10 Questions with Lee Child
Photo by Sigrid Estrada
Lee Child is, like his style, nothing if not minimalist, reflected in his spare Lower Manhattan office (filled with maps and research books) and his appetite (like a bird’s). He seems to survive on a diet of strong black coffee, cigarettes, and pot, which he recently confessed to smoking nightly. His laconic, deliberate way of speaking is belied by a wide-ranging and fierce intelligence—never more acute than when he’s discussing the craft of writing, the nature of stories, and the perilous publishing business. Though his latest Jack Reacher novel, Never Go Back, is Number 1 all over the world, Child was, like most bestselling authors, anything but an overnight success. His worry? That new novelists may not get the same chance.
Where did the character of Jack Reacher come from?
He came from all the books I’ve ever read. He’s that archetypal Mysterious Stranger that has always been there: Robin Hood, any Western story like Shane, or Zane Grey—those are all Reacher characters. Yeah, he’s been done thousands of times, but I was comfortable with that because when I was eleven I read “Theseus and the Minotaur” in school, and on the bus going home I was reading Dr. No by Ian Fleming, and it hit me that they’re exactly the same story in every beat and every plot point. Everything has already been done. And there are two lessons about that: First, there are certain enduring themes that people love, so the fact that something’s been done before isn’t a bad thing, and second, you can’t worry about it—just do it again, only better.
It’s been said that there are only two plots: A stranger comes to town, and someone goes on a trip. The Reacher books reflect both, no?
I am fascinated by where fiction comes from and why. Nobody actually knows because the spoken word leaves no trace. But my guess is that it started earlier than music or art because it costs nothing to tell a story. So with the two plots you mention, I’d say it works like this: You’re either sitting in the cave talking about being scared of what’s outside, or you leave the cave and go over the hill and come back and tell people what you saw. I think the most powerful line in fiction, which must have originated in the cave, is “There’s something out there.”
So is the oral origin of fiction why we still talk about “voice”?
Yes. A lot of people think voice means just some vague stylistic thing, but in my opinion it’s literally a voice, because for most of our experience we’ve sat and listened to someone telling a story. Storytelling is very old—say 75,000 years old—but reading it off a page is really only about 150 years old. So the number-one New York Times bestseller of 50,000 years ago was the guy with the most appealing voice. All the great books and the great movies make you feel you are in the care of someone who’s got their arm around your shoulder and is telling you a really fascinating story.
Even so, writing is very visual, no?
Absolutely. Mine is totally visual. I’m not talking about the end result, which may or may not be visual-seeming, but as far as my process goes: I’m seeing it, and I’m smelling it, and I’m writing down what’s happening in front of my eyes. Now we’re all adults, and we know this isn’t real, but we have to think of it as real while we’re doing it. “Think of it” is not even the right phrase, because that’s already a concession; it has to be real while you’re doing it, and that runs me into a bizarre thing with editors. Editors will say, “Wouldn’t it be better if this happened after that?” and I’ll say, “Well, yeah, but it didn’t.”
So do you get edited much?
Not really. There’s no point in triumphantly publishing the next Reacher book if you’re gonna change it. But I honestly believe that the first draft—your instinctive, heartfelt product—is the best. Having said that, when you become a big bestseller, publishers are frightened of saying anything to you. We go through this ritual thing every time I deliver a manuscript, and my editor reads it—literally that afternoon or evening—and I get an email saying “This is fantastic.” Then I’ll say, “Come on, give me your notes.” I’ll have to ask three or four times before she will, because they get uptight about pissing you off.
You were not an overnight success. How did it happen?
It was the result of the old publishing model. I had a good agent and was taken on by Putnam in the US and Transworld in Britain. The book was noticed in the genre community, which back then was extensive, pre-Internet. People talked about it, got behind it, hand-sold it, so my first novel was a respectable cult hit, but the hardcover only sold 18K. Still, because I was on that old-fashioned track, the second book was supported by publishers and by retail trade—and so was the third, the fourth, and the fifth. It was absolutely a ten-year process. That was repeated over and over again, with everybody. I vividly remember hanging out in the late 90s with Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman—we couldn’t get arrested back then. Obscurity would have been a giant leap forward for any of us. But we figured if we just kept showing up every year, something would happen. And it did.
If any of that old publishing model still there?
No. It’s completely broken.
So what would you do if you were starting over now?
Well, I wouldn’t participate in the book market, and going forward who knows whether I’ll continue participating in it. Returns are getting smaller. Strategically, publishers made a huge mistake in not defending the price of eBooks. So I would probably write television. If you have a talent, you go where you’ll have the most fun and where you can make a good living. Writing books is the most fun because the people are the nicest in any kind of creative business, from the lowliest bookselling clerk to the CEOs of the companies. But if the money’s not in books or the path is broken, you’ve got to go somewhere else. Cable television has opened up a lot of fiction and drama possibilities.
What about the outpouring of really great fiction—specifically suspense and crime fiction—online and from smaller presses?
It used to be that if you loved playing baseball but you only had the major leagues, you either made it in the major leagues or you went home. Now we have triple-a ball all the way down to Sunday-in-the-park baseball, and I think it’s a good analogy because at the top of the minor leagues there are people doing better than the people at the bottom of the major leagues.
What did you think of J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling?
It’s beautifully written. She’s clearly a writer who’s in love with language and, sentence to sentence, it’s beautifully done. But it’s very standard in terms of the set up and the plot—we’ve seen it a thousand times before. And it’s easy to say in retrospect, but I would have guessed that it was written by a woman. Here’s an example: In the first ten or twenty pages, the hero is in a pub and he goes into a men’s room for a piss and it stinks of urine. Now every single guy knows that when you go into a men’s room in a public facility it smells like that. So I thought, this is absolutely a woman writer who’s ducked into a men’s room for a first impression.
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