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Q&A: Lee Child on writing, naming and aging Jack Reacher Add to ...

Why have you chosen to tell what we might call Jack Reacher’s origin story in The Affair ?

This is the second Reacher prequel. It fills the gap between the first one and the start of the series. Along with people enjoying the current-day stories, they’ve had two long-standing questions; What was he like in the army, which was answered in The Enemy. And the second, how and why did he leave the army, is answered in The Affair.

How did you come up with the Reacher character?

It was sort of a blind process. I felt that, to make a book work, you can’t over-think it, or tailor it for male or female readers. So I metaphorically closed my eyes and wrote about whatever came out. That was Reacher. Retrospectively, I look at the character as an update of a very old figure, who comes out of 1,000 years of literary tradition: the loner, the mysterious stranger, the knight errant who shows up, solves a problem and then leaves. He came out of Scandinavian sagas and English tales of knights and survived into the American West and pop lit.

What about the name?

The most difficult thing for me in writing is coming up with character names. Usually when I’m searching for a name I look around my office until I see the name of an author, or a brand of stationery, that works. I wrote the first book without a name in mind, I was completely stuck until my wife suggested that, after I lost my broadcasting job in Britain, that, with my size [Child is 6’5”] I could be a reacher in a supermarket. It was a gift from her to me.

You’ve spoken of the influence of John D. MacDonald on your work, but I see something of Richard Starks’s Parker in Reacher. Or the obverse of Parker. Both are big, dangerous men who wander the country and resent and resist authority. Of course, Parker is a criminal.

I know the Parker novels well but didn’t begin to read them until I’d started the Reacher series. And yes, obverse is correct, exactly the obverse, since the characters have many of the same skills and dispositions. But whereas Reacher wears the white hat, Parker is a black hat.

You’re English, which surprises a lot of people, but you’ve set all these novels in the U.S. The voice and setting feel decidedly American. How do you manage that?

A character like Reacher can only operate in dangerous, frontier places. This sort of character was born in Europe when it was an empty, dangerous continent, but would not work there now. He had to be represented in America; he wouldn’t have worked anywhere else. It was a choice of fitting the character to the environment. I suppose it could have been Australia.

Or Canada? We’re vast and empty.

Possibly too empty and you might not find enough trouble.

Oh, there’s plenty, even if we don’t have militias and the like. You could always send him to the Yukon.

I might do that. The vastness and emptiness of Canada is certainly Reacher territory.

Your use of the American landscape is powerful, evoking South Dakota or Montana or Mississippi as if you’ve spent a lot of time there. Have you?

Not as a matter of research. I’m not the sort of writer who works that way. I’m usually somewhere for another reason: a reading or event. Then I start to think about the place and let it percolate for a bit before beginning to read about it. In some ways, it’s easier for a foreigner. You walk into a place. Everything is new and a first impression. A stranger has to analyze and explain why things are the way they are.

And Reacher is such a stranger?

Yes, he’s really in my position. He’s an American citizen but hasn’t lived there much, so he’s discovering the country much like a stranger. He sees everything with fresh eyes, too.

You also display considerable knowledge of the “manly” things: weapons, cars, tools, military hierarchies.

I’m just curious. I have a trivial mind, like to know how things work and what fits where. I like to operate on the level of detail and precision.

Despite the novels’ considerable violence and male fantasy elements – many of us would like to be Reacher, perhaps a combination of Reacher and James Bond – they’re incredibly popular with women. Any idea why?

I had no plan and just wrote from the gut. Initially, I felt men would like the novels but women wouldn’t be keen. I was very wrong. Women are fanatically keen on the series, and I’ve spent 15 years trying to find out why. And I think it may be that the lack of commitment, the walking away from relationships is just as much a female fantasy as a male one, perhaps more so. Reacher is the kind of man women might like to have walk up to their door and stay a couple of days, and then leave. Also, Reacher likes and respects women, and that comes through. He doesn’t patronize them. There’s no hint of sexism.

There are a lot of strong women characters in the books as well.

I like women too; I don’t see why they should always be the bimbo who twists her ankle and needs rescuing. I write women as strong creatures every bit as competent as Reacher, and sometimes more so.

In The Affair, Reacher is 36. It’s set in 1997, which would make him about 50 now. Are you planning, as the series continues, to age him? When he’s 60, it’s going to be hard for him to go into towns and beat up ruffians.

That’s one of those double-edged things. When I began the series. he had to be fully formed; couldn’t be Jack Reacher, boy detective. I made him 36, which is a peak age physically and intellectually. And then I aged him, but as the series became a success, I was faced with this problem – he’s going to get older and older. So what I’m doing is throwing in the occasional prequel and slightly de-emphasizing his age. Maybe the stories will be set a month apart rather than a year apart.

Yes, I don’t see him taking down a bingo cartel in an old age home.

No, that wouldn’t really work.

Has the success of the novels affected your own life?

It’s not like being a movie star or an athlete. Writing is anonymous; it’s the books, not the writer. I’m very rarely recognized. In New York, where I live, the culture is such that even if you are recognized, you’re not hassled. But the downside is, it’s no good trying to get a table in a restaurant.

I have to ask: The film version of Jack Reacher will be played by Tom Cruise and I’ve been bombarded by disbelieving complaints. Reacher is 6 feet 5 inches and 250 pounds; Cruise is, what, 5 foot 7 inches and maybe 150? Reacher is an intimidating physical presence; Cruise is … not. This is an important aspect of the books. Cruise is also about 50. How is this going to be handled?

The problem is that these days there are literally no actors approaching Reacher’s size. Actors tend to be small; the camera likes them better. So why split the difference between falling far short and slightly less far short? What I wanted was the actor with the most technical skill. Tom Cruise is a very skilled actor, probably the best of his generation. The film hasn’t started shooting and I haven’t seen any rushes. My guess is the acting ability will carry the day, but possibly I’m guilty of thinking too far ahead of the books’ audience. I do think people are going to be weirded out in the first five minutes, but the test is, will they forget that and get wrapped up in the story.

Wouldn’t Lee Marvin have been perfect?

There’s a generation of actors of that era who had been in the service – Marvin, James Coburn, Gene Hackman – and they have a certain gravity because they’ve had an intense life outside of acting. That generation is where my emotional centre is. If we’d been making this movie 40 years ago, we’d have had great choice. Not now. There’s another issue. You need actors who can command the budget and get good people around them.

 

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