In an alternate universe, 2016’s Night School was the last Jack Reacher novel ever. Early in his second career as a novelist (a career he famously “backed into” after losing his television job at the age of 40), Lee Child thought he would put Reacher to rest after 21 books. Luckily, fan support has proven too powerful; number 22, The Midnight Line, hits bookstores on November 21 (though you can preorder a copy now), and there is undoubtedly more to come.
We were lucky enough to be able to sit down with Child for a conversation about Reacher, writing and reading, and passionate internet gun experts.
Do you still get the same thrill every September when you start a new Reacher book?
Oh absolutely—I have exactly the same excitement, and the beginning of it is the best part of all. The format of the Reacher novels is that he doesn’t have a job and he doesn’t have a home, and therefore the flexibility is enormous. This is not a cop in some particular city, he’s not a private eye or something, which would limit the type of channels that you could take him down. He can do anything and be anywhere. So each time I sit down with exactly the same kind of satisfaction and excitement. And those early weeks are the best of all, because I haven’t screwed it up yet—it’s still potentially a great book!
You could say Jack Reacher novels are almost “anti-procedurals.”
Exactly. And I have no idea what’s going to happen. I don’t have a plan or an an outline, I just start somewhere and see what turns up. The procedural plot is, I think, generally a difficulty these days, because with computers and cell phones, the standard tropes of procedural novels get harder and harder. What do you do about information being instantly available? Reacher inhabits a sort of timeless period where that technology isn’t much help, and I usually do that by taking him to remote places where maybe there isn’t a cell signal. It’s sort of a comment on this ownership society, where Reacher believes that you don’t own things, they own you—and he prefers his liberty. That has proved to be so popular—and I thought that was a guy thing initially, but it turns out women want to do exactly the same thing, in the same way. They just want to be somewhere else tomorrow if they could.
There’s a real sense of melancholy in the The Midnight Line, almost as if Reacher is contemplating making a change. Is that our imagination, or is that on purpose?
It is on purpose. The relentless self-confidence of Reacher needs to be tested once in a while. In a couple of the books, I’ve had him look back and think, “Did I make the right choices? Are they the idiots or am I the idiot?” I think to have him perfectly self-confident in every book would be a little same-y, so once in a while, he’s contemplative. It’s a miracle that I get away with it, really—he’s a homicidal maniac! I read one online description saying this is a detective series where the detective commits more homicides than he solves. The reader’s enjoyment of that is really a kind of comment on how frustrating real life is, with all the procedures we have to go through—which, of course, we understand we must have. But it is frustrating, and sometimes, you just want to dish out a little summary justice.
You were famously fired for being a staunch union man. Yet Jack Reacher is the least union person ever imagined.
Reacher is in a union of one. He’d be quite happy to bond with anybody like him, he just hasn’t found any yet. At the same time, he will stick up for the little guy as you would as a shop steward in a union, but he admits it’s not so much the little guy that he’s trying to protect. He just hates the big guy—that kind of arrogant sort of person who thinks they can get away with anything. I think his instincts are good, but he’s just too antisocial to ever join anything.
In a sense he’s like a reluctant shop steward for the entire human race.
Yes—which I kind of was myself, in that nobody else would do the job, and it was wrong that people were being intimidated. I didn’t want to do it, necessarily, but I just thought I had to—it was my real life “Reacher Moment.”
You’re known for “adopting” a writer to boost when you go out on tour. How do you find new writers you want to promote?
I get sent a lot of new books, and I love [finding] new talent. First of all, it scares me, because they are so good, and so full of energy and ideas, that it does spur me on. And certain writers just appeal to me in certain ways. This is a tough business right now, and mainly it’s a way of paying forward. I had a lot of help at the beginning, when the publishing business and bookselling was a lot different. We were indulged for a lot longer than you get now. I think if I can pay it forward, that’s the decent thing to do.
Any books you’ve read recently that you think are particularly good?
Nick Petrie. His character Peter Ash [starting with The Drifter] is an ex-marine who isn’t exactly Jack Reacher—but he’s in the rearview mirror, so to speak.
What do you read for pleasure?
I’m a phenomenal reader—just insatiable. I read all the time. Certainly I reread all my old favorites within the genre, and I read new things in the genre that have got buzz around them, but basically I read anything—anything at all. A lot of history and nonfiction. It’s kind of depressing, because however much you read, you can miss out on a hundred thousand books a year. But I read as much as I can, and fairly randomly—sometimes literally randomly. I have a process where I go to the store and judge books on how they look, how they feel, what the copy says, just touch them. I pick up ten or twelve random books—especially to take on vacation. Some of them are really good. It’s just frightening how much talent [is out there].
Reacher sure knows a lot about guns. Do you have a gun expert you consult?
I have a couple of guys who volunteer, usually; what they do is, they say “you know, I love your books, if you want to know anything just give me a call,” and I have. But in general I don’t call them, because what I’ve found is that whatever the issue, there is always a divergence of opinion amongst experts or enthusiasts.
For instance, one time I happened to have dinner in London with a guy who was, at the time he mustered out, the most highly-decorated soldier in the British army. He’d been in the SAS, which is the equivalent of Delta Force or the Navy SEALs. He’d been on all kinds of operations you don’t want to know about, and he, as a soldier, couldn’t care less about what gun he was issued—all he cared about was that it worked. He said his only rule was that he would never use an automatic weapon that had been left loaded for a while because he wasn’t confident of the temper of the spring in the magazine; he was worried about it mis-loading on the second round.
And I thought, wow, great—you know this is the most decorated soldier in the British army and he’s telling me this trick of the trade. So I put it in one of the books—I think it was Without Fail—and I got hundreds of thousands of e-mails from people saying “That’s BS! Leave it loaded as long as you want!” So in general, what I do is research in books, or online, or in gun magazines. Usually [it’s better if] I figure it out for myself.
Have you ever considered writing something other than Jack Reacher?
All writers have a lot of other ideas that they would kind-of-sort-of like to do. But because I backed into this career from the world of entertainment, I really believe that entertainment is a two-way street. It’s asking and responding, and it’s really up to the writer to take notice of what the reader is saying—and the readers are saying “we love Jack Reacher.” If, purely out of self-indulgence, I was to write something different, I think that would be a big disappointment to those readers—and probably a wasted book. People expect Reacher. After 22 books, they still expect me to write Reacher. If I write something different, that book starts out with two strikes against it. It’s a bit like if you go to Yankee Stadium: you know you’re going to see baseball. You don’t walk up to the stadium wondering, “is it going to be ice hockey today? Is it going to be basketball?” You need a certain amount of reliability in life, I think.
As an author who’s already writing under a pseudonym, have you ever considered a second pseudonym in order to try something different?
Well, that would be [the thing to do], wouldn’t it? But then we run into that 2017 discovery issue. That’s what J.K. Rowling did with Robert Galbraith, and until she was a outed, the exact same book, with the exact same words, was going nowhere. I’m not sure that I would love the experience of being a complete unknown in 2017.
The Midnight Line hits shelves November 7 and is available for preorder now.