Jack Reacher creator Lee Child tells us what makes his thrillers so popular

  • Books
  • Sunday, 05 Jan 2020

Author Lee Child (right) in a scene with Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher in the movie 'Jack Reacher: Never Go Back' that's based on Child's 2013 novel. A Netflix series on the Jack Reacher books is in the works, says Child, but it won't star Cruise. — Paramount Pictures/Skydance Productions

THE Jack Reacher books sell in the millions globally and have been described as “famously unputdownable” by no less than the highly respected book section in The Times. So how do you create a series that has readers continuously hooked, ever eager to discover what will happen?

By not having a plan.

Yes, that’s right, author Lee Child doesn’t start out with a plan a mind.

“Because that’s how I think as a writer. I don’t have a plan, I don’t know what the story is going to be about, I don’t know what’s going to happen. So when I’m writing it, I have the same feeling that the readers have. I want to know what’s going to happen next, and I think the fact that I don’t know makes it exciting for the reader, ” says Child, 65, in a recent phone interview from Britain, where he was on a book tour.

This strategy may seem foolhardy, particularly to authors who work by creating massive, detailed outlines of their stories before even typing a single word. But it seems to have paid off massively well for Child. His Jack Reacher books are among the most popular book series of this generation, with 24 novels (so far!) selling at least 100 million copies worldwide. According to publisher HarperCollins, one Jack Reacher book is apparently sold somewhere around the world every nine seconds.Topical issues

Who exactly is Jack Reacher? The famous character first appeared in Killing Floor, Child’s first novel, all the way back in 1997. He is an ex-military man, a former major who left the US Army’s military police at the age of 36. He now roams the country he defended, learning it anew after spending most of his life beyond its borders. He takes odd jobs when he needs to and inevitably ends up righting wrongs, usually in very dangerous situations. And that’s all you really need to know about him, actually. You have to read the books to find out exactly why this disarmingly simple character is so beloved.

Every book usually sees Reacher, described as a massively muscled 1.93m, travelling to a new place and facing a different scenario. In Killing Floor, for example, he encounters crooked cops and a counterfeiting ring; in Child’s 22nd novel, Midnight Line, he takes on illegal ophoid traders.

“He has no job and no home, and so his stories can be about anything and take place anywhere. It is not like he is a detective in New York, or bound to anywhere. And that’s what keeps things fresh for me, ” Child explains.In the latest novel, the 24th, Blue Moon, Reacher is travelling on a bus when he notices an old man sleeping with a large envelope of cash in his pocket. Another passenger tries to steal it but Reacher intervenes. Reacher then discovers that the old man is deep in debt over medical bills, and owes some bad people a lot of money. One thing leads to another and Reacher suddenly finds himself involved in a deadly turf war between Ukranian and Albanian gangs.

Like many of the Reacher books, Blue Moon is influenced by topical issues, in this case the state of the American healthcare system. The book, basically, is Child’s commentary on the situation.

“I wanted a situation where, the readers in America, they would regard that as completely normal. In America, about half a million people a year lose everything and go bankrupt because of medical bills. American readers will see nothing unusual about it, ” Child says.

“But in the rest of the world, readers will not see it as normal, they will see it as terrible. And I wanted to make a subtle point that normalcy in one country is strange in another country.”Basketball theory

Like his unplanned plots, Child’s life as a novelist was unplanned, too.

Born in Coventry, England, Child (whose real name is Jim Grant) worked at Granada Television for 18 years, writing commercials and news stories. After losing his job due to corporate restructuring, he decided to try his hand at writing thrillers. What sort of thrillers he might not have known at first but he did put careful thought into choosing a pen name: “Child” places his name alphabetically between legendary crime writers Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie.

And why did this Englishman decide to write about a quintessentially American military man for an American audience?

“One thing I learned over the years in television is you go where the audience is. And where’s the biggest, most literate and most sophisticated audience for modern fiction? In the United States, without a doubt.

“It’s what I call the basketball theory. If I wanted to be a basketball player, I’d always be second-best if I stayed in Europe. I would need to go to the NBA (National Basketball Association) in America to find out if I were any good, ” Child was quoted as saying in The Internet Writing Journal.

Child, by the way, eventually moved to the United States in 1998; his wife, Jane Grant, is from New York.

While Reacher is tough as nails, his name has more genteel origins, from an encounter the tall and lanky Child had in a supermarket. An old lady, noticing Child’s long arms, asked for his help in reaching a can of peas on a high shelf. Seeing this, Child’s wife laughed that even if he couldn’t make it as an author, Child could be a “reacher” in a supermarket. And thus the name was born.On screens big and small

Keeping to a theme, Child’s success was also unplanned. Instead of doing the usual hard grafting after bestsellers that most authors do, Killing Floor was a winner right out of the gate.

Since then, there has been a new Reacher almost every year. The character has definitely stamped his name into popular culture – it’s reached the point that even other authors make references to him in their works. Stephen King, for instance, mentions Reacher in his 2009 novel Under The Dome.

“A lot of readers think he’s real! Whenever I do an event or a book signing, they ask me where he is. I take that as a huge compliment, ” Child laughs.

“Reacher is a modern version of a character that’s been around for a long time. The noble loner, or the mysterious stranger. In the West, we call it the knight errant.

“I think every culture has a character something like him: a mysterious person who goes around dealing out justice. And, therefore, people anywhere in the world can react to him with a certain degree of familiarity.”

With all this success, it was inevitable that Reacher would make his way to the big screen. In 2012, the movie Jack Reacher, based on Child’s 2005 book One Shot, hit the silver screen. And who best to portray the large and initimidating, almost 2m-tall, lead character? Why none other than Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise, who stands at a towering 1.7m.

To say fans were disappointed would be an understatement. Despite this, the movie did financially well, so much so that a sequel, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back came out in 2016 with Cruise reprising his role. It is based on Child’s 2013 novel of the same name.

It was recently announced, however, that there would be no more Reacher movies; instead, a deal was struck with Amazon Prime to create a television show. This was a good decision, Child says, as a television series would give them more time to properly depict Reacher’s adventures.

The first season will be based on the first novel, Killing Floor, a script has been written and, with a bit of luck, the show will air at the end of this year.

Will we see the return of Cruise?

“No. Although Tom Cruise is a very nice man and a very good actor, he was too small for Reacher. Reacher’s size and physicality is a big part of his appeal, ” the author says.

Asked who he hoped would play Reacher this time around, Child said says he has no names in mind.

“I would like someone completely unknown, who brings no stereotype or baggage to the role, ” Child says.

What’s next for Reacher in what will be his landmark 25th novel?

Child says to ask again in a year – he doesn’t plan his stories, remember?

He does have other projects as well, one of them being Lee Child: True Crime, a true crime drama series focusing on average people who go to extraordinary lengths to seek justice.

Asked if he has plans to end his bestselling Jack Reacher series, the author says not at the moment (to fans’ relief, we’re sure).

“It’s not like it’s in my head, like, I’ll do 20 books or 30 books and then I’ll stop.

“Anyway, that kind of question really does not depend on the author, it depends on the reader. If the reader decides to keep reading, then I will write them. If the reader goes, ‘Oh I’ve had enough of this’, then I’ll stop.

“If there is an appetite for them, then they will continue, ” Child says.

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