Jack Reacher author Lee Child on the art of headbutting, Brexit and his new novel Past Tense
In partnership with Penguin Random House
"People think it's a treadmill and it's really hard but come on! It's one book a year. It's a total piece of cake. But don't tell anyone that."
Lee Child is the now ubiquitous penname of Jim Grant, a former television producer born in Coventry. He started writing after being fired from Granada TV, aged 40. It's a well-told tale these days, the story of how the real-life author of Jack Reacher had a bit of that fire himself and decided that with nothing much to lose, he would venture off into the long, arduous world of writing fiction.
Except it wasn't long, or arduous. It was easy. Too easy. Child is one of few authors to have sold over 100 million books worldwide. And then there's the almost mythical fact stamped onto his latest bestseller, Past Tense, that states that one of his books is sold every nine seconds somewhere in the world.
Child has never shied away from the fact that he writes to be as commercially successful as possible. Jack Reacher, as a character, is an amalgamation of the classical Greek hero, the white knight, the lone ranger, Robin Hood, James Bond and just about every other fictional champion that has set about to tour and conquer.
As Child points out, they are all just evolutions of the same character anyway, and he compares the way James Bond uses Q's gadgets and devices with Theseus's ball of thread given to him by Ariadne, his only tool in the quest to defeat the minotaur.
Last week, news broke that Tom Cruise, the 5 foot 7 action star who has made a career out of a jawline and running on camera aggressively, will no longer play the almost impossibly popular American hero written by a man from the Midlands.
It might, might, have been something to do with size.
Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher
In the novels Jack Reacher is something of a stone golem, with Child describing his appearance as follows: “His face looked like it had been chipped out of rock by a sculptor who had ability but not much time.”
Reacher stands at 6 foot 5 inches tall, weighs almost 18 stone, and is, frankly, indestructible.
Child himself is similarly imposing in height, if not quite weight, and has a face reminiscent of the vague, chiselled handsome that one imagines his creation possessing. He believes that the decision to replace Cruise, and pivot the Jack Reacher franchise, after two films, towards a series for Netflix, is one made for the fans.
"He's a great actor and he brings an intensity and an internal sense of the character really, really well and I was totally happy with it. Not only was it fun for me but the two movies were really solid. Good performances. But you just cannot fool the reader. The readers want what they want. So irrespective of all of that, the reader's saying 'Yeah, but... he's not big enough.' That's the message I've been getting for years, so all you can say is 'Yeah, alright. We'll get somebody bigger.'"
Despite calls from fans for actors as wide-ranging as Bautista, John Krasinski and Liam Neeson (all, still just essentially very large men), Child's preference would be to plump for an unknown actor, one who, after a difficult career of being typecast due to their sheer size, would be able to carry that psychological chip on their shoulder. That of the misunderstood outsider.
Reacher, remember, is a man governed purely by logic. He shuns consumerism - as Child puts it, he simply thinks "Why would I need that?" - and has made it through most of the two-decade spanning series with nothing more than a toothbrush, a single change of clothes and, eventually, a credit card.
There is something of the grizzled, hard-as-nails antihero in Child, who has, in his own words, "done some headbutting in his time" - a Jack Reacher signature move. Whilst at the University of Sheffield in the 70s, Child was out getting fish and chips when someone tried to mug him.
Faced with the eternal dilemma of fish and chips in one hand, change in the other, and quite rightly did the only thing he could do. Drop his assailant with a headbutt. "He fell down like a tree. I went home and ate my chips," Child explains, as matter of factly as he would in his novels.
Past Tense, the 23rd instalment in 23 years, sees the titular character slowly unravel threads of his family history and confront different kinds of villains, including four men from the country who run a motel straight out of Alfred Hitchcock's psycho. Meanwhile, Reacher does what he always does and takes a detour that leads him to Laconia, the birthplace of his father. The narratives meet as explosively as a forehead and a nose.
To construct the villains that power so many of the Reacher novels, Child channels the thing he seems to dislike the most: "Arrogant people in power. People in power who think they are entitled to do whatever they want." It seems this kind of catharsis is what drives much of his writing, after he admits that he has no idea what is going to happen in any of his stories when he sits down to write them, always on the anniversary of the date he started the original, Killing Floor, with the lines now emblematic of Child's prose, and maybe his worldview.
I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired.
This aversion to the misuse of power and the inherent uncertainty that marks much of his work seem apt in the current political climate here at home, one that sees Britain face its own crisis point.
Child, for his part, is as forthright and unwavering on the subject as you would expect.
"It's a catastrophic mistake, and you really see that clearly when you live outside of the country. You know I live in America, which has a gigantic economy. And there's Russia, there's China, there's India, which is going to be huge. This isn't the right time to say: 'You know what? Let's be a little island all by ourselves.' It just makes no sense."
It makes me sick. They work for us. We put them there, we pay them. The dishonesty of the campaigns. The only honest answer to Brexit is it is unknowable. We do not know. We cannot predict. It is impossible to say what could happen. For all I know we could be absolutely fine, this place could be an absolute paradise five years from now. On the other hand..."
As we wrap up, Child admits that he doesn't think Jack Reacher could have been British because the character necessitates some sort of frontier to explore and conquer. Given our impending circumstances, you can't help think that maybe he was just 23 years too early.
Past Tense is out now in hardback, ebook and audiobook.