A Conversation With Lee Child

by Claire E. White

Internationally bestselling novelist Lee Child wasa
Photo of Lee Child
born in Coventry, England, in 1954, early enough to remember playing on left-over World War II bomb rubble, late enough to be young and impressionable through the Sixties. He went to law school, but took a job in commercial television after graduation.

"I always loved entertainment," he says. "At elementary school, I was always in the school plays. As a teenager, I worked in shoestring theaters and arts centers. I took vacation jobs anywhere there was a stage and an audience. I never intended to practice law. I did the degree because it was an interesting subject."

He joined Granada Television in Manchester, England, thinking the job would last a few months. He ended up staying nearly twenty years. He was there through the great era of British television drama, working on flagship shows like Brideshead Revisited, Jewel in the Crown, Prime Suspect, and Cracker.

"That was a wonderful, wonderful job," he says. "But eventually, twenty years is enough for anybody. And television is teamwork -- I felt I wanted to get away from that and get closer to the audience, personally."

So he made the decision to become a novelist after being caught in the industry-wide downsizing and layoffs. "I figured the novel is the purest form of entertainment, and certainly the closest I'd ever get to an audience ... after all, a writer is literally one-on-one with the reader for hours and hours at a time." In 1997, his first novel, the thriller Killing Floor (Putnam) was published to rave reviews. Killing Floor, introduced Child's immensely popular lead character, Jack Reacher. Reacher is an ex-MP, a loner who drifts from town to town, helping those in need of justice. Reacher is not an alcoholic, a drug addict or dysfunctional in any way, unlike many modern protagonists. Instead, he's more like a mysterious knight errant, riding into town, and serving up justice when and how its needed. And if a little violence is called for, it doesn't unduly upset him.

Killing Floor was followed by four more Jack Reacher books: Die Trying, Tripwire, Running Blind and his latest release, Echo Burning (Putnam), which all received critical acclaim and hit the bestseller lists. With an international audience, Child now sells one million books each year. In Echo Burning, Reacher meets a beautiful Latina named Carmen who tells Reacher that her abusive husband is going to kill her if she doesn't find someone to kill him first. So Reacher heads to South Texas to Carmen's ranch, which is seething with buried secrets, passion and danger. In a starred review, Kirkus calls Echo Burning "Smashingly suspenseful." Marilyn Stasio of The New York Times says of Child and his work, "His words are spare, but well chosen; the action is violent, but well calculated; and the ingenuity of the plot is especially well suited to a cool character like Reacher, who always thinks before he strikes."

Cover of Killing Floor by Lee Child
The Jack Reacher series is purely American; it isn't British in tone or style at all. When asked why an Englishman decided to write for an American audience, he replies, "Two important reasons." "First, I've always been in love with the States. And second, one thing I learned over the years in television is you go where the audience is. And where's the biggest, most literate and most sophisticated audience for modern fiction? In the U.S., without a doubt. It's what I call the basketball theory. If I wanted to be a basketball player, I'd always be second-best if I stayed in Europe. I would need to go to the NBA in America to find out if I were any good. It's the same with fiction. You find the most demanding readers and you write for them."

Married to a New Yorker, Lee has been visiting the U.S. for twenty-five years, and soaking up the cultural nuances. He really loves his adoptive country. "It's one of my earliest memories," he says. "Imagine 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 kids' books called "My Home In ..." and the only one our library had was "My Home In America." There were twelve pages, each with a big color illustration of a home ... there was a prairie farmhouse, a Californian bungalow, a New England Colonial ... and my favorite, a Manhattan apartment with a little boy sitting by the window, looking down at the city below. Right away, I knew I wanted to be that boy..."

Now he is that boy. After years of dreaming, he moved to the U.S. in the summer of 1998. "Writing has brought me a lot of rewards. But this is the best of all of them."

Lee talked with us about Jack Reacher and Echo Burning, his move from television writer to novelist, and some of the hottest issues in television programming: censorship and the perceived decline in quality shows.

What did you like to read when you were growing up?

I started with kids' adventure and mystery stories, war stories, explorer stories ... all very escapist, I suppose, looking back. Then moved on to Alistair Maclean, John D. Macdonald, Raymond Chandler. I detoured into the great 19th century Russian classics for a while. Then modern classics, and came back to genre fiction -- my natural home, I guess.

How did you get your start in British television?

Cover of Running Blind by Lee Child
I had a brief theater background and loved the backstage world ... there's more backstage work in television, so I saw a job advertised and applied, and got it. That was back in 1977, when getting jobs was easy.

What did enjoy most about working in television?

I worked for the BBC's rival, ITV, the commercial network. What was great about it was that due to regulatory wrinkles, there was a lot of money that had to be spent on programming.

When you were at Granada television it produced some fantastic programming, such as Brideshead Revisited and Cracker. Do you believe that the quality of television has overall declined in the last 10 years?

Absolutely ... really the last eight years or so. The British regulatory system was revised, so that bigger profits were encouraged, which removed the option of big spending on programming. Quality just fell off a cliff, and all the old hands either left or were fired for being too expensive. In America, the fragmentation of the market spurred a chase toward the lowest common denominator (and the cheapest programming.) We'll never see the likes of Roots or Brideshead again, which is a shame.

The amount of sex and violence that children see on television is a hot topic in American politics right now. Should the government have a role in censoring what is seen on television or in films? Does it make a difference if the films or shows are marketed to children?

I'm opposed to censorship of any kind, especially by government.
"I'm opposed to censorship of any kind, especially by government. But it's plain common sense that producers should target their product with some kind of sensitivity. I think there should be an unspoken rule that anything shown before, say, nine o'clock will be fairly inoffensive. After that, anything goes."
But it's plain common sense that producers should target their product with some kind of sensitivity. I think there should be an unspoken rule that anything shown before, say, nine o'clock will be fairly inoffensive. After that, anything goes. If people felt they could rely on such a system, I don't think there would be problems.

What led up to the publication of your first book?

I was fired from my television job, simple as that. Well, downsized, really, a classic 1990s situation. I felt alienated by the experience and decided to stay away from corporate employment. So, how to stay inside the world of entertainment without actually getting another job? I felt the only logical answer was to become a novelist. So I wrote the first book -- driven by some very real feelings of desperation -- and it worked.

Jack Reacher is an interesting, and enigmatic character. How did you create Jack? Were there any characteristics that you were specifically trying to avoid with him?

Specifically, I was determined to avoid the hero-as-self-aware-damaged-person paradigm. I'm afraid as a reader I got sick of all the depressed and miserable alcoholics that increasingly peopled the genre. I wanted a happy-go-lucky guy. He has quirks and problems, but the thing is, he doesn't know he's got them. Hence, no tedious self-pity. He's smart and strong, an introvert, but any anguish he suffers is caused by others.

Jack is a wanderer, a hero who is a bit alienated from the establishment, but whose sense of justice is strong. He reminds me a bit of a character from the Old West: the strong, mysterious loner who never stays in town for long. Are you fond of Westerns at all, or did you read any when you were a boy?

Great point. The stories are all very contemporary, but Reacher is an old-West character for sure. He could be a Zane Grey character. But the funny thing is, I didn't really realize that until well after the first book was written, and I wasn't a big Western fan as a kid. Obviously I watched the movies and the TV shows, but I guess I wasn't aware how deeply the influence was affecting me.

The novels are very American in voice, they are not British in style or tone at all. How did you develop your sense of American dialogue and speech patterns?

Well, writers become writers because they love words and language, and attempting a non-native style is all part of the fun. Plus, I had been coming to America very frequently for many, many years, so I had plenty of exposure -- and maybe the best kind of exposure, because I think first impressions are very important. Maybe I notice stuff that is just subliminal to people who live here all the time.

I'd like to talk about your latest book, Echo Burning. What was your inspiration for this story?

Cover of Echo Burning by Lee Child
Two things, really - one was a "what if?" idea (writers spend a lot of time thinking ... what if?) about meeting a woman whose husband was due out of prison, and she really didn't want him to come out. The other was a gravestone I saw, a monument to Clay Allison, the Gentleman Gunfighter, that has an inscription: he never killed a man that did not need killing. I asked myself: what would Reacher do, confronted with a man that somebody told him needed killing?

The book has incredibly vivid descriptions of life in South Texas. Did you spend a lot of time there to soak up the atmosphere (and the broiling heat)?

Not a lot of time. I just hang out and move on, like Reacher does. I depend on first impressions, because as a drifter, that's all that Reacher ever gets.

In Echo Burning, Jack meets Carmen, a woman who claims she has an abusive husband -- but other people say she's a pathological liar. She's an interesting character; what was the greatest challenge in writing Carmen?

Cover of Die Trying by Lee Child
Simply to balance the two aspects ... I wanted readers to be genuinely unsure as to whether she's telling the truth or lying. It meant making her partly sympathetic, and partly unsympathetic, which wasn't easy.

Another interesting character is Alice, the attorney who helps Jack out with Carmen's case. She is a bit of a scene stealer, I thought. What was your inspiration for Alice?

She's a reflection of my fascination with the diversity of America ... she's totally normal in New York, but a freak in Texas. There are dozens of such clashes in America.

What's next for Jack Reacher?

Next year's book is Without Fail ... a woman Secret Service agent who many years ago dated Reacher's (now dead) brother brings Reacher to Washington DC because she needs an outsider to assess a threat against the VP. It's a tough case ... and the first time Reacher needs to recruit somebody to help him out. He uses a woman he knew in the army ... she's a fascinating character.

I'd like to talk about the day to day process of writing. Do you have a set schedule for writing? What are your surroundings when you write?

I write in the afternoon, from about 12 until 6 or 7. I use an upstairs room as my office. Once I get going I keep at it, and it usually takes about six months from the first blank screen until "The End."

When you begin a new novel, do you have the ending worked out in advance? Or is it a more organic process, where the story unfolds as you write?

"I was determined to avoid the 'hero as self-aware damaged person' paradigm. I'm afraid as a reader I got sick of all the depressed and miserable alcoholics that increasingly peopled the genre."
I have the "thing" worked out -- the trick or the surprise or the pivotal fact. Then I just start somewhere and let the story work itself out.

How has your background in television affected your style as a novelist?

I think my books come out very visual, which is an obvious consequence. I think my previous experience has helped me with dialog. But it's the "nuts-and-bolts" of the business that benefits the most -- I'm not scared of deadlines, and I'm not the sort of guy who revises endlessly because I'm reluctant to turn a product in. Not quite "don't get it right, get it written", but close.

So, you've just finished a rather long book tour. Do you enjoy touring, or do you dread it? What was the oddest thing that happened to you while on tour?

Cover of Tripwire by Lee Child
I love touring. The rest of the year is very solitary, so it's great to get out with real live humans. I love to talk about books -- mine or anybody else's. Can't think of anything odd that happened this time around. I met a few people I'd emailed with extensively -- strange to put faces to names.

What do you enjoy most about living in the U.S.? What things do you miss about England when you aren't there?

The US? Everything, I guess. The people, the weather, the food, the cars, baseball. I'm a classic happy immigrant. What do I miss about the UK? Sadly, almost nothing. Maybe the midnight sun, in June in the north. That's all.

How much do you use the Internet? Has it had any impact on your career as a novelist?

I do a little fact checking now and then. Other than that its impact is simply that email has revolutionized
Lee Child signing books on tour.
communication for me, and my website has built up a community of readers, which is a lot of fun.

When you're not working, what are your favorite ways to relax?

Listening to music, watching the Yankees, reading, staring into space.

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