Lunch with the FT: Lee Child

It’s the first of July and Manhattan is emptying as people leave the city for the Independence Day weekend but an Englishman is waiting placidly at Tamarind, an Indian restaurant on East 22nd Street.

As he stands to greet me, I see that Lee Child is very tall – 6ft 5in – and equally thin. Beneath his green open-necked shirt there appears to be hardly any fat on him. He has blond hair, speckled with grey, which is long enough to flop over his brow and require occasional sweeping back. The 56-year-old is the same height but a very different body type from muscle-bound Jack Reacher, the former US military police major turned drifter vigilante who is the hero of Child’s hugely successful thriller series. Child’s books have sold more than 50m copies worldwide and been translated into 40 languages.

The Affair, the 16th Reacher book, will be published in the autumn and Child is limbering up for his annual two-month publication publicity blitz. For now, he is with his wife Jane at their apartment near the Flatiron building (he owns another apartment in the building which serves as his office) – the fulfilment of a childhood dream.

Later, he laughs as he recalls the moment when, as a four-year-old boy in Birmingham, he first saw a picture book about Manhattan. “I just thought, ‘I ought to be living there, why aren’t I living there?’ It was like those early memoirs by transgendered people who felt like a woman trapped in a boy’s body. I just knew: ‘I am a New Yorker trapped in Birmingham. Did I get mixed up at the hospital?’”

Child’s real name is Jim Grant. He adopted his nom de plume in 1995 when he was fired as a director by Granada Television, the Manchester-based broadcaster and programme maker behind Brideshead Revisited and Prime Suspect among others. Now he is mostly known by that name. “My mother still calls me Jim and that is about it. Everyone else calls me Lee,” he says. “My wife calls me whatever.”

Newly unemployed, he decided to try writing, and soon created Reacher, a wandering hero who arrives in small US towns to confront criminal gangs and rescue citizens who are cowed into submission.

Sixteen years later, Tom Cruise is set to play Reacher in a film based on One Shot (2006), despite protests from fans that he is too short. Child was the UK’s third best-selling author last year. His books regularly appear on The New York Times bestseller list, he has sold 1m Kindle e-books and, despite Reacher’s violence, he has as many female readers as male, if not more. “Reacher creatures” include highbrow devotees and mass market readers. His hero is a thriller Everyman.

Tamarind is an award-winning, upmarket spot with Goan and Keralan dishes. The decor is spare and light but the holiday weekend means there are few other diners today. It is a far cry from the small-town diner in which we come across Reacher in Killing Floor (1997), the first of the series. Child chose Tamarind “partly because it is close to where I live. I like food, like any other guy, but it is not the main thing in my life. I can do without it. I am going to enjoy this lunch but would have been perfectly happy to go to McDonald’s or Pret A Manger for a sandwich. It does not mean much to me really.”

As our waiter brings an amuse-bouche of a crisp semolina shell filled with potatoes, tamarind and mint, I wonder if this lack of interest in food is real or whether Child simply likes to appear Reacher-like. I ask, instead, why his hero is so popular with women. He has thought long and hard about that. “Reacher’s appeal to women is a complex thing,” he says in his middle-class British accent. “It’s partly based on the fact that he’s a wanderer and if one were to get involved with him it would be a short-term thing with a definite end.

“You know, women are as promiscuous as men and yet, of course, people are inhibited from having an affair or a relationship because the real-world consequences are a drag. You get found out, you get divorced, you lose your house, all that shit. If you were guaranteed 48 hours of passion and then you never see the guy again, and never hear from him again, that’s reassuring.”

He talks as if the desire for infidelity is self-evident, although he is happily married. He was studying law at the University of Sheffield when he met Jane, the daughter of a New York academic. They have one daughter, Ruth, now 31. “Reacher respects women,” he adds. “My characters are fully formed, not just bimbos in distress. They are as tough as he is a lot of the time. Women like that. Both the character and the author treat women with respect.”

The waiter removes our amuse-bouches – I have eaten all of mine while Child’s sphere is missing one crescent-shaped bite – then he returns to take our orders. “I am going to get the tandoori chicken. A half order,” Child says decisively, then looks at me and politely reconsiders. “Are you going to get a starter, John?” I say I am. “OK, maybe I’ll get the Mulligatawny soup to start.”

We return to Reacher, whom I say reminds me of the Clint Eastwood characters in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Child nods. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, this is a western guy: Shane, or the Man with No Name.’ But that was a development of an ancient character from the Middle Ages in Europe, the Dark Ages of Scandinavian literature and Anglo-Saxon stuff.”

The primary role model for Child’s hero was not a western gunslinger but the knight errant of the Camelot legend. “Sir Lancelot is banished from the court for an unspecified reason, and Reacher left the army for some unspecified reason. Lancelot is condemned by the court to wander the land and do good deads but Reacher is more inchoate. He seems condemned to that by his own morality.”

Child toys with his soup, occasionally sipping but mostly lifting the spoon up and down as if keeping me company while I eat my salad of endive, cherry tomatoes and capers. I mention that Reacher stands out from modern heroes in being at ease – he is an adventurer from a sense of honour rather than having an inner compulsion. Child says it struck him at the start that most fictional heroes are tortured – “They were carrying a terrible burden, a bullet lodged near their heart literally or metaphorically” – and he reacted against that.

“I don’t think that is generally true to life ... I saw an interview with a Marine sniper from the Iraq conflict who was being asked these questions and had no clue what the interviewer was talking about. He shot a guy at a thousand yards and the interviewer asked, ‘What did you feel?’ He said, ‘I felt a little recoil against my shoulder.’ I think that’s how it is for people. If that is their job, they have got past any huge mental confusion about it.”

Child was 40 when he returned from a holiday to find the third message on his answer machine was from his employers at Granada Television telling him he had been dismissed and should not return to work. He had worked his way up since joining the company after university and had become one of the five “transmission controllers” who oversaw the channel’s output. His job had been doomed by the consolidation of UK commercial television in the early 1990s.

Though he had been happy in his work, Child decided his career in TV was over. “I had been [the union] shop steward in the last two years of the mayhem and I was effectively blacklisted. I wasn’t going to get a job anywhere else in the industry and I didn’t want one because I foresaw that it would be an endless downward spiral, which it has been. Many of my friends were made redundant three or four times.”

Setting his books in the US was both a commercial and a literary decision. “The [Reacher] character needs a frontier country. It is rooted in the idea of emptiness and loneliness and large physical space, which is why it died out in Europe. Certainly by the 19th century, that character had moved to America and Australia, places that still had a frontier. A wanderer like that is not plausible in Britain. Where would you go? Cleethorpes? Burnley?” He laughs. “Everything is part of a conurbation.”

His soup has been removed, half-finished, and our main courses have arrived. I ladle fish curry and rice on to my plate as he cuts a couple of strips from his tandoori chicken, leaving his naan bread remains untouched in a basket. It is apparent that he did mean what he said about food not mattering much to him.

We discuss the current upheaval in book publishing. Child laments the fact that the rise of e-books is hurting bookshops. “It is individual stores, independents and some chains that create new authors. They invest in them and push them. That mechanism has been finely tuned and is going to disappear completely. Where will new authors get their start?”

I point out that some authors have turned to electronic self-publishing, using their fame to attract readers, and ask if he is tempted. This offends his Reacher-like sense of honour. “It is a version of what authors sometimes do when they reach my stage and the next deal is gigantic. They get rid of their agent and do it themselves. I feel that is so disgusting ... Agents and publishers work for years at the beginning, often at a loss. You can’t cut them out. That’s not ethical.”

He saws idly at his meat as I ask him more about his love of Manhattan. “I do feel at home here,” he says. “There are many things that I love about it. One is that you can be anonymous. It is a reassuring, or you could say humbling city. Whoever you are, however well or badly you are doing, however rich or poor, there’s always somebody more extreme.”

That implies that, in another city, he might be insecure yet he seems utterly self-assured – though friendly and courteous, he never vacillates before giving his opinion. “Yeah, I am pretty sure of myself,” he agrees when I put this to him. “I am 56 years old. I’ve been around a long time. If I wasn’t reasonably sure of myself now, why not?” He makes it sound as if it ought to be just as simple for everyone.

Child is the mirror image of his wife, an American who loves the UK. As well as their twin apartments, they own a house on Long Island (and one in the south of France) but New York state has proved no substitute for the English countryside and they now plan to sell it and buy a house in the south-east of England. “She is a rabid Anglophile ... guess we will end up going back and forth,” Child says, sounding amiably resigned.

I ask how his old colleagues at Granada greeted his change of fortune and, for the first time, he looks pained. “It is a problem, frankly. There is an element of jealousy about it. It has been difficult. They don’t call, they don’t write ... I think it makes them uncomfortable with themselves. We had a seminal moment in 1995 where we chose different paths and some spiralled downward while one went upward ... It was a matter of luck or statistics but I think they feel embarrassed.”

Did the success strain his marriage too? “It hasn’t changed one little bit,” he says, sunnier again. “I think because we were fully formed people; it was a formed relationship. I know a lot of people who struggle for a while and try and try and try, and then get their first publishing deal and their relationship breaks up. Men especially. They imagine a life ahead of fame, fortune and groupies.”

The waiter takes away my clean plate and his hardly-diminished chicken and we order two large espressos. I ask him whether he minds that he is one of the UK’s best-selling authors but novelists such as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis remain better-known. Child mentions a past interview in which he had claimed – partly, he says, to stir up publicity – that he could write literary novels but they could not have produced Reacher.

“It was partly as a provocation but it is also partly true. To make something useful in the mass market is more of an achievement than making a specialist or luxury product. I grew up in Birmingham and you would see it all the time. A Ford Escort is harder to make than a Rolls-Royce because it has got to come in on budget and on time. It has to be useful to 8m people rather than 8,000 ... So if I ever do a literary novel, it will be a piss-take to show them that it ain’t that hard.”

He laughs as if a literary brawl bothers him as little as it troubles Reacher to kill bad guys and we conclude on his latest work. The Affair is a prequel to that first novel, Killing Floor. Child has finally decided to unveil Reacher’s origins. “No one knew why he left [the army], including the author, and now the author has had to figure it out. It would make an ideal end to the series because it loops back to the beginning ... I would be satisfied if I was to die of a heart attack tomorrow. But I have two more books on this contract so we have to forge ahead.”

Child has at last finished something – his coffee – and I pay the bill. He bids farewell and walks off along East 22nd Street, his lanky frame blending back into the anonymity of Manhattan.

Lee Child is appearing at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate on Saturday, July 23


41-43 East 22nd Street, New York, NY 10010

Bottles sparkling water x3 $24.00

Tamarind salad $8.00

Mulligatawny soup $8.50

Kerala fish curry $25.50

Half tandoori chicken $13.00

Basmati rice $5.25

Naan bread $4.75

Double espresso x2 $12.00

Total (including tax) $110.51

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