“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
He describes Tom Cruise as ‘a dog for work’, but Lee Child is no slouch himself when it comes to putting in hours at the desk. He has published at least one book per year since his award-winning debut Killing Floor appeared in 1997, in the process creating one of the most iconic and enduring figures in contemporary fiction. His latest offering, Never Go Back, is the 18th novel to feature 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 a bewildering array of bad guys.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, runs the old saw, especially when the ‘it’ has resulted in sales in excess of 40 million books worldwide. But Child is acutely aware of how long Reacher has been on the road, and how implausible his journey grows with each succeeding 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 spinning plates on Reacher’s behalf. “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.”
We meet in Derry, where Lee Child is appearing at ‘Killer Books’, a crime writing festival held as part of the City of Culture 2013 celebrations. He makes for an engagingly forthright interviewee, and shares with Jack Reacher an impressive physical presence, a laconic sense of humour and a reluctance to suffer fools gladly.
That latter quality came to the fore last year, when Tom Cruise played the lead role in the movie Jack Reacher despite protests from fans who believed that Cruise simply wasn’t tall enough to measure up.
“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 1997 to 1995, where he was involved in shows as diverse as Brideshead Revisited, Prime Suspect and The Jewel in the Crown. “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, and steeped in storytelling, Jim Grant turned to writing thrillers to pay the mortgage, choosing the pen-name Child because it would place 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 over the years, and includes a plethora of awards, but Child takes exception to the way the crime / thriller genre is criticised, and particularly in terms of its use of language.
“One of the thing 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 something of a tongue-in-cheek title. For the past four books now, since 2010’s 61 Hours, Reacher has been attempting to make his way back from the wild west to Washington DC in order to meet Susan Turner, a woman he knows only from his dealings on the phone, and who currently holds Reacher’s former position with the Military Police.
Things, you won’t be surprised to learn, do not go to plan. Susan Turner is utterly different to how Reacher had pictured her in his head. Four books after he first imagined her, Susan Turner also arrived on the page very differently to how Lee Child had originally perceived her character.
“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 continues, “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’ve never written high,” he says forcefully. “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?” He laughs. “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,” he adds, “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?’
“You can’t fake it,” he says. “You’ve got to be interested in it yourself. You can immediately tell, I think, when people have run out of gas and they’re phoning it in. That’s why the system I use is to write and see what happens. As a writer I suffer from that illusion, even though I’m a rational person, that while I’m writing it’s all actually happening. That this is happening. Sometimes my editor will say, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if this took place after this bit does?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, probably. But it didn’t.’”
Never Go Back by Lee Child is published by Bantam Press.
This interview was first published in the Irish Examiner.