A Jack Reacher book is bought every 13 seconds, making Lee Child one of the world's biggest-selling authors. So what does the British writer put his phenomenal success down to? You'd be surprised. By Robert Crampton.
Although I've met Lee Child once before, eight years ago, and have subsequently watched several videos of him being interviewed on YouTube, even so, when we get together in the Times office, I'm still struck, indeed borderline shocked, by how slim he is. Not just slim, in fact, but properly thin.
It's not as if Child hasn't previously advertised or explained his body shape. Just as he thinks smoking cigarettes (a pack of Camels a day, more when he's writing) stimulates creativity, he is also on record saying hunger has a similarly beneficial effect. "It helps to stay hungry. I don't eat much at all."
How much does he weigh? "You wouldn't believe it if I told you."
Tell me anyway. "Nine stone something."
And you're 6ft 4in? "Yeah."
I press on and ask the obvious question: is he ill? "No," he replies, in his customary equable tone. "I don't have cancer. I don't have anything. I'm thin and I don't eat." What does he (not) eat? "Yesterday I had a chocolate croissant for breakfast, a small sandwich for lunch and a chicken leg for dinner. I just don't enjoy eating. I never have." What's the most he's ever weighed? "I was probably 20lb heavier at my peak, somewhere around 160lb. People assume I weigh a lot but I don't."
For the record, 160lb is 11st 4lb, or (for younger readers) 72.5kg. Just turned 65 years old, Child now weighs at least 20lb, or 9kg, less than that. When you put those stats into the NHS BMI calculator online, he comes up as underweight, the result arriving with attendant warnings about anorexia and eating disorders. It's tempting to suggest, channelling pop psychology, that Child came up with his superhero protagonist Jack Reacher (6ft 5in and 250lb, thus 18st, or 113kg, all of it rock-hard muscle, bar essential squidgy soft organs) as an antidote to his own skinniness.
Tempting, but who really cares? Not Lee Child, that's for damn sure. I suspect that if Child had ever wanted to double his own weight to match his superman creation, he would have gone ahead and done so. But I guess he wasn't that bothered. His preferred solution, smart and sensible chap that he is, was to write 24 books (and counting) about a bloke who does rejoice in those impressive kick-ass dimensions. A bloke who, as we fans holding out for a hero, Bonnie Tyler-style, must constantly remind ourselves, does not, in fact, exist.
It is important to note, as he says himself, that Lee Child likes to make stuff up.
Which is not to say, in the interview context, that he comes across as any kind of unreliable narrator. Quite the opposite. Born in Coventry, raised and schooled in Birmingham, further educated in Sheffield, resident in Manchester for many years working for Granada TV, Child is every bit the no-nonsense, straight-talking candid son of industrial mid-to-northern England he ought to be. Ask him a question, he gives you an honest answer.
For instance, on the subject of casting Tom Cruise, whose diminutive size many fans (so-called Reacher Creatures) felt made him unsuitable for the role, Child says this: "I've never seen him in bare feet. He wears Timberland boots with a decent sole on them. [But] he is absolutely average height. About 5ft 8in. All actors are small." Apart from Clint, surely? "This is the illusion! Clint Eastwood is not that huge. He's about 5ft 11in. I've stood next to him. I was at Warner Bros, the wardrobe mistress went to this refrigerated warehouse where they store all this stuff and she came back with the jacket he wore for Dirty Harry, in his prime. I put it on – the sleeve was half way up my arm.
"There's something about the camera that favours smaller people," he continues, warming to his theme. "Daniel Craig! He's about 5ft 7in. He's a tiny guy. I was on a plane with him once. The camera loves certain things. Small people with large heads. Anne Hathaway's eyes. Julia Roberts' mouth." (Celebrity heights, it should be said, are notoriously difficult to verify, but Child has actually met most of these people.)
Cruise won't be making any more Reacher films. Child had a clause in the contract that gave him the option of ending the franchise after two movies. He took it. "Cruise was reluctant. He had his own investment in it, he was gonna argue against it. It sounds extremely patronising but I think it's good for him. He's too old for this stuff. He's 57, he needs to move on, transition to being a character actor. He could get another 20 years out of it. He has the talent. He's a terrific guy, very considerate, good fun." Do they hang out? "I don't really hang out with anybody. I try to avoid people if I can."
Rather than more films, Child has done a deal with Amazon Prime Video for a season of TV shows based on his first book, Killing Floor, while also cannibalising extra action sequences from two others. Casting takes place in January. The show is scheduled for next autumn. "The dream would be to have eight seasons, three books per season."
The latest Reacher, Blue Moon, came out last month. It topped the bestseller lists in London and New York, outselling Nos 2 to 10 combined. It will go on to sell around 600,000 copies, Child estimates, in hardback and ebook, and then another 300,000 or so in paperback come the spring. In the UK, he comfortably outsells Stephen King and John Grisham. Worldwide, as the Reacher phenomenon spreads ever wider and the back catalogue gets ever longer, he sells between 12 and 15 million copies a year. Now that Harry Potter has hung up his broomstick, Child may be the bestselling author on the planet.
It is not as if he craves the critical respect to accompany the popular acclaim, but he does think genre writers fail to receive adequate acknowledgement from the literary establishment. "Everything's upside down. They assume that to do something that appeals to a huge audience is somehow easier than to do something that appeals to a tiny audience." He is also mystified by what he calls "the churning-out trope". "Because we do a book a year people think you just crank a handle and out it comes. All my peers are smart, intelligent, well informed, interested in the world; everybody puts in a huge amount of effort. It's not easy to do. This peculiar assumption that it is needs to be laid to rest. As Henry James said, 'Easy reading is hard writing.' " (I think that quote may actually be Nathaniel Hawthorne, but it's a point worth making, whoever first coined it.)
This desire to talk up the sheer craft involved in popular writing was partly why Child co-operated with the British academic and author Andy Martin on his book Reacher Said Nothing, describing the months Martin spent with Child as he wrote Make Me in his Manhattan apartment in 2015. Martin has since written a follow-up, With Child, about readers' responses to that novel. Child admits that part of his motivation for agreeing to the project was a desire for intellectual credibility. "I'm not gonna lie awake at night disappointed if I don't get it, but I just think it's fun." He comes across in Martin's books as a bright guy, serious about his prose, incredibly well read.
Similarly, when Stig Abell, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, asked him to write a monograph on the subject of the hero as a literary motif (to be published as a book and an article later this month), Child admits he was "somewhat flattered". "He's a fan of the books and it's the TLS, of course I'm gonna do it.
"I found myself starting with evolution," he says. "I'm really interested in the baggage we carry around way back in our brains. For every year that we've been modern we were ancient for 200 years. These things used to be completely essential, like tribalism. We would not be here without tribalism. Now, of course, it's a bad thing. But we will never be rid of it, it's so baked in. Nothing was ever invented unless it was gonna make you more likely to be alive the next morning. So what is the purpose of the hero? It's empowering, it's emboldening, it's encouraging."
That said, Child does not like the modern usage of the word. "I concluded that the word is so corrupted now – a crossing keeper who's worked 40 years is called a 'hero'. I also mentioned this automatic association of soldiers with hero is deeply wrong and disturbing."
Like people saying, "Thank you for your service," to veterans in the States?
"Yeah. I know a lot of those guys through the books. They hate it. They find it impertinent, embarrassing and irrelevant. Most of them are not serving their country. Most of them are doing it because it's a job. They're poor kids from Texas or Hispanics looking for a fast route to citizenship. You hear it all the time. It's all part of this faux patriotism. It's politically dangerous to lionise the military to that extent."
Reacher is a former (or, in some prequels, still serving) military policeman. It's no surprise that those in the armed forces and law enforcement tend to love the series – it is perhaps more of a turn-up that the majority of Child's readers are women. "Everybody's readers are women! Fiction is read mostly by women and I have more than my share. At the moment, the talent and energy [in thriller writing], it's all women: Shari Lapena; Karin Slaughter. Sue Grafton was great, so sad [that she died at the end of 2017]. I like whatever Kate Atkinson writes. Joanne Harris." It's evident that Reacher likes women because his creator likes women.
Generally supportive of his fellow keyboard toilers, Child has a long-running beef with David Baldacci over resemblances between Reacher and Baldacci's ex-army cop character, John Puller. (Baldacci, for his part, has admitted "there are some similarities", but has spoken warmly of his admiration for Child's work in general and his character in particular.)
"That really offended me. You would expect it from a newbie or you could expect it accidentally. I could wake up and say I've got this great idea about this LA police detective Pieter Bruegel and as soon as I mention it to somebody they're gonna say, 'What about Michael Connelly with Hieronymus Bosch?' and you forget the whole thing. But this guy went ahead and did it!"
And he was already established? "Yeah. He [Baldacci] had a great career. It was blatant copycatting and done badly. I just thought it was undignified – where is the guy's self-respect? He and I were slated to do lots of things, festivals and so on, over the past few years. He always pulls out. I think he just doesn't want the confrontation." Would he get one? "I wouldn't headbutt him but I would say, 'What the f*** were you doing'?' " Child had to satisfy himself by having Reacher beat up a character called Baldacci, breaking all his fingers.
Reacher is all about justice – rough justice, more often than not. It's no coincidence his creator studied law at university and then, when working for Granada TV in his twenties and thirties, he became a trade union rep, a role which eventually got him sacked at the age of 39. Which is when he tried his hand at writing. Back as a youngster, although he'd loved studying law "coming from lower-middle-class Birmingham, I thought, 'What kind of lawyer will I ever be?' " That said, he had attended a famous school, King Edward's in Edgbaston. "That was a big advantage, yeah," he concedes. "I was at the New York Yacht Club, one of the most snobby places you'll ever see. Some woman there was so full of it, she said to me, 'Where did you go to school?' And I said, 'Ma'am, the school I went to is 224 years older than the United States.' That shut her up."
Child's first book was published in 1997. His real name is Jim Grant. He chose Child because it was short (to fit on the cover) and it places him between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie in the crime/mystery section of bookshops. He moved to New York in 1998, having wanted to live in the city since he saw a picture of it in a library book when he was very young. His sales, fame and wealth grew incrementally, book by book, year by year. By tradition and superstition, he starts writing each new book on the same day he began his first, September 1, finishing six or so months later, ready to promote the paperback of the previous instalment.
Child lives principally in New York with his American wife, Jane. They have an apartment there and four other homes: Provence; Sussex; Wyoming and Colorado. Why Wyoming and Colorado, when they're next door to each other? "Legal weed in Colorado." Along with the Camels, cannabis is his principal vice. He may not get the munchies, but he does like a smoke.
He's currently spending a lot of time in Wyoming. "It's amazing, larger than the UK but with not much more than the population of Leicester. I have to go ten miles before I see a paved road or for my mailbox." Is he an outdoorsy guy? "Not really. I just like the peace, quiet and isolation, being connected to the seasons." Does he shoot? "I can but I have no interest in it." Own a gun? "No. I'm too irresponsible. I'd have shot somebody or shot myself."
Child and his wife have one daughter, Ruth, 39. Is he a grandad? "Ruth is gay. She would have had children if she'd met somebody early enough but she didn't. She's over that now. She's my only kid I love her dearly. She's very happy in her own company. She works as a dog trainer. She loves dogs and she's a great teacher, she looks after some celebrity dogs in ridiculous Manhattan society."
What does the future hold for Jack Reacher, I ask. Whichever way you slice it, he's starting to creak a bit, surely? There comes a point where an old bloke going around getting into fights becomes a bit silly, no? "It does, yes. It's suspension of disbelief. I just don't mention it. It's fantasy." Does he think he'll dodge the ageing problem by writing more prequels? "I think I'll do whatever I want, but I assume the reader is gonna give me a free pass. The reader always does anyway in terms of how you get into the story, which is always difficult for Reacher because he doesn't have any official role. It's always some coincidence. The reader says, 'OK, I'll buy that, but the rest of it better be convincing.' " And it always is.
Written by: Robert Crampton
© The Times of London