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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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?
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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.