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Lee Child on Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise, and 'The Affair'

Lee Child talks about Jack Reacher – his quirky and wildly popular creation – and how he started writing thrillers in the first place.

By Erik Spanberg / October 12, 2011

Lee Child says years of writing for TV taught him a crucial lesson: Writing is "about the audience. The audience comes first, second, and third."

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An ATM card, a passport, and a toothbrush.

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Those are the possessions of Jack Reacher, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound former Army MP who drifts into precarious situations no matter how far afield he wanders. Reacher is laconic, violent, and fond of coffee and cheeseburgers.

He’s also, of course, one of the most popular characters in contemporary fiction.

Former British TV producer Lee Child, 56, created Reacher, giving his hero the physical prowess to right the wrongs he encounters. Unlike many recurring characters in mystery and thriller novels, Reacher bears few scars, save a couple of physical blemishes from previous battles and skirmishes.

He dispenses justice without regret, has a strong sense of justice but never broods and enjoys life off the grid. (Among other quirks, he doesn’t have a driver’s license and stopped paying taxes after leaving the Army in 1997.) Reacher lacks both mental and physical baggage, opting to throw clothes away when they’re dirty and buy new ones, typically at whatever discount store can be found.

The latest Reacher adventure, The Affair, has just been published, the 16th book in the series. It answers a question long posed by Child’s avid readers, the so-called Reacher Creatures: What made him leave the Army? For Child, the possible plots for his creation seem infinite. Work has already begun on a new novel and the first movie based on the series, starring Tom Cruise, was scheduled to begin shooting last month.

Child, who divides his time between New York and France, recently spoke with The Monitor about Reacher, the wonders of Helen Mirren, and other topics in a telephone interview. Following are excerpts from that conversation:

"The Affair" deals with the early part of Reacher’s career and why he left the Army. Why did you want to tell this story?

Because readers have always wanted to know two things, essentially. They’ve gotten used to Reacher as he is now and they’ve always had two questions.

What was he like when he was in the Army, and that was answered in the eighth book, called "The Enemy," which was a prequel and it was set during his military service. And the other question I’ve always had, of course, is why did he leave the Army. So that is the question this book answers. It’s the 16th book, people have been asking this questions for years and they deserve to find out.

You had lost your job in television when you wrote the first Reacher book. Given what’s going on in the economy now, it’s somewhat of an uplifting story, but how concerned were you in 1995 when that happened?

You’re right, it’s happening all over again. There was a wave of it back then and there’s a wave of it now. I was pretty concerned. With one-half of my brain I was terrified, basically, because I was just coming up to 40 years old. That’s not a great time to be out of work and I felt too old and too tired to start at the bottom of something else. And I didn’t want another boss and that kind of thing.

The other half of my mind, I just played a psychological trick on myself. I knew that you couldn’t do this if you were worried about it, so I just assumed that it would work. I just made myself 100 percent convinced that it would work. Which is a ludicrous thing to do because saying that you’re going to make a living writing fiction is a bit like saying you’re going to get hit by lightning twice on the same day that you win the lottery. And it happened.

How difficult was the first book and how long did it take?

It took five months and it was really not difficult. I was in such a sort of burning rage about everything, I was just full of energy and it came quickly.

Why make him a drifter?

That was a reaction against everything else. I believe, in general, if you can see a bandwagon, it’s too late to get on. Everybody else had their series running that were employment-based and location-based. In other words, their guys were a cop in L.A. or a private eye in Boston or whatever. Why compete with things that were already so good? Let’s do something entirely different: no job, no home, let’s see how that would work.

And an ATM card, a toothbrush, and a passport, right?

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