Inside Lee Child’s immaculate apartment on New York’s Upper West Side hangs a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. It’s all poppies and peonies. Beneath it lies a hand-axe dating back 250,000 years. “Feel how perfectly the weapon sits in your palm,” encourages the thriller writer. It’s just the sort of thing Jack Reacher would use to bash in the brains of a baddie before hitchhiking the hell out of town.
Reacher is the military policeman-turned-vigilante hero in Child’s phenomenally popular books. The series has sold more than 100m copies, making Child very rich.
Now there’s further recognition atop the riches. Last week it was officially announced — having been revealed by The Sunday Times in August — that the Coventry-born author has joined the Booker prize judging panel. The chances of the next winning novel being readable — populist, screech the snobs — just shot up.
Ready for “Ferocious” Arguments
Child, 65, thinks it’s a shrewd move to pick a motley crew of judges. “Instead of five literary novelists talking about literary novels, we’ve got a classicist [Emily Wilson], a playwright [Lemn Sissay], a publisher [Margaret Busby]. It’s been carefully constructed as a multi-angle scrutiny and I was happy to be chosen, I guess, as the commercial fiction representative, which, I think, is a valid perspective to be looking at.”
He’s prepared for “ferocious” arguing among the judges and hopes that for “simplicity and cleanliness” they manage to agree on just one champion to receive $65,000. Last year, the judges received much criticism for appearing to bottle it, by picking joint winners in Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.
The judges’ workload, reading about 175 novels, is no worry: Child already tackles an average of a book a day. “I always have an opinion anyway, so if somebody else wants to know what it is, that’s great.”
He’s unfazed, too, that his own books have never bothered the Booker judges. His 24th Reacher novel, Blue Moon, published in October, was No 1 in The Sunday Times bestseller list for nine weeks. (It has just dropped to No 2, behind Atwood.) “And that’s fine for me, you know: I don’t need any respect on top of that.” He recently published his first non-fiction book, The Hero, an essay on the mythology and enduring appeal of the hero figure, from Achilles to James Bond.
Not Without Awards
And he’s not without awards. Next month, he will travel to Buckingham Palace to pick up his CBE for services to literature. Which royal will be dishing them out? “I’m guessing not Harry or Meghan,” he quips. As a bit of a rebel outsider, I imagined Child might be the sort to turn down the honour. “If somebody offers you a prize, it’s kind of discourteous not to accept it,” he says.
Child is faultlessly polite, though he’s not a man to mess with. He tells me about the time, in Manhattan, he witnessed a Sikh driver trying to haul a “drunk, fat frat boy” out of his taxi before he vomited. The passenger was shoving and abusing the much smaller cabbie. “It was a real-life Reacher moment. I went to help the driver and the frat boy hit me in the face, which is a bad move with me. I kicked the shit out of him.”
The young Jim Grant (Lee Child is a pen name) grew up in Birmingham, where he fought daily. “It was a very emotionally inarticulate place, so any kind of dispute was settled with violence.” He quickly adds: “I loved it. I was really good at it.”
“It was a real-life Reacher moment. I went to help the driver and the frat boy hit me in the face, which is a bad move with me. I kicked the shit out of him.”
It was these early experiences that enabled him to write about the choreography of fighting so effectively. One fan demographic particularly relishes the goriness. “The most enthusiastic, bloodthirsty readers are the old grannies. They love it. They judge each book on how many people Reacher kills.”
Comeuppance, he says, is key to the appeal of crime fiction. “If your car gets stolen, you’re never going to get it back. If your house gets burgled the police might not even come. Therefore, we live with this dispiriting buzz of frustration. You turn to a crime novel and there’s closure, satisfaction, justice.”
Fired at 40
Child’s is an underdog story. After many successful years working in television, he was fired from Granada. “It’s a desperate, horrible feeling to be chucked out of work at 40 but you have to ignore how worried you are,” he says. He began writing and, in 1997, his first novel, Killing Floor, was a triumph. The following year he moved to New York with his wife and daughter.
Did he feel that this city was more suitable for a big-hitting author? “It wasn’t a purpose of coming here but it was definitely noticeable — in the negative sense from the British end at the beginning, because you were supposed to be starving in a garret,” he says, his Brummie accent battling an American twang. For years the British crime-writing community kept their distance “because I’d gone to America and become a success and that was a bit infra dig”.
What wasn’t an unqualified success was the decision — not Child’s — to cast Tom Cruise, 5ft 7in and built like a ballet dancer, in the role of the 6ft 5in man-mountain Reacher for the two Hollywood film adaptations. Child’s die-hard fans were horrified. There’s a reboot for the small screen in the works.
Child’s writing routine is unusual. For starters, he doesn’t plan any of the plot before beginning. “Some people do a 300-page outline. To me, I’ve then told myself the story and I’m bored with that.” He’s dismissive, too, about writer’s block. “That’s just a shorthand way of saying, ‘I don’t particularly feel like going to work today.’”
Fueled by 30 to 40 Daily Mugs of Coffee
Typically he works for “five prime hours” in the afternoons. His fuel? About 30 to 40 mugs of coffee every day. “It’s good for you in moderation but I don’t do anything in moderation,” he says. “I come from a family that was so cautious and sensible. It seemed to me that it was all about preserving yourself to have more of this miserable existence. My bargain was: I’ll have more fun in 60 years than you’ll have in 90.”
His vices begin with “c”: coffee, champagne, cigarettes and cannabis. Smoking marijuana helps him focus on the writing. “I can feel this tunnel effect and I’m only looking at the text with great depth and understanding.”
As well as his aversion to half measures, his parents’ behaviour also explains Child’s drive. “It’s an accurate self-diagnosis that I’m seeking the love and approval that I never got as a child.” He stresses that he was always fed and clothed (“This isn’t a misery memoir”) but that his parents were cold, affectionless and largely ignored their son’s later success. “Their horizons were so narrow that unless I’d been a solicitor, in my father’s eyes, or a doctor, in my mother’s eyes, then it was meaningless. When they needed to move, they certainly asked for money, so that meant something to them I suppose.”
Child enjoys helping people — friends and strangers — who are in financial dire straits. He once bought a house for an old acquaintance who’d fallen on hard times. “The shock and delight for the person just adds to the joy in the universe, so why not do it?” But he stresses: “I spend loads on myself: I’m not some Gandhi-like figure.” He flies by private jet, holidays in Antigua and owns holiday homes in Sussex, France and Wyoming.
Child enjoys helping people — friends and strangers — who are in financial dire straits. He once bought a house for an old acquaintance who’d fallen on hard times.
We talk about the snobbery surrounding crime novels — “There’s never a problem with the top-level writers, it’s the jealous third and fourth-rate writers and critics that make a fuss” — and the misconception that it’s easier to write for bigger audiences. “To imagine that writing The Sun is easier than writing the Financial Times is just nonsense.”
He shows me his collection of first editions, including Sophie’s Choice, his favourite book, and The Catcher in the Rye, worth about $26,000.
As we say our goodbyes, I check a rumour I’ve heard. Is it true that he’s never lost a game of Trivial Pursuit? “Never. It’s very rare for me to not roll the dice and go all the way round and win in one go.” I’m up for the challenge, I say. “I’d murder you!” he says, laughing.