Meet Your Heroes: Lee Child

Fourteen Reacher novels had been published when I started to read KILLING FLOOR, fully expecting to stop after the first in the series. I mean, left to my own devices, I tend toward domestic suspense and women’s psychological fiction. If I know that a gun has a safety on it–or doesn’t–it’s a banner day in Jenny land.

Which made it all the more perplexing that, after finishing KILLING FLOOR, I ran right out and bought the next thirteen Reachers, reading every single one during one blissful summer. Then I stood in line to buy WORTH DYING FOR when it came out in September.

Now the wait between new releases is far too long, and I don’t even like to contemplate the possibility that Mr. Child may one day retire Reacher. Banish those words. When I thought he might’ve died in 61 HOURS–I’m all in, I tell you, it’s not even a matter of suspending my disbelief–I practically burst into tears.

It provoked an existential crisis in me to determine why I love these thrillers so very much. I finally figured it out–but my answer doesn’t really matter. Tens of millions of readers worldwide, male, female, macho and not, feel as I do, and getting to ask these questions of Mr. Child, and to hear his raw, honest, incisive responses has been one of the privileges of my career thus far. I hope it will be a joy for you too.

This is Meet Your Heroes Week, so let’s talk first about something you do that I think is pretty heroic. Your support of newer authors in the way of mentoring; candid sharing from your own career; endorsements; attendance at certain, ahem, late-into-the-night book launches; and myriad other pursuits is legendary. Why is this important to you?

I know I have gotten a reputation as helpful and supportive, and I don’t want to sound either aw-shucks modest or ruthlessly self-interested about it – but really it’s all about me: I’m a reader.  I’m an old guy now, and I live a life of extreme comfort and luxury, and it’s a long time ago, but I can’t shake that old childhood need to escape the gray, grinding, pinched, boring, isolated life I led.  Books were everything to me back then, and they still are.  It is impossible to overstate how grateful I am for books.  I was always excited (hard to credit how much) to find a new author, get a new book, live a new life.  I still am.  I follow debuts and new releases in case there’s something good to read, simple as that – and in case there’s something good to learn.  From the outside, Writer World looks to be vertically arrayed, like a ladder, with bestsellers at the top, midlisters halfway down, and debuts on the lowest rungs.  But from the inside, it feels much more horizontal, like a chessboard.  Sure, we’re all on different squares, but we look at each other eye to eye.  In every important way we’re equal.  Except that most of the energy (and most of the good ideas, frankly) are with the new people.  Mostly the so-called mentoring and sharing is just conversation – I get as much advice as I give, and often more.  The endorsements are paying it forward – Jeffrey Deaver, Nevada Barr and Stephen White blurbed my first book, for no other reason than kindness, generosity and goodwill.  I’m happy to continue the tradition – I mean, why not?  I get to see the new stuff, early and for free.  What’s not to like?  So I guess the basic answer to your question is, it’s important to me because I like books and writers and I’m hungry to know more of both.

When you appeared on ITW’s Next Steps radio show, I think a lot of people were surprised to learn how many Reacher novels there were before they (and you) exploded into blockbuster status. Can you take us through the trajectory a little bit–the response to KILLING FLOOR, the first in the series, where your career went between that release and THE ENEMY (which I believe was the first to hit the NYT bestseller list) and then from there? From the outside, it seems a linear path, but was it?

It was linear, but late-1990s linear, which is ancient history.  As an illustration it’s no longer useful.  It would be like a presidential candidate studying the rise of the House of Tudor.  KILLING FLOOR had a good first print run for a genre debut, and it was launched into a (largely) pre-internet world of Borders and B&N and Waldenbooks and Daltons, and thriving independent genre stores, whose owners acted as “big mouths” in terms of spreading the word, at conventions and BEA, and sometimes just on the phone, coast to coast, swapping tips and gossip.  KILLING FLOOR made some noise and won a couple of debut awards, which in 1997 was really all it needed to do.  The 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th all did incrementally better, and the 6th – WITHOUT FAIL – very nearly made the NYT list.  Then I changed publishers, and the boost in ambition pushed the 7th title to the dreaded asterisk 16th place.  Then THE ENEMY made it on its own, standing tall at number fifteen, I think.  Or maybe twelve.  Can’t remember.  That was book number eight.  And the upward momentum continued over the next three or four.  Meanwhile, international sales were increasing, somewhat randomly – New Zealand was crazy early, from the 3rd book, and Bulgaria, for some reason, so by the time the internet was a thing there was something for people to talk about worldwide.  Plus I had a great website very early.  Made by a woman who worked with Jeff Bezos, as a matter of fact, in his New York days.  The 11th title made it to #1 in the U.S. on its paperback release, and finally the 12th made it to #1 in hardcover.  The last country.  The hardest market to crack.  I think that’s how it was.  The eight since then have all been #1, all around the world, and the numbers have increased exponentially and insanely.  These days I get that first print run shoplifted in Manhattan alone.  Plus there was a movie, and another in the works.  We’re in 99 countries.  And so on.  In other words, it happened like it used to – the long front-loaded investment my agent and my publishers made eventually paid off, for them and for me.  (OK, like it used to sometimes.  But I’m far from the only one.)  The question is, what would happen if I started now?  Would I be supported as unflinchingly through the lean years?  Certainly not as unflinchingly – the old-style discovery mechanisms are all gone, and horizons are much, much shorter now.  Would I self publish?  Two or three years ago, maybe, but now probably not.  It seems sourer.  The discovery problem seems even harder.  And I’m a gambler.  I like long odds and big prizes.

The Reacher novels, as you’ve said many times, are Westerns, with a stranger-come-to-town who sets things right, then moves on. I often think of the closing sequence to the ’70s TV show, ‘The Incredible Hulk’. That haunting music, David Banner traveling along the lonely road. What drew you, Lee Child, to this kind of character? He’s iconic, but did you know at the start that Reacher would be able to sustain a series, and you to sustain him?

As a reader I love series, and it seemed to me that series characters were the mainstay of the genre, so in theory I had no reservations about the basic proposition.  As a human being, I’m lonely, awkward, and alienated, so the loner character came naturally.  But execution was key.  It struck me as obviously fatal to sit down and say, “OK, this guy has to be able to sustain a series, so let’s make him really, really iconic.”  That’s starting at the wrong end.  All I could do was write the guy as honest and uninhibited as I could, and hope for the best.  The reader decides whether a character is cool, not the writer.  Trying to force the issue will always be an embarrassing failure.  I maintain a distant relationship with Reacher – again, as a matter of observation, too many series have fallen apart because the writer gets a little too impressed with his main character.  I aim to like Reacher a lot less than I hope you will.

If I had to pick–like, you know, a bad guy was sighting on me with a Heckler & Koch G-36 and Reacher hadn’t arrived to save me yet–my two favorite Reachers would be ECHO BURNING and 61 HOURS. I am a weather and setting kind of girl, and these two are permeated by both. Do you have a favorite Reacher or two? I’m hoping so, because I’d really like to know which, and why.

I’m fond of those two also, although I remember 61 HOURS wanted to come out shorter than I needed it to be.  I like weather too, very much, but again, I didn’t want to be the guy who wrote “weather books” – it’s very easy to fall into stereotypes.  Looking back, I think there are strengths and weaknesses with all of the Reacher books – although I think I have gotten much better at pre-empting the weaknesses, so I’m generally happier with the later books than the earlier.  (Although readers don’t always agree.)  I guess if I had to pick a personal favorite as a writer I might say GONE TOMORROW – the one that opens with an apparent suicide bomber on the subway.  The initial premise – the list of telltale signs – came from a piece of lucky internet research, and just begged to be used.  I didn’t plan it out, but right away I could see four meaty chapters.  The story seemed to barrel onward from there.  It balances on the edge of over-the-top in a way that really pleases me.  Plus it has my daughter in it – the young woman Reacher sees walking a rat terrier in New York.

Recently, journalist and author Andy Martin sat with you and observed the creation of the latest (and many say greatest so far) Reacher, MAKE ME. For readers who haven’t yet read REACHER SAID NOTHING: LEE CHILD & THE MAKING OF MAKE ME, first, go out and get it right now, and second, Lee, can you share a little about what it was like to create a novel in something of a fishbowl?

Well, “create” is the right word, because as Andy’s book showed, I started with no fixed ideas, no plot, no outline, no nothing.  I was just sitting there, making it up as I went along, with him watching.  As such, it felt a little weird.  It’s so much easier to talk about a book afterward, when it’s done, when there’s the illusion of purpose or design to it.  But overall it was a fun experience.  Andy is sympathetic to the genre, but not part of it, so the ongoing discussion and conversation was illuminating, because of his different perspective.  In particular, we’re all used to answering the question about to what extent is the main character based on the author, which is generally a pleasant question, in that the main character is generally a good guy, but Andy pointed out that in a literary and psychological sense the bad guys must also be an equal part of the author.  Which was unsettling – particularly with MAKE ME.

Don’t be offended by this, but I never would’ve expected to fall passionately in love with the Reacher series. As I said, if I know a gun has a safety on it, that’s a banner day for Jenny. I picked up KILLING FLOOR when Cornelia Read recommended it, figured I’d quit after one, but then read the remaining thirteen during one blissful summer. Here’s my question for you: Why? No, seriously, what do you think it is about your books, besides unusually great writing, insightful point of view, and masterful characterization, that has drawn readers far outside what your publisher might’ve predicted to be your target audience?

Not offended at all.  I don’t know why it is.  The author is the last person to ask.  Falling in love is the reader’s decision, entirely outside the author’s control.  And it’s an individual, highly personal decision, taken alone.  They don’t get together and take committee decisions.  So it’s about a million private decisions, all around the world and in different cultures, which means it’s probably something very basic.  My best guess after all these years – and no one on earth is more cynical than me – is that, even so, most people are basically decent, and would like to do the right thing every time, the noble, brave, moral, ethical thing, but they can’t, because they’re trapped or powerless or afraid or inhibited, and that’s a sour, miserable, unsatisfactory feeling in their lives.  So they love to see Reacher do the right thing.  There’s a simple, deep satisfaction in seeing an offensive, awful bad guy get trashed, first verbally, and then physically.  Much safer on the page too – the last time I had a “Reacher moment” for real was about three years ago.  I intervened late at night in a street fight on Broadway – and won, happily, but needed eight stitches afterward.  That part never happens to Reacher!

And how can newer authors do the same thing? No, really, any closing advice for those trying to swim in today’s publishing waters?

I’m glad I started in the 1990s.  But to be fair, back then I met a lot of writers who said they were glad they started in the 1980s, or the 1970s, and so on.  It’s like farming – always doom and gloom, never a good year.  The fundamental issue is unchanging – can you hang in there until you get discovered?  You used to have longer, and now you have shorter, but the key is always to write a great book – one that somehow convinces readers and publishers that there are more to come.  Because discovery – should you be so lucky – is only half the story.  The book has to have the sort of faint luminosity that sticks in the mind come sequel time.  So my advice is to focus 200% on the writing, and let the rest take care of itself.  Which is weak and anodyne, I know, but — obviously there are unmerited successes and undeserved failures and other blips on the graph, but at heart the median proposition always remains the same: in the long run, for most people most of the time, the difference between success and failure is quality.  Which you know when you see it.  That was part of why I paid attention to debuts.  I liked to spot the ones who would make it.  It’s tougher now, because some of them aren’t making it, whether published intransitively or transitively, for a whole matrix of different reasons.  Like Blur said, modern life is rubbish.  But all you can do is write the best book you can write.  Without that you got nothing.

Jenny Milchman is an award-winning, critically acclaimed novelist from New York State. Her debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, was published by Ballantine/Penguin Random House in January 2013, earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, as well as praise from the New York Times, San Francisco Journal of Books, the AP, and many other publications. It was an Indie Next and Target pick, short-listed for the Barry and Macivity awards, and won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for best suspense novel of 2013. She is Vice President of Author Programming for International Thriller Writers, and the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which will be celebrated by over 800 bookstores in all 50 states and on six continents in 2015. She teaches writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop.

To learn more about Ms. Milchman’s most recent novel, click on the cover below.

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Previously: Thomas Sweterlitsch interviewed John Banville.

Next: E.A. Aymar interviews Megan Abbott.

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