Jack Reacher is a presence that can't be ignored. The six-foot-five former MP is described as "Sasquatch" by a bad guy in Lee Child's newest Reacher novel, The Midnight Line (November 7), and Reacher's methods of getting to the truth are both formidable and unconventional.
When Reacher finds a small, woman-sized class ring from West Point in a pawn shop in a run-down town, he suspects something happened to the soldier. A West Point graduate doesn't give away or sell her ring lightly. But his investigation into the soldier's disappearance puts him in the crosshairs of a drug smuggling outfit that has been successfully operating under the radar—at least until Reacher comes around and starts kicking down doors in his search for the truth.
We spoke by phone with Lee Child about how he keeps Reacher interesting after almost two dozen books, why great TV is drawing inspiration from books, and what the end could be for Reacher.
Amazon Book Review: If you include the short story collection, you're 23 books in with Jack Reacher, and you do a great job of making Reacher compelling to your readers. But as the creator of the character, how do you keep making Reacher interesting to yourself?
Lee Child: Well, part of that is a mental trick that all serious writers have got to do, which is to keep some kind of distance between themselves and the character. I try to like him less than you’re going to like him. That keeps him honest and real, and it means I’m not protecting him, I’m not watching his back. You’ve got to be very hard on yourself, otherwise you get a little complacent and the whole thing gets a little lazy and sugary, I think. And, because Reacher does not have a home or a job, nothing is employment-based or location-based. He can be anywhere and do anything. It means that every single page one can be totally different. Every start of the story can be totally different; the location can be anywhere. We can have White House and CIA and all that kind of stuff, or we can just have some dusty little town where the nearest cops are a hundred miles away.
Are you working towards an end point for Reacher’s story?
I used to think I was. I used to think that he can’t last forever, and a noble old war horse like him should have a definitive end somewhere. Probably die. But I’ve learned over the years that the readers would be so upset. They’ve really grown to like this guy. It would just be gratuitously upsetting if he was just to die. So I’ve decided that if the series ever needs to come to an end, it would be a kind of switcheroo metaphorically. That maybe he’d stay in town, get a dog or something, and it will just be obvious that his wandering days are over.
There’s a note from you in the front of the advance reading copy of The Midnight Line that talks about how the reader’s interpretation of the book is important to you. Can you tell me more about that idea?
I find that so fascinating that reading is the one thing where it is actually the reader that is creating the story. What I do is I make strange black marks on white paper or on a screen, and the reader runs her eyes over those marks. It could be months later, it could be years later, and a facsimile of the story I was thinking about appears in her head. And it’s her mental energy, it’s her calories that are being burned to create that story. So I think it’s a uniquely two-way street that the reader creates a story just as much as the writer, and therefore the reader owns the story just as much as the writer, which is why I love it when people tell me what their opinion is, because it’s absolutely as valid as my opinion, because they’re doing the work. Even if it disagrees with mine, who am I to argue? That’s what they think the story is.
The opioid epidemic becomes a major plot point in The Midnight Line, and you talk a bit in the book about the long history of opium addiction in the U.S.
Usually I’m not particularly an issues writer. I don’t go for that ripped-from-the-headlines thing, because I figure that for me to be really interested in the book, it’s got to be something that is on my mind at the time. So it’s a bit of a coincidence that what’s on my mind is what’s on the news. The point I was trying to make is that it’s a horrible crisis. But we’ve got to face up to one fact before we can start solving it, which is that it’s a wonderful feeling. An opioid high is a fabulous thing. And until we kind of admit that to ourselves and take it into account, I don’t think we’ll ever find a good solution.
Have you ever taken opium?
Not actual opium. I would love to do that—you know, go to some opium den and try it. But I know those synthetic opium pills and so on, they make you feel great, and you want more and more, and it’s very, very easy to get addicted.
You went into quite a bit of detail into how pills are being tracked these days with barcodes and how we’re making sure that what comes out of the factory is what’s actually reaching pharmacies. How much research did you do around this?
I did a fair bit of general reading just out of interest. I just read everything I can all the time, and sooner or later something comes back to me that’s going to be useful. I never do research for the specific book that I’m working on because I feel that if you do, you’re not giving yourself time to let it percolate and figure out which is the important part and which isn’t. I think in general research is like an iceberg. You use ten percent of it—the significant part—and you throw the rest away. And if you’re doing it there and then [while writing], I don’t think you have time and distance to figure out what counts and what doesn’t.
From the moment you first get a story idea to the moment where you get a finished copy of the book and start doing publicity and go on tour, what’s your favorite part of the process?
I’ve got two favorite parts. One is starting it, because I feel like no book ever comes out exactly as good as you’d thought it might or you’d hoped it would. So I love starting, because I haven’t screwed it up yet. [Laughs] And then I love the end, because you’ve got there. You’ve made it through. And if you’ve got a good, coherent story that’s exciting and pacy, then that last couple of pages is a wonderful thing.
Is the hardest part the middle, then?
Yeah, there is a lot of donkey work in the middle section, yes.
Do you know exactly where you’re going when you start writing?
No, I have zero idea where I’m going. It’s an endless process of discovery. Which makes it quite slow for me. I’m quite a slow writer compared to other people. But once I’ve told the story, that’s it. I don’t change it; I don’t revise it in any way. To me, that is the story.
I've spoken to a number of writers recently who prefer to hand-write their novels. Do you use a computer?
I do now, but I did the first book by hand in the same way, because I didn’t have a computer. This is quite a long time ago. I wrote that first book in 1995—coincidentally when Amazon was just starting up—and I didn’t have a computer because people didn’t usually have a computer then. And I didn’t want to buy one before I’d sold the book, because I wanted to emphasize to myself, This is for real. This is a job. It’s not a hobby. So I had earn it. But now I certainly use a computer. Although, there are a lot of schools of thought that say handwriting is better. The theory is that you tend to work out the sentence completely in your head before you put it on paper, because you don’t want to be crossing lots of things out. And maybe that extra bit of thought is good.
Did you grow up wanting to be a writer?
Not at all. I’m an accidental writer. I grew up wanting to be somewhere in the world of entertainment. Ideally, I wanted to be in the Beatles. But there were numerous problems with that, including the fact that I was only nine and I had no musical talent and they had no vacancies. [Laughs] But I wanted that joy that comes from entertaining and audience. So I got into the theater, basically. I would do the shows in elementary school and high school, and again I had no real onstage talent, so I was always a backstage person. And then I went to television, which was a wonderful twenty years. So for me it’s not writing, per se. It’s the idea that I’m doing something that’s going to bring people pleasure and happiness, which I love about the world of entertainment. Nobody buys a book because they have to. It’s not like selling Tylenol. Nobody’s in distress. Nobody buys one in a state of misery. They buy it simply because they love it. And so it’s all good. There’s no negative thing to writing at all.
We talk amongst ourselves in the editorial team here about how so many of today’s great television shows are standing on the shoulders of books. As someone who worked in television and now writes books, why do you think novels make such great source material for TV shows?
It’s about the format of TV. What’s happened is it’s migrated away from a 43-minute hour into cable seasons that are very long, and people have gotten into the habit of bingeing. And when you binge a cable series, you might be doing it four, five, six hours at a time. Which is exactly the kind of pace and the emotion that you get with a novel. I think that TV has woken up to the fact that this is how people want to consume stories.
Sometimes when I watch TV with my daughter, we talk about the theme of the whole season, and I’m not sure TV was written like that 20 years ago. It was just story after story after story without necessarily having a larger arc to it.
Exactly. Because you would tend to consume it a week apart at best. Now the way technology is working, you can watch it all at once. I’ve heard of people doing twelve hours a day. They get into a series and they can’t stop.
I had a friend who came into work on Monday after binge-watching two seasons of Game of Thrones over the weekend. He looked like he’d been run over by car.
I remember doing that with Homeland season one. I watched that all in one go. That show was about a woman having a nervous breakdown, so I felt I’d had one along with her.
What have you been reading lately that you’ve enjoyed?
I just read the new John le Carre, A Legacy of Spies. I enjoyed that a lot, I really did. I love John le Carre. You know what I said about the flexibility that my series gives me? He doesn’t have that. It was largely a flashback, and it was about a case that occurred a long time ago when that Cold War world was still in effect. I think it was a blow to a lot of people, him included, when the Cold War ended.
I for one don’t miss [the Cold War], though.
[Laughs] Every way apart from fiction, yes, the end of the Cold War is a really good thing.
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