(This is the final installment of Ali Karim’s tribute to this author. Part I can be found here. Part II is located here.)
I’ve been recounting over the last couple of weeks my discovery of British thriller writer Lee Child and my pleasant encounters with him over the last few years. With the introduction recently of Bad Luck and Trouble, his 11th novel starring American former military policeman Jack Reacher--already cresting bestseller charts in the UK (but not due out in the States until mid-May)--I was hoping to again see Child in action.
However, attendance at his reading/signings has grown substantially over the last decade, making it difficult to locate venues large enough to accommodate his fans. So my old haunt, the Waterstone’s Deansgate bookstore in Manchester, England, was completely out of the running this time around. As a result, I had to drive a bit further to the Waterstone’s (and former Ottakars) in the new town of Milton Keynes.
As is usual for Child, he kept his audience of more than 200 people enthralled as he talked about how he goes about penning the Reacher tales and answered other questions thrown his way. (A slide show from that event can be found here, while a video of Child reading from Bad Luck and Trouble is available here.) And--surprise--after this appearance was finished, the author asked me to join him for dinner. We then retreated to a nearby bar, where, over glasses of cognac, I had the opportunity to fire a few queries of my own at this gentle Englishman.
Ali Karim: So it’s taken you just over a decade to become an overnight success. How does it feel, Lee, to be the number-one thriller writer in the UK?
Lee Child: It’s been a long hard road, but one well worth traveling along. The number-one position is an indication that people like Jack Reacher, which is good to know.
AK: Bad Luck and Trouble is the title of a Johnny Winter song, while Killing Floor, the title of your 1997 novel, is a Jimi Hendrix line. What is it with the blues? And are you a bluesy person when it comes to music?
LC: Yes, totally, I think blues songs are great for book titles, because the blues uses few words and you pick up a sense from them. It gives a little flavor of what the book is going to be about, and the Winter title fitted the new book perfectly.
AK: Numbers and mathematics feature heavily in the plot of Bad Luck. Are you a mathematical person?
LC: Yes, I am in an amateur way. It’s one of the strands that runs throughout all the Jack Reacher books, that he’s good at mental arithmetic. He also likes calculations, and so it was fun to bring this aspect of his character to the fore ... I enjoyed this, as many people think that Reacher is all about rough, tough action--fighting, killing, and so on. [Yet] in the first book, Killing Floor, the vital clue was punctuation; while in the sixth book, Without Fail, the vital clue was whether there was a hyphen or not. And now in the 11th book we have a of mental arithmetic going on, and I found that fun. So it’s not all about violence, it can be about cerebral stuff also.
AK: In Bad Luck, Jack Reacher is in a revenge/retribution mode, especially evident in that book’s brutal climax. Did you find it cathartic to write this book with Reacher so angry?
LC: Yes I did, and the readers like it too, from [their] feedback. The violence and killing is really a metaphor for closure, and that is what people like, because everyone is in a bad situation at some time in their lives, and in real life there is little we can do about it. But in fiction we can see direct action taken, and that is cathartic for the reader.
AK: I’ve been reading your Jack Reacher books for years now. But I have to confess--and maybe this is because I’m getting older--but I felt that Bad Luck and Trouble was the most violent of the series and the most brutal, with people getting tortured, thrown out of helicopters, their necks being broken like twigs ...
LC: Hmm, that’s interesting, as I don’t feel it particularly different from the rest of the series. I think the real issue is the implacable approach: If you mess with Reacher’s friends or you mess with him personally, you’re in big, big trouble. I guess people would find it reassuring to have a friend of that nature, so it’s the inevitable conclusion that appears to be brutal. You know these people are going to die because they made some bad choices in picking on Reacher’s friends, and that’s why you probably perceived it to be particularly brutal.
AK: One thing I noticed in this new Reacher thriller is that the chapters appear to be particularly short. Was that a conscious decision on your part, or simply a byproduct of the book’s plot?
LC: I guess its conscious. In fact, the last two books have been that way--The Hard Way also had shorter chapters, 70 or so; while Bad Luck and Trouble, I think, has 77. Whereas the earlier ones had 15 to 20 or so chapters. It’s a way of re-labeling, because I have always broken up the books into short segments which initially appeared as page breaks within the chapters; whereas now I’m tending to label each segment as a separate chapter. But nothing has changed in terms of structure, it’s just a different way of laying it out on the page. And it’s where the market is, frankly: people need to feel that they are making progress, the gratification. It’s a bit like bite-size candy ... It’s short and punchy, making the reader read another chunk, then read another chunk, and then another chunk. [This structure] also creates a greater narrative drive.
AK: The action in Bad Luck alternates between Las Vegas and California. Did you visit those locations while researching the book?
LC: Not while writing the book. I do my research backwards, as I do travel widely, and if a location makes an impression, I may well use it later. I’ve been to Los Angeles many times, while if you recall, you and I were in Las Vegas together for Bouchercon in 2003, and we had a lot fun. [Laughs]
AK: I’ve heard that Ian Fleming Publications have been onto you about taking up a continuation of the James Bond book series. Have you any regrets in turning down that offer?
LC: Twice over the period of five years they’ve asked me to write the series. [But I have] no regrets, really, because I think it is a thankless task in terms of, first, financial remuneration (as the terms were more favorable to the Ian Fleming estate than to me), and secondly, there is the technical and cultural aspect. I see this as an impossible job, as it’s now 2007--around 50 years on from the world that James Bond first appeared in. The world has changed, and one of the reasons the world has changed is because of James Bond. This country [Britain] has altered its cultural frame of reference because of things like James Bond. So any follow-up 50 years later would be somewhat self-referential, and reading the book would be like watching an ABBA tribute band--i.e., what’s the point?
AK: I noticed that you are one of the judges in the new Daily Mail/Transworld Publishing writing competition. So, as an old pro yourself, do you have any suggestions for budding thriller writers who contemplate submitting work to this contest?
LC: Yes. Firstly, just get it done--finish it. Secondly, do not under any circumstances listen to any advice. And thirdly, write exactly what you want to write; it’s an organic product, not a laundry list of ingredients. Write what you want to write, even if you feel everyone will hate it. That’s the only way of having a living, breathing manuscript that has a chance of winning.
AK: Finally, as we approach “Reacher’s Dozen,” can you share with Rap Sheet readers any news about book 12?
LC: Book 12 will be out a year from now and will be called Play Dirty. It has a lonely rural setting--two towns, Hope and Despair, 12 miles apart in the state of Colorado. Hope is a nice place, Despair is not a nice place, and that’s as much as I can tell you right now.
READ MORE: “Like Dan Brown, but Better,” by David Thomas (The Telegraph); “A Reacher Moment ... or Two,” by Bob Cornwell (Tangled Web).