People We Love: Lee Child

David Thomas / 24 October 2016

The British thriller writer talks about his latest Jack Reacher novel, Night School and working with Tom Cruise on new film Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.



You once said you’d kill Jack Reacher after 21 books, and Night School is No 21, and a prequel…

I did, I said he was going to die, but realised readers would be really sad. So now, when I end it all, it’s going to be nuanced. Instead of leaving town he’ll say, ‘You know what? Maybe I’ll stay and buy a dog,’ so that people aren’t miserable.

He won’t be dead… maybe he’ll come back.

How old is Reacher now?

He was born in 1960, but I regress it a little to keep him around 50, so it’s plausible that he does what he does. I felt no different in my early fifties to my thirties, then I started to feel just the beginning of a downhill slope! I’m 62, so by now I’ve fallen off the cliff.

What do you and Reacher have in common?

He’s what I would be if I could get away with it! We wear the same clothes. We have the same disregard for the same sort of things. We think the same way.

But Reacher thinks in a hyper-rational way. A touch of Asperger’s  maybe?

Reacher would deny that. He’d say, ‘No, I’m logical’. But I think that is the fascination of Reacher: he’s an oddball. He’s very odd and yet he doesn’t know it. So there’s none of that self-pity, none of that wallowing: ‘I’m odd! I have these issues!’

Is an author as much like his villains as his heroes?

That’s a very good point and also a very scary point. It was only made to me recently and it made me really think about it. The question, ’Are you like your hero?’ is relatively benign because, typically, the hero is a good guy. But then you’ve got to accept that all of your bad guys, all the villains, are you as well. That’s a little more chilling.

You’ve made two films with Tom Cruise, what’s he like?

He’s incredibly hardworking. If you have an image of Hollywood as full of prima donnas, then he’s the exact opposite.

In the first [Jack Reacher] film (Jack Reacher, 2012), I had a cameo. But there was a production wrinkle because Rosamund Pike, who was the lead actress in it, was pregnant, so she needed her scenes to be done fast, before she became too advanced in the pregnancy. They were doing their scenes together during the day and then the Cruise scenes, like the car chases and stuff, at night.

So he’d worked all day Sunday doing the dialogue scenes with Rosamund, then he’d done his car stuff on Sunday night and now, on the Monday, it was a seven o’clock call and there were two scenes to be filmed. We did the cameo scene in the afternoon. By the time we finished, he had been working for 36 hours, straight. And he had an injured, swollen hand from one of the fights where he had hit the stuntman too hard. But he just worked and worked and worked.

Another anecdote about Cruise and his commitment is that, when the first movie came out, I wanted to have a special showing for all the backroom people at my publishers, Random House, in the Paramount screening room in Midtown Manhattan, so they felt included.

I said to Cruise, ‘Would you come and introduce the movie, just to make it more special for them?’

This was in the middle of an insane promotion schedule, but without hesitation he said, ‘Yeah, sure, let’s do it.’

He had to go in through a back entrance and hang out on the stairs and it was two hours out of his day, for no reason at all, other than he understood that here were some backroom people that would think it was fun to see the film.

I got up onstage and said, ‘I was going to introduce the movie, but I decided not to. I’ve brought this other guy to do it.’

And he went out and the place went mad. There’s a generosity about him that I find really nice. He understands that people like it and he’ll do it.

There’s so much rumour about his links to Scientology…

That’s way overblown. I’ve no sympathy for any religion. I’m an atheist; I think they’re all nuts. But in all the time we’ve spent together, he’s never said a word about it to me. That’s his private business.

In the first Reacher film you played a cop who returns Jack Reacher’s only material possession, his toothbrush, to him.

They saw that scene as very symbolic, to hand the toothbrush to him, as though the writer hands the baton to the actor. They wanted me to express some kind of qualified approval as to how he was doing, like a shrug as if to say, ‘Yeah, you’re doing all right.’

We’ve continued that tradition in the second movie because I’m in uniform again. I’m an airport security guard and Reacher is trying to get through the airport with a phoney ID. Cruise walks up to me and shows me his phoney driver’s licence and I sort of look at it and go, ‘Yeah whatever,’ and send him through.

How did Jim Grant (your real name) become Lee Child?

Years ago, my wife [Jane] and I had been at the theatre in New York and her parents’ house was a little bit out of town, so we were on the last train out. I was next to this Texan guy who heard my accent and, apropos of nothing, said, ‘I’ve got a European car.’

I replied, ‘Oh really, what car have you got?’

At that time in the mid-Seventies, Renault sold cars in the US and what we knew as the Renault 5 was marketed in America as Le Car. This guy had one, but he mispronounced it and said, ‘I’ve got Lee Car.’

That just became one of the hundreds of our family jokes: Lee-this, Lee-that. So when our daughter [Ruth] was born she was Lee Baby and, later, Lee Child. So it was a kind of sentimental reference to her.

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You’re a sentimental dad!

I’m very sentimental about my daughter. I love her. I think she’s the best ever, like any father.

She’s always entranced me, partly because obviously she’s DNA-related to me, but what I always loved, even from the earliest months, was the sensation that she had a private existence that I didn’t know about, which, of course, escalates exponentially once they start school and stuff. She is me, in a way, but is also so radically different and knows things that I don’t.

You live near New York, but spend part of the year back in England.

[Jane] is from New York but she loves the English countryside. We lived together in England for a very long time before we went back to the States and even though she’s from there, she only put up with it for a couple of years before she was, like, ‘Can’t we have a place in England?’

So she spends quite a long time here. In fact, over the last three years or so, she’s been getting her UK citizenship, so that meant she was here pretty much all the time.

I’m not a US citizen; I’m still a UK citizen only. I was going to become a US citizen, but in the end I just like not being a citizen of where I live. You get the sensation that [whatever happens there] it’s not your fault. But then living in New York is kind of like that anyway, because New York is not America, it’s a separate city-state that exists somewhere between Europe and America.

You have West Midlands roots.

One of the things that happens when you make some cash is that everybody comes out of the woodwork and wants some. So my old school [King Edward’s School, Birmingham] hauled me back in and I was actually up there in June. I was going to visit my old house where I grew up. But I Googled it first and it’s for rent. So I was able to see it online. I didn’t need to visit it. [laughs].

That’s such a Reacher thing. The idea that you go there and it’s an emotional event? Forget it!

There you go. I am Reacher.

James Bond was a hero when you were a boy.

I remember seeing the Bond movies in an earlier era. He would go to Jamaica, he would go to the Bahamas and we were stuck in this grey post-war world. And I tell you what, if I had ever said to anybody that I’ll go to Jamaica one day and play poker in a casino, the men in white coats would have come round. But time has moved on and we all do that now.

How do you feel about gun control in America?

I was once asked what I thought about New York crime during a radio interview there. I said I’d been coming here for 40 years and never had a moment’s hassle. And the DJ said, ‘Yeah, but you’re six-foot-four and look like an axe murderer.’

America’s strength comes from the Constitution. I love the Second Amendment [the right to bear arms]. Yes, 30,000 people get killed by guns every year, but 35,000 people are killed on the roads in America and we don’t ban driving. There is risk in life. If you have rules, they’re going to produce results sometimes that are negative, but you’ve got to put up with it for the positives. I feel less safe in London than in New York.

I’m safer [in the US] from irritating, petty crime, for a start. There’s really no tradition of burglary or car theft, it’s just not a thing – not like it is in Britain. When I lived here, my car was always being stolen. I’ve never had a car stolen in the US.

Tell me about working at Granada Television [Lee was presentation director between 1977-95]

My role was basically to see and be involved with everything that happened, to some extent - sometimes very limited. I’d be transmitting it, making trailers out of it, keeping my finger on it.

I remember Brideshead Revisited being made. Mike Scott was the director of programmes at the time. I saw him in the corridor one day and said, how’s it going?

His face just lit up and he said, ‘Every frame a Rembrandt!’ It was clear to us that it was something special.

I did 40,000 hours of ITV, across the entire span. Without even knowing it, you pick up the rhythms and the grammar of storytelling until it’s completely instinctive, and that’s exactly how I work.

How do you stay grounded?

I think writers are uniquely fortunate in that most do it when they’re older. I was 40 when I started and 50 before I had any conspicuous success. By the time you’re 50, you are who you are. Your personality is set, your tastes are set, you don’t change. For me, it’s that old cliché: I haven’t changed at all, it’s just that now I can afford it.

Also, you can walk down the street without getting hassled. I’m not physically recognised more than once or twice a week and it’s usually very respectful. It’s nothing like an actor or an athlete.

It seems you try not to change Jack Reacher, or be surprised by him.

I believe that if you’re a reader you basically want the same thing over and over again. The comfort and the familiarity. You know you’re going to enjoy it. So I try very hard to keep Reacher exactly the same. But, of course, I change, I get older. So he does alter a little bit.

As far as being surprised goes, I’m in control not him. And if he surprises me that means I’m not in the zone 100%. I’m only 98% there.

I’ve got specific examples of this. Certain scenes where I thought, ‘OK, he’s going to bust down this door, and then he’s going to smack this guy around in order to elicit the information he needs.’ Then I get in there and he won’t do it, and I’m just thinking, ‘Well, I wasn’t concentrating hard enough. Of course he wouldn’t do it, not in those circumstances to that person.’

I think that’s a failure of the writer. The character has no independent life.

Would you ever re-edit an old Reacher novel?

I was once on a panel and the question was asked: ‘Would you like to go back and alter your first book?’ And the initial answers were, ‘Yes, because it’s awful. There’s this wrong with it, that wrong with it, that art is terrible.’

Inside of me I’d say yes, I’d agree. There are plenty of things in my first book I would cringe about. But it is dishonest to alter it. A book is who you were that year. It’s exactly like opening your wardrobe and there’s a shoebox full of old photographs from the 1970s with the terrible hair and the terrible clothes and the lapels out to here. That is who you were and you can’t go back and pretend you were someone different.

Can you tell from a book what was happening in your life at the time?

Yes I can, because it’s oddly opposite. When I’m happy, Reacher is usually very cantankerous. When I’m struggling or having a bad year, Reacher is quite serene. It’s remarkable.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is on release. Night School is out Nov 7 (Bantam Press)

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