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Lee Child: “I never believed in writer’s block”

The prolific creator of Jack Reacher thinks the obsession with his coffee- and cigarette-fuelled process is pure pretension.

By Kate Mossman

The plug for Lee Child’s laptop didn’t stretch all the way from the wall so he had to run an extension lead across the floor. It was 1 September, a few years ago — the day, every year, on which he started a new Jack Reacher novel. The sight of the extension lead bothered him, so he directed his energies into designing something to house it. He conceived of several boxes painted in camouflage green and connected with thick pipes in an L shape, four feet high and six feet wide. The boxes, which he sketched out, would have Department of Defense model numbers on them, and dials and knobs. He researched where to get labels made from stamped aluminium, to make them look “authentic”. One label would read “Model No. 110 Fiction Generator”; another, on a large rotary dial, “Ambition Level: Edgar Winner”. A third, with a red light, would say: “Literary Indulgence Alert”.

Child never made his invention because he started writing his novel, as he always did. According to the figures his publishers like to tout, in the minute or so he has taken to describe it to me he has sold nine or ten Reacher books. He wrote 25 of them, until he stopped two years ago and tried to retire.

I am not sure which Zoom backdrop Child will appear on: his apartment overlooking Central Park, with the Renoir on the wall; his house in Saint-Tropez; his Wyoming ranch high above the Snowy Mountains, where the elevation suppresses his appetite; or his other house not far away in Colorado, which he bought because weed is legal there. But here on the screen there are thick curtain tassels and wood panels: Child is in the UK, where he was born, and now owns an East Sussex estate in 45 acres of parkland. Unlike Jack Reacher, he doesn’t drift around the world unbidden but moves “meretriciously” (dictionary definition: like a prostitute) when he can tax-deduct the airfare.

For the recent Amazon Prime series Reacher — the platform’s most successful show to date, with 1.84 billion minutes viewed in its first three days — the production team built a whole town. It is still standing, near Toronto, and has been sold to the Canadian film board. Reacher, a reluctant vigilante formerly of the US military police corps, played by Alan Ritchson, moves with hulking grace, trying to stay out of trouble, protecting the weak and punishing the sick of mind just as he did 25 years ago.

Child admires the “narcotic” quality of streaming television and says he has no idea how they achieve it, being of a different generation (he is 67). Then he adds casually: “It must be a modulation of pace through the writing, that probably slows at the one-third point in an episode and gives you the impression that you’re luxuriating in a sophisticated story, then accelerates towards the end and shoots you out like you’re coming down a water pipe into the next one.” He is clearly aware of where the narcotic quality lies.

People are obsessed with the way a novelist such as Child produces his books with mechanical regularity. He once asked a psychiatrist to explain this fascination and the psychiatrist replied that hearing about other people’s routines gives would-be writers licence to fail. We know he spends six months on each, works from noon till six, drinks up to thirty cups of coffee a day, smokes 20 Camels, and fires up a big doob to read over his first drafts while stretching out on a nine-foot sofa. But few would imagine designing a huge steam-punk cover for his extension lead to be part of his creative process; and no one really knows why Child, who is 6ft 4in and fell to just over nine stone during the pandemic, doesn’t eat when he’s working — why he gets off on the feeling of hunger. He looks fuller in the face than he did a year ago, with a fold of yellow hair at the fringe and oblong glasses. His accent puts him around 1,000 miles out into the Atlantic, his hard American Rs counterbalanced by a yawning English vowel. He worked in production at Granada TV in the golden age of 1980s TV drama, and there is something very slightly Jewel in the Crown, or Brideshead, about him, too.

“It mystifies me, the illogic of imagining that writing something that will satisfy a small number of people is harder than writing something that will satisfy a large number of people,” he says, in response to the idea that people like him “knock out” their novels. Like Ian Rankin — another writer who starts a book on the same day every year and doesn’t plan a word before he does so — Child is keeper of a mysterious, superhuman formula, apparently immune from self-doubt. With their unbeatable strike rates, their decades-long marriages and their well-publicised love of gentle vices such as beer and weed, these two have hidden in plain sight for years at the top of the bestseller lists before being elevated to Times Literary Supplement critiques as their characters hit middle age. Are they geniuses, or just proof that writing isn’t that hard?

“The view from the inside — Rankin is a great example, along with me — is that we are these grizzled old veterans who are very productive, and we’re absolutely not,” he says. “Not compared to the previous generations of pulp writers. I mean, Ian’s done, what, maybe 30 books and I’ve done 25. Georges Simenon wrote 75 Maigret novels and two, three hundred others. So here’s Ian and me regarded as productive, when 25 or 30 is nothing.

“It depends on how unpretentious you are about it,” he goes on. “I mean, if you wanted to regard it as tremendous labour, as the literati describe writing a novel — like pulling your brains out through your nose with a button hook — then you would say it’s a five-year thing that is exhausting, but it really isn’t. I was always confident that I would get it done. I never believed in writer’s block. I mean, it was a constant crisis of confidence in terms of impostor syndrome, but you have to have that. That’s the visible part of taking it seriously.”

When Child first went to New York with his American girlfriend, Jane, in 1974 (they married a year later), her father took them to the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center. After 9/11, the FBI contacted dozens of crime writers and asked them to imagine what they would plot if they were terrorists — whether they could conceive of any similar nightmare scenarios that could not be defeated.

“And I had this one theory of what you could do, and so I wrote it all out for them, and it’s a really big danger, in my opinion,” Child says. He goes on to describe, in minute detail, a potential east coast bomb plot enabled by specific security oversights in various locations and featuring an explosive detonated by cell phone. He clearly has zero fear of what might happen if this plot appears in print.

“So that is a huge, huge loophole,” he concludes, “and I guess they must understand that, but it’s just impractical to do anything about it. I thought it was quite a smart initiative to contact crime writers because we sit there thinking, how would this work? What can we get away with? So that was the submission that I made, but they didn’t do anything about it.”

He predicts, with similar coolness, problems arising in America in 2026, around the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “I think it’s going to be a nightmare. The toxicity over there is impossible to overstate, and the psychotic nonsense that is being promulgated is going to coalesce around an anniversary. I mean, that anniversary is big, it’s very significant, it is just a few months ahead of the twenty-fifth anniversary of 9/11, which will add to it, and it will invite all the worst nativist instincts. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, by the time we get to 2024, the nature of that celebration becomes one of the talking points during the election.”

Crime writers are like athletes, their working life a strange mixture of ritual and extreme exertion. When Child, who was born James Grant, started to feel old — his grasp of technology and social media is, he says, “grotesque” — he conceived of an unusual method of age reversal: he would give his franchise over to his brother. Andrew Grant (now Andrew Child) is “a younger version of me”, he says. He lives minutes away from Lee in Wyoming, is also married to an American, and was already a thriller writer with moderate success. Andrew spent a lifetime trying not to sound like his brother, Lee tells me, but the problem is he just naturally did, so now he has given in to it.

For the first Reacher novel, Killing Floor, on which the Amazon series is based, Child “really, really hit hard on this faux-naif, short-sentence, inarticulate man approach,” he explains. “I wanted it to be a very distinctive voice that I felt would be accessible to people who were not skilled readers, but also satisfying to those who were. Then I deliberately backed off that and allowed more mellifluous sentences in subsequent books. Over the span of the series, I had abbreviated the dialogue to an insane level, to the point where a three-word reply from Reacher was a long speech.”

[See also: The rise of Jack Reacher: how Lee Child created the ultimate escapist hero]

His younger brother has updated the technology in the novels and added more dialogue — in that respect, they are now written by the Lee Child of fifteen years ago. The books still bear both their names, but no one knows quite how the process works; Child talks about a “four-year plan” to transition Andrew to sole author. They are writing book three at the moment. Child claims he is “hands off” but his name is still prominent on the cover, with his brother in smaller type.

The critical reception hasn’t been enthusiastic: the Spectator described the new, less taciturn Reacher as “a loquacious pedant”. The action sequences seem slower, the detail is often arbitrary and even fans don’t like Reacher with a mobile phone. This would seem to contradict Child’s theory that people don’t care who writes Reacher, or even think of Child as a human being. He considered it a measure of huge success when a woman he met on holiday 20 years ago told him how awful she thought one Reacher novel was, “as though there was no connection between me and the book”. Random House points out that the two co-authored books, The Sentinel and Better Off Dead, have been No 1 bestsellers (the most recent sold 1.5 million copies, which is normal for Child) but it’s hard to see how they wouldn’t be, because every Reacher is a bestseller.

At fourteen, Child was left at home with Andrew, then aged three months, while his parents attended a meeting at his school. The baby had a cold, and it was interrupting his sleep. Child hung him upside down by his ankles and drained him so the snot ran out. He tells lots of good stories like this. Their father, who was born in Belfast, fought in the Second World War and had settled in Coventry with a job in the Inland Revenue; he spoke to his four sons in military and legal idioms.

“My dad was a mild-mannered sort of person, but then we would go to Belfast, and [when] he was with his dad, it all hardened up,” he recalls. “He was clearly more militant about us-against-them. The tragic irony was that, being a loyalist, unionist Belfast man, his dream was to be a professional gentleman in England, and of course they disparaged him completely. They couldn’t tell the difference between any kind of Irish person, so it was a life of perpetual disappointment for him. He was still in Birmingham during the 1974 pub bombings, which to him, of course, was an IRA outrage. But to the Brummies around him, they thought he was equally culpable.”

His father’s 12-month military service occupied a “disproportionate” amount of space in his psyche because his twentieth year fell between D-Day and VE Day. Having been to grammar school, he became an officer, in charge of 100 people. He wore the same pair of trousers for 11 months because no new kit was supplied, while fighting from Normandy and down through Germany. You sense flickers of Jack Reacher here, moving across America in his thrift-store clothes; in Child’s ambivalence towards the idea of the military “hero”; and in the memory of violence versus the attempt to lose oneself in a quiet life.

“After that, everything else was an anti-climax,” Child says. “Nothing could ever reproduce that kind of intensity. And that did colour his life. My mother as well. She was two years younger and a civilian during the Blitz: everything else was boring afterwards! But then they were very boring people, you know. It was a vicious circle, where they felt everything was an anti-climax, and caution was their watchword.”

His parents didn’t pay any attention to his writing career until five books in, when his mother heard a hairdresser talking about Reacher as she cut a woman’s hair. They asked him for a loan when they bought a new house. “It must have killed them — but then they saw some use in Reacher, for sure.”

As instinctive Tories, his parents were opposed to Child’s involvement in the trade unions of the late 1980s, a founding period in his journey towards his “revenge novel” business. (“There’s no way they would have joined the local party. They would have been, no doubt, ridiculed and shunned by what they used to call the gin and Jaguar people.”) Child attended Sheffield University in the early 1970s, in the era of the “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire”. His first sense of what he describes as “that ain’t fair, on a purely elemental level” was the Grunwick dispute of 1976: “A photo-developing lab staffed by a bunch of largely minority women, who were just getting treated like s***. The bullying, the little guy against the big guy, just really disgusted me.”

He was shop steward at Granada TV, where he worked for 18 years, between 1993 and 1995. As transmission controller for Charles and Diana’s wedding, he was so worried about not having a backup feed that he forced his engineers to pick up the BBC’s by satellite, and bootlegged 20 seconds of it when the ITV feed failed. His job in programming was “organisational, operational, editorial”, he says: his creative energies were sparked during the gradual takeover of ITV by Sky, as he ran a “guerrilla” campaign against corporate restructuring, marshalling cleaners to go through bins and printers after hours to find evidence of planned redundancies. Though a life-long Labour voter, Child says he is “not ideological at all. As shop steward, I got thoroughly sick of people and their ideology, because it’s all very well for twenty years from now if we reach utopia but actually, my members need something today. The more down-and-dirty and involved you are in day-to-day union business, the less ideological you get.” By the mid-90s, Child had a young daughter to support: she is now a dog trainer in Colorado. Writing thrillers was his revenge, when he eventually uncovered a plot at Granada to fire him, too.

In 2014, in what might be seen as an extraordinary display of self-confidence, Child agreed to have a Cambridge academic, Andy Martin, sit five or six feet behind him for several months and observe him writing one of his novels, Make Me. “It could have been Marcel Proust or James Joyce or Albert Camus,” Martin later said, “but they were dead.”

Why did he agree to it? “Certainly, early on I didn’t want to know how I did it,” Child says. “I didn’t want to analyse it in any way, because I felt that if I did, the bubble might burst. But eventually, it had happened so many times that I thought, ‘Well, it is fairly impregnable.’ And I just thought it was going to be boring for him.”

Martin shared an interest in “the forward-going, propulsive rhythm” over which Child obsessed, a fascination with commas and the splitting of sentences. He confirmed that the writer indeed did not plan his novels: he would hear Child’s cleaner banging about in the kitchen, and the word “bucket” would appear on the computer screen. That is, when Martin could see the screen: most of the time he couldn’t, because it was too far away, so the process sounds rather absurdist. In 2020, in true existentialist style, Martin claimed to have had a part in killing off Reacher when Child announced plans to retire. “I had succeeded in gentrifying him,” he said. “I took him seriously as a writer, something he had never done. It would have happened anyway, but I legitimised him, gave him quasi-academic respectability. He went from being a chancer, an opportunist, a rebel, a Birmingham boy who had cracked it, to an upstanding member of the literary establishment.”

Child judged the Booker Prize that year. However, Martin’s exercise was not really required to give him critical weight, which he had gradually amassed over the years and in the responses of readers such as Philip Pullman and Margaret Drabble. In a new introduction to Killing Floor, first published in 1997, Pullman — who picked his first Reacher novel off the shelf expecting nothing — admired the short, hard verb-less sentences and the remarkable depth in that economy. “He is a master of making information do more than one thing at a time,” he writes.

[See also: I could learn a thing or two from Jack Reacher – especially when a child tries to steal my sausage]

Having apparently retired, Child intends to spend his time listening to music. He has recently started on classical, though he hates Mozart. “It sounds to me just fundamentally unserious, twiddly-diddly-dee. Bach was so mathematical, almost insane. I think Bach is the music of insanity. But Mozart doesn’t carry any meaning.”

He is building a joint office with his brother on a plot of land they own in Wyoming. His half, he says, will be a listening room, because he doesn’t have to write any more. “I’m designing the listening room in my head, drawing it out, researching acoustic treatments,” he says. Whether he makes it is another matter. One can only imagine how Andrew Child, né Grant, must feel with the originator of Reacher sitting a few feet away, sparking up, listening to Bach as he types.

Reacher is streaming on Amazon Prime

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain