Sunday, August 19, 2007

Interview with Lee Child--Part I

We contacted Lee Child while he was in the midst of a book tour. His webmaven, Maggie, was kind enough to set up an interview. Since Lee's website is a treasure trove of interviews(, Maggie noted that "some of the questions have been asked and answered often enough for Lee to really appreciate a fresh take."

The gauntlet hit the ground and so did I. First thing, I called in reinforcements. I asked Linda Hengerer ("She Who Knows All Things Reacher") of the Florida Chapter of MWA for assistance.

And we were rewarded! Lee appreciated how interesting the questions were. And we appreciate his candor!

Q. John Dalton, a novelist and writing instructor, says that authors should try to find the perfect action or situation that "defines" their characters. In his book Heaven Lake, that happens early when the protagonist tries to make friends in China by clumsily buying-and overpaying-for a stick of gum that he does not need. That becomes the central metaphor for the book: How in our eagerness to be well-regarded we may act obsequious, and therefore, invite disrespect. Can you think of a scene in your books that best "defines" Jack Reacher? A scene that perfectly illuminates his character? Does that happen in every book?

A. Well, maybe Dalton would say I overdo it, but every Reacher book contains a string of such defining scenes. In a sense, readers ask only that they see Reacher "do stuff" ... and obviously he's going to do stuff in his own way. I didn't consciously plan it that way - I write entirely by instinct and don't care to delve too deeply into the process in case I upset it (to paraphrase Yogi Berra, I can't write and think at the same time) - but in retrospect I see that the first defining scene was the very first scene I wrote, which was the opening of Killing Floor. Reacher is about to be arrested - he's correctly foreseen what's going to happen, in itself characteristic - and he makes sure he has paid for his cup of coffee before he's hauled away ... that's right there on the second page I wrote, and it was immediately picked up as indicative of Reacher's moral compass, his ability to compartmentalize, his cool nature.

Q. You have noted that women like your books, and when asked they gave four reasons: 1.) women have a keener sense of injustice than men do 2.) women still find it difficult to express anger in ways that are socially acceptable 3.) women find Reacher attractive 4.) women like that Reacher is the ultimate "no strings-attached, one-night stand" because he's guaranteed to move on without entanglements.

A. Actually, as I recall it, reasons #3 and #4 above were amalgamated as the fourth reason, and reason #3 was, "Reacher respects women," which is pretty much what you went ahead to say. He's a post-everything guy. Post-feminist, certainly. Equality is a settled question for him.

Q. You grew up as one of four brothers. Where and how did you develop such high regard for women, and especially a fondness for strong, smart, sassy women? Does Reacher's willingness to trust women, even in high risk situations, stem from knowledge of his mother's work in the French Resistance?

A. Over the years I have come to understand that as a person, my biggest strengths and weaknesses stem from the fact that I was born without the "faith" gene. I am completely unable to accept anything - either explicit or implicit - unless I have proved it or experienced it for myself. In some ways, that's a pain, but in most it's useful. Thus, although I grew up in a male-dominated household back during a very traditional era, my mind remained a blank until I had formed my own conclusions. All my friends were girls, I enjoyed their company ... still do, almost exclusively. So the short answer is that I learned for myself that women are at least equal with and very often superior to men.

Q. You have said you are surprised that women like Reacher despite the fact he is "unhygienic." We've never looked at him that way. Do you say that because he doesn't do laundry? He showers daily (when possible) -- doesn't try to avoid it. Gets a shave and haircut in One Shot. And then there's that famous toothbrush. (Five of which will be auctioned off at Sisters in Crime's Forensic University of St. Louis's Muddy Brew-Ha-Ha Party on November 3, 2007, to benefit the Crime Lab Project Foundation.) Comment?

A. It's what I hear. I guess our consumer culture demands so much now. Reacher certainly maintains himself to an adequate degree - as you point out- and in practice it's all a person needs to do. But it doesn't match current standards, and some readers express discomfort with that. Makes one wonder how the human race ever got this far.

Q. Unlike James Bond, Reacher isn't a "heat-seeking missile." Reacher seems to regard sex as a way of communicating, comforting and responding to attraction, but not as target practice. In one interview, you said that Reacher wouldn't have sex with a woman who was emotionally vulnerable. Is this part of Jack Reacher's "play fair" attitude? Is it because he hates bullies? Have your male readers ever complained that Jack isn't more of a"Jack-the-lad"?

A. Reacher sees sex as a fun mutual pastime. He avoids partners who might be seeking more transcendence. In part it's because of his fair-play attitude. In part it's me as a writer moving away from the James Bond/Travis McGee trope, where the guy was so awesome in the sack that women could get healed by it. Reacher's good, but not that good. I'm not sure that anyone is. Some male readers have a "he should get laid more" thing going ... but I ignore it.

Q. In Bad Luck and Trouble, Karla gives him her zip code in the bank deposit breakdown -- but he'd already told her he doesn't make plans, so he gets on a bus not heading for NYC, knowing that Karla won't be waiting for him or devastated when he doesn't show up. Does Reacher feel more comfortable leaving a woman, or not making a commitment, knowing he hasn't given any false promises about what he can or can't give? Or is it because an emotionally stable woman can handle what an emotionally vulnerable woman couldn't? Your thoughts, please.

A. It's a question he doesn't even understand. He knows and they know he won't show up. They say stuff like that as a fondness, not a realistic proposition. And the point is the women understand completely. He's often described as a "love them and leave them" type of guy, but that's lazy. At least half of the time it's the woman who breaks things up. It's a Catch-22- he likes smart women, but smart women understand it won't work.

Q. You faced bullies as a boy growing up in Birmingham. (I've been there, and I got the impression it's a "hard scrabble" type of place: no wimps need apply.) You were a union shop steward when you left Granada. You've created an avenger, Jack Reacher. And in all circumstances, you and Jack are willing to sacrifice everything for what's right. Tell us about that strong impulse to do the thing that cannot be done. Where did it come from? How has it shaped your life?

A. I was born without a faith gene, but to compensate I got a huge belligerence gene. And a rather unattractive arrogance gene. Most of the time - hell, all of the time - I would rather slit my wrists than back down. Physically, intellectually, it's all the same to me. If you push the wrong buttons, I'll destroy you and your family and piss on your ancestors' graves. It's not an attractive way to live, but I literally cannot envisage an alternative. In my defense I would say that I also seem to have a Robin Hood gene working ... in serious matters I'm almost always doing it for someone else. But I have constant trivial fights. Like right now, they're trying to call me for jury duty. But I'm not eligible - I'm not a citizen. Prove it, they say. Can't prove a negative, I say. Xerox your green card, they say. Illegal to photocopy government ID, I say. I quote US Code at them. I tell them I assume they have lawyers working in their building. On and on we go ... stupid and pointless, but I hate being told what to do.

Look for Part 2 of our Lee Child interview in this blog next month.

Meanwhile visit Lee Child and his books at His most recent novel is Bad Luck and Trouble. Lee will be a guest author at the Love Is Murder on Dark and Stormy Nights Conference in Chicago.

**Midnight Ink will release Joanna Campbell Slan's debut mystery Over Exposed in the Fall of 2008. Linda Hengerer is working on her first novel.


Mark Terry said...

Well, there you go. A sign from God. I've got 50 or 60 books on my TBR (and growing wildly and unrelentingly out of control) and after dithering around with a couple book choices, I settled with "Bad Luck and Trouble."

Then I read this.

Must be fate.

Bill Cameron said...

You can't go wrong with Reacher, Mark!!!

Mark Combes said...

I won't spoil it, but there is a scene in "Killing Floor", the first in the Reacher series, that made me say "wow" out loud - I never saw it coming. I was hooked!

One can learn a great deal from how Lee builds tension within a scene. I can't remember the book, but there is a bar scene where he breaks a guy's finger and it takes about a page to get to the climax. You know it's coming, but the tease is so delicious.

And I'm glad to hear that he describes himself as an "instinctive" writer. I'd say the same about me. Does it sound right? Does it FEEL right? These are the rules for me.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is one of my favorite reads, so this interview was a treat.

I've also had the pleasure of getting to know him a bit personally (he even blurbed my first book!). He is at all times gracious, witty and humble.

Once, I showed up at a book signing of his in Pasadena to say hello. I arrived just as the signing was over and it was just him and the usual small cluster of adoring women (naturally). When I stepped up, Lee gave me a kiss on the cheek. I know every woman there was thinking "Who the hell is she?" :)

Keith Raffel said...

Joanna, Congrats on a terrific interview!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I'm glad you all are enjoying this. Lee and his webmaven Maggie have been very kind to me. But a kiss on the cheek?

Like I keep saying, "I want to be Sue Ann Jaffarian when I grow up."