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.

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    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.

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.

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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?

It was about therapy for me, really. All this stuff you get bogged down into: the possessions you have, the home, the bills, the mortgage. Suppose you have none of that. I wrote him as owning nothing and not caring about it.

The not-caring is interesting because so many detectives and heroes bring all of this mental baggage to a series. Reacher doesn’t. Was that intentional?

Yes, it was. That was another of these don’t-do-what-everybody-else-is-doing decisions because you’re quite right, for 20 years before I started, somebody had invented this dysfunctional guy. This wounded guy. It just got worse and worse until people were getting really miserable. In my heart of hearts, I think that however exciting the story is supposed to be, however bad the crimes are supposed to be, people don’t really want to read about miserable people. So I thought let’s wipe the slate clean and go back to a much more pure and old-fashioned type of hero that does not drag around.

How did your television work help your writing?

It helped in a very indirect way. They’re two very different mediums. You have to ignore the specifics. But in general, the whole concept of, there’s an audience out there. This is not about me, it’s not about looking cool, it’s not about impressing my friends. It’s about the audience. The audience comes first, second, and third. That’s something I’d been working with for 20 years and it was incredibly helpful.

Was it a surprise that these books were well-received by critics?

You’re right, pulp, or whatever you want to call it, critics are very sniffy about that. I was kind of surprised that they even looked at them. Yet I do work very hard and I make a very conscious effort to make them literate. What you’ve got to realize is that it’s not enough just to have the airport readers. You’ve got to satisfy everybody. And so it’s got to be exciting, propulsive, and easy reading but at the same time it’s got to have hidden qualities that the more practiced reader can appreciate.

There will always be people who dismiss these kinds of books. But whenever something looks easy, it tends not to be. Do you agree with that assessment?

Absolutely, I totally agree with that. Henry James said, “Easy reading is hard writing.” It’s always a little bit of a triumph for me. I have a last line I use at events where I say, “If I had a dollar for everybody who says ‘I don’t normally read thrillers but I love your books ….’ ” Then I say, “Actually, I do have a dollar …”

What do you think of Tom Cruise as Reacher and how involved will you be?

I’m going out there to say hi to everybody and take a look, but I believe in letting specialists do what they do without interference. To put the shoe on the other foot, if they were calling me telling me how to write my books, I wouldn’t like that very much. I’m not going to do that to them about their movie.

The movie is always different from the book. My approach is simple: I look for the best qualified people. In the case of Tom Cruise, the best actor. I’ve worked with actors all my life. I was in television. I know actors very well. And I believe that Cruise is the best actor of his generation. He’s a great actor and he’s also a very reliable professional. He’s going to show up and do a good job.

Speaking of actors, the company you worked for in television was involved in “Prime Suspect.” Do you have a favorite Helen Mirren story?

She was relatively new back then and not too many people knew her. She has a wicked sense of humor.

She has a tattoo on her ankle of an anchor and she had everybody convinced for about a week – she told them that she was a trans-gendered sailor from South Africa. And she was so convincing that people thought, “That can’t be real, but maybe it is.” They believed her.

Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.

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