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The man who sold 100 million books

Sacked from his job, Lee Child went home and began his first novel. Now he is Britain’s top thriller writer

Image Credit: copyright: Sigrid Estrada
Under his ‘Lee Child’ nom-de-plume, Jim Grant sells a book somewhere around the world every 20 seconds
Gulf News

Lee Child is a work of fiction. That is neither his first name nor his surname. And, while the author of the Jack Reacher novels has been based in New York for many years now and writes his page-turning thrillers as an American, in reality he’s plain Jim Grant, 62, from Birmingham. We meet in the boardroom of his British publishers in Pimlico.

Britain’s most successful thriller writer is a friendly if contained figure, lean, tall — he’s 1.92 metres tall — dressed today entirely in black: jacket, T-shirt, trousers, loafers.

So why the pseudonym? “Family joke,” he says in an accent that hovers now somewhere over the Atlantic. “I was on a train once and found myself sitting next to a Texan. When he found out I was British, he said, apropos of not much: ‘I’ve got a European car.’ It was a Renault 5, marketed back then as Le Car to give it a sort of Parisian chic. Except he pronounced it ‘Lee Car’. As soon as I told my wife, ‘Lee’ became our shared stand-in definite article, so that when our daughter Ruth was born she became ‘Lee Baby’. As she grew, she morphed into ‘Lee Child’.” He didn’t have to look further for his pseudonym. “It’s a name that struck me as perfect: warm, sentimental to me and easily memorable.”

Child is quite spectacularly successful. His 21st book in the Jack Reacher canon, Night School, may not have been published until last November, but it was still the best-selling hardback fiction title of 2016. The paperback version released on April 6. The books are bought, it seems, both by people who only read one book a year and then pretty much by the rest of us.

“I used to say that, if I had a dollar for everyone who’s told me they never normally read that sort of book... But, come to think of it, I do have a dollar for all those people.” Indeed. The Reacher oeuvre has so far shifted more than 100 million copies (“and counting,” says Child), with one sold every 20 seconds, somewhere in the world. How does he celebrate publication of a new addition? “I’ve taken to treating myself to a good oil painting from a living artist.” At the beginning of September each year, he sits down to write the next book, a task that takes about six months.

“It’s a superstition, if you like. I’d worked for 18 years as a presentation director at Granada TV and finally got the sack on September 1, when it became clear that the department could be replaced to a great extent by automation. So I went out and bought paper and pencils and determined to write my first novel [in 1995].”

When his daughter finished secondary school, the family moved to New York, his wife Jane’s birthplace. It may be a hard place to live, he says, but he loves it. So how does Britain feel to him now? “Very managed and precious, the epitome of a nanny state. In America, it’s every man for himself. Here, I feel a bit poked and prodded. Everything feels just a little over-curated, in a way.”

In 2015, he allowed Cambridge academic Andy Martin to observe him at work on his 20th novel, Make Me. One of Martin’s conclusions in his book, Reacher Said Nothing, was that Child was driven by the need for approval that had always been withheld by his parents. A bit far-fetched?

“Not at all. I am the second of four brothers and my father’s dearest wish was for me to become a solicitor living in a detached house. My eldest brother was a very well-respected engineer, the next one down taught chemistry in a secondary school and my youngest brother, Andrew, followed my example and is now a thriller writer. I think we were all a disappointment to him.”

Although Child was born in Coventry, his civil servant father moved the family to Birmingham when he was four. Child attended the prestigious King Edward’s School and, in 1974, went to Sheffield University to read law, but claims he “had no intention of entering the legal profession”.

“My parents were of the view I was involved in rackety pursuits that were barely jobs at all,” he says.

“My mother thought writing was contemptible, until someone at her hairdresser raved about the Reacher books one day. But my dad read each one and had pertinent comments to make each time. He’s gone now and my mother is in the grip of Alzheimer’s. I think each of them was mystified by my success.”

He claims he has no idea where the story is heading when he starts writing a book. “It’s a mathematical thing,” he explains. “When you start out, there are any number of ways you can go. But, once you select one of them, it becomes a self-selecting process. I’m not sure how conscious I am of this but it seems that about halfway through my story I review what I’ve got and then start making sense of it.”

His style, he says, has always been staccato, spare. “I was conscious of that in the early books. I wanted to create something propulsive, what I call narrative locomotion. But the challenge is to achieve that in a way that doesn’t alienate more sophisticated readers.”

A smart critic from Prospect magazine once described the Reacher cycle as “better than literature”. He smiles. “There seems to be a general assumption that to attempt to do something to satisfy a large number of people is easier than doing something that satisfies a small number. Surely the reverse is true. But I like literary writers: Martin Amis, and Ian McEwan, although he has a tendency to wear his research a little heavily. Julian Barnes worries me a bit, in as much as he seems to suggest that the most fascinating person you’ve ever met — or, at least, the most fascinating person he’s ever met — was in the Lower Sixth. And I mourn the disappearance of a good story. It’s style over substance these days.”

So if you’re finding a book hard going should you plough on? Child doesn’t think so. “It took me until I was 35 before I felt able to abandon a book I didn’t like,” he says. “If I’m not enjoying something, it’s not my fault, it’s the author’s. Writers can’t just phone it in. You’ve got to respect your readers.” Unsurprisingly, he’s a big advocate of popular culture. “I loved Gone Girl, although the book much more than the film. But Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay and that should be a lesson to us all. It’s a different discipline.”

Two of the Reacher books have been turned into films, the slight Tom Cruise, 54, taking the role of the tall and beefy hero. Would Child have chosen him?

“Honestly? I don’t care. To me, the book is the ultimate thing. I’ve never regarded any of them as a chrysalis waiting to become a movie.” Not that he has anything against Cruise. “I’ve got to know him and he’s the nicest guy in the world. It perplexes me, the level of hostility he arouses, presumably triggered in part by his belief in Scientology. It’s claimed he’s got minders from that church who control him. I know my way around a film set, and I can tell you there were no unexplained people around Tom on the set of the Reacher films. All I can tell you is that I’ve always found him to be a genuine guy.”

The Reacher books are masculine in execution, yet more than half Child’s readers are female. “I was surprised by that. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that women identify with Reacher; they want the same things he wants: freedom, lack of commitment.”

So he’ll keep writing Jack Reacher novels? “Yes, because the writer is the servant of the reader. If people continue to want it, who am I to say no? He’s a knight errant, a loner. So he can do anything anywhere. I sit down to write each new book with exactly the same enthusiasm as I did the first one.”

­–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017

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