An Interview with Lee
Jon: For people not yet familiar with your books, how would you describe them?
Lee: They're fairly violent hardboiled thriller-mysteries, all of them featuring a tough-but-charming ex-military cop loner called Jack Reacher. That might sound like exclusively a male read, but experience is showing that women are actually some of the most ardent fans of the series.
Jon: With Reacher touring the U.S., did you have to do a lot of research?
Lee: Most of my research is kind of accidental and anecdotal. Although I'm originally English, I've spent a lot of time in the States, on and off, and I tend to use little snippets of impressions that I pick up here and there. For instance, I had a great vacation in Key West in the fall of 1996. In the spring of 1997, I started writing “Tripwire” and set the opening there, just because I liked it. But there was no intention behind the vacation. A lot of other things, I get from movies. I did go to Montana to research the area for “Die Trying”, but it was just like I'd thought it would be anyway. Feelings and impressions are more important than details, I think. Plausibility is more important than accuracy.
Jon: I was a little surprised when I first found out you were from England. The books read very American. Having moved here, what are some of the major differences you have noticed from one to the other?
Lee: My wife is American, so I've been visiting here for 25 years, so I was already pretty familiar with the contrasts between the two countries. There are three main differences: the diversity of people, the optimism, and the weather. It's great to be in a place where not everybody is white and European. It's great to be in a place where the first instinctive reaction is “Yes, we can do that” instead of “Hmm, that's going to be a problem.” And it doesn't rain all the time, either.
Jon: Are you a big reader, and who do you enjoy?
Lee: I read all the time, absolutely everything. I think all writers have been big readers first. I respect anybody who makes a living out of writing, because it isn't easy. I admire a lot of people, from Raymond Chandler through John D MacDonald through the new generation like my friends Connelly, Coben, Lehane and Crais. But I don't totally enjoy anybody. I know that sounds bad, but I suspect we all feel the same. I think that's what drives writers to first try their hand. They want to write the exact book they want to read.
Jon: Most authors start out doing other things before getting published. What other jobs have you had?
Lee: I worked briefly in the theater, then I was a television director for 18 years, in England. I love entertaining people, I guess, and I see my kind of commercial fiction as a branch of the industry. And I think that background really helped me, in that it taught me that my first, second and last responsibility is to the audience. I never want to let them down.
Jon: Do you enjoy meeting your fans? How about other authors?
Lee: Yes, I love meeting readers. I love touring, for that reason. Writing is very lonely, in that most of the year you're all alone at a desk. Meeting real people once in a while is great! And conventions are fun, because you get to meet other authors, too. Without exception, they're fun to be with. A great bunch of people. The whole of publishing is like that, actually. From the executives right through to the bookstore people and their core bunch of committed customers, I've never met such a nice crowd. Charming, intelligent, informed. Very different from the visual media, to tell the truth.
Jon: In my opinion, Reacher is kind of a Bond for the 90s. Except a little more of an Everyman. Kind of what most men would like to be. Is there any of you in him?
Lee: I hope he's as durable and successful as Bond! There's some of me in him. I try to draw from my experiences and my feelings. He does stuff I would, if I could get away with it. The main thing about him is he's physically unchallenged by most things, and that gives him a lot of confidence. I was like that, as a kid. I grew big very early, and I lived in a tough part of a tough city, and I ruled, until I was about 14 and other people caught up with me and I got a little calmer and more civilized. So I'm projecting that childhood feeling into the future, and into fiction.
Jon: Do you spend a set amount of time each day writing, or do you kind of do it as the thoughts come to you?
Lee: I treat it as a kind of semi-routine. I write every day I can, but how much I get done, and how good it is, depends on how well the ideas are flowing. Some days I don't do much at all, others I do pages and pages.
Jon: James Lee Burke said he writes from the hip. Not knowing how a book will end until he gets to the end. Do you have it worked out in advance, or do you see where it takes you?
Lee: With me, it's kind of half and half. I always know what the “thing” in the book is, and I usually have something in mind for the climax, but I have no idea how I'm going to get there. So I just wander through, and hope that I'll arrive eventually.
Jon: Is there anything about Lee Child that people would be surprised to find out?
Lee: I don't think so. With me, what you see is what you get.
Jon: What kinds of things spark ideas for your writing?
Lee: The basic series idea for an unattached-but-content drifter was partly wishful thinking and partly a reaction to what other people were already doing so well. I didn't want my main character to have a settled environment with a detective's job and a girlfriend and a sidekick. I wanted him to be something completely different, which led to the rootless, footloose guy he is. The actual story ideas are usually sparked by items in newspapers or magazines. I read a piece about counterfeiting and that stayed with me for years, until Killing Floor. The theme behind Die Trying - the political paranoia that drives the extreme right - is something that fascinates Europeans. We understand that political skepticism is very important to American democracy. But the idea that the US government represses the population amazes us. We think “You have to be kidding! You should try living in Europe."
Jon: In Tripwire we see a glimpse into Reacher's past. Are we going to get more as time goes on?
Lee: Yes, for sure. Part of the fun of a series is re-introducing the main character each time around - for new readers - without making it repetetive for established readers. One of the ways to do that is to explore the past. And a physically rootless person like Reacher needs to be rooted somewhere - and the best place for that is in the sum of his memories and experiences.
Jon: Are you surprised by the response your books are getting? Did you think they would catch on this quick?
Lee: One of the things I learned in eighteen years of commercial television is that it's absolutely impossible to predict the public's response to anything. You can plan, you can hope, you can aim, but it's all a crapshoot, really. So yes, I'm surprised, and happy, and gratified. And very, very grateful to the ‘early adopters' who got to the books first and did such a selfless job of spreading the word. You know who you are, and I love you all.
Jon: What type of movies do you watch?
Lee: Pretty much anything, although I usually avoid subtitles. But having said that, I did admire Life is Beautiful. My recent non-genre favorite would be Shakespeare In Love - I worked in the theater years ago, and I'm a sucker for that putting-on-the-show theme. My recent genre favorite would be Seven - I wish I'd written it. I loved the uncompromisingly bleak ending.
Jon: Any thoughts on optioning your series for the screen?
Lee: Killing Floor was optioned for a couple of years - it might still be, I'm not sure. I'm not one of these guys who disdains Hollywood - I think they usually do a good, professional job, and having worked in a related industry I know how hard that is. It's just very different, that's all. A movie is not the same thing as a book. The question a writer has to answer is: will it help or will it hurt? What my agent and I tried to do was to select the best deal based on talent, not money. We took less cash to be with a better filmmaker. Whether anything will ever get made, I don't know. That's impossible to predict, too.
Jon: Do you get a lot of feedback on the books? Like maybe people with backgrounds in the same areas as Reacher?
Lee: Yes, I do, from three specific categories of people: first, Army brats themselves who shared Reacher's upbringing; second, people currently in the military; and third, retired colonels and generals with time on their hands. The first two categories are usually very supportive and enthusiastic. The retired officers often nitpick about incorrect details of Reacher's own service career.
Jon: Would you ever consider doing a flashback book? A case from Reacher's past?
Lee: Yes, I think I will at some stage. It would be a great idea. Kind of tied in with what you asked before, about revealing more of his past. I think it could be a lot of fun.
Jon: Any plans for a stand-alone book, or are you going to stick with the series?
Lee: I'm very happy with the series, but I'm also interested in a couple of non-series ideas. Problem is, one of them is basically non-genre, and I'm not sure if that would be acceptable to the publisher, or to the readers. The other might be a prospect. Maybe I'll use another name for the non-genre thing.
Jon: What's a good cure for writer's block?
Lee: Make a tall stack of tax demands, tuition bills, and mortgage statements. Stare at it until the block disappears. Usually takes three or four seconds.
Jon: What is the one thing always in the refrigerator in your home?
Lee: Entenmann's Raspberry Danish. I eat two or three slices for breakfast before I start work. With lots of coffee, of course.