Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Child in the Line of Fire

Lee Child speaks at Waterstones Deansgate.

This last September witnessed the publication of Lee Child’s 19th Jack Reacher novel, Personal (Delacorte Press). His UK promotional tour kicked off at the Waterstones Deansgate bookstore in Manchester--where I first met Child many years past. It was two decades ago that Child (then better known by his real name, Jim Grant) wandered into a nearby Manchester stationary store, bought a pack of pencils and an A4 pad, and started work on Killing Floor, the 1997 novel that would introduce ex-military policeman Jack Reacher to readers of thriller fiction worldwide. The rest, as they say, is history--and a lot of damn hard work.

I’ve written about Child a number of times over the years, and have become a fan of his muscular prose and bone-crunching action sequences. So I was please to dive into Personal at my first opportunity. Of the novel, Bob Cartwright has this to say in Shots:
The book commences, like other Reachers, with Jack hitching and busing across the States generally minding his own business. However, in one bus station he happens across a copy of Army Times and finds a message for him in the personal ads. He makes the necessary contact and pretty soon is being flown from the West Coast to an army base in the east.

The U.S., primarily the U.S. army, has a problem and Reacher is the only person who can resolve it. A few days before, a sniper had taken a potshot at the French president in Paris. The assassination attempt failed due to a protective screen which stopped the bullet in its tracks. So why should that concern the U.S. and Reacher? Apparently, the welfare of the French president was the object of American concern.

The real issue was that, the shot was fired from a distance of around 1,400 yards. There were only three snipers around who were proficient at that kind of distance--an Englishman, a Russian and an American. The U.S. military was patently unhappy at the prospect of one of their own potentially being involved, especially as they figure it might just be a scouting mission before the real thing--the assassination of one or more world leaders at the forthcoming G8 conference in London.
Following the “standing room only” event at Waterstones Deansgate (which can be viewed in a series of videos starting here), I met for dinner at Manchester’s renowned Argentinean restaurant, the Gaucho Grill, with Child, his author brother, Andrew Grant, Patsy Irwin (of Transworld/Random House UK), thriller-fiction nut Martyn James Lewis (shown here), and Child’s security escort, the man of mystery known only as “Brad.” While we were waiting on our steaks, I did a little grilling of my own, asking Child about Personal, his fondness for Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1971), some of the secondary characters in Reacher’s life, news of another film adaptation of Child’s work, and of course the recent hullabaloo over Amazon vs. traditional publishing. The results of our interview are posted below.

Ali Karim: What’s it like being back at Waterstones in Manchester?

Lee Child: I must have a book out if I’m back here. [Laughing] Seriously, it is a very significant bookstore for me. Before I was a writer, I was a customer here and the very first signed books of mine were sold at this store. Whenever I’ve done an event in the North West [of the UK], it’s nearly always been here. It feels good to be back at Waterstones Deansgate. It’s full of memories and great books.

AK: I couldn’t help but smile when I saw that the plot of this 19th Reacher novel revolves around an assassination attempt of the French president. For I remember that Frederick Forsyth presented you with the Crime Writers’ Association’s 2013 Diamond Dagger award. Is Personal your homage to The Day of the Jackal?

LC: I think that Without Fail [2002] would actually be my homage to Day of the Jackal, because it explicitly references Forsyth’s book. The emphasis there is placed upon the assassins planning for escape, as opposed to the [1993] Clint Eastwood/Wolfgang Peterson film, In the Line of Fire, in which the assassin knows he won’t be able to escape. As I said at the CWA Diamond Daggers ceremony, The Day of the Jackal … was Year Zero for the current generation of thriller writers; it was different, and re-set the clock, and we’ve all had to deal with it ever since. So, I didn’t mean it as a direct homage but acknowledged--for all of us, readers and writers--that Fredrick Forsyth is a giant figure, and his debut novel casts a giant shadow over the genre.

AK: So are you a fan of assassination thrillers--The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, Winter Kills, The Parallax View, etc.?

LC: Yes, I am, as you have the giant faceless machine of “the establishment” with the powerful security apparatus, multi-layered like a tentacled octopus; then on the other hand you have the lone figure, who in definition is working entirely alone. This is the ultimate thriller plot--the imbalance of power, the one against the many. So yes, I am a fan of this subgenre/theme, as it encapsulates the whole conflict paradigm that a thriller has to be.

AK: I was delighted to see that you employed the first-person narrative technique in Personal. Was this simply due to the novel’s structure, with the first-person better suited to it than third-person? Or was there another reason for your decision?

LC: Yes, though I’d put it the other way around as there was nothing in the story that demanded it be told with alternative points of view. I would always steer towards a first-person narrative, unless there is a good reason why I shouldn’t. It’s instinctual.

AK: Did you find any special delight in placing Reacher on a European panorama, and particularly back in the UK?

LC: Definitely. That was one of the key points of the novel. People had been asking, especially in the wake of the last book, how do you keep it fresh? One way is by altering the surroundings and the circumstances, because Reacher is Reacher and he will always be involved in some kind of dangerous plot, but every other detail can be different, including the location. I also thought, after doing a series of novels set against “back-roads America,” that Reacher needed some glamor in this one--although the London sections are not the glamorous parts of London, I hasten to add. I didn’t want to do a tourist-guide travelogue; hence we see Romford and Chigwell, the sort of outer London you don’t normally see.

AK: [Laughing] The East End and Essex side--and home to Shots editor Mike Stotter, though the readers of his Western tales might think he lives someplace more exotic.

LC: Not that there’s anything wrong with East London and Essex … Reacher is a fish out of water, so I like giving him some contrast in the foreign countries …

AK: As is usually the case, you pepper this latest novel with some interesting secondary players. Can you tell us a little about Casey Nice, who’s a terrific character and an excellent foil for Jack Reacher?

LC: Yes, Casey Nice is a great sidekick for Reacher. She evolved as a character during the writing process, partly inspired by the name, as it comes from a real person. You and I were just talking about my early days, and for my very first book tour--which wasn’t for Killing Floor, but for my second book [Die Trying]--a little 9-year-old girl showed up at the bookstore in Houston, Texas, with her parents; and then she’d show up every year, when she was 10, then 11, then 12, etc. And I saw her last year and she was in her middle 20s. She came up to me and we talked, and she told me she’d worked her way through college and was now working for a consultancy. She said, with a wink in her eye, “You do realize I’ve been coming since I was 9?” And I told her, yes, of course I know. So she said, “Then you should put me in a book,” and when I asked her name, she told me it was Casey Nice. I thought that’s a great name, like a throwback to an Ian Fleming type of name. Though as I’d known her since she was a child, I considered a mentor-type of relationship between Reacher and her would work--so the relationship would not be one-on-one, as equals; she’d be junior, and vulnerable and a little unsure of herself. So basically the character evolved around her.

AK: Still on the topic of secondary characters, I noticed that one of my colleagues in the crime-fiction community, book collector Tom O’Day, is name-checked in Personal. Was this purely a coincidence?

LC: Well spotted! That is indeed the Tom O’Day we all know, and that name [like that of Frances Neagely] was won in a charity auction, and I think I got a pretty good physical description of him. [Laughing]

AK: I noticed that you dedicated Personal to fellow novelists Andrew Grant and Tasha Alexander, and they are family too.

LC: Yes, they are both great writers and family. Andrew is married to Tasha Alexander, and as you know, he’s my brother. Andrew has written three espionage thrillers featuring his series character, David Trevellyan, though he has a new standalone out called Run, and I’m actually with him this fall at the launch. As it’s very tough in publishing currently, and as he’s not as handsome as I am, I thought I’d do an event with him. [Laughing]

AK: Tell us about your new Jack Reacher e-book, Not a Drill.

LC: That’s the recent e-book we’ve released--though I’m not that thrilled doing them, as I don’t consider myself a good short-story writer; I prefer the space of a novel to let a story evolve. But we’re testing that market, and last year’s High Heat I really enjoyed writing, and readers like it--whereas Not a Drill, though a solid tale, didn’t, for me, add that much more to the canon. When a writer approaches a short story, as opposed to a novel, you can experiment a little; it doesn’t have to follow the same path as the novels. For the reader, however, they often want to follow the same path as the novel[s], which is not possible when working a short story. So I like Not a Drill, but will be curious to see how readers react to it.

AK: Yours has been a rather prominent voice in the ongoing agency pricing dispute between American online retailer Amazon and book publisher Hachette. You’re on record opposing what you say is Amazon’s wish to undermine other modern publishers, to become “the only publisher.” And you were among more than 900 writers who signed a full-page New York Times ad, bought by the advocacy group Authors United, charging that Amazon is taking “selective retaliation” against writers. In August you appeared briefly on BBC2’s Newsnight program to declare that “Amazon is using ‘authors as collateral damage and using customers as pawns.’” I caught that show, and thought host Kirsty Walk was somewhat annoying in her interpretations of what you said, and in preventing you from getting your points across. How do you think your appearance went?

Child spoke about the Amazon vs. Hatchette dispute on the August 12, 2014, edition of BBC2’s Newsnight.

LC: I know, and the program format is not one that lends itself toward extended discussion. I wish we had television that did allow more time, but we don’t these days. In the context of [Newsnight], I didn’t resent her interruptions, because that is her job, what she’s got to do; but it is a big important issue, and so I did wish we had a forum that we could discuss serious issues like this in more detail and depth, not just sound bites. The general media are looking for sound bites. Then there are the online forums, where you’d expect to have an intelligent discussion, [but they] are completely psychotic on this subject. [Laughing]

AK: It’s like people have axes that need grinding …

LC: Exactly. You can’t hear anything above the scream of the axes being ground.

AK: Let’s move on to the subject of the next Reacher movie. It’s already been green-lighted, but is Tom Cruise (who starred in 2012’s Jack Reacher) still attached?

LC: Yes, in fact it’s had a green light for some time. The script is done and shooting is scheduled to start in April 2015, for an early 2016 release. [Cruise will reprise his role as Jack Reacher.]

AK: And on which of your novels is this forthcoming picture based?

LC: Never Go Back [2013], and they are planning a three-handed perspective: Jack Reacher; the Susan Turner character as the co-equal female lead; and then the young teenage girl who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter. They see the young girl as an attractive angle, given the current demographics of the cinema audience.

AK: Finally what’s in store for your 20th Reacher book? And are you still planning to write Die Lonely, marking your protagonist’s end?

LC: No, Die Lonely wouldn’t be Reacher #20, that would be Reacher #21. Possibly. [Laughing] As for Reacher #20 [which will reportedly be titled Make Me], I’ve just started, as it’s a ritual for me start a new book in September, and this September is a little sentimental for me as it has been 20 years since I started writing Killing Floor--on September 4, 1994, to be precise. I have no idea where it will go, but no doubt we’ll be sitting across a table talking about it [later], and it will all make sense.

The Rap Sheet thanks Lee Child and Patsy Irwin, of Random House UK’s Transworld imprint, for making this interview possible.


Leigh Russell said...

Great interview, where Child is more talkative than Reacher...

ktford said...

Excellent ..thank you AliKarim and Lee Child..thank you!