Lee Child's biographer Heather Martin chats with the Reacher Guy, exclusively for Canvas.
Heather Martin: Your father was born in Belfast, nearly 100 years ago. Your Irish grandfather was the first in the family to go to school and your great-grandfather, a miller, was illiterate. Who would have predicted that you would top bestseller lists around the world, having read at least 18,000 books and written upwards of 2,400,000 words?
Lee Child: Well, someone was going to win the lottery with numbers like those, and it happens to be me. My family trajectory was replicated millions and millions of times. Compulsory state-funded education was a wonderful thing. Each generation had more opportunity than the last, in our case by a surreal margin. Lots of us have enjoyed the advantages and are living unimaginably pleasant lives in comparison. Sometimes I wonder, though, how the miller and his reading, writing, 'rithmetic son and I would have measured up on a level playing field. I won't be sentimental about it. We'd have been about equal, probably. Which brings home how much was wasted, back when work for a miller was backbreaking and all day long, and school for his son was writing "miller" on a slate with a chalk, all paid for by the miller's wife selling eggs from hens fed on the leftover chaff, and saving the meagre proceeds for years. It's a story repeated in millions of families. We've all come a long way.
HM: You taught yourself to read and write. You couldn't wait around for school. You've always been restless, hungry for knowledge, in a hurry to get somewhere.
LC: That's true. I always wanted to know more, and know it faster. Impatience, plus indignation if I was told I couldn't do something. Like twin outboards on a motorboat. Those feelings powered my life. I'm still that way, all these years later. It has been productive, but exhausting.
HM: Conversely, you've also been remarkably patient. You say you had no boyhood dream of becoming a writer, that the thought never entered your head, not least for sociological reasons. But it's as though your first 40 years were a long apprenticeship in the craft of writing.
LC: Yes, but every writer's first 40 years were. I was always in the storytelling business, as were ex-journalists and, arguably, lawyers and so on. I was impeccably educated and very well-read, so I could write a decent sentence, as highbrow or as lowbrow as you want - but so were and could thousands of us. It's a lot of fun watching how very different paths can lead to the same result, each one equally plausible. And equally accidental – no one I knew had childhood dreams of becoming a writer. Probably those are the ones we should watch out for.
HM: You have a love-hate relationship with Birmingham. You couldn't wait to get away, but also recognise that it made you who you are. Was this partly an accident of timing? In the late-60s, when you were in your mid-teens, the city was going through a period of rapid transformation, inspired by America in the same way you were. You were both drawn to the possibility of metamorphosis.
And both somehow held at arm's length by the rest of England. Back then, if you grew up in Birmingham, you were already halfway out the door. All that old class-and-region stuff was still going strong. Birmingham was nationally derided. Effectively a kid like me had two choices: either stay in town and grow old and embittered (no doubt made worse by Aston Villa over the years) or get out and hope for the best. I did the latter but I attribute all my success to the Birmingham upbringing – do the work, and do it well.
HM: I would argue that this biographical legacy was instrumental in your decision to step away from Reacher. Writing is more a job than a vocation. Retirement was built-in.
LC: Absolutely. I was always kind of aware of that, but at first it seemed so far off it didn't matter. But then it got to be 50 years since my first paid job, and I thought, "Enough is enough." In a factory or an office I would have been getting a gold watch, more or less to the day.
HM: You like to say the books are autobiographical, that you just toned down the violence to make them plausible. I found some evidence for this claim in researching the Jim Grant [Child's real name] years. Would you agree that Reacher responds to a need in you, as he does for the reader?
LC: I think that's an inevitable conclusion. But a need for what exactly? Among other things, yes, a need to live that moment when you punch the despicable bully in the mouth, and not only execute the blow perfectly, but also get away with it. Ethically wrong, maybe but, as we noted before, I'm impatient. I'm one of a huge constituency of perfectly normal people - but we have our limits.
Is this also true for your brother Andrew, who has assumed responsibility for carrying on the franchise? It seems the logic of the handover exemplifies what your father once told you he looked for in a good book, that it should be "the same but different".
LC: We're very similar. He's more stubborn than I am. He'd wait 50 years, if he had to, to punch the bully in the mouth. He'd stay alive for the sole purpose. He's read a lot of the same stuff I have but also a lot of stuff I haven't, which will help. The idea is not to move Reacher into the future, really, but to stop him sliding ever further into the past. Andrew can do that. He's the same but different – mostly a bit newer.
Heather Martin's authorised biography of Lee Child, The Reacher Guy (Hachette, $65), is out now.