Imagine interviewing Tony Blair about Dirty Harry and you’ll get an idea of how disconcerting it is to talk to Lee Child about Jack Reacher. With a beige business suit and immaculate BBC English, the tall Englishman looks and sounds more like an Oxbridge-groomed politician than the inventor of an American badass. But the ex-military Reacher—Greyhound drifter, breaker of hearts and necks, hero of numerous best-sellers (and now, a Tom Cruise blockbuster)—is very much Child’s baby.
When I meet the dapper Child, he is in New York for a private screening of Jack Reacher, an adaptation of his novel, One Shot, before its official premier—pushed back a week by Paramount after the Newton shootings. (The film opens with a sniper taking aim at pedestrians in downtown Pittsburgh and features Robert Duvall as a shooting range owner.) Fueled by coffee, the anticipatory buzz of the premier, and Child’s own quick thinking intelligence, our conversation jumps from Tom Cruise and Hollywood to the joys of the writing life.
What makes Jack Reacher different from other heroes?
He’s not part of a soap opera. Any of my competitors have their hero in an ongoing serial drama. They have a fixed-location job. They have colleagues, superiors, neighbors, friends. But Reacher has none of that. He has no job, no fixed location.
He’s not a cop or agent; he’s just a loner. What drives him?
He has a strict moral code he cannot help but live by. It causes him a lot of trouble frankly, but people find it admirable. I think my readers take comfort from feeling there could be a person like Reacher out there, someone who wants to do the right thing.
Why did your books catch on when they did?
It’s hard to hard to say. The mysterious stranger, the noble loner has been around for thousands of years. But my books exploded in a big way around the time of the financial crisis. Is it because Reacher’s anti material nature somehow suited that zeitgeist? Did people suddenly realize they don’t own things; things own them? Was it a coincidence or was it reflective of something bigger—we’ll never know the answer to that.
Reacher shuns human connections. Do you share that with him?
As a writer, I think it’s inevitable that I’ll see parts of myself in my character. Although I think it would be physically fatiguing to live the way he does, the concept of it—no commitments, no attachments, no responsibilities—I think everybody is drawn to that.
What does Tom Cruise bring to Reacher?
He can get the movie made! He can command a budget and carry a movie of this size. But that’s insider baseball. What he brings as an actor is that he reads the script. This may sound obvious, but it isn’t. Tom’s got surprisingly little ego on the screen. He doesn’t want this to be a Tom Cruise movie. He wants this to be a Jack Reacher movie. If, theoretically, somebody came out of the movie and said, “Oh. I loved Jack Reacher. Who was playing him?” I think he would consider that a victory. [Laughs]
Reacher seems so quintessentially American. But you’re British. Explain!
[Laughs]. The core of his character is currently located in America, but as a paradigm it’s much more ancient than that. You know, the Ronin in Japan is really the same character. Medieval Europe had the knight-errant.
By the time I started writing, I’d been coming to the US for more than 20 years because my wife’s from America. Your question betrays a kind of surprise, that, “Oh. It must be harder for you.” Actually, no. The reverse is true. It’s easier for me, because I come here and I see everything with a fresh eye.
What’s the difference between the publishing industry and Hollywood?
The movie industry is always on much more of a sharpened knife-edge. Their stakes are higher, and their risks are greater. A movie, between production and promotion, might be $100 million. If that fails, it does serious damage. Even the biggest book probably had no more than $15 million invested in it.
Have you ever thought of moving more fully into film?
You get spoiled as a book writer. You just get used to being master of the universe. I put something in a book, my editor might say, “Wouldn’t it be better if that happened after this?” But I’ll say, “Well, yeah, but it didn’t.” End of story. And that’s it. [Laughs] Whereas when you’re doing a movie, and I’ve done a few, you’re just locked into endless meetings. Could this helicopter be black instead of white? Could he have a dog? Could the dog have 3 legs? Could the three-legged dog have cancer? Once you get used to writing, it can be very frustrating.
I’m going to ask the magic pen question. What’s your process? Do you write in the mornings?
I believe that nothing of value is ever achieved in the morning. [Laughs] So I write after, in the afternoon. I have a separate apartment in the building for my office, and I start 12, 12:30pm, and work ‘til maybe 6:30pm on a computer.
That’s my one productivity tip: I have my writing desk here and the Internet desk is over there, so if I want to go online I have to physically get up. That’s enough of a dis-incentive to keep me disciplined.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I listen to music. Go to clubs. In the summer, I watch the Yankees—just chill. It’s a great life.
Jack Reacher is now in theaters. For more on Lee Child and his writing see his site here.