Lee Child Talks About His Latest Novel, Night School
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Lee Child
Columnist Anna Roins
Night School (Jack Reacher 21)
by Lee Child
Buy this Book
Night School, the latest in the hugely successful action thriller series by Lee Child, is a gripping prequel set during Jack Reacher’s army days and has been on the New York Times top ten best-seller list since it was published.
Never Go Back, the second Reacher film released in October starring Tom Cruise, has grossed a worldwide total of $159.7 million (to date of interview).
When a Reacher book comes out, not only does it reach No 1 in the best-seller lists, but it usually annihilates the competition. The series have been translated into 47 languages, and over 100 million copies are sold worldwide. They sell at the astonishing rate of one every 20 seconds. According to Forbes, Lee Child is the strongest brand in publishing.
(Interview transcribed from a telephone interview recorded 30 November 2016)
|“But there’s a huge difference between hoping and expecting and certainly there’s a difference between expecting and counting on it.”
AUTHORLINK: Mr Child, thank you for sharing your time with us today. We thoroughly enjoyed your new novel, Night School, and thought the film, Never Go Back, was absolutely brilliant. Did you ever hope your success would reach these heights?
CHILD: Well, first of all, I think I should hire you for my PR. That was a very, very nice summary there!
CHILD: Did I hope? I mean, yeah, you’ve got to be very exact about what words you would use at the beginning of a thing like this. I mean, hope; of course! You know, you get into something you hope is going to work and hope it’s going to succeed and reach the highest levels possible. But there’s a huge difference between hoping and expecting and certainly there’s a difference between expecting and counting on it. So, when I started out, yeah, I hoped it would work and certainly dreamed that it work, but I didn’t really expect it to work to that extent. It’s sort of in a very rarefied atmosphere. It’s in the heights that few people reach. You’d have to be a bit delusional, I think, to say, ‘Yeah, this is what I expect to happen’.
AUTHORLINK: That’s true. What we especially like about Jack Reacher is that he’s a decent, normal, uncomplicated bloke conceived, as you said once, “as an antidote to all the depressed and miserable alcoholics that increasingly people the genre, who puts injustices right”. He’s a lone wolf with no material possessions, no credit card, just a drifter in the wrong place at the wrong time helping someone in need. This ancient paradigm has been repeated since the beginning of time, across all cultures. Do you think now, more now than ever, the world needs heroes like this?
CHILD: Yeah, I mean, I think the response have ruptured at a couple of different times for a couple of different reasons. You know, the strong man who will look after you, certainly became very popular around sort of 9/11 in 2001 and then the uncomplication of Reacher’s life; the freedom from commitments and possessions seems to get very attractive after the recession thing that happened in 2007, 2008 and 2009. I think that people sort of thought, ‘Yeah, this is a pretty good way to live,’ and I think that they finally began to realise that you don’t own possessions, possession own you. And the freedom and liberty that Reacher had, I think, became very, very popular; yeah.
AUTHORLINK: Great. In Night School, there are approximately only four pages of fighting – a total of about one per cent of the novel. Your books also contain practically no swear words, and the female characters are equally matched to Reacher. Why do you think there’s a tendency to make, as you said once, “violence sicker and grosser, as a way of trying to be more cutting-edge” in thrillers, TV shows and movies as a substitute for genuine suspense? Surely the success of your novels show the opposite is true?
CHILD: Yeah, I think it’s very individual that people will respond fundamentally to the character, and you gotta stake out what you want your character to be. And, as you said, I wanted him to be straight forward and uncomplicated, and physically and mentally very overpowering, so the fights were always going to be short. You know, it’s very unrealistic the way that most fights are shown on TV or the movies or in books. They don’t drag on for a long time. Fights are usually very quick and over very fast. And I’m glad that the books are successful given all of that because there’s a sort of inflation otherwise in fiction generally where, you know, you have a book where some monster guy kills two women. And then it’s ten women and then it’s twenty women and then it’s thirty women, and it just gets ridiculous. And I think you’ve got to stick to some fundamental realism or plausibility about it. You’ve got to put in other virtues that don’t just depend on ramping up the atrocities, you know, bit by bit.
AUTHORLINK: Yeah, agreed. We understand you have a legion of hard-core fans known as the Reacher Creatures, including former president, Bill Clinton who is a ‘helpless’ fan. Is it true he sends you a handwritten mash note after finishing every book? Did he send you one for Make Me?
CHILD: Yeah. Yeah, I haven’t had the one for Night School, yet. He always writes a note of what he thinks of the book.
AUTHORLINK: Oh cool. And has he ever dared question the plot, or compared the films? [laughs]
CHILD: [laughs] No. I’m not sure that he’s seen the movies. But no, he’s never…he doesn’t give me notes; just reacts like a fan, yeah?
|“I don’t think I’m doing anything that special. What I think I’m doing is just portraying reality in that women are just as tough as men, probably more so in all sorts of ways . . .”
AUTHORLINK: All your books feature strong, capable woman (as most are in real life) because you hate that decorative sidekick bimbo that we traditionally see in this genre. Why do you think many male authors don’t write about women in the way that you do; that other women can respect?
CHILD: I’m not sure why. I think… cause I don’t think I’m doing anything that special. What I think I’m doing is just portraying reality in that women are just as tough as men, probably more so in all sorts of ways, and so I think it’s an honest portrayal, really. Especially the kind of women that Reacher bumps into in law enforcement or military or professional, like lawyers or whatever. Those are some pretty ferocious women.
|“I think, writers in general are perpetually curious and just hungry for information and impressions and of course, we read a lot and we watch a lot of movies and TV and we talk to a lot of people . . .”
AUTHORLINK: Yes, agreed! You usually don’t research, preferring to use your imagination and to mine your experiences first-hand. Stephen King asked you once, “How do you know so much about the army?” And your thought was, I think, that you’re not sure that you do; but that if you write confidently enough, people will believe it. Would you tell us a bit more about this, please.
CHILD: Yeah, I think that absolutely you can make stuff up. You know, it is fiction. People want an experience that is not necessarily wedded to their own life, so, you’re absolutely at liberty to make this stuff up and if you do it confidently then people believe it. But also, I think, writers in general are perpetually curious and just hungry for information and impressions and of course, we read a lot and we watch a lot of movies and TV and we talk to a lot of people and so over your lifetime, you build up and immense stock of knowledge, like a huge database. Cause the research thing is really a question of saying, that, I don’t do any specific research for any specific book because I think that it’s too short term and I don’t want it to be too rushed. But on the other hand, your entire life is research. Everything that you ever do can be useful at some point.
AUTHORLINK: That’s true. You’re famous for not plotting out your novels before you begin, although you always have a rough idea of a pivotal scene that will form the basis of your book and then you just write. In this way, you feel the story is “more organic and spontaneous and authentic”, as you once said. You always start your novels each year on 1 September, and we wonder, has that date ever come along when you didn’t know how to begin? What do you do when you’re stumped, or have you ever – after progressing with a novel – written yourself into a corner?
CHILD: Ah, I don’t write myself into a corner because I think I can tell pretty quick, within a few words, whether a new direction is going to be productive or not. I sometimes delete, you know, half a sentence, or even a whole sentence and you know, started again. But if you sort of paint yourself into a situation that would be difficult for Reacher to get out of then that’s fine, because that’s his problem, you know? He’s got to figure it out; he’s got to solve that problem. And so, I’m never worried about you know, looking ahead and saying, ‘well, he might have to do this; he might have to do that,’ when he comes to it he just has to find a way of doing it.
AUTHORLINK: And I suppose that makes it like you said, a lot more authentic and fresher and you kind of feel, instinctively, that you’re going through what he’s going through, so…
CHILD: Yeah, his thinking is very popular with people. You have the mental process and the judgments he makes and that is because he’s literally doing that. As I’m going along, I’m thinking about it with the reader and um, it’s essential for me really because I want to have the same excitement that I hope, the reader is going to have. When I’m reading a good book, I just, you know, I love picking it up again and feeling, ‘Wow, what’s going to happen next? And I really want that same feeling as I sit down to write. I wanna be excited about what’s going to happen next. And if I already knew, or if there was a plan or an outline, then it would be a little monotonous and a little boring, I think, for me certainly, and therefore one assumes that the monotony or boredom would show up in the writing and the reader wouldn’t like it either.
AUTHORLINK: Tom Cruise plays the role of Jack Reacherin the films, the most recent one being Never Go Back released in October. It must be an absolute thrill to watch your books made into movies, and in fact, you play charming cameo roles in them too! (Laughs)Tom Cruise does a fantastic job of channelling Jack, we think. He plays this good guy, cut and dry, which is a very rare thing. Cruise is a very strong presence in the film and fills up Jack’s shoes easily and is very physical doing a lot of the stunts himself. Also, Cobie Smulders was fantastic as Turner. It was gratifying to watch this character hold her own in the story and match Reacher in terms of integrity and courage. It was such a relief to see this aspect of your work translated so well into film. Do you agree? Do you feel your characters were interpreted well in film by the screen writers?
CHILD: Yeah, I really do, and you know, the screen writers have the easy part of it. It was a very generous script in as much as it was a re-enactment, but it wasn’t about the screen writers – they just wrote it for the actors. That then threw the ball into the actors’ court. And you’re quite right about Cobie Smulders, because the way that story works, she had to be good. If she was not good, then the whole thing would have fallen apart. And happily, she was really good. And therefore, the story worked. It was more of a challenge than you think, really. Not only did this one character had to be the equal of this other very powerful character, but, she as an actress, who is relatively, one could say, in the earlier phase of her career at this point, she had to match a very famous, well, movie star and on a professional level that is difficult to do. She had to look him in the face and tell him to shut up. And that is hard to do on a personal level, and she totally nailed it.
|“The first draft is always the most authentic, honest and has the most energy in it . ..”
AUTHORLINK: Yeah, agreed. You once said that “I finish the final work, then that is the book; as far as I’m concerned and in my opinion, it can’t get any better.” How easy is it for you to accept when editors play around with your words? Or not at all?
CHILD: The first draft is always the most authentic, honest and has the most energy in it. I also have the feeling that, that is what’s happened, that is the story. And so, to change it afterwards to make it more convenient or slicker or in some way more appealing, seems to me, dishonest and so I’m reluctant to change anything.
CHILD: Editors are usually right about one or two things and I’m always happy to take their advice about what they think, but I won’t necessarily do it unless it can be done in a way that is organic and not, too obviously artificial.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. Andy Martin, lecturer at the University of Cambridge with a PhD from King’s College, as well as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, observed you while you were writing Make Me for six months and eventually wrote a meta-book about it called, ‘Reacher Said Nothing’. He said you were, “a poet, in the ancient Greek sense of poiesis, a maker, a craftsman, dedicated to his art.’’ Does Make Me read differently from your other books because of Andy Martin’s presence, in your writing room, do you think?
CHILD: It’s hard to answer that question without…you’d have to run a parallel experiment where I wrote the book without him to see if it’s any different. And obviously, we can’t do that. My sense is that I don’t think it was any different. I think it would have been exactly the same book – yeah, it would have been the same book – but it was a lot of fun to work with him simply as having somebody to talk to. Normally it’s a very lonely process and normally stuff that really, really matters to me, like the exact choice of words and the punctuation and so on, nobody is interested in that stuff, and it was nice to have somebody who understood it.
AUTHORLINK: Lovely, and just a last few light-hearted questions. Who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead) and why? (Other than Lawrence Olivier whom you met earlier in your career before you became a novelist).
CHILD: Oh gosh, I was funnily enough asked that question last night at an event.
AUTHORLINK: Oh? [laughs]
CHILD: I really couldn’t think, you know. It’s a huge question to choose one person in all history, so I just said, ‘right now this minute, Michelle Obama who I think would be good fun’.
AUTHORLINK: Yeah, great. And the final question, you have an intuitive feeling for what ordinary people want and in this way, have been writing the Jack Reacher series for twenty years and correctly predicting the outcome of every general election since 1970. Did you predict the current President-elect [now President] of the United States?
CHILD: Not long term, no. In the Sunday before the Tuesday election, I figured it out, I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s going to win’ and he did, yeah.
AUTHORLINK: Terrific. Mr Child, thank you so much for your time. It was a real privilege talking to you. We hope to see more Jack Reacher novels and films in the future and wish you your continued success.
CHILD: Yeah, it was a real pleasure. Thank you very much for your time and for the coverage.
|About the Author:||
Lee Child is the No 1 internationally bestselling author of the (currently 21) Jack Reacher thrillers. His debut, Killing Floor, won both the Anthony and the Barry Awards for Best First Mystery, and The Enemy won both the Barry and the Nero Awards for Best Novel.
‘Jack Reacher’, the film based on the 9th novel, One Shot, stars Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, and Rosamund Pike. ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’ is the sequel that also stars Tom Cruise, as well as Cobie Smulders. The plot follows Reacher going on-the-run with an Army Major who has been framed for espionage.
Child, a native of England and a former television director, lives in New York City and the south of France with his wife and daughter.
|About Anna Roins:||
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.