the writing’s never any good.”
So how does he write? Is he a meticulous plotter, micro-managing the story right to the end before he starts typing his first line? “For me, it’s completely organic,” he says. “The new one, which is due next year, I’m about a fifth of the way through it and I still have no idea of what it’s about, what’s going to happen or what the issue is, nothing like that. The upside to not having a plan is that I’m as keen as the reader to find out what will happen next. For me, it’s always exciting. I end a chapter, and it’s not an artifice, not really — I’m like, ‘Wow, what’s happening now’?”
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