Author Interviews
7:46 am
Sun August 31, 2014

This Time It's 'Personal': Lee Child Writes His 19th Jack Reacher Novel

Originally published on Sun August 31, 2014 1:31 pm

As Lee Child writes new installments in his Jack Reacher series, he thinks back to something his father said: When it came to books and films, "he would say he wanted the same but different," Child tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. And that, for Child, is the fun and the challenge of it all.

Personal is his 19th novel starring Jack Reacher, the retired U.S. military policeman who puts his folding toothbrush in his shirt pocket and boards a bus to wherever that bus is going.

Reacher roams the country and along the way, saves lives, solves problems and thrashes the bad guys. And he makes readers momentarily want to rethink their lives — at least for the few evenings it takes to read the latest book.


Interview Highlights

On how he structures the books in many different ways, with Reacher as the anchor

It's a bit like a composer, I think, writing music. You start out with a key in mind and a feeling comes over me — I want a book to be a certain mood, a certain tone, almost a certain color, and that then will suggest a location, it will suggest the type of story that could be told and it takes off from their organically.

On the exceptionally talented sniper at the heart of his new book

I wanted to start the book with action ... but I wanted it to be failed action. What happens here is the sniper tries a shot against the president of France in Paris and it's a long way — over 3/4 of a mile — and he makes the shot, except, like world leaders are these days, this guy is protected by a bullet proof screen and the bullet does not break the screen. So Reacher is brought on board to contribute toward finding this particular guy.

On using Reacher to make light of international politics, politicians and various national security agencies

A guy like Reacher ... he's been a soldier. He's seen it from the inside, and there is nothing more cynical than a serving soldier. They know everything's nonsense and they know this is all behind-covering by the politicians. ... So he is both challenged by the technical problem but also somewhat contemptuous of the reasons why it needs to be sorted out.

On creating a character in this book who is even bigger and uglier than 6'5" Jack Reacher

That's something I feel I have to do sometimes because if its David versus Goliath and Reacher is David then Goliath has got to be some really awesome thing. So I invented a character that is substantially bigger than Reacher and of course Reacher thinks that's weird. To be his size is fine, to be any bigger than that is weird.

On the selection of Tom Cruise to play Reacher in the first film adaptation

A book is entirely in the realm of imagination: my imagination and your imagination. But then, if you turn that into a movie, it is fundamentally real: people in a real physical place and so you're limited straight away to the real people available. For years we were in a bizarre conversation where we were saying, well, this guy who was eight inches shorter than Reacher is obviously better than this guy who is 8.5 inches shorter than Reacher. [It] didn't seem really worth arguing about after a while, so what we went for was a guy who could do the internals — the vibe, the feel, everything about Reacher except for the physicality — and I thought Cruise did a really great job about that.

On whether he paid a price for selecting Cruise

I paid that I wasn't entirely expecting, because, in my head it was very clear: This was a version. This does not replace the books in any way. But it did surprise me a little bit how people felt that somehow the movie was liable to overshadow the books. Because to me books are the thing. I mean frankly, I was thrilled that anyone had an opinion. I mean ... if somebody had said to me, you're going to create a character so popular that people are going to get upset about who is going to play them in the movie, I would have bit their hands off.

On what's in store for Reacher in the 20th book

It's a lonely landscape somewhere with a single railroad line running through it and what happens after that I have no idea. But a year from now no doubt there will be a book and it will be coming out and this early fumbling towards it will seem very odd when it's a completed project.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Lee Child's new book is called "Personal" - number 19 on the list of his novels starring Jack Reacher, the retired U.S. military policeman who puts his folding toothbrush in his shirt pocket and boards a bus to wherever that bus is going. Reacher is at the heart of Child's success with these novels - a character who makes readers momentarily want to rethink their own lives, at least for the few evenings it takes to read the latest book. Jack Reacher roams the country. And along the way he saves lives, solves problems and thrashes bad guys. Lee Child is with us from our bureau in New York City. Welcome back.

LEE CHILD: Thank you very much. Great to be back.

WERTHEIMER: This book reminds me of some of your earlier novels - complicated plots, lots of characters. Do you feel that way?

CHILD: You know, I try and remember what my dad used to say. I'm English, but my dad was Irish. And he - talking about the sort of books he wanted to read or films he wanted to see - he would say he wanted the same but different. And really that's what I try and do. I mean, obviously, yeah, they're going to be the same because it's a Jack Reacher book. But then my challenge and my enjoyment, frankly, is to make them each a little bit different.

WERTHEIMER: I've always thought that with Jack Reacher as your anchor, you feel free to structure your books in all kinds of different ways. But Reacher is always Reacher. So when you sit down to write a new Reacher novel, how do you decide what kind of book to weave around him this time?

CHILD: It's a bit like a composer, I think, writing music. You start out with a key in mind. And a feeling comes over of me. I want a book to be a certain mood, a certain tone, almost a certain color. And that then will suggest a location. It will suggest the type of story that could be told. And it takes off from there, organically.

WERTHEIMER: This is a book about a sniper who is a man Reacher put in prison, which is why Reacher is brought back to hunt him down. Now this sniper is able to hit a target from - what? - a mile away, even?

CHILD: Yeah, clearly an exceptionally talented sniper. I wanted to start the book with action of course. But I wanted it to be failed action. And what happens here is the sniper tries a shot against the president of France in Paris. And it's a long way - over three quarters of a mile. And he makes the shot except, like world leaders are these days, this guy is protected by a bulletproof screen. And the bullet does not break the screen. So Reacher's brought on board to contribute toward finding this particular guy.

WERTHEIMER: In this book, you get to make light of - since he's hopping around from capital to capital - international politics, politicians and I think, especially, various national security agencies.

CHILD: Yeah because a guy like Reacher, again, you know, he's been a soldier. He's seen it from the inside. And there is nothing more cynical than a serving soldier. They know everything's nonsense, and they know that this is all behind covering by the politicians and so on. And so he is both challenged by the technical problem, but also somewhat contemptuous of the reasons why it needs to be sorted out.

WERTHEIMER: I also like the part where, you know, you make a great deal of Reacher's size in the books - 6 foot 5 inches - huge man. And in this one, you have a character who's quite a bit bigger and uglier than Jack Reacher is.

CHILD: Yeah. And that's something I feel I have to do sometimes because if it's David versus Goliath and Reacher is David, then Goliath has got to be some really awesome thing. And so yeah, I invented a character who is substantially bigger than Reacher. And of course, Reacher thinks that's weird. You know, to be his size is fine, to be any bigger than that is weird.

WERTHEIMER: It does remind me, though, to ask you why did the first Jack Reacher movie star turn into super good-looking Tom Cruise who's not much bigger than Major Reacher's good right arm?

CHILD: It's a fascinating thing, this, really, because as you know, a book is entirely in the realm of imagination - my imagination and your imagination. But then if you turn that into a movie, it is fundamentally real people in a real physical place. And so you're limited straightaway to the real physical people available. For years we were in a bizarre conversation where we were saying, well, this guy who is eight inches shorter than Reacher is the obviously better than this other guy who's eight and a half inches shorter than Reacher - didn't seem really worth arguing about after a while. So what we went for is a guy who could do the internals - the vibe, the feel - everything about Reacher except for the physicality. And I thought Cruise did a really great job about that.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I grant you that Chuck Connors is dead and Tom Selleck is probably too handsome. But still, it's a strange choice. Do you think you paid a price for it?

CHILD: I paid a price that I wasn't entirely expecting because in my head, it was very clear this was a version. This does not replace the books in any way. But it did surprise me a little bit how people felt that somehow the movie was liable to overshadow the books because to me, books are the thing.

I mean, frankly, I was thrilled that anybody had an opinion. I mean, think back those 19 years. If somebody had said to me, you know what? You're going to create a character so popular that people are going to get upset about who plays him in the movie, I would've bit their hands off.

WERTHEIMER: Now I'm reasonably sure Reacher number 20 is already underway?

CHILD: It's about to be, yeah.

WERTHEIMER: So where are we going to go?

CHILD: It's a lonely landscape somewhere with a single railroad line running through it. And what happens after that, I have no idea. But, you know, a year from now, no doubt there will be a book. And it will be coming out, and this early fumbling towards it will seem very odd when it's a completed product.

WERTHEIMER: Lee Child's newest book in the Jack Reacher series is called "Personal." Thank you very much for this.

CHILD: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.