The Saturday shoppers fell silent as a tall, lean man with closely cropped hair and shades walked through the crowded bookshop and into the morning sunshine. He was instantly surrounded by an adoring crowd of fans, a bit like a literary Mick Jagger.
“Was that Lee Child?” I asked the woman next to me. She nodded dreamily. “Yes. He’s my husband’s favourite author but we’re too nervous to go and speak to him.”
Lee Child, who grew up in Birmingham but now divides his time between New York and the south of France, is one of the world’s leading thriller writers. His page-turning Jack Reacher novels have sold more than 80 million copies and been translated into more than 40 languages. His fans include the likes of Bill Clinton, Antonia Fraser and Stephen King, who called Jack Reacher “the coolest series character on offer.” Actually, I reckon DJ Johnny Vaughan got it just about right when he said that maverick ex-army cop Reacher combines “the manliness of John Wayne” with “the coolness of Dirty Harry.”
Lee Child doesn’t do many events on the UK literary festival circuit so as soon as I spotted that he was speaking at this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival I snapped up a pair of tickets in double-quick time. It was lucky I did – the event was an instant sell-out.
Interviewed at The Theatre in Chipping Norton by his old friend – crime writer and fellow Brummie Mark Billingham – Lee Child was by turns funny, witty and charismatic.
Mark Billingham opened the hour-long session by saying that Child is ”one of the biggest thriller writers on the planet, inspiring endless devotion.” He added that the pair of them would be discussing life, books and whether or not Child’s beloved Aston Villa is going to win the FA Cup.”
“Of course they aren’t,” quipped Child. “Because one thing I’ve learned over the years is that Aston Villa will always break your heart.”
Billingham is a natural interviewer and the conversation flowed seamlessly. Child revealed that he grew up in an uptight family where the one thing he was allowed in unlimited quantity was books. “I’m not one of those writers who claim to have read Dostoevsky at nine,” he said, but agreed that he was certainly a “voracious reader.” By the age of seven or eight he’d read all the books in the tiny local library – located in a Nissen hut at the back of the church – so his mother signed them all up to the next library. He devoured books like Biggles, Just William and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven stories. “I thought Enid Blyton was fantastic,” he said. “I adored the Famous Five and my first dog was called Timmy.”
He studied law at Sheffield University – although he never intended to be a lawyer – and graduated in 1977. He then spent 18 years at Granada TV, working on TV series like Cracker, Prime Suspect and Brideshead Revisited before being made redundant at the age of 39. Used to entertaining people in large numbers he asked himself how he could use his skills without a job and decided to write a book. “After all,” he said, “I had read some. How hard could it be?” The result was Killing Floor, the first Jack Reacher novel, which was published in 1997.
Child’s real name is Jim Grant but he hit on the name of Lee after a man on a train in New York told him that he had a European car – a “Lee Car” (actually Renault’s Le Car.) The mispronunciation became a family joke. He and his wife started calling their daughter Lee Baby and then Lee Child – and voilà, there was his writing name.
The character of Jack Reacher emerged before the storyline. He decided to set the book in the US and make Reacher a character who was peripatetic, moved around and whose back story would be revealed very gradually. The name Reacher evolved after an old lady asked him to reach for something on a supermarket shelf and his wife told him “you could be a reacher in a supermarket.”
Child told Billingham that he treats writing like a job. “You can’t force anything on the public,” he said. “The public is a stubborn beast. You have to write by instinct and write the best. If you like it, then someone else will as well.”
The conversation inevitably turned to the first Jack Reacher film. Child’s ninth novel, One Shot, was made into a movie called Jack Reacher starring Tom Cruise. While Reacher is 6ft 5ins, Tom Cruise is 5ft 7ins, so fans were quick to comment on this seemingly idiosyncratic casting.
Child, however, wasn’t perturbed in the least, declaring that Cruise is “a good actor and a nice guy” and that “the book is the thing and the movie is a side project. The book exists and the movie is a different version.” A second movie based on Never Go Back, Child’s 18th novel, is now in development.
When Mark Billingham threw the session open to the audience a sea of hands shot up. The first question came from a fellow pupil of his from King Edward’s School in Birmingham, who said that he’d heard Child pay tribute to the influence of one of his science teachers. The teacher, said Child, was his old physics teacher – Ollie Matthews – who demanded that pupils kept their science experiment write-ups “short, concise and non-ambiguous.”
“That taught me to write,” he declared.
There’s no doubt about it, Lee Child’s legions of fans the world over owe Mr Matthews a massive debt of gratitude.
Personal by Lee Child (Bantam, £7.99), the 19th Jack Reacher thriller, is now out in paperback.