by Lee Child
Published by Delacorte Press
352 pages, 2003
Lee Child's best-known character, ex-military policeman Jack Reacher, comes out of the heroic-altruism tradition in British crime fiction exemplified early on by Leslie Charteris' Simon "The Saint" Templar and Peter Cheyney's Lemmy Caution: A mysterious benefactor arrives on the scene to help out when the law no longer can. As this tradition evolved, the enigmatic champion took an antiheroic turn in the hands of Dornford Yates, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean and Eric Ambler. More recently, the character darkened considerably under John Le Carré, Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor), Len Deighton and Ian Fleming. Indeed, it became difficult to distinguish the bad guys from the good at times, especially with Fleming's works, in which James Bond's adversaries were made into grotesque parodies to contrast them with the dark side of 007.
Born in Coventry, England, in 1954, Child started out studying law but switched to a more compelling interest, drama. That move led to a successful 18-year career in television during the heyday of Granada Studios, where he worked in production on Jewel-in-the-Crown, Brideshead Revisited, Cracker and Prime Suspect. After a "reorg" at Granada cost him his job in 1995, Child decided to write a novel. Titled Killing Floor, that 1997 book won both the Anthony Award and Deadly Pleasures magazine's Barry Award for Best First Novel.
Killing Floor unfolds as the first-person narrative of Reacher, who drifts into a conspiracy with a shady, violent gang that's holding a town in Georgia hostage. Child's follow-up, Die Trying (1998), tells of a kidnapping in Chicago that involves more than initially meets the eye, while his third outing, Tripwire (1999), spans Key West, New York and combat zones of the past.
The author's next book entered the psychological territory of the serial killer. In 2000's Running Blind (titled The Visitor in the UK), Reacher is asked to investigate a series of murders, the targets being female ex-military officers who are found dead in tubs of military green paint. Less action and more terror lie in that story's trajectory, and strong women characters start to appear and challenge Reacher. This theme continues in the neo-western Echo Burning (2001) with the mysterious figure of Carmen Greer, a woman who fears an abusive husband and wants Reacher to intervene on her behalf, but harbors secrets that could cost her dearly. Echo also comments subtly on treatment of the "underclasses" in Texas and how the weak sometimes need defending by people like Jack Reacher. Last year's Without Fail was an international best-seller and even made January Magazine's favorite books of 2002 list, with reviewer Kevin Burton Smith calling it "smart, literate and just good, old-fashioned thrilling." It opens with Reacher taking on the unorthodox assignment of checking the security of the U.S. vice president by attempting to assassinate him. In contrast to Child's earlier books, Without Fail opened up the vista, its panoramic conspiracy tale zigzagging toward a stunning climax in small-town Wyoming.
Now, Child returns with a tightly plotted claustrophobic thriller, Persuader. Harking back to his crime fiction debut, this new book uses the first-person voice that launched Jack Reacher into popular culture. In its pages, the maverick drifter has to confront a dark secret from his past and a grotesque series of villains led by the sadistic Francis Xavier Quinn. Though fueled with the violence and menace of the modern age, this tale is told within the confines of a secluded fortress on Maine's icy coast, one that would not have seemed out of place in the early heroic-altruism works of British crime fiction. There, Reacher is trapped and guarded by an assortment of muscular psychopaths. Like Fleming before him, Child keeps "Xavier," as his main villain is known, off-stage until the final third of the novel. And then, before you can say "Blofeld," we are hit with a violent climax that releases all the tension with a cathartic flourish -- plus a surprise or two. Persuader transported me back to that era when the bad guys just needed a damned good thumping.
In 1998, Child moved to New York state with his American wife, Jane, and their daughter, Ruth. Yet he continues to be hailed on both sides of the Atlantic, and reports are that -- for a figure "closer to eight figures than seven" -- he has signed up to extend his Reacher series into at least 2006.
During a wide-ranging interview, Lee Child talks about his upbringing in provincial England and his career in British TV production, his brief experience as a mugger in San Francisco, the unlikely way Jack Reacher acquired his name and what's ahead for that quixotic loner.
Ali Karim: Who in your early years cultivated your passion for reading and writing?
Lee Child: It was just there, like the air. I'm older than you, Ali, and you have to imagine two channels of TV, both of which took long breaks during the day ... very few other outlets. The local library was all there was.
Would you classify your childhood as blue-collar, say in the George Pelecanos style, or were you more of a middle-class kid?
Fascinating question, and one that really needs an entire socio-historic essay to answer. George, bless him, grew up in Washington, D.C., and what do Yanks know about social class? I grew up in provincial England in the late 1950s, early 60s. I would say I'm from a worn-but-discreetly-darned-white-collar background. My dad was a civil servant on a fixed salary in a time of variable inflation in a city where the car workers' unions were very strong. So he was white-collar, but poorer than the blue-collar guys. He went to work in a tie, carrying an umbrella, but he went on the bus. We had books but no bikes. We always had three squares a day and wore leather shoes, but if there was a pound left over at the end of the month, it was a miracle.
Can you recall the early books that influenced you to be a writer?
Harlan Coben has this funny riff he does at events, based on how writers claim how early they decided to be writers ... It goes through the 7-year-olds with drawers full of exercise books ... ends up with someone claiming they wanted to be a writer ever since they were a fetus. I had no wish to be a writer before I was about 35. As a kid, I was probably unaware that there were writers. I knew there were books, but I hadn't really considered how they got there. I read all the usual suspects: the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, all those other Enid Blyton series. There was one with a guy called Fatty in it -- can't remember which series that was -- but I do remember getting bitten by the mystery bug at that point; the stories ran through all the basic mystery conventions. After that I moved on to the Captain W.E. Johns series, then Alistair MacLean.
I find it an interesting paradox that you studied law, but the characters in your works seem almost to ignore the law. What was your early fascination with the legal profession?
Well, I knew I was going to university -- middle-class family, like I said, and don't forget back then universities were free -- so I had to decide what to study. I was interested in lots of things -- history, politics, sociology, language, economics -- and it suddenly dawned on me that the law is a synthesis of all those things together. A law written or a case decided in 1930, say, is a snapshot of historic, political, sociological and economic conditions in 1930, expressed in the language of the day. So that's what I studied -- with no intention of ever being a lawyer, which was very liberating. All the other students were worried about their grades because they wanted to get jobs, but I didn't care. I can thoroughly recommend it: Study law, but don't be a lawyer. It helps with clarity of expression, and it gives you a sort of streetwise frame of reference ... you know what's likely to be legal or not, even if you don't know the exact details. You get hit on as a barrack-room lawyer ever afterward, though. The apparent paradox inherent in what I write about is easy to explain. There is a basic contradiction between law and order: It's much easier to keep order if you ignore the law.
During your academic life, you worked in the theater. Would you talk about that period and what it taught you?
It feels like the other way around. I worked in the theater and mixed it in with a little bit of going to school and college. I was always in love with the idea of performing. I wanted to be in the Beatles, basically. I wanted an audience's love, attention and approval -- like all performers I know. But I had no on-stage talent. None at all. Can't sing, can't dance, can't act. So I moved backstage and stayed there -- and I'm still there. Being a writer is the ultimate backstage job. Basically, I learned about responsibility. Your first, second and third duty is to the audience. The show must go on. Respect your colleagues and don't let them down. There's no business like show business. All good lessons that are still helpful now.
Was television a natural progression?
Definitely, for a backstage guy. Ultimately, the live theater needs only a script, actors and an empty space to perform in. TV by necessity needs a lot of technical work.
What did the 18 years you spent at Granada Studios bring to your writing?
I was there from 1977 to 1995, which was a golden period. It taught me that there is such a thing as quality mass-market entertainment. The truth is, people aren't necessarily looking for the lowest common denominator. Also, it taught me that the public's taste is totally unpredictable. It is impossible to plan a hit.
Can you give me a highlight as well as a lowlight from that time?
Too many highlights to pick one out. The people, maybe: bright, talented, fun. The lowlight? Not necessarily getting fired, but the dumbing down of the management that preceded it. They just wrecked a quality organization that a lot of people had put their whole lives into. It was upsetting to watch. And the results are obvious to see. Do you enjoy much TV these days?
What was the lead-up to losing your job like? And when did you conjure the idea of trying your hand at novel writing?
As I said, the dismantling of Granada was traumatic -- and for me, it lasted ages. I was one of five guys in a certain role, which was so complex that it took them two years to replace us. During those two years, pieces of our jobs would disappear week by week. It wasn't a fun time. In August of 1994, I was told my job would be gone by Christmas. Knowing how inefficient they were, I mentally planned on leaving the next summer, which is how it turned out. So I was faced with finding another way to make a living. An added complication was that I was the union shop steward, so I knew I wasn't high on anyone's wish list elsewhere in the industry. So I decided to make a complete break and be my own boss. Writing novels was the only thing I could think of.
Did you really write Killing Floor on your kitchen table in longhand? Where did the inspiration for that tale come from? And did you plot extensively or just let the story tell itself?
My dining table, actually. I didn't have a kitchen table; the kitchen was too small. Longhand, because I wanted to emphasize that this was serious; it wasn't a hobby. I didn't own a computer, and I wanted to wait to buy one with my first advance, which I did. The inspiration? I always say I had two muses, fear and hunger. Storywise, I was probably pointed in the right direction by the Travis McGee series most of all, plus a little Spenser, with a seasoning of Alistair MacLean. For about four or five years, it had been dawning on me that maybe I could write a book, and I began to understand how other writers did it. I didn't plot much. I did what I still do, which is to have a rough idea of a climax scene, and I just started and tried to head toward it.
Is it true that your wife, Jane, came up with the name "Reacher" while she was out shopping?
She was naturally interested in how I was going to replace my monthly paycheck, and I told her I was going to be a novelist. She took it very well, really. Killing Floor, that first book, was a first-person narrative, and as it happened the main character didn't need to be named until somebody interrogated him, about 20 or so pages in. So I had started the book and I hadn't come up with a name I liked. We went out shopping to the supermarket and -- like you probably, Ali, because you're tall, too -- every time I'm in a supermarket, a little old lady comes up to me and says, "You're a nice tall chap, could you reach me that can?" So Jane said, "Hey, if this writing thing doesn't pan out, you could always be a reacher in a supermarket." I thought, Reacher -- good name.
What was the source of this character who's become such a linchpin of the mystery genre? Is there much wish fulfillment for you in Jack Reacher?
Creating a fictional character is a real luxury, because you get to choose everything. And you get to react to what has been done before. In that regard, I didn't want another drunk, alcoholic, miserable, traumatized hero. I didn't want him to have shot a kid, or his partner, or whatever. I just wanted a decent, normal, uncomplicated guy. Or, as I realized in retrospect he actually was, I wanted him to have flaws and faults and edges, but to be personally unaware of them. Thus he's interesting, but he's not always gazing at his own navel. He thinks he's completely normal. Only we readers know different. Wish fulfillment? Maybe a little, but really more of a throwback to the way I was as a kid. I was a tough guy in a tough neighborhood, and I grew big very early, so I ruled the yard -- never scared, never intimidated. At elementary school I was a paid bodyguard. Kids gave me cookies and lunch money to watch their backs. Some bully stepped out of line, I was waiting for him on his way home. I never started a fight, but I was in plenty. I broke arms, did damage. But I felt I was on the side of the angels. I wanted to recapture that feeling and update it into adulthood.
After you sent half the manuscript of Killing Floor to your agent, I've heard that he wanted the rest urgently. Could you tell me about that?
As Humphrey Bogart once said, "I was misinformed." I had heard that agents and publishers didn't even open the envelope for three months. So I wrote the first half and sent it to [agent] Darley Anderson -- I picked him out of the Writer's Handbook because he seemed to be my type of guy -- with a letter saying the novel was finished and ready to go. I figured it would be finished in three months, easy. Don't forget, I was in a hurry. But Darley is very unusual; he's a very on-the-ball guy. I didn't know it then, but he has a policy of reading everything the day it comes in. Not the whole submission, of course -- you've got to grab him on the first page. If you don't, he won't read the second page. But he liked Killing Floor and got back to me by return mail asking for the rest. So I had to call him and tell him I was just making a few adjustments to the second half -- like writing it. So I wrote as fast as I could, and mailed him the rest.
You say that Anderson was your type of guy. How so?
Because he does not distinguish between literary quality and commercial appeal. For him, they can be one and the same.
How much input has your agent had on your work over the years? Has his role changed since you started working together?
He makes money if I make money, and vice versa, so he prompted me to make the first book as good as possible before he sent it out. Darley and I have a great relationship ... It's a very intimate thing, the relationship between a writer and an agent. If it works well, and ours does, it's closer than family. These days, our concern is chiefly strategic. The series kind of runs itself now. [Darley] is a remarkable man, really. He found Martina Cole, and Lesley Pearse, and John Connolly and me ... all because he has ideas like reading stuff on the day it comes in. Other agents dither around. He doesn't.
At the beginning, did you think the Reacher character would last for more than one or two books?
I certainly hoped to be a series writer, yes. As a reader, I was always a sucker for character-based series. Nothing better than finding a book, maybe by accident, and enjoying it, and then realizing that it's part of a series. You have a real buzz, going back to the bookstore or the library. You know you're pretty much guaranteed six or 10 more great reads. So I always planned to make Reacher a series. Not my decision, though -- the publishers and the public decide that for you. I guess I knew it was going to be OK when the first reviews came out and people were responding well to the character ... and then my second book deal specified Reacher in the contract.
You came to writing fairly late in life. How important is it to have lived some life before getting the words to come out right?
I think it's vital. I know that's true in my own case, and by looking at my colleagues. All of us did something else first. I think writing is truly a "second-phase" career. I know there are occasional successful books by 20-somethings ... but how many of them do successful second books? I was 40 when I started, like Raymond Chandler, Robert Ludlum and all kinds of other people. I don't personally know any successful writers who haven't worked half a lifetime doing something else first.
How has your writing process evolved since the first book? Are you a detailed plot man, or more into following the story with fingers crossed?
Definitely the latter. I never outline. I try to feel the same excitement that I hope the reader will: never knowing what comes on the next page.
Your British publishers tell me that your submitted manuscripts require very little editing, as they are almost ready to print. How do you draft?
I have a kind of two-steps-forward, one-step-back process. At the start of every day I revise what I wrote the day before, and then press ahead. At the end of the book I'm always vaguely aware of one or maybe two sections that are a bit loose, so I duck back and tighten them up. But I don't really do a second draft, as such. I just finished the book that will appear in 2004 -- wrote the last line at midnight on a Thursday and had it in final shape by Sunday afternoon. Over the years I have realized that a book is a snapshot of where you were that particular six-month period, and you have to just let it go. Perpetual revising is a danger. Just type "The End" and mail it in.
You wrote one short story, "James Penney's New Identity," for the 1999 collection Fresh Blood 3. Are you a fan of the short-story form?
No, not as a writer or a reader. That particular story was basically an outtake from Die Trying, my second novel. It was a strand that didn't go anywhere, so I recycled it. As a writer, I find novels easy and short stories almost impossible. As a reader, I hate something that ends in 20 pages.
In Killing Floor, you wrote from the first-person perspective of Reacher, and now you return to that format in Persuader. Why? What makes you choose first-person or third-person for a book?
First-person is very intimate, and it's great for cementing a relationship between the character and the reader. And I believe it's a more natural way to write. So it's a good choice for a first novel. But third-person is very much more flexible in terms of what it lets you do with plot. You can see around corners, you can know stuff that the hero doesn't know -- much easier to create suspense that way. So ultimately it's about horses for courses -- what does the plot need? Is this a book where a very personal point of view is needed?
You really have the American vernacular down to a fine art, especially with the guns, weapons and military background. But in a novel like Without Fail, where does the research stop and the writing begin?
I do very little research in the traditional notebook-and-camera way. I don't mug up on things. But as with any writer, one's whole life is research. Everything you've read -- even, maybe especially, fiction; every movie or TV show you've seen; everywhere you've been, you're constantly absorbing facts and flavor and atmosphere. So Without Fail didn't take any more time than the other books.
I read a story in Deadly Pleasures about your being mugged in a rough area when you were researching one of your books. Tell me more about that incident.
It was the Die Trying promotion tour, and I wasn't mugged. In fact, I mugged the other guy. Promotion tours are hard work, but the compensation is freebie visits to places you might not otherwise go, so I always make a habit, when the day is done, of taking a stroll, usually about midnight. I was in San Francisco, so figured I'd go look at the Tenderloin part of town, which is rough. This guy stepped out and basically said, "Give me your money." ... I was amazed how quickly I snapped back through almost 40 years and suddenly became that tough city kid again. I got right in the guy's face and told him he had to give me his money or I'd break his arms. Just a purely instinctive reaction from long ago. Never back down. Never show fear. He only had five bucks. I gave it to the next homeless person I saw.
I think Holly Johnson, in Die Trying, was your first strong female lead. With her FBI training and background, as well as her iron will, she was almost equal to Reacher emotionally. Since then, you have created some very strong female characters. What makes the sexual chemistry so important in your books?
I write strong women because women are strong. It's a way out-of-date idea to have women who are just decorative sidekicks. I prefer them real.
Female leads such as Roscoe, Jodie, Harper, Neagley and Duffy appear in their respective books, but then vanish. Is this another facet of Reacher's shiftless character, or are we likely to see one of them come back?
Never say never, but a strong part of Reacher's character is his need to be a rootless drifter ... He always moves on. He's uncomfortable in the same place for too long. Plus, as a writer, I took a strategic decision to avoid what I call a "soap opera" series, with a repertory company of characters who appear in every book. Other people do that so well, I wanted to stake out some different territory.
Frances Neagley, from Without Fail, has become one of your most popular leads. What makes her such a hit? And why is it that your books appeal so much to female readers, despite the bone crunching?
Neagley worked as a character because she was mysterious -- I sketched in enough to make her enticing, but deliberately left most of her to the reader's imagination. She's an enigma, and therefore fascinating. Why do women like the books? I think they like the arcs of the stories -- wrongs righted, the good guys win. Plus, they like Reacher, probably because they know he moves on. It's like a perfect one-week affair ... and then he's gone -- thanks for the memories!
The sexual element in your books alternates between the sensual and the perverse, represented, say, by Elizabeth Beck's personal bleeper in Persuader. Is that because it mirrors life?
Yes, I think it does. Certainly, there's sensuality in life, and sexual humiliation and oppression are very affecting. It's also a kind of metaphor for helplessness and victimhood.
Is there a line with regard to perversity that you wouldn't cross? Or do you believe that in the world of fiction, there can be no limits?
In general, I think the situation is actually reversed. Writer friends of mine who have day jobs as cops say they have to tone down reality when they write ... fact is always worse than fiction. For me, yes, I avoid really gross stuff. In fact, my books don't go far at all; they just feel like they do. For instance, in Running Blind I decided to do a version of the preys-on-women serial-killer story, but I made it deliberately unsensational, even somewhat antiseptic, and I think it was more effective as a result.
Location is an important aspect of your stories. You manage to evoke a feeling of deep claustrophobia as members of the Beck family, in Persuader, become trapped both physically as well as mentally in their own home. How critical is location to you in your work? And did you visit a location for Persuader, or does it reside solely in your imagination?
Location is key for me. With a "drifter" series like mine, the location kind of defines the story, especially in books like Echo Burning and Persuader. For Persuader, I imagined a typical isolated stretch of coastline in April, and added a house from my imagination.
After the limited dusty landscape of Echo Burning, you went for the larger horizon in Without Fail. What do you see as the differences between writing on a small stage and on a more open canvas?
A small stage is necessarily focused and confined. So with a large canvas, I guess you need more discipline ... so as not to make it large just for the sake of it. There has to be a genuine organic reason for more characters, more travel and so on.
Your writing style has been described by at least one reviewer as "muscular," yet you limit the number of four-letter words, which in a violent work seems almost paradoxical. Would you care to comment?
I don't use any of the traditional four-letter words at all. Why not? There are a few reasons. One, I just couldn't write them down. Didn't feel comfortable. Which is weird, because I use them all the time, privately. Two, it's actually a feature of custom and practice that U.S. Army officers -- which Reacher was -- don't use them. Enlisted men and women do, but it's a kind of code that officers don't. And three, real people use four-letter words so constantly that you couldn't imitate it verbatim on the page, or every book would be 1,000 pages long ... so already you'd be editing them into an unrealistic infrequency. ... So I set myself a challenge: portray tough, desperate people without any [four-letter words] at all. I think it works. Lots of people have written to me to say they appreciate their absence. Nobody has ever written to me asking me to put them in next time.
You feature some pretty grotesque villains, such as Hook Hobie from Tripwire, complete with henchmen, and all the way up to Xavier and his own personal psychopaths in Persuader. These guys are brutal and lacking in conscience; they are also physically repellent. Where in your mind do these guys come from?
Well, all novels require conflict, and don't forget that the greatest conflict paradigm of all time is "David versus Goliath." So, if Reacher is David, that means Goliath has got to be some pretty mean guy, to keep the balance in order. The alternative is what we call "Godzilla versus Bambi," which doesn't create much tension. I just dream [the villains] up.
Jack Reacher has what might be called an "optimistically cynical view of life," which I guess must stem in part from you. Is it age or experience that calls in the shadows?
Both, I guess. You live and learn. Reacher's motto is "hope for the best, plan for the worst," which he learned from me.
As guns feature heavily in your books, are you popular with gun enthusiasts, and what is your position on gun control?
I make a few mistakes ... wrong ammo, safety catches in the wrong place and so on. So the real gun nuts get a little impatient. Plus, Reacher makes it clear he doesn't think guns are toys. Persuader has a line: "Never tell a soldier that guns are fun." My position on gun control is that the U.S. Constitution forbids it. Simple as that. I wish it didn't, but if you like the good parts of the Constitution, which I do, you can't complain about the bad bits.
Maggie Griffin, who manages your Web site, has established there a very active readers' forum. How much of your time is devoted to the fan side of the business, apart from touring?
Maggie is great, and she carries a lot of the load. I guess I spend up to an hour a day answering e-mail and letters.
Do American and British readers respond differently to your novels? Do you find, perhaps, that Americans focus more on the action than other elements? Or do residence and upbringing not influence the way people see your stories?
There's no difference between the U.S. and the UK in terms of reader reaction. The interesting difference is between those two countries and Western Europe, where they love Reacher but worry about his vigilantism.
Book promotion with author involvement is essential in today's market. What are your thoughts about the touring process?
I enjoy touring ... writing is otherwise a very lonely job. And it's showbiz of a different sort, like a performance. So it's fun for me, and I guess it's fun for the bookstore and the people who show up. Otherwise they wouldn't come, right?
Guessing at the range of your influences, I'd say they must include Americans Robert B. Parker, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler and perhaps Ross Macdonald. From the UK, I would pick Alistair MacLean, Leslie Charteris and perhaps Ian Fleming. Are those correct, and are there others I've missed?
I would put John D. MacDonald above Parker, although the Spenser series was influential in terms of Spenser's impregnability and sense of self. I have never read Ross Macdonald. I've never read Leslie Charteris, either, although obviously I watched The Saint on TV. I would add Chuck Berry and a bunch of other pop lyric writers ... for the way they say so much in so few words. "Johnny B. Goode," for instance ... he draws a detailed picture of a little boy's life and talents and aspirations in just a few joyful lines -- one of the all-time great songs. "A log cabin made of earth and wood" ... [it's] fascinating to me that in such a tight format the writer puts in "extra" words like "earth and wood" ... they create a feeling of spaciousness inside a fast-forward narrative. That concept was a big influence. As was the rhythm and grammar of TV and movies, in terms of pace and judging scene changes.
If you had to list novels that you feel are must-reads in the "altruistic loner" sub-genre, which ones would they be?
I'd start all the way back with The Odyssey and work forward through the chivalric sagas of the Middle Ages -- Beowulf, Gawain and the Robin Hood myths. Seriously neglected among modern works would be Rogue Male , by Geoffrey Household -- the protagonist in that story could have been Reacher's granddad.
From the works of Alistair MacLean, which do you feel were particularly special?
All the early books, probably right up to The Golden Gate .
MacLean's popularity has faded significantly over the last couple of decades. What was it about his work that you most appreciated? And what did he know that would still be valuable for modern thriller writers to learn?
He did heroes very well; full-blooded heroes that stopped just this side of parody.
A good thriller is a good thriller no matter when it was written. It draws you in, holds your attention and makes you feel as if you're reading faster than the action is occurring on the page.
You traveled extensively throughout the United States over the last 25 years. But now that you are actually residing there, what do you miss most about living away from England?
I lived in the north, and I miss the way that in May and June it was full daylight late into the evening. And I miss Marmite. That's about all, really.
So what is next for Jack Reacher?
Next year's book -- as yet untitled -- is a prequel. It takes place at the turn of the year 1989-1990. Reacher is a serving officer, the Berlin Wall is coming down, his brother is still alive. It's set seven years before the events of Killing Floor, and it shows us a little about how Reacher became the person he is.
You are contractually bound to produce a Reacher novel each year until 2006. But after that, do you think you might negotiate a standalone, like your contemporaries Harlan Coben, Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais, et al? Perhaps a tale starring Frances Neagley?
Only if I feel a burning need to tell a story that can't be told through Reacher. As you know, the series is different from other series, because it only has one repeating character, Reacher, and he has no fixed location, no job, no neighborhood, no supporting cast. Those other guys you mention had series that were very firmly rooted. Thus, in comparison my books are semi-standalones, anyway. And in general, I'm a contrary guy. If everybody else is doing it, I won't.
Have you been surprised at the global success of the Jack Reacher books? Where does that appeal come from?
I've been very pleasantly surprised, yes. Obviously I hoped people all over the world would like them, but as I said before, you can't guarantee anything where public taste is concerned. The reason? I think you hit on it before: Reacher is part of the knight-errant, altruistic loner paradigm, and the interesting thing is that every culture has its own version of that same myth. We mentioned Robin Hood, for instance ... Most people think that's a semi-historical, part-real, part-fable legend about medieval England, but in fact it's a universal myth, based in the human need for justice and fairness. I once read an academic book about it ... There are three completely separate Robin Hood narratives in England alone, and every other country in the world with a narrative or literary tradition has its own versions of the exact same story. So Reacher as a character hits the same nerve with readers everywhere ... Germans can think he's a German type of guy, same for Japanese or Australians or anybody. Everybody recognizes the noble loner.
We hear constantly about film deals and options based on literary work, and I know your books are regularly optioned. What have been your experiences vis-à-vis film rights?
New Line Cinema, the producers of Saving Private Ryan, just bought the rights to the first six Reacher novels, from Killing Floor to Without Fail, for a lot of money. They not only invested NLC money but each producer invested their own money, which is a clear indication of a serious intent to turn Reacher into a film franchise (think: James Bond or Dirty Harry). John Rogers has been chosen to adapt the screenplay for Killing Floor, but that's all I know so far. It's cause for optimism, certainly. We can but wait and see.
Finally, I hear that you'll be the toastmaster at this October's Bouchercon, in Las Vegas. Can you say exactly what your duties will be?
Not until someone tells me! ... I guess I'll be introducing the other guests of honor, who are Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke and Ruth Rendell. Should be a terrific event. | May 2003
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist and freelance journalist living in England. He contributes to Shots magazine and the Deadly Pleasures Web site, and is currently working on Wreaths, a techno-thriller set in the world of plant viruses and out-of-work espionage agents.