Talking with ‘A Wanted Man’ author Lee Child

Dec 2 2012 - 8:45am


Lee Child
Lee Child

British thriller novelist Lee Child was on the phone from his newly acquired country house southeast of London.

"We've got three buildings, barns, all kinds of stuff," he said. "It's really for my wife, Jane. Even though she's from New York, she loves the English countryside."

Let's see ... there's that new estate, plus the home in the south of France ("An occasional vacation spot") and an apartment in New York City, the main residence. Right?

"Yes," Child said, then added, "Jack Reacher has been spectacularly good to me."

Jack Reacher has been Child's main character through 17 adventure novels, moving through the American landscape as a modern-day paladin who resonates deeply with the author's fans around the world. They have grown attached to Reacher -- in some instances, to a degree uncomfortably nearing obsession.

"Reacher is an equal-opportunity person," Child said. "Women (readers) respect him because he respects the women (characters) in the books. As for the men, it's a male fantasy to be like Reacher. I would be like Reacher if I was 100 pounds heavier and lived in a fictional universe."

Reacher is a savvy, likable nomad-by-choice who operates under the radar and by his own code of honor, which invariably results in justice being served. A violent version of justice, yes, but justice nonetheless.

Reacher is a graduate of West Point, served in the Army for 13 years (part of that time as an MP) and is a loner and survivor who makes his living as a "problem-solver," helping those who can't help themselves.

"Reacher is incredibly skilled at a very narrow set of abilities, but the rest of his life is chaotic and inadequate," Child said. "We see examples of that all around us. Compared to us, for instance, baseball players are superhuman at playing ball. But in the rest of their lives, they're the same idiots we are. In that respect, there is really nothing unusual about Reacher."

Except for his wrecking-crew ways and his M.O. He appears from nowhere, affects everyone around him for better or (far) worse, and disappears into nowhere.

"That is an old template, one from medieval Europe," Child said. "It fascinates me how that myth has endured over thousands of years. We've always wanted and needed a character like that (in storytelling)."

"A Wanted Man" is the new title in the phenomenally successful Reacher series (Delacorte, $28, 416 pages). Child's books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold more than 60 million copies globally.

"A Wanted Man" is the third novel in a four-title arc that began with "61 Hours" and continued with "Worth Dying For" (both published in 2010). It will conclude next year with "Never Go Back," the book he's writing now.

In "61 Hours," Reacher becomes fascinated with Susan, a woman in Virginia whose seductive phone voice sets him on an action-filled cross-country odyssey to meet her.

"In 'Never Go Back,' Reacher finally makes it to Virginia and meets the woman with the sexy voice," Child said. "Naturally, there's a world of trouble waiting for him. But it's not turning out the way people think it's gonna."

An unrelated book, "The Affair," interrupted the four-title odyssey in 2011. It tells the backstory of how and why Reacher left the Army to become a "knight-errant," in Child's words.

Though Child owns a low-mileage supercharged Jaguar, which he keeps garaged in New York City, he is fascinated by American automobiles. In "A Wanted Man" and other novels, he gives a lot of ink to the Ford Crown Victoria ("Crown Vic"), the high-performance patrol-pursuit car favored by law enforcement.

"I had a Crown Victoria once, actually," he said. "I ordered one with exactly the same specifications as the ones the FBI uses. Then I bought some of those stick-on cellphone antennas and put five of them on the trunk lid, not connected to anything.

"I rode around in that car for three years, and never had a parking ticket or a speeding ticket. People got out of the way. It was fantastic."

Child is a superstar in the realm of thriller fiction, but his own backstory tells the tale of an accidental author.

Child was 18 years into a career as a "presentation director" with Granada Television in Manchester, England, when the suits at the top decided to restructure the corporate hierarchy. Suddenly, at age 40, he found himself "broke and out of work." That was in 1995.

Desperate for an income, he concocted an unlikely American protagonist named Jack Reacher and turned him loose.

"My first book (the award-winning 'Killing Floor') came out on March 17, 1997, and sold to the movies the very same day," he said. "Not bad, considering I wrote it to keep a roof over our heads."

There's a lot going on in Child's world right now. For one thing, he and daughter Ruth, 32, have partnered to write a "Lee Child Presents ..." series of one-hour dramas for American network TV.

"The show will be like 'CSI,' " Child said. "It's really Ruth's thing, but obviously she needs my name. We'll do the pilot and see where it goes."

Also, Child recently wrote the lengthy introduction to Random House's 2013 reissuance of the 21-title Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald. Like Jack Reacher, the late mystery writer's iconoclastic P.I. character was a "problem-solver" who operated by his own set of moral principles --- the law be damned. The books were published from 1964 to 1984.

"MacDonald had a huge influence on me, and the (Travis McGee) character was seminal for me, too," Child said. "Reacher is like a fully detached version of Travis McGee, who was semi-detached, since he did live somewhere" aboard the Busted Flush houseboat in a Fort Lauderdale marina.

Of course, the hot-button issue right now is the Dec. 21 release of "Jack Reacher," the film adaptation of Child's 2005 book "One Shot." Though all of Child's books have been optioned for movies, this was the first deal to get beyond the talking stages.

Tom Cruise will play Reacher, who is 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs 250 pounds. Cruise is 5-foot-9 and weighs about 170 pounds. Or he's 5-7 and weighs 150, depending on who's doing the estimating.

Regardless, Child's fans have been vociferously unhappy with and derisive of the disparity between character and actor, ever since the casting was announced more than a year ago.

"I'm absolutely thrilled that anybody has an opinion, but I'm more relaxed about it than the readers have been," Child said.

"People ask if I had any control (over the project). I had 100 percent control over whether or not I sold the (movie rights) to the book, yes, but I had no legal control or formal veto" when it came to writing the screenplay and casting the movie, he said.

"However, I love the movies, and I wanted a movie. If I can go to my grave having contributed one tiny thing to the world of movies, I'll be a happier man."

Years passed between the sale of the film rights and the start of the moviemaking process, Child noted. In the interim, "the books had grown big. (The filmmakers) were now dealing with a famous, well-respected series, so they were incredibly solicitous of me."

A team from Skydance Productions took Child to dinner in March 2011 to ask him what he thought of Cruise as Jack Reacher.

"I know for an absolute fact that if at that point I had thrown a hissy fit, they would have dropped the whole thing," he said. "I had a split second to make up my mind, and I thought, 'I'm happy with this.' "

"Cruise is the right guy," Child insisted. "On the outside, he's a celebrity and tabloid sensation. But on the inside, he's an old-fashioned character actor who wants nothing more than just to be the character as described in the script.

"So I thought he was right in every possible way, except physically," Child continued. "If we had to give up something, the first thing I would prefer to give up is the physical facsimile to Reacher. There were more important (characteristics) I didn't want to give up, which Cruise has."

Child sounds more incredulous than irritated when he said, "There's no reader who would dream of reviewing my next book, because they haven't read it yet. But they seem very happy to review a movie they haven't seen. I've seen the movie twice, and it's way better than the trailers."

How much longer can the Reacher juggernaut continue?

"I think about that question all the time," he said, with some wonder in his voice.

"I'm obsessed with not hanging around one year too long and letting it get embarrassing. I would like to get out at the absolute top. If I can't time it right, then I would prefer to get out early rather than late. So, how much longer can I carry on? I just don't know."

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