Lee Child: Adventures of an over-reacher

The author turned to fiction after losing his job in television. Today, he is a best-selling thriller writer. Andy Martin talks to him about his roots in Birmingham and his macho alter ego, Jack Reacher.

It was a classic Lee Child moment. A yellow cab is parked one fine night on Broadway and 19th. The cab driver is a small Sikh guy and his passenger is a big drunk fratboy who is bad mouthing the driver, refusing to pay, and at the same time sticking like glue to his seat. Our hero marches across the street, yanks open the door, and orders the unruly passenger out. No ifs or buts. Fratboy meekly obeys and staggers off down the street.

No, this was not Jack Reacher, the unreasonably well-built and overwhelmingly powerful protagonist of Lee Child's novels, but the author himself – the UK's No 1 bestselling hardback novelist of 2010, with not just one but two new books this year, 61 Hours (Bantam, £7.99) and Worth Dying For (Bantam, £18.99. Both were also No 1 hits in the US).

Another time, 1.30am in Manchester, he stops at a cash machine, withdraws £100 and turns around. Suddenly there is a semi-circle of three likely lads in front of him. Child fixes his gaze on the ringleader – the one in the middle – and shoots him down, verbally: "You have got to be fucking joking!" They part, like the Red Sea, and let him pass. It's true that Reacher is capable, in one recent novel, of cowing a throng of approximately 100 bad guys, like Jesus quelling the storm, but this was close.

"It's all down to confidence," says Child. "That, and being brought up in a rough neighbourhood of Birmingham and having to go home in my grammar school blazer. Violence was the default setting." Child is close to Reacher in height: 6ft 4in to Reacher's 6ft 5in. But he is no hulking 250lbs and doesn't wear cheap shirts and chinos from the local hardware store. "Male authors always take care to make their heroes at least one inch taller than they are, and considerably more muscular," he says. "Just as female authors give their heroines better hair and slimmer thighs."

Lee Child and I are having coffee at his hotel in London (if you have the finely-honed intuitions of Jack Reacher, you should be able to look at a map and pin him down to within a block). Or rather he is knocking back a jug of black coffee, just like the highly caffeinated Reacher, while I am sipping a latte. He considers this to be "suspect", but agrees not to beat me to a pulp for the time being.

Child famously re-invented himself after he was sacked from Granada Television, aged 39. And rebranded himself. The origin of his name goes back to a mid-1970s train ride in the US. He and his wife fell into conversation with an American who told them that he owned a "European" car. It turned out to be a Renault 5, marketed in the US – to give it a certain Parisian chic – as "Le Car". But the friendly American said: "Lee Car". After that, "Lee" became their surrogate definite article: "Can you pass lee butter, please," and so on. When he and his wife had a baby, the kid was inevitably nicknamed "Lee Child". "I was looking for a name that was short, crisp and memorable," he says. Lee Child (Snr) was born.

Child reckons you only need two qualifications to write a decent book. First, "you must have had word-games in the family when you were growing up." Second, "you have to have read a few books beforehand." One of the first books he read at the public library, aged only four or five, was the beginning of his "love-affair with the US". The 12-page board book was called My Home in America. Its last page showed an apple-cheeked boy looking out of his apartment building across the Manhattan skyline. "It was a revelation," Child says. "Just as Jan Morris used to say she was 'a woman trapped inside a man's body', so I had this feeling – I knew – that I was this New York boy trapped inside a boy living in Birmingham, England."

He went to Sheffield University, married a visiting American student and fully expected to decamp to the US on graduation. "But she turned out to be an Anglophile, and I had to wait another 20 years." Now he lives in an apartment across from the Flatiron Building in New York, with a view out over the Manhattan skyline, and supports the Yankees (while following the fortunes of Aston Villa from afar).

All of which might help to explain why it is that Jack Reacher is a fairly complex figure. He is to muscles what Bill Gates is to money. But he is also a liberal-minded guardian angel trapped inside the almighty body of a US army MP (rtd) turned lone-wolf drifter. He really hates bad guys – that is for damn sure, to use one of his catchphrases. And he tends to make mincemeat out of them in unarmed combat.

Beloved of paratroopers and GIs, he is the hard man's hard man, a monster of machismo. But when he gets tired of kicking teeth in, he is quite capable of quoting Nietzsche and coming up with the etymology of "Xerox" and "vagrant". And his mother is French, so he has the outsider's sensitivity to the infra-ordinary details that the natives are liable to miss. "He is like a gorilla that can paint," says Child.

Child reckons he may have been inspired by certain hypertrophic rugby players who are meek and mild when not in shorts. There is no comparison with James Bond. "Bond is not enough of a maverick – he is employed, he has an office and a secretary." Child sees Reacher's precursors stretching back into our mythic past, to the knight errant, the grail quest, and the saviour. He certainly saved Child's bacon, just when he was running out of redundancy money. "The thriller is not a recent invention," he says. "It probably goes back to the dawn of storytelling."

The point about Reacher (evoked in the novels' recurrent refrain, "back in the day") is that he is a Rousseau-esque noble savage, a hunter-gatherer wild man who happens to have wandered into town. He only wants coffee and a square meal, but he can get riled. All conflicts arise out of the collision between the rootless nomad and the settled community. Or, as Child puts it, "it's a naked exploitation of people's frustrations". Reacher appeals to women readers as much as to men. "They love the idea of walking out of the door and not looking back."

The high body-count is balanced by a seductive minimalism of style. In Reacher's latest outing, Worth Dying For (his 15th), a villain comes through the door armed with a belt-sander, "already loaded with a fresh loop of coarse-grain abrasive". Child has applied something similar to the pulp vernacular. The Philip Marlowe wisecrack has got the chop. The hard-boiled has been boiled down to "a sullen, sardonic humour". The most frequent sentence is "Reacher said nothing". Amid this zero-degree discourse, a little can count for a lot. "In Without Fail the vital clue was a hyphen" Child recalls. In Killing Floor (the first novel), it's a possessive apostrophe.

Despite being handy with all sorts of weapons as well as his bare fists, Reacher is not the pin-up boy of the National Rifle Association. They suspect him of being a closet leftie. Child stirred up a "shit storm" in the US with Nothing To Lose, which brings the fallout from Iraq to the foreground. When Reacher discovers the escape route of American deserters, he turns a comradely and sympathetic blind eye. Child was able to point out that everything Reacher says that is critical of the American military was lifted direct from all the emails sent him by serving soldiers.

Child's grandfather was wounded at Gallipoli and his father fought his way across Europe in the Second World War. "But I started out knowing no more about military life than anyone else," he says. Now he has become a "conduit" for the innermost thoughts of frontline troops. "They can't tell their superior officers and they can't tell their families either. So they tell me."

Child recently found himself sitting next to Martin Amis at an awards ceremony. It was a showdown between popular fiction and literary fiction. In a straight fight I would bet on Child to knock out Amis in the first round. "He is ferociously intelligent, of course," says Child, benevolently. "Classic academic." Child likes to write "spontaneously, without prior thought, blindly". Ironically, he is now an honorary doctor of letters and a visiting professor at Sheffield but, he insists, "only in exchange for the usual old boy donation" (He generously funded 52 "Jack Reacher scholarships" – the only requirement is that you have to take on six heavy hombres in a bar.)

I first came across Reacher in a seemingly innocent bookstore in Pasadena. Now I'm hooked and one day my habit of snarling, "You can walk out – or they can carry you out in a bucket!" is going to get me into trouble. Other addicts will be relieved to know that rumours of Reacher's imminent demise are premature. "It's not in my hands," says Child. "So long as readers keep reading and my publishers keep publishing, I plan to keep on writing. I'd have to be an idiot to be burnt-out in this job."

But even if he is not about to have Reacher go over some American Reichenbach Falls, where Arthur Conan Doyle pushed Sherlock Holmes, Child has a cardinal rule: "You mustn't fall in love with your own hero." He feels it has happened to certain writers with disastrous consequences. Child tries to keep his alter ego at arm's length. "I never succumb to the temptation to stop Reacher doing something unpleasant."

Before Lee Child was Lee Child, when he was growing up in Birmingham, it was still a manufacturing city, full of small artisanal workshops with a lathe and a drill. "They did it all by eye then. But they still managed to make things to a fantastically high degree of precision. They did their job with a certain pride but also modesty." Child sees himself as carrying on that almost forgotten tradition. "I'm an artisan," he says. "I'm making useful things. With a degree of pride." It might also explain why there are so many tools in his books, lathes, drills, screwdrivers, wrenches and cutting equipment. Child reckons he should have gone to technical college, not grammar school. A fine-tuned sense of mechanical precision permeates his writing, where you can hear the hum of engines and the grinding of gears, and bodies can be expertly taken apart. And Reacher always knows the time, without reference to clock or watch. "I could have made head of engineering at London Underground, given the chance," Child sighs. "I would have been happy with that."

Andy Martin teaches French at Cambridge University; his latest book is 'Beware Invisible Cows' (Simon & Schuster)

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