Tuesday, April 01, 2008

My Lee Child Tradition, Part IV

(Editor’s note: Last year, Rap Sheet contributor Ali Karim wrote a trio of posts [see here, here, and here] about his longstanding interest in British thriller writer Lee Child and his annual encounters with the author. We hadn’t banked on a fourth installment of that series, yet with the recent publication in Britain of Child’s 12th Jack Reacher novel, Nothing to Lose, Karim took the chance to dine with and quiz the author once more about his latest projects.)

This last week has been a time of celebration for Lee Child fans in the UK, as for the first time he scored a double No. 1 ranking on the Nielsen Book Charts with both the hardcover Nothing to Lose and the paperback edition of his 2007 Reacher novel, Bad Luck and Trouble (one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2007). I think this is a first for a crime-fiction writer. I have been unable to find any other author in the genre who has accomplished the same feat.

Child’s annual novels starring American former military policeman Jack Reacher are comfort reads for me, thrillers that offer intriguing subtext, rather than only the bone-crunching action that is offered by so many rival works. Nothing to Lose is potentially this author’s most controversial novel, because it shares with us Reacher’s views on both George W. Bush’s Iraq occupation and the so-called war on terror. It also offers a glimpse into how religion at the extremes is the provocation of real danger. I must warn you, though, that if you’re in the United States, you’ll have to wait until the end of May for the American release of this novel.

To synopsize the plot of Nothing to Lose: Reacher is drifting through Colorado when he stumbles upon two small towns named Despair and Hope, both of which will ultimately live up to their names. He soon finds himself run out of Despair by the local constabulary for vagrancy. As any veteran reader of this series could predict, Reacher decides to return to the town, sensing that something is not quite right there. After befriending a shapely cop from Hope named Vaughan, he starts an investigation, only to turn up a dead body found on the side of a road separating the two towns. After that corpse vanishes, Reacher realizes there are larger and darker forces at work around him. All of this leads to a bare-knuckles barroom brawl pitting the 6-foot-5 Reacher against Despair’s sheriff and deputies, a sequence that it is as vivid as it is violent. And amid all of this, Reacher discovers that Despair is very much a company town, dominated by one powerful employer, a giant metal-recycling plant from which trucks roll in and out at all hours. He’s also intrigued by a mysterious plane that flies over Despair at night, questions surrounding a covert army base, and Thurman, an evangelical mayor. Thurman is actually kept offstage until the middle of this book, just when Reacher and Vaughan are getting intimate. But action fans need not fear, as plenty of bad guys get their jaws broken in these pages. What’s most interesting about Nothing to Lose may be Reacher’s musings on the madness that lurks at the heart of the road separating his two fictional Colorado towns. Although this book follows Child’s debut novel, Killing Floor (1997), in terms of plotting, the peep we get into Reacher’s understanding of the Iraq war and his distaste of fanatical religion make for compelling reading. This is what I love about the Jack Reacher novels--the thought-provoking information that peppers the narrative and makes one question apparent reality.

After reading Nothing to Lose, I cleared dates in my diary to take advantage of Lee Child’s publicity tour through Britain, noting that he was returning to the Waterstone’s Deansgate store in Manchester where I first met him back in 2001. I called Patsy Irwin of Transworld Publishing to arrange another interview with Child, and she asked me to join them both for dinner after the Deansgate event.

I arrived at Waterstone’s Deansgate on the appointed night and watched as its events room filled up quickly with Child fans. This engagement was sold out more than a month ago, and many people had to be turned away. I would guess that the room’s capacity exceeded 200 people, and it was a real squeeze. A far cry from when I was one of only 30 people who showed up seven years ago at Deansgate to see Child promoting Echo Burning, his fifth novel.

Child’s events very rarely involve a reading anymore, as it appears that everyone in attendance has read whatever the new book is already. Instead, the author talked this night about the writing life, shared some thought-provoking insights into the world of Hollywood (as the push is on to find a suitable big-screen vehicle for Reacher), and of course answered questions from the audience. As a veteran of Child’s appearances, both in Britain and the States, I am always surprised at his patience and gentlemanly manner when confronted with many of the same questions he’s had to answer before, at venues in different cities around the world. But he’s come to understand the value of being appreciative toward an audience. As he wrote in response to a post on David J. Montgomery’s blog, “I don’t think there is anything I have ever done that hasn’t produced at least a couple of readers. Years later one fan told me she tried my books because I greeted someone politely at a conference, and she thought, he’s a gentleman, I should try his books.”

Following the Waterstone’s engagement, Irwin, Child, and I set off for Manchester’s Gaucho Grill, a swanky restaurant that serves the best and biggest Argentinean steaks in town--perfect for the creator of confirmed carnivore Jack Reacher. To celebrate two of his novels having reached the bestseller lists simultaneously, Child ordered the restaurant’s finest French Champagne. Steak and Champagne on a cold and rainy Manchester night--what a treat, as Child later wrote in his Nothing to Lose tour blog (scroll down to the Day 3 entry).

And while we supped and waited for the chef to grill our steaks, I did a little grilling of Child myself, tape recorder in hand.

Ali Karim: First of all, congratulations on a being a double No. 1 with Nothing to Lose and Bad Luck and Trouble. How does it feel?

Lee Child: Not to bad at all, as they said it takes 12 years to become an overnight success and it’s a fairly rare event, I believe, to have a double No. 1 in the same week. It is especially terrific for the crime and thriller genre, so I am very pleased.

AK: In Nothing to Lose, you offer readers a neo-Western set-up. So, are you a fan of the movies of Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa?

LC: Not really, I’m pretty oblivious to Westerns as a genre. I think the point is that Westerns are rooted to periods of history way back, like the medieval chivalric sagas which I am very familiar with due to my readings in English Literature (King Arthur, Robin Hood, etc.). But you can trace it back even further, as the theme is the basic human story--the idea of the nameless loner with no past and no future who just exists in the present. It is a basic human paradigm which has always been popular.

AK: And you have a great barroom brawl in this new book. Do you find the action scenes fun to write, in contrast to the more serious issues addressed in your subtext?

LC: It’s actually all the same to me when I’m writing it, as it is important for the book that one scene is as important and as well-written as the next. But when you have important issues to explore, you don’t want the hero to be a pious, sanctimonious protagonist, so the violence in the barroom brawl helps flesh him out. This is not some “good-two-shoes,” this is a guy [Jack Reacher], who will do whatever it takes, in whatever arena.

AK: You tackle contemporary themes such as the war on terror and Iraq, but it is subtly peppered within the action of your story. How important are these issues to you?

LC: They were very important that year when I wrote Nothing to Lose. With a book, you tend to write whatever is on your mind, and the Iraq war was very much on my mind, so I’m not surprised it found itself on the page.

AK: Being a fan of Richard Dawkins’ controversial book, The God Delusion, I noticed that you also touch upon the dangers of religious extremism. I have to ask: As you a religious person yourself?

LC: [Laughing] Not in the slightest. But you knew that yourself. I’m with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. … In fact, I’m probably less religious than they are.

AK: So tell us a little about the Killer Year anthology you edited.

LC: Sure, it came out in January of this year. [It involved the work of] 13 writers who banded themselves [together in 2007] as “Killer Year.” They really did all the work, as it was their initiative, but they were looking for a “name” editor to sell it to a publisher, so I was impressed by them and their initiative and said, “Sure,” when they asked me to be the editor. I was rather dreading doing the work, but as it happened, I had no work to do at all; every story that came to me was of an amazing standard. So all I had to do, effectively, was read them, put them in alphabetical order, and … write an introduction. And Laura Lippman was great coming on to write the afterword.

AK: After being drafted in at the last minute for Karin Slaughter’s Like a Charm anthology [published in 2004], you told me that was the last time you’d do it. But I see you participated in the International Thriller Writers’ 2007 project, The Chopin Manuscript. What made you change you mind?

LC: It just goes to show you should never say never, I suppose. It was exactly the same situation, but this time it was Jim Fusilli [asking]. He’s a multi-talented guy; I don’t know if you know Jim, but he’s the rock ’n’ journalist for The Wall Street Journal as well as a fine novelist in his own right [the author of both Hard, Hard City and Tribeca Blues]. So when someone of Jim’s caliber asks you to do something and it fits, you just have to say yes. It was fun to join in the chorus.

AK: I see you’re supporting an autism charity this year. How did this come about, and is autism something that has resonance for you?

LC: Yes, as it happens I think that writing as a profession tends to be over-represented in terms of having some kind of disability in the family. If you have a disabled child, as a for-instance, writing as a career is something that you can manage, as opposed to other types of careers. I am familiar (in second-hand) with what a terrible burden and problem having a disability can be. Autism is one of those scary things that we’re all somewhere on the “gray scale.” Autism is not like you either have got it, or not got it; some of us are at the happy end, while others are at the not-so-happy end of the scale. If there is some way of alleviating it or finding cures, we should all help.

AK: Can you tell us a little about the novel Even, by Andrew Grant? I gather that Grant is your brother.

LC: Yes he’s my baby brother, who’s about 15 years younger than me, and he wrote a novel, Even, and just got a publishing deal, so it will be out about a year from now. It’s very exciting--it’s a good book. It will be fun to have someone else on the scene.

AK: And is it a thriller, or general fiction?

LC: It’s a thriller. It may be a cliché, but the best possible way of describing it would be, “If Ian Fleming were to be writing in 2008 instead of 1953, this is what James Bond might have looked like.”

AK: You are voracious reader. What have been some of your recent discoveries?

LC: Well, I read that you got somewhat excited about Child 44, so I have to say that I did too. I am not sure of anything that has been up to that standard in terms of debut work; of course there’ve been many great books from my established favorites. Going back to Child 44, it really impressed me due to the context in which it is set--the peak of Stalinism in Russia. Which in reality is another way of saying that it is set in some horrible underworld. It is really set in a forest full of ogres, which is the basis of any terrifying novel. The fact that it’s set in the Soviet Union at one of the worst times in its history, is purely historical context. At its heart, emotionally, it is an enchanted-forest tale full of demons ...

AK: As a veteran of book touring, can you tell us some of the amusing things that have happened while you’ve been on your travels?

LC: Well, today we were in Nottingham for a lunchtime signing for around an hour and a half, and almost everyone in the line was called Chris. [Laughing] Not sure why that was so, maybe some regional variation. It was rather spooky. [Laughing]

AK: With bookstores and the publishing industry facing challenges, do you think we have a reading crisis ahead of us? And what can be done to improve literacy?

LC: I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna, but I have a vague feeling that reading is going to come back big-time. The thing that took people away from reading is pretty much saturated now--games, the Internet, DVDs, etc. Reading is like a virus that sleeps gently in the soil, undisturbed, and it will come back in a big way, probably with the younger generation using these new reading devices like the Kindle.

AK: Do you own a Kindle?

LC: I haven’t got a Kindle at this point. And it’s possible I’ll never get one, as, personally, a paperback book is a perfect delivery system. [But the] Kindle is something that might inspire the next generation, or they may just come back to the trusty paperback.

AK: Do you still alternate your time between New York, London, and France?

LC: I’m in New York nearly all the time now, while France is more for holiday/vacation time, and London is really only when I’m here with [my publisher] Transworld. This year I am way, way down on flights--it’s March, and I’ve probably not done more than 20 flights. British Airways has downgraded me from Gold to Silver, as a matter of fact.

AK: I know you’re a smoker. How do you cope with not smoking on all these flights?

LC: I use Nicorette Inhalers, the 15-milligram strength. One of those with a glass of wine is not quite the same as a cigarette, but combined with the canned-air, it does provide a nice sensation. I recommend it.

AK: With 12 books under your belt now, what do have you in store for Reacher No. 13?

LC: Reacher 13 might get me in Salman Rushdie kind of trouble. The sting at the end of the new book is that there is a photograph that is being hunted by a lot of different people. Nobody is sure why this photograph means anything to anybody. The photograph is of Osama bin Laden with an American, so we assume it is the American who wants to hush it up for obvious reasons, but later it emerges it’s Al-Qaeda that wants to hush it up, because in the photograph is something very embarrassing about Osama himself. I haven’t actually worked out what the embarrassing thing is, and if I have enough courage to spell it out.

* * *
The following day, during Lee Child’s appearance at Milton Keynes, I videotaped some of his more interesting comments and have made those available on the Web. Here Child introduces Nothing to Lose and talks about why his new book may court controversy. Here he offers some insights into the Iraq war. Here he talks about the use of profanity in his books. Here he muses on what it feels like to be the creator of Jack Reacher. And finally, here you will find a slideshow of our celebratory meal in Manchester and his presentations in both that city and Milton Keynes.

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