In 2003, the World Crime and Mystery Convention known as Bouchercon was held in Las Vegas. Always a terrific event, I’m not the only one who thought that year was special. Lee Child was Toastmaster, and he was great at it. Just seven books into his Jack Reacher series, it was still relatively early in Child’s career and the event seemed to set the stage for all of the brilliance that was yet to come.
It was my very first attendance at Bouchercon, and I was gobsmacked. There was so much that was memorable about it: the people I met, the sessions I attended, the books that came into my hands. Seventeen years and many Bouchercons later, I still savor so many experiences from that event.
One of the many highlights was dinner with the toastmaster himself. During coffee, we recorded an interview that remains archived here on January Magazine.
That early connection, as well as a genuine admiration for Child’s work, meant that when I heard about an authorized biography called The Reacher Guy by the academic Heather Martin, I was instantly intrigued.
Here Heather Martin, author of The Reacher Guy, chats with Child, now 25 books into his massively bestselling series. Their chat gives us a taste for what both have in store for fans of the creator of Jack Reacher, one of most beloved characters of contemporary crime fiction. – Ali Karim
Heather Martin: You’ve often described how you don’t like to plot your books in advance, because that takes the fun out of it for you as a writer. You’ve also said that you’d never want to write the story of your own life because you know it all already. Were there any surprises for you in The Reacher Guy?
Lee Child: I suppose the main surprise was that I didn’t know it already – or that I had forgotten some of it already. One of my reasons for agreeing to do it was that I was interested in the nature of memory. I knew that some stories had been compressed and smoothed out by constant retelling, but others turned out to be misremembered, and apparently some things happened that I don’t recall at all. Which asks, do the sources and witnesses remember correctly, or are they slightly inaccurate too? All fascinating to me, as a crime writer and a student of jurisprudence – truth is essentially impossible to establish, which is a huge problem when the stakes are high.
HM: One of the first things I learned in attempting the biography is that, by definition, you’re leaving almost everything out. But I remember you had the same problem with Reacher at first. You didn’t want him to pop up in the diner having last been seen on the bus without any account of how he got there. You aspired to a perfect realism that for pragmatic reasons you were quickly forced to abandon. Fiction and non-fiction aren’t polar opposites. They’re both narrative forms, and either way you want the reader to keep turning the pages. It’s a question of emphasis, and degrees of freedom.
Oscar Wilde once declared that “biography lends a new terror to death.” What would you say if you were in conversation with him, rather than your biographer?
LC: I would say: chill, man. Worrying about your rep after you’re dead is too self-indulgent for me. Wilde has lived on, but I’ll be forgotten a day later. I love to look around old graveyards, at the names on the stones … these are people who had long and full lives, people who loved and were loved, people who did all kinds of things … and now they’re totally unknown and forgotten. Dust to dust. I find it reassuring.
HM: Which is another way of saying that you let me do the biography because in the greater scheme of things the stakes weren’t that high.
You tend to favor the concept of story over that of novel. You’ve also been known to liken storytelling to lying (as do our elders when we are growing up). Where does that leave the biographer who aspires to a form of accuracy that is more than a mere catalog of information? It seems that every time we explicitly recollect the past we turn life into story. Fiction isn’t an add-on; it’s built in. Does that mean the truth is bound to elude us, irrespective of genre?
LC: Even the catalogue of information could be wrong. I guess something happens, and instantly it’s subject to retelling and interpretation, which instantly imposes a point of view and an agenda. Some truths are documented – like where and when I was born, although I have no personal recollection of that – and others require investigation, even though I think I remember them well, which introduces intermediary filters, from witnesses and the biographer herself. Possibly facts can be established, but the truths behind them may remain elusive.
HM: Not all things documented in writing are necessarily true, though. And documents, though unchanging in themselves, are still subject to changing interpretation. So I like to think of it the other way round: facts can be impossible to ascertain, but sometimes an essential truth may be captured.
You’ve said that in agreeing to the biography it mattered to you that I was Australian. I’m an outsider, like you as a resident of the US. How do you think that outsider status is helpful to a writer?
LC: I find outsider status lends clarity by making everything on view equally significant. There’s less glossing-over due to sheer quotidian familiarity. I’m old enough that I grew up in a Britain that was mostly gone when you got here, and I wanted a fresh-eyed examination of how class and region affected people like me – in some ways enabling us, in most ways limiting us. For me and my contemporaries, life was about escaping … about avoiding what we seemed destined for, while managing a serious and poignant generational clash. My parents’ generation had hard, miserable and dangerous lives in the 1930s and 40s, and their frequent complaint to us was, “We didn’t fight the war for this kind of thing,” to which the only honest answer was, “Yes, actually, you did … you fought for freedom, and this is what freedom looks like.” It was a very transitional period, from a long sequence of hard lives, to a new dawn of gilded lives. I thought a younger Australian woman might have enough cultural distance to make sense of it.
HM: No one is more down on the Midlands than you, and no one defends it more passionately. And as much as you longed to escape your background you remain fiercely loyal to the standards of skilled workmanship it set for you. So far as I can see your entire aesthetic is drawn from having been born and brought up in industrial towns.
You’ve amassed a considerable personal library over the years. But back at the beginning, your family relied on the local library for books. Many people still do. What kinds of books did your parents choose to read? And did they disapprove of Reacher, as they did of you? Reacher is a well-brought-up, well-educated, well-mannered kind of guy who’s been known to get into the odd scrape. Not unlike Jim Grant.
LC: My parents were dutiful readers, rather than enthusiastic. Literally everything they did was aimed toward an imagined respectability. They read Galsworthy and Trollope and Dickens. As a kid I found Lady Chatterley’s Lover on top of their wardrobe, after the trial. They were mostly bemused by Reacher. Their ambitions for us were achingly narrow – a local solicitor or doctor – and they never saw either TV or writing as a proper job.
HM: Sounds like they subscribed to the same book club as my parents in Perth. Only I found Lady Chatterley right there on the shelf. Fortunately, my grandparents had a house full of books, including all the popular series: the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, My Naughty Little Sister, Ann of Green Gables, What Katy Did, as well as great Australian classics like The Magic Pudding and The Way of the Whirlwind. I never ran out of books. As a kid I spent a lot of my time up in the mulberry tree reading.
You’re the second of four brothers. Reacher is the second of two. Even though Joe is killed off in book one, he remains a significant presence in Reacher’s life. What have been some of your favorite stories about brothers over your many years of reading, and why is the second son so often more popular than the first?
LC: Popular with who? In most families I have found the firstborn to be the best regarded internally. Not complaining, just observing, but certainly in my case the chronological “second” brought with it “second in every way.” Which presents the second child with the challenge of getting out from under. Which might be a powerful motivator, of course. It’s a theme often present in stories. I found The White Rajah by Nicholas Monserrat a great consolation – an adventure tale about a “good” older brother and a “bad” younger brother. I loved it.
HM: Popular with the reader! From the outside it’s easy to see that the firstborn is annoyingly entitled, which puts you automatically on the side of the second child. And in traditional stories it’s a given that the second or youngest child will prevail through greater strength of character.
Do you have any preferred books or authors that you’ve read in translation?
LC: Well, thousands of French, Russian and German classics, of course, and more recently Scandinavian crime and so on. But in particular Daddy by Loup Durand, translated from the French by J. Maxwell Brownjohn – it’s a strange, dream-like thriller, and the slight extra strangeness any translation brings only enhances it.
HM: I agree the strangeness has an attraction all of its own. Jorge Luis Borges always said he preferred his writing in English translation. But it’s a delicate balance for the translator between fidelity and initiative: you still want to be able to pick up the rhythms of the original voice.
So how did it feel to read the story of your own life as filtered through a third party?
LC: I was incredibly touched, and incredibly gratified, that people remember me from 50 years ago – they remember what I was like, they liked me and they care. I was absolutely overcome, and privately, I don’t care if the book ever sells a single copy, but to have heard that from people that I knew long ago, that was enough for me, that was just lovely. ◊
Heather Martin’s authorized biography, The Reacher Guy, was published on 29th September by Little, Brown in the UK and in the US by Pegasus Books.
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist and one of the most respected voices in the crime fiction world. He writes and reviews for several publications and was the director of programming for Bouchercon Raleigh 2015.