Lee Child adores Ireland. An admirer of the late Seamus Heaney, he loves it for the storytelling and lyricism of the language, so when we meet in Dublin on a rainy Friday morning, the 63-year-old is in excellent spirits.
“People here speak in pleasant, literate, sentences,” he says. “I was noticing it everywhere I went yesterday. There’s a slight poetry to it; they value language. It warms your heart that that culture is still alive.”
Lee, whose real name is James Grant, is in Ireland to publicise The Midnight Line, his 22nd novel featuring Jack Reacher. The start finds Reacher depressed; his girlfriend has realised there’s no future with him, and, strolling aimlessly past a pawn shop, he spies a class ring from West Point, the army school he, himself, attended. Worried, he decides to trace the owner. What had happened to her in active service, and why would she pawn something so hard won? Tracking the ring, he comes into contact with a cabal of dealers and addicts. Will he find the owner, and if he does, will she welcome his help?
Since the novel’s publication, Lee has received lots of emails from recovering addicts. Some of them have expressed worry about him. “They say my depiction is so accurate, I must be an opiate addict.” He laughs. “I’m not, but it’s the sweetest thing, being thanked for giving a sympathetic portrayal. I show that there is a reason for being an addict, especially of opiates. Because normally addicts are portrayed as bums and psychos.”
Described, in this book, as resembling a Big Foot come out of the forest, Reacher is not someone to mess with. And although he’s an efficient killer, he’s a worthy hero; always acting for the best, and using logic to work out the truth. Endlessly popular with readers, Reacher became more relevant after the financial crisis. “That brought the world to Reacher, because he is the guy with nothing. And suddenly people realise, ‘wow, that’s great, because we are tied down by all this stuff, and we are crippled with debt.’ Reacher is consoling in that sense, he is saying, ‘You can live like this, life is fine.’”
Born in Coventry, and raised in Manchester, Lee took a circuitous route to writing. He studied law at university, but had no intention of becoming a lawyer. “Law seemed to me a kind of synthesis of all the subjects I was interested in; History, politics, economics, sociology and language. A law degree sets you up in life. You are instantly out of date in terms of the detail, but you have a kind of inbuilt bullshit meter. You know what is likely to be true and what is and isn’t possible.”
He came to writing by accident, following a highly successful career at the forefront of British TV, at the time when it reached its zenith. A senior bidder in Granada, and boss of his department, Lee was involved in some momentous series including Brideshead Revisited, The Jewell in the Crown and Prime Suspect; but in the mid-eighties, he noticed a decline in standards.
“Rupert Murdoch was whispering in Margaret Thatcher’s ear. He wanted access to the TV market, and that’s when we went into twenty-four-hour broadcasting. There was no need for it; nobody really wanted it; you’ve got to be insane to want to work night shifts, so we got a huge pay rise, and at that point I knew they hated us, and would get their revenge later. “My wife, daughter and I moved to the lake District to cut down our overheads. If I were to lose my job, I didn’t want my daughter in a private school in Manchester and have to drag her out halfway through. So we moved far enough out to access a good comprehensive.”
The crunch came in 1995. Aged forty, unwilling to go through the indignity of asking for another job, only to start at the very bottom, Lee decided to pen a novel.
“I remember it well,” he says. “On 1st September,1994, I went into Smiths in the Arndale Centre, and bought three pads of paper, a pencil, a pencil sharpener and eraser, and that was it! My capital investment was £3.99. “My daughter had a laptop at the time – my father in law, a computer scientist, had bought it for her, but I wasn’t going to buy one. I had to prove to myself that this wasn’t a hobby. Not a game – it was real, and it had to work. I was going to write it in longhand, and when it sold, I would buy a computer.
“Writing is an art, but its also a craft, and it is 100pc a business. You have to believe that; there are a lot of behind the scenes skills that go into it, but I’m reluctant to talk about those because it sounds meticulous and over-commercial, but you have to take it seriously. It’s a job.” He finished that first book in July 1995, and sold it to the states in December, through an agent. The second, third and fourth followed on quite naturally, but Lee stresses that he was not an overnight success.
“People misremember it now,” he says. “They think, Lee Childs has always been a superstar, but absolutely not! It was a real slog at the beginning, and success happened earlier in some countries than others, but it was five or ten years of hard slog before I became a household name.” Jack Reacher – named because Lee’s wife said that, being tall, he was a good reacher in the supermarket, the two had something in common; and that was rage – for finding themselves jobless – Reacher having left the army, and Lee, Granada. Physically, though, they have only their height in common. Reacher is huge of stature; he’s unmissable, whereas Lee, in his neutral coloured clothes, is a softly spoken beanpole who doesn’t stand out from the crowd.
“I’ve got a lucky metabolism,” he says, when I remark on his leanness. “I don’t take any exercise. I’m a contrarian, it’s s philosophical thing. To switch off I smoke a joint, listen to music, and read other people’s books. Why would I take exercise? To prolong my life? Why would I want to prolong my life? What is so great about me that the world is going to value me living another ten years?”
That lack of ego seems genuine. When I ask if he plans, ever, to abandon Reacher and write something else, he says, “I regard myself as an entertainer; an accidental writer. I didn’t set out to do it; it was only because I was fired. If the reader gets bored with Reacher, I’m not insulted, but its not up to me to give him the alternative. He can go and read somebody else.
“For all that, I don’t want to be the embarrassing guy who stays on stage too long; it’s better to get off when they still want more. I will have to judge that point, and I guess the easiest way is if I get resentful that I have to write another book.” He loves writing right now – always making the plot up as he goes along. And he gets great pleasure from writing the perfect sentence.
If he were offered his old job back, would he take it? “I think not. This is better. I’ve done a lot of secret projects for Hollywood, where you rewrite a scene so that it works, and while that’s great while you’re writing it, you get into the story conference afterwards and get a group of idiots babbling on all the time, and that drives me crazy. As a sole trader, I have total control.”
The Midnight Line by Lee Child. Bantum Press: €16.99. Kindle: €11.15 Ends
Published in The Irish Examiner on 6th January, 2018
© Sue Leonard. 2018