Prolific Jack Reacher novelist Lee Child tells TANYA SWEENEY how rejection from his TV job inspired him to go on and sell more than 100 million books
Whenever Lee Child’s Belfast-born father wanted to choose a book, film or TV show to enjoy, he had one unyielding motto: “The same, but different.”
It’s a curious mantra for a writer who has started a novel every September 1 since 1997, but so far, Child says, it has stood him in rather good stead.
“I don’t want to write the same book every year, but I know that familiarity and comfort — a reader knowing what they will get — is important,” he notes. “I like that it’s similar and comfortable.”
Still, The Midnight Line, the 22nd title in the best-selling Jack Reacher series, is a story of the ex-military cop charged afresh. As a wanderer with no job and no fixed abode, Reacher can stumble pretty much anywhere on to his next mission. In this case, he finds his next cause in a small Wisconsin town, when he happens upon a pawn shop. For Child, Reacher’s unencumbered status is part wish fulfilment, part tribute to an age-old trope.
“This connects back to a character that always existed: the mysterious stranger, and the noble loner who shows up in the nick of time, saves the day and rides off into the sunset. It was invented thousands of years ago and has stayed popular for a reason.”
Reacher is in other ways a different breed to other crime protagonists: “Going back 20 or 30 years, there was always the damaged, dysfunctional hero who literally and metaphorically had a bullet lodged close to his heart,” explains Child. “It was great initially, then got copied and every character) became a miserable ex-alcoholic with a teenage daughter who hated them. Reacher was a leap back to when heroes were much more uncomplicated. He has loneliness and regret and is eccentric about other things, but he’s not one to gaze at his navel about it.”
Child, born in Coventry in England but now based in New York, makes no bones of the fact that his decision to write crime novels was primarily born out of financial impetus. The reason Child sits down to start a new book every September 1 (he aims for 1,500 words a day, cranking it up to 2,000 “in a panic” after Christmas) is because that’s precisely the date he was made redundant from his job as an ad/news story writer at Granada Television in the UK.
The redundancy was by dint of corporate restructuring, but at the time, Child was sore about it. And in the same way that Reacher is a man preoccupied with revenge and justice, Child found the same thirst for revenge “the perfect motivator”.
“There’s that saying isn’t there? ‘Living well is the best revenge’ — it was kind of like that,” he recalls. “I just wanted to kill them all [at Granada]. I used a lot of their names in the early books as the bad guys.
“Being made redundant was awful at the time, but if you look at it positively, you can say to yourself, ‘well, I have some skills now. I’m not the idiot I was when I was 20’.”
Of working at Granada during a golden age when they were producing Brideshead Revisited, Prime Suspect and Cracker, he says: “The one thing I learned was that it was all about the audience. In TV, you hear from the audience really quickly.”
To say that Child had the last laugh is understating the case somewhat. With over 100 million books sold in the Jack Reacher franchise, it’s estimated that a title sells somewhere in the world every 20 seconds. Further cementing the franchises’ top-tier status were two film adaptations: Paramount optioned One Shot and Never Go Back to create two Jack Reacher action thrillers starring Tom Cruise. The films were released in 2012 and 2016 respectively.
Did he get involved in the creative process? “I stepped back and said, ‘off you go’,” he says. “After my own experience in TV, I knew you can’t do good stuff by committee. The team wouldn’t have been productive with a writer looking over their shoulder, so I told them I’d be supportive of it,
Tom Cruise had the internal engine of Reacher... we had a lot of fun just talking