Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Lee Child

my interview with Lee Child for the Sydney Morning Herald...
I’m running late to interview Lee Child at the Viand Café on New York’s Upper West Side. It’s the day after the US mid-term elections and I get caught up in some kind of protest outside Donald Trump’s building on Columbus Circle ten blocks to the south.

I’m actually glad that I’ll be a little tardy because every single interview with Lee Child begins with the same hackneyed lines about the author’s height. He’s six foot five and because he’s so thin he looks even taller. If he’s already here, I’ll tell him not to get up, I’ll never actually have to see him standing, and we can get this article going without any hack work.

Unfortunately, I arrive first and Lee comes in behind me looking like a Big Friendly Giant amongst the little old ladies who seem to be this place’s primary clientele.

We find a booth and Lee says that he’s starving. He’s in the middle of a promotion blitz for Jack Reacher #23, Past Tense. Bill Clinton interviewed him about the book on Monday and he’s just back from TV gigs in New Hampshire. It’s the BBC later in the week. Such is the hectic life of a man who has sold 100 million copies of his thrillers. Despite all the pressure Lee seems relaxed and happy with his lot.

He orders a large strawberry milkshake and a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and French fries.

“Do you eat like this all the time?” I ask him.

“On the road, yeah,” he says.

“And you never put on weight?”

“Nope. And I don’t even work out,” he quips.

I get a coffee and help him with the fries.

Child at 64 is well preserved. He’s tanned and lean and with his trench coat there’s a passing resemblance to Cary Grant in Stanley Donen’s Charade. Child, of course, was christened Jim Grant although everyone now calls him Lee. Cary Grant (then

humble Archie Leach) and Jim Grant both came to America to make their fortune after England rejected them.

In Jim’s case he had just returned from a holiday in Spain to a message on his answer machine from his boss at Granada Television telling him he had been fired because of company restructuring. Jim Grant was 40 years old, he’d been in TV since leaving Sheffield University with a law degree 19 years earlier, and knew no other type of work.

He liked to read and he considered a job as a night security guard in a warehouse where, presumably, he could sit at a desk and while away the hours with a good book. But then he decided that maybe he should try writing a novel instead. He invented US Army Military Policeman, Jack Reacher, set him travelling through Georgia (somewhere Child himself didn’t visit until many years later) called the book Killing Floor, adopted the name Lee Child, and the rest is history. In 1997 Child and his wife moved to New York City and he bought an apartment with a view of the Empire State Building.

We chat about the new book. In Past Tense Jack Reacher is hitch-hiking through New Hampshire when trouble, as it usually does, finds him. I like how the seeds planted in the first act of the narrative all pay off at the end. The talk starts to get technical. Lee is famous for saying that he never redrafts but I don’t see how this is possible in Past Tense. “Surely when the book was done you went back and reworked the early chapters to lay the groundwork for the ending?”

Lee denies it. He says that he wrote the book, the way he does all the others, seat-of-the-pants-style finding out what’s happening in the story as he goes along. There was no rewriting or second draft. I shake my head in amazement. “Don’t you ever write yourself in a corner and can’t get out?”

“That’s part of the fun of the whole thing,” Lee explains.

We talk about dialogue. “Realistic dialogue has ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and pointless repetitions. Mine gets to the point quickly,” he says.

“And no swearing,” I say.

“Exactly. I decided early on that either I would have the characters swear all the time or not at all.”

“Do Americans get the fact that Reacher is actually quite dry and sardonic? I was chuckling reading this book on the subway.”

“I think Americans might miss some of that. I’m not a fan of comedy thrillers but I think you can slip some humour into dialogue here and there.”

We talk about Lee’s early life. His very first memories are of playing in the bombsites in and around Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed by the Luftwaffe on November 14 1940. After Coventry, Lee’s father, a civil servant, moved the family to Birmingham where Lee attended the prestigious King Edward School. The KES was where JRR Tolkien, Jonathan Coe and Kenneth Tynan, amongst others, learned to write and Lee remembers his time there mostly with affection, though he is a bit dismissive of Coe’s novel The Rotters Club about those school years.

“It’s one of the things that annoys me most about British contemporary fiction. So many sentimental novels written by middle aged blokes about the halcyon days of the lower sixth.”

“It’s not just a current ailment. George Orwell made that point reviewing his friend’s Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. He thought it a defect in the English character to feel that your life somehow peaked at seventeen.”

“Yes!” Lee replies with animation and he wonders out loud how contemporary British literary fiction got so introverted and dull.

“Crime fiction though seems to be in rude health these days though?” I ask.

“Definitely. And it’s good to see the women back in charge the way they were in the 1930’s.”

We talk about writers we like and then I change tack. “There’s an in memorium to your parents at the start of Past Tense and one of the major themes is Reacher’s

quest to visit his father’s house. Your dad is originally from Belfast. Did you ever attempt such a quest?”

“I have a story about that. My father was born just off Cyprus Avenue in East Belfast and when they moved to Birmingham they sold the house to the Morrison family whose first son Ivan became pretty famous.”

“Wow! Have you ever met Van and told him that?”

Lee hasn’t in fact met Van Morrison but his other celebrity stories are fantastic: as a teenager he helps move a drum kit for John Bonham; outside an awards show Charlize Theron bums a cigarette; Paul McCartney and he discuss song lyrics; Bill Clinton bugs him for novel writing advice late at night. . .

This is all great stuff but I can see that Lee is maybe getting bored with his own schtick. I ask him about Aston Villa and his eyes light up again. We talk football for a long time. I tell him the story of how I once scored a goal at Villa Park. (Too complicated to go into here.)

“I always got picked first for football because of my height,” Lee says.

“Let me guess: a lanky, intimidating central defender?”

“Yes,” Lee laughs. “But if I couldn’t be a footballer or a musician I always sort of wanted to be a story teller.” He credits his Irish background for that. “Everybody in Ireland seems to be a natural teller of tales; I wonder if that’s some kind of oral bardic tradition that has survived into the present?”

I put to him a few questions from Twitter and that’s pretty much our time.

“What’s next for you?” I ask as he puts his coat back on.

“Two more interviews tonight and tomorrow, European TV and then I’m off to Australia, I think. What are you working on next, Adrian?” he asks.

“I’m doing a standalone called The Chain.”

“Standalones are great. You never know if the protagonist is going to live or die right to the final page!” Lee says.

I thank him and he slips out. The newspaper is picking up the tab for this so I leave a generous tip.

When I get back to the apartment that night I throw away my intricate book plan and try some seat-of-the-pants writing. But two hours later I have, predictably, prosed myself into a corner with no way out. Adrian McKinty is at a complete loss, but I know that the peripatetic, ever resourceful Lee Child and his creation Jack Reacher would definitely know what to do next. I resist the urge to email Lee in the wee hours asking for he