Smokin’

With a new book out and a Jack Reacher film on its way, Lee Child con­tin­ues to ride high, writes Kevin Maher

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HIS name is Jack Reacher. He’s 195cm and 113kg. He’s a for­mer Amer­i­can mil­i­tary po­lice of­fi­cer who kills drug deal­ers, ter­ror­ists and white su­prem­a­cists with his bare hands. He drinks cof­fee. He’s got nice eyes. And, in the time it’s taken you to read this de­scrip­tion, at least four of the wildly pop­u­lar ad­ven­ture nov­els in which he stars have been pur­chased. No, hold on. Make that five. And take a breath. Re­lax. Now it’s six. Look out the win­dow. Seven. And so on.

In a world of of­ten over-hyped pub­lish­ing num­bers, the most in­tim­i­dat­ing statis­tic of all is the fact, re­cently cor­rob­o­rated by The New York Times, that a Jack Reacher novel is bought some­where around the globe ev­ery four sec­onds. Or, put it this way, by 2010 more than 40 mil­lion Reacher nov­els had been sold in 75 coun­tries. Less than two years later the fig­ure has jumped to more than 60 mil­lion in 95 coun­tries and 40 lan­guages.

Now the Reacher fran­chise is about to go into turbo-drive, cour­tesy of a block­bust­ing Hol­ly­wood adaptation with Tom Cruise in the ti­tle role (I know. Teeny-tiny Tom Cruise? 195cm? 113kg? More later.)

And that’s not even to men­tion the im­mi­nent pub­li­ca­tion of Reacher’s Rules: Life Lessons from Jack Reacher, a guide for the unini­ti­ated that brings them into Reacher’s world via tips on sur­viv­ing bar brawls and spot­ting sui­cide bombers. Fi­nally, and most im­por­tantly, there’s also the lat­est Reacher novel, A Wanted Man, in which our hero cracks a car­jack­ing case that leads di­rectly to a for­ti­fied ter­ror­ist base on US soil. The book, like the pre­vi­ous 16 Reacher nov­els, is des­tined for best­seller lists the world over and, when com­bined with the im­mi­nent Hol­ly­wood hoopla, might even push the stats ma­chine right over the edge — a book sold ev­ery sec­ond is surely the ul­ti­mate goal?

All this, you would imag­ine, would leave Reacher’s cre­ator, the 57-year-old Birm­ing­ham na­tive Lee Child, in a hys­ter­i­cal and os­ten­ta­tious Ar­mani-clad heap. But no. On the sunny, eighth-floor ter­race of his Lon­don pub­lish­ing house, Child is calm, dryly amus­ing and wholly phleg­matic about his record­break­ing suc­cesses and re­wards.

He’s ru­moured to be worth $US17 mil­lion ($16m), for in­stance. ‘‘ In terms of my net as­sets? Yes, that’s prob­a­bly about the right ball park,’’ he says, with a shrug. ‘‘ It means very lit­tle to me. If I was a rock star and be­came a mil­lion­aire at 19, it would’ve been much more haz­ardous. But when you be­come a mil­lion­aire at 45, it has much less of an im­pact.’’

Child, who lives in New York with his Amer­i­can wife, Jane (they have a grown-up daugh­ter, Ruth), is an im­pos­ing 193cm. He smokes and drinks syrupy black cof­fee throughout our in­ter­view. He’s wear­ing a cheap blue suit (he got it on­line for $US200) that he will dis­card, he says, within the next fort­night, af­ter pick­ing up an­other on­line — it’s eas­ier, he says, than do­ing laun­dry. And, in con­ver­sa­tion, he reg­u­larly drifts into hard­boiled prose; on hu­man­ity, for in­stance, he growls: ‘‘ In the­ory, I love peo­ple, but very of­ten I don’t like them in re­al­ity.’’ These, in­clud­ing the dis­pos­able cloth­ing, are key Reacher traits. Has Child blurred into Reacher? Is he liv­ing Reacher’s life?

‘‘ In re­al­ity, he’s liv­ing my life,’’ Child says. ‘‘ In that you write what you know and what di­rec­tor at Granada Tele­vi­sion dur­ing a ‘‘ re­struc­tur­ing’’ cull, is aware he isn’t writ­ing Joyce. And yet he doesn’t apol­o­gise for the com­mer­cial na­ture of his fic­tion. Reacher’s mother, for in­stance, was con­ceived as a French ci­ti­zen solely to ap­peal to no­to­ri­ously tricky French pub­lish­ers, while Child’s nom de plume (his real name is Jim Grant) was cho­sen be­cause it would mean he was stacked close enough to book­shop doors to catch in­com­ing cus­tomers at their most alert.

‘‘ But art is a trans­ac­tion,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s cre­ated, it’s con­sumed and only then does it ex­ist. For me, there was no point in writ­ing a book if no­body was go­ing to read it.’’

Equally, the ar­rival of the cel­lu­loid Reacher in a big, brash com­mer­cial movie (the film is sim­ply called Jack Reacher) is a good thing, de­spite the fact that the ac­tor play­ing him could fit inside one of Reacher’s cheap denim trouser legs. ‘‘ No­body in Hol­ly­wood looks any­thing vaguely like Jack Reacher,’’ says Child, launch­ing straight into the Tom Cruise de­ba­cle — many Reacher fans are hor­ri­fied at the idea of Cruise play­ing their beloved gi­ant.

‘‘ And the truth is that the height spread be­tween the tallest and the short­est A-list ac­tors in Hol­ly­wood right now is four inches (10cm). Is that re­ally worth ar­gu­ing about?’’ He says he’s spo­ken ‘‘ a lot’’ to Cruise about the char­ac­ter. ‘‘ Cruise is a big star, with all the bull­shit that goes with it. But you don’t get to be a big star un­less you’ve got ba­sic abil­ity.

‘‘ And he’d al­ready fig­ured out how to do it for him­self — how to do Reacher on screen. This is a very smart guy.’’ Nonethe­less, he adds, per­haps wor­ried that he’s taken too many sips of the cor­po­rate Kool-Aid, ‘‘ I am the sole source, and Reacher will al­ways be the pure Reacher of the books for me.’’

The cen­tral al­lure of the books, and their driv­ing force, is the pri­mal rage in Reacher to­wards in­jus­tice of any kind. Orig­i­nally, back in 1995, this came di­rectly from Child’s ex­pe­ri­ence at the hands of his in­dif­fer­ent Granada bosses; he says he adored his job, over­see­ing shows such as Prime Sus­pect and Cracker, and would have hap­pily con­tin­ued un­til re­tire­ment. But surely he can’t still be nur­tur­ing that same bit­ter­ness to­day? ‘‘ You know, that’s a well that never dries, and I was sur­prised by that,’’ he says. ‘‘ It threw me into a rage, and I imag­ined that it would fade away with what­ever I did next. But it hasn’t. It’s 17 years later, and just last week I woke up in the mid­dle of the night in a rage over it. It’s just that old feel­ing that won’t go away.’’

And yet, it goes deeper still. Reacher’s alien­ation and out­sider sta­tus is in­ti­mately con­nected to Child’s early years in Birm­ing­ham. Grow­ing up as one of four boys in a lower mid­dle-class fam­ily (his fa­ther worked for the In­land Rev­enue), he says he felt unloved by par­ents who were ‘‘ hope­lessly Ed­war­dian, and per­pet­u­ally dis­ap­pointed by their chil­dren’’.

Mean­while, his school days were an end­less source of mis­ery. ‘‘ Back then, if you were clever in pri­mary school you were os­tracised for be­ing too big for your boots, and then you went to a fancy high school where you were os­tracised for not be­ing good enough. I spent lit­er­ally ev­ery mo­ment of my child­hood not fit­ting in for some rea­son.’’

Child stud­ied law at the Univer­sity of Sh­effield, where he met and mar­ried Jane (she was study­ing arche­ol­ogy). They are about to cel­e­brate their 37th wed­ding an­niver­sary and, al­though Child’s suc­cess has bought them two prop­er­ties in New York, two in the south of France and one in Eng­land’s East Sus­sex, he says she is un­moved by his fame. ‘‘ She’s known me since way back, so she doesn’t think about it one way or an­other,’’ he says.

Nor is she both­ered by the ‘‘ Reacher Crea­tures’’, the le­gions of fe­male fans who flock around Child when­ever he ap­pears at sign­ings and con­ven­tions. These women adore Reacher’s mas­cu­line sin­gle-mind­ed­ness and chival­rous de­fence of the un­der­dog. Do they ever throw them­selves at Child? ‘‘ Well, y’know, I get, um, I get, um,’’ he be­gins, coyly stuck for words for the first time. Propo­si­tioned? ‘‘ Yes. All the time,’’ he says, chuck­ling with dis­be­lief. ‘‘ At the con­ven­tions they come up and let me know what their room num­ber is. In my of­fice I’ve got car­tons where I toss the in­com­ing mail. And one car­ton is full of knick­ers.’’

Even more bizarrely, he says, some of the Reacher Crea­tures’ in­tense love of the char­ac­ter can push at the edges of re­al­ity. ‘‘ At some con­ven­tions I’ll get ab­so­lutely nor­mal, smart­look­ing, well-dressed and pros­per­ous women ask­ing me, ‘ Is Reacher here?’ And I’ll say, ‘ Yes, he is. But he doesn’t like crowds so he’s out in the park­ing lot.’ ’’

Reacher, Child re­veals, isn’t go­ing to last for­ever. ‘‘ I’m to­tally aware, hav­ing just watched the Olympics, that the eter­nal ques­tion is, ‘ When do you re­tire?’ Is Usain Bolt go­ing to re­tire? Prob­a­bly he should. Paul McCart­ney? The Bea­tles should’ve bro­ken up af­ter Sgt Pep­per . . . So, how long can the se­ries last? I don’t know. But I’m in­ter­ested in that is­sue. Not to do one book too many. Bet­ter to do one too few.’’

He says he has no plans to write any­thing else af­ter he re­tires Reacher but, ac­cord­ing to his own cal­cu­la­tions, there may not be much time for a leisurely re­tire­ment, as a life of caf­feine and tobacco ad­dic­tion and di­etary aban­don fi­nally takes its toll. ‘‘ I’m prob­a­bly go­ing to last a few more years,’’ he says, ca­sual to the end. ‘‘ I might make it to 60.’’

And then what? ‘‘ I’ll ei­ther die of lung can­cer or heart fail­ure. But I have no fear of dy­ing. My wife and daugh­ter would be up­set for a while, but they’re in­di­vid­u­als, and they’ll man­age with­out me. And if you ask me about it, in the end I’ll say that my 60 years have been a hell of a lot more in­ter­est­ing than your 90, or your 100. Be­lieve me.’’

Which, in its tough, un­com­pro­mis­ing essence, is prob­a­bly the most Jack Reacher thing Lee Child has said all day.

Lee Child

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