Thriller writer Lee Child (born Jim Grant) spent almost two decades working in television in his native Britain before threats of industry downsizing convinced him that the time was right to re-create himself as a novelist.
His first book, Killing Floor, was published in 1997 and introduced the character who has gone on to star in every one of his novels since: Jack Reacher, a former military policeman—and aspiring knight errant—who drifts from one American town to the next, getting involved in various troubles and trying to win justice for people in need. And if a modicum of violence is required to make that possible? Well, the cunning, loner-ish Reacher isn’t averse to applying physical force when logic and reason fail.
Stephen King characterizes Child’s novels as ideal “manfiction,” explaining that Reacher “satisfies the most elemental male daydream, which is at bottom quite sweet: to ramble around and help out when help is needed. Possibly with a Beretta, a blowtorch, and a submachine gun.”
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A Wanted Man, Child’s 17th Jack Reacher novel (following last year’s The Affair), is his latest. He agreed to answer a few questions about his upcoming release, Tom Cruise’s casting as Reacher in a film version of 2005’s One Shot, and how he thinks he still might improve as a fiction writer. (Ed note: This interview first appeared in our BEA issue.)
Can you tell us something about the plot of A Wanted Man?
It picks up right on the end of Worth Dying For , the last-but-one novel. The last scene of that book sees Reacher set up hitching rides at an Interstate exit in Nebraska, and the first scene of A Wanted Man sees him get in a car with three people…and he quickly realizes they’re all lying about where they’ve come from and where they’re going.
In a way, A Wanted Man is the third in a real-time odyssey that began with 61 Hours. In that book he decided to head for Virginia to find a woman he spoke with on the phone, and we’ve followed his journey more or less hour by hour since then. He hasn’t gotten there yet, but maybe he will next year.
Is A Wanted Man a book that you’ve hoped to write for a while?
Yes, in that it has a very compressed time scale…no down-time, no sleeping, just full-on pace, trying to match the speeding car on the Interstate. I try to never write the same book twice, and this one was a lot of fun to do.
In fact, you’ve been quoted as saying, “I write each book as if it were my first and last book.” So how do you keep things fresh for yourself after all this time? And would you change things up if you knew for a fact that you could compose only one more novel in your life?
I made a decision at the beginning to give Reacher no job, no location and no ongoing context. He’s a man on his own. At the time I was trying to map out a distinct alternative to the employment-based and location-based series already being done so well by others, but an unconsidered benefit has been that each story can be set anywhere, and be about anything. Every page one can be radically different. Reacher is not a P.I. waiting in his office for the unexpected blonde, he’s not a cop handed a case by the lieutenant he doesn’t trust…that’s what keeps things fresh for me.
If I had time for just one more book, it would be Die Lonely, which would end Reacher’s life along with mine. Hopefully, I’d make it as far as publication day.
More than a few of your fans were surprised by the announcement last summer that 5-foot-7-inch actor Tom Cruise would portray 6-foot-5-inch Jack Reacher in a movie version of One Shot. Is it fair to call that casting choice a bit of reach?
I write the books as books, with no thought at all to eventual adaptation, so it’s no surprise it has taken 15 years to get one to the screen. Reacher is a) huge, b) smart, c) taciturn and d) internal, and there are literally no actors who go four-for-four with that.
For a long time we were a little hung up on the “a) huge” item, which led us up a lot of blind alleys. Then we found an actor who loved the books, totally, totally understood them, wanted to play the part and had the chops to get it all on the screen…and that was Cruise. He’s a star and an idol and a celebrity and all that stuff, so people forget he’s technically a fine, fine actor. He’s 100 percent Reacher and 90 percent of the bulk, which for me is better than 100 percent of the bulk and 90 percent of Reacher.
I understand you have a bit part in the One Shot film. What do you do on screen? And were you wowed at all by being invited onto the set?
I play a desk sergeant in a police station who signs Reacher out after a night in jail. Blink and you’ll miss it, but it was a complex, moving camera, walking and talking two-hander between Cruise and [co-star] Rosamund Pike, and it was fun to watch a hundred great professionals at work. I wasn’t wowed, because I’ve been on a thousand sets, and all the tiny inside-baseball cues and clues told me this was a happy cast and crew and the movie is going to work big time.
Even after all this time, are there still areas where you think you could improve as a novelist? Or talents that you realize you just don’t have as a fiction writer?
I could improve almost everywhere, and almost everything will be forever beyond me. But the one magic thing I’ve learned is that we’re all the best in the world at writing our own books. So I don’t worry about the skills others have that I don’t, because the reverse is equally true.
What do you say to readers who complain that Reacher is too much an archetype of the noble, highly capable loner to be credible?
Well, isn’t it the nature of an archetype, to teeter on the edge of incredibility? That’s kind of the point and the purpose. And Reacher’s skills are very narrow. He’s hopeless in a lot of other ways. He’s just a guy who’s very good at a very few things…like a ball player, maybe. Is it incredible that a guy can hit a 95-mile-per-hour fastball out of the park, but be like the rest of us in every other way? No, because we know it happens.
So let me ask: If you could change places with Jack Reacher, would you?
In a heartbeat.
Lee Child photo, above, by Ali Karim. Used with permission.