Lee Child: How being sacked from my job turned me into a bestselling crime writer

Author Lee Child at Ruby Bird studio New York.
Author Lee Child at Ruby Bird studio New York.
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Lee Child is one of the world’s bestselling authors. He talks to Chris Bond about Jack Reacher, his fond memories of Yorkshire, and why he always starts writing on September 1.

A voice says warmly down the line: “I’ve always got time for The Yorkshire Post. My granny lived in Otley and I spent a lot of time there and she always got The Yorkshire Post, it’s a grand old paper.”

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.

The voice in question belongs to Lee Child who is speaking from his home in New York. As the man behind the phenomenally successful Jack Reacher series, Child is now one of the most famous writers on the planet, so much so that he’s been dubbed a ‘billion dollar brand’.

It really is difficult to overstate just how successful he’s been. Since the publication of Killing Floor, the first in the Reacher series, he’s regularly topped bestseller lists, sold 100m books worldwide, and seen his literary creation adapted to the big screen with Tom Cruise playing the lead. Not bad for a lad from the Midlands.

Child returns to Yorkshire this month when he will be attending the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. As well as talking about his career in a sell-out event with Sarah Millican he’ll also be receiving the Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award, joining an impressive list of past winners that includes Ruth Rendell, PD James and Colin Dexter.

He’s appeared at the festival before and has fond memories of the spa town. “I remember Harrogate from being a kid. Yorkshire used to have this weird hierarchy so Otley was better than Guiseley, but not as good as Ilkley, and at the top of the tree was always Harrogate – it felt like you needed a passport to get in there.”

Child says the festival has a unique appeal. “It’s completely different from anything else because you have one event at a time so it’s all very relaxed.”

This laid back atmosphere, allied to Harrogate’s beguiling charms, have helped establish it among the top tier of crime writing festivals, one the writers themselves always look forward to. “As writers we hardly ever get time to hang out together and at Harrogate we can do that,” he says.

It’s 20 years since his first Jack Reacher book was published. Not only was it Child’s first novel but it came when he was at a low ebb having lost his job as a presentation director at Granada two years earlier. “It was very therapeutic for me at the time because I’d been fired from my previous job. I mirrored that with Jack Reacher who’d been kicked out of the army, so he and I were going through the same thing.”

From the outset he wanted to write a bestseller. “I needed to make a living and obviously that was very important, but more than that books are about entertainment and it’s meaningless if no one’s consuming them,” he says.

“I wanted it to be a bestseller but you can’t make it a bestseller. You just have to shut your eyes and hope for the best. Then it’s up to the public.”

His first Reacher book did well, picking up several awards, and since then the hulking detective has become one of the literary world’s most bankable characters. “Very few writers make it this big and I’m very happy that I’m one of them. But you could very easily be talking to somebody else who started 20 years ago,” he says.

Child is certainly prolific, his next Jack Reacher book (out in the autumn) will be his 22nd. Not that writing gets any easier. “I thought that once you’ve written a few it’ll get easier and it really doesn’t. It’s exactly the same challenge every time and I’ve learned along the way that it has to be like that. You have to put everything into each book and I do that. I try and make every book as if it was the first and last book I’ll ever write.”

However, with success comes pressure. “You don’t want to disappoint people so there’s an emotional pressure. But ironically the more readers you have the more you write for yourself.”

Writers have to be disciplined and for Child this means he always starts a new book on September 1. “It’s a sentimental anniversary,” he says. “When I knew I was going to lose my job I went to WH Smith’s and bought a pencil and paper on September 1 to write the first book. So I always start on that date partly for that reason and because you’ve got to have some sort of starting point otherwise you keep putting it back.”

Child was born in Coventry and spent his formative years in Birmingham, winning a scholarship to the same high school that JRR Tolkien attended.

He went on to law school at Sheffield University in the early 1970s, which he remembers as halcyon days. “There could not have been a better time to be a student. That’s why it’s so sad talking to students now because they have loans and they’re paying for their tuition fees and they’re worried about what job they are going to get. It was totally different back then.”

Sheffield, too, was a great place to be a student. “I’d grown up in Birmingham, another big industrial city, and I was very impressed with Sheffield and its artisan traditions. The city was full of small workshops and huge factories and they could make anything. I remember coming back from Leeds on the train and going past these gigantic steel works belching fire and smoke, it was so dramatic.”

After university he embarked on a television career before reinventing himself as an author. “People have this idea that being a writer is quite romantic and some kind of exalted profession but it’s not, it’s about giving the reader a good time.”

It can be quite glamorous, though, especially if you get to rub shoulders with superstars like Tom Cruise, as Child did. “Those people are successful because they’re very good and they work very hard and Cruise is no exception. He’s a very nice guy and we had a lot of fun hanging out.”

Some authors get precious about their books being turned into films, but he was happy to see his getting the Hollywood treatment. “The point is they aren’t going to do anything to your book, your book is still there in bookshops and libraries. That’s how I feel about it. I’m responsible for the book and if someone else wants to make a different version, they could make a musical I don’t care, it doesn’t alter the book.”

Child’s enjoyed the kind of literary career most authors can only dream about, but he’s concerned whether writers in the future will be so fortunate. “Somebody’s got to win the lottery every week and it happened to be me. But I worry about it a little bit in as much as could it happen again? What normally happens with a long-running series like mine is they build up and there’s lot of upfront investment by the publisher.

“With me they would have said ‘we’ll give it five years and see how it goes.’ But will other people have the same chance? I don’t know. They won’t get the same support I had.”

That said, he takes great pleasure in being able to make a living as a writer. “Each new book is as exciting as the first one for me. The actual act of writing is fantastic, there’s nothing better. I get paid for sitting here making stuff up and it’s a total joy.”

The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival runs from July 20-23 at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate. For full programme details and to book tickets, visit: www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com or call the box office on 01423 562 303.

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