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