Sunday, September 16, 2007

Interview with Lee Child, Part II

Q. Your work in television comes through in your books. Jack notices every detail, almost as if he were a camera slowly panning a scene. Your dialog rings true. But what I really enjoy are lines like: Reacher, alone in the dark, with a gun. They have an almost cinematic feel—sort of like the climax in the movie High Noon. One reviewer called that scene, “…the film's most famous, memorable shot - a dramatic reverse high-crane shot in broad daylight, the camera pulls up and away from the lone, abandoned and frightened figure of the Marshal, leaving him dwarfed by the buildings on either side of the town's dusty street. He is a solitary man implacably forced to confront destiny and face the real issue at hand.” This so reminds me of Jack Reacher and his various situations. How did you “invent” these phrases? They don’t have verbs, so did your editor ever question them? Was it purposeful technique or happy accident?

A. Phrases like that are kind of cinematic - almost like stage direction. So they serve that purpose. But they're also very writerly. They form standalone eight-word paragraphs, which are important in a macro-rhythmic sense. And the absence of verbs causes a subliminal stumble in the internal rhythm of the sentence, which trips the pulse forward a beat - like a 5/4 time signature in music. I'm very conscious of rhythm and pacing and propulsion, in a quasi-musical way. So they're entirely purposeful. Editors don't question grammatical issues at all, which is just as well, because my grammar is very vernacular and stylized. Deliberately, I would point out. I know the rules. I had a full-on classical education in one of England's finest schools, reading Latin, Greek, Old English, stuff like that. So I feel OK about it.

Q. Sometimes the situations Jack gets into are so totally impossible, I can only remind myself that he must get out of them or the series would end. Do you ever box yourself into a corner? You’ve said you don’t work with outlines. What do you do when you get stuck? Or do you get stuck?

A. Yes, I don't outline, so I get stuck all the time - not impossibly stuck, because I have a good sensor for impossibility, and never have to scrap anything and start again - but I get plausibly stuck in the same way that Reacher would if this was real ... which makes the resolutions compelling, I think, because I'm getting out of jams along with Reacher, in real time ... we're both thinking, what the hell do I do now?

Q. The Jack Reacher books are an unusual series because the character keeps moving around. There is a recurring cast of characters in different books (Leon Garber, Calvin Franz, Frances Neagley) who come from his days in the military. People he feels he can count on. In the two books with Frances (Without Fail and Bad Luck and Trouble), a point is made about her aversion to being touched, and possible abuse as the reason-- is there any plan to see Frances again, possibly needing Reacher's help to deal with a recurrence of that situation?

A. I don't make plans, so I can't really say either way. It's possible, but unlikely. In general I try to stay away from recurring characters, although there have been a few, as you point out.

Q. This occasionally recurring cast of characters is different from a supporting cast of secondary characters. It almost seems like each book starts from scratch. Is that freeing for you or does it ever make it difficult for you as a writer? How do you keep the series fresh? Do you ever sit down to write a new book and think, “Okay, crud, now what?”

A. The lack of a secondary "soap opera" cast was a deliberate decision, and each book does indeed start from scratch, and I think that makes it much easier to keep the series fresh. It's very freeing. I think it's much more likely that I'd be sighing, "OK, now what?" if I had given Reacher a fixed job in a fixed location. Each new page one would be the same old same old.

Q. It’s fascinating that you’ve created an iconic American hero, and yet you’re a Brit. Tell us about America. Remind us what’s right about our country. We could use a pep talk about now.

A. It's tough right now. Anyone except the most rabid partisan would have to agree that things are pretty bad at the moment. I swing between thinking that this is the best country in the world and the least-worst. But overall what's right is how little is wrong. There's a solid good-hearted, humane consensus that about 75% of the population seems to share. What distorts it is the 50-50 split that politics seems to enforce. But that by definition is superficial.

Q. Okay, free association time:

David Beckham - Wimbledon. (Not the tennis, the soccer club. Very early in his career, the young Beckham scored an amazing goal against Wimbledon - a sixty-yard shot from his own half, when he saw the opposing goalie out of position. It was a defining moment for him ... the perfect start for a star-to-be. I could have said, "Washed my car," because he did, a couple of years previously, when he was a lowly apprentice and when I worked for a Manchester TV station and drove to Manchester United's training facility.)
ThrillerFest - slick. (The first fest was very well organized - bright, professional, optimistic. I'm writing this in advance of the second, but it should be just as good, or maybe better.)
Clark’s shoes - ugly.
Marmite - essential.
Manhattan - home.
Aston Villa - a long and winding road.
Reacher Creatures - love 'em all.
Princess Di (You’ve seen that tunnel in Paris. Who would take it going 80 mph?) - Indifference. Hundreds - even thousands - of people were killed that night in cars around the world. Diana was probably the least worthy of them all.

Q. What question have you always wanted to be asked that no one ever asks? Consider it asked!

Actually I like being asked the same questions over and over, because eventually I figure out the real answers. So the new long-term project is, "Why do you tell stories at all? What are you trying to escape?" I'll let you know the answer when I figure it out.


Lee Child will be one of the Featured Authors at Love Is Murder on Dark and Stormy Nights, February 1 thru 3, 2008 at teh Rosemont Wyndham O'Hare, Rosemont, Illinois. For more information, go to


Mark Combes said...


Part two is just as enjoyable as part one. As we learned in the first part of the interview, Child is an instinctive writer and that is clearly demonstrated here in his answers. It's comforting to know that one of the greats WORKS in the same manner as I do. I just need to figure out to WRITE as well he does....

Joe Moore said...

Lee Child has also been named as the guest of honor for SleuthFest 08. The conference is sponsored by the Florida chapter of MWA will be held Feb 28- March 2 at the Deerfield Beach Hilton. For info, visit

Joanna Campbell Slan said...


I know...I know...wouldn't it be great if we all had his instincts? I suspect so much of this was honed in his educational background and his work on television.


Joanna Campbell Slan said...


As you know, I've attended SleuthFest and I think it's just a grand conference. I also highly recommend Love Is Murder. Both conferences have a warm, nurturing environment and an easily atmosphere that encourages learning and mingling.

See you there!


Mark Terry said...

I recently read "Bad Luck and Trouble" and enjoyed it a lot. For a second there I thought Reacher was going to settle down, you know, buy a suitcase, maybe even a second shirt...

Joanna Campbell Slan said...


We are auctioning off five Jack Reacher toothbrushes at Forensic U. You probably know that...but just in case you have a hankering to make like Jack, we got you covered!


G.M. Malliet said...

Great interview.

If you haven't heard Lee Child speak, make it a priority to attend a conference where he's appearing...he's a hoot.