When game six of the 2011 World Series was rained out, Tony La Russa, the then manager of the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals, texted Lee Child to say he was thrilled to get the night off. He had just bought the author’s latest Jack Reacher novel, and now he could start reading. Like former president Bill Clinton, who sends Child a handwritten mash note after finishing every book, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has reviewed several favorably for Amazon.com, La Russa can’t get enough of Reacher, the six-foot-five ex-military police major who over the course of 17 novels has outthought and outfought an array of cold-blooded villains. Known as Reacher Creatures, Child’s fans are legion. His books, which have been translated into 40 languages, have sold more than 60 million copies and consistently garner splendid notices. Janet Maslin of The New York Times calls Child “the best thriller writer of the moment.”
The stakes are about to get higher. Not only has a new Reacher novel, A Wanted Man, just been published, but in December Paramount Pictures will release Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise. The casting of the five-foot-seven actor as the larger-than-life Reacher has, not surprisingly, generated controversy. On a Facebook page dedicated to the topic, one reader grouses, “I guess it could have been worse: Justin Bieber, Andy Dick.” Declares another, “Child sold out.” Directed by Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote The Usual Suspects) and co-starring Rosamund Pike and Robert Duvall, the movie is based on One Shot, Child’s ninth novel. It pits Reacher against a group of thugs who are menacing a Midwestern town. The studio hopes it will be the first in a film franchise that will transform Jack Reacher into another Jason Bourne or Dirty Harry.
It is remarkable that the 57-year-old Child finds himself both atop best-seller lists and poised for a Hollywood ending, considering that he didn’t start writing until the age of 40 after being dismissed from a high-profile job in English television. (Born James Grant, he changed his name when he launched his new career.) More remarkable still is that the native Briton has created an indelibly American hero, one part Shane, one part Philip Marlowe and one part Rambo—if Rambo were a liberal. His military days behind him, Reacher roams the country, lingering in places just long enough to uncover wrongdoing and dispense rough justice before drifting on, typically by bus. His life is so stripped down he doesn’t own a change of clothes. (When his shirts and pants get dirty, he throws them away and buys new ones.) Nor does he have relatives or friends. He seems to live in the perpetual present, his past a mystery revealed in flashes.
We sent writer Steve Oney, who recently profiled former NFL star Herschel Walker for Playboy, to New York to visit with Child at his Manhattan home. Oney reports: “My first afternoon in the city I accompanied Child to BookExpo, publishing’s annual convention, at the Javits Center. Unlike most book signings, which attract a mere handful of devotees, Child’s drew a mob. His publicists had to turn people away. Over the next few days we talked in Child’s midtown office and in an apartment higher up in the same building, where, when he’s not at his vacation place in Provence or at a new spread in the English countryside, he lives with his wife, Jane. Both the office and the apartment are white and no-nonsense. Child’s work space contains little more than two iMacs (one for writing, the other for web browsing); the couple’s apartment has a bed, a pair of Knoll chairs and not much else. The lone distraction is a collection of vintage bass guitars, which testify to Child’s adolescent ambition to be a rocker. Child is a splendid raconteur, affable and wonderfully opinionated, but he comes across as a solitary soul. Like Reacher, he seems more comfortable by himself than in the company of others.”
PLAYBOY: Paramount cast the diminutive Tom Cruise to play Jack Reacher. You’ve been quoted as saying you don’t object. Come on—Reacher’s size and ruggedness are an essential part of his appeal. You have to be disappointed.
CHILD: Disappointed is the wrong word. When you transfer a book to the screen, something’s going to give. It seems to me there are three essential things about Reacher. First, he’s smart. Second, he’s still and quiet yet menacing. Third, he’s huge. It was always likely we were going to lose one of those characteristics. The question was which. For a long time we were fixated on his physique. We had to have a big guy. But we got nowhere. There were no actors big enough who could do even one of the other things. Then it came as an epiphany. Give up the physique and concentrate on Reacher’s smartness and quietness.
PLAYBOY: Rabid fans of your novels have started a Facebook page called “Tom Cruise is not Jack Reacher.” What do you say to them?
CHILD: Readers feel they have some incredibly intimate possession. Reacher is theirs alone. Now suddenly this will be blown open. They get defensive. They think, I don’t want this taken away from me. This is my private thing, and the whole world is going to see it. The nature of the relationship has changed. People feel hostile toward someone else’s interpretation of a book. Their default position is opposition. I say to them, “See the movie, and then we’ll talk about it.” My guess is that out of every 100 book lovers, 75 will say, “That was really good.” And 25 will hate it. There’s just nothing you can do about that.
PLAYBOY: What other actors were considered for the part?
CHILD: All kinds of people have been interested at one time or another: Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman and Vince Vaughn. A black Reacher was mentioned: Will Smith or Jamie Foxx. Would that have produced the same outrage? Reacher is not black.
PLAYBOY: Does Cruise pull it off?
CHILD: Cruise is this monster celebrity—global superstar and tabloid fodder. That’s all in your face. But you have to look past that. You’ve got to look underneath at what’s there. And what’s there with Cruise? This is in no way damning with faint praise, but he shows up and does the work, and he does it properly and on time. And that’s a rare thing. He is utterly reliable, and to me there’s nothing more important. He will do the job, and he will do it the way it should be done. That’s 85 percent of the battle. The next sort of 10 percent is talent, and Cruise has that too. He is a talented professional. Reacher is in good hands.
PLAYBOY: You must see why some readers think you’ve made a pact with the devil. The movie is based on your novel One Shot, but Paramount has retitled it Jack Reacher. Does that rile you?
CHILD: Absolutely the reverse. When I heard it, I was like, “Yes!” I pumped my fist. If they’d given me a free hand and asked what I wanted the movie to be called, that’s what I would have done.
PLAYBOY: But this is your baby. One Shot was your first novel to receive widespread critical acclaim.
CHILD: Hollywood is different from publishing. Everybody wants to make a profit in the book business, but if a book fails, it doesn’t sink the ship. One of the most expensive books ever was Bill Clinton’s autobiography. He received a big advance, and it was a big book. They probably had $15 million riding on that book. And if it had failed utterly, that would have been a drag, but it wouldn’t sink the ship. Paramount has $150 million riding on this. If it fails utterly, it does sink the ship. So they tested it, and they found that for young women who didn’t know the book, One Shot was too masculine, too “snipery.” Young women drive movie attendance. They’re the ones who tell their boyfriends which movie they’re going to see on Friday. The studio changed the title to Jack Reacher. It lets you know the movie is about a man, not a gun.
PLAYBOY: You are pleased.
CHILD: It’s a gift. From my point of view, we’ve now got a $150 million advertising campaign for my brand.
PLAYBOY: Starting with the first Reacher novel, Killing Floor, in 1997, you’ve been successful. Yet only over the past few years have your books consistently topped best-seller lists. Is there something in the zeitgeist?
CHILD: One of the things that fascinate people about Reacher is that he has no possessions. Apart from a passport and an ATM card, the only thing he owns is a folding toothbrush, and that has become a legendary talking point among readers. But I think there’s more to it. Since the financial crisis hit, people are realizing you don’t own things; things own you. You might enjoy the stuff you’ve accumulated, but you don’t enjoy the debt. People are beginning to have an uneasy relationship with possessions. They would like to walk away from the things weighing them down. That is how Reacher lives. The financial crisis hit in 2008, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that was the first year of Reacher’s megapopularity. For the first time I had four number one best-sellers—both hardcover and paperback—in the U.S. and the U.K.
PLAYBOY: How did you create Jack Reacher?
CHILD: I didn’t overthink it. If you give a character an imagined laundry list of virtues, he’ll be overdesigned. I relied on instinct. I just wrote an honest version of a character I’d like to be. He does things I’d like to get away with. When you meet Reacher in the first novel, his hygiene is questionable. He cheats. He shoots people in the back. He doesn’t do the noble, face-to-face fighting you expect in the genre. He does whatever it takes to win—but he has honesty and integrity on his side. Of course, I’m being slightly disingenuous, for what do I mean when I say I relied on instinct? By the point I came up with Reacher I was 40 years old, so he’s an amalgam of everything I’d been exposed to that I liked. Reacher is an archetype, the mysterious stranger who arrives in the nick of time and then rides off into the sunset. It’s a specifically defined character present in every culture for more than a thousand years: the knight errant.
PLAYBOY: The quirkiest thing about Reacher may be that he’s an ex–military police officer. Why didn’t you make him a retired Special Forces officer instead?
CHILD: Partly because that’s boring, and partly because it’s stupid. Why go head-to-head with what somebody else is doing well? There are hundreds of books with ex-Rangers or ex–Delta Force members. I also felt that military police have familiarity with crimes and investigation, so I thought an MP was the way to go. It also emphasizes Reacher’s alienation. He’s worked all his life in a branch of the service that is despised. That makes him a little more isolated. By the same token, I made Reacher a West Point graduate who achieved the rank of major. That makes him the equivalent of Sir Lancelot.
PLAYBOY: Reacher has a habit of stumbling across injustices and settling scores. In doing so, he typically racks up massive body counts. How do you justify the violence?
CHILD: Justify is a big word, because my novels are not textbooks on how to live. I’m not saying this is what we ought to do. The function of a crime novel is to give us what we don’t get in real life. And what we don’t get in real life is satisfaction. At the end of a Reacher book, there are summary executions. They bring closure to the story. This isn’t recommending that we summarily execute people. It’s standing in for legal procedure in a way readers like. When you put a criminal in the legal system, in the opinion of a lot of people he gets too many rights. We understand that in real life we need constraints, but we don’t need them in fiction. If Reacher apprehends a proven child molester, he shoots him. Reacher is the alpha male of the genre. He doesn’t suffer misgivings. He’s a constant force, which I think of as a metaphor for our desire for order and fair play.
PLAYBOY: In several of your novels, Reacher overwhelms enemies with a signature move, the head butt. Is this a skill worth acquiring?
CHILD: A head butt is a wonderful thing because it’s unexpected. Nobody expects to be head butted. Way back, I guess deep in our brains from evolution, we learned not to hit things with our heads. It’s generally not a good idea. It can be instantaneous and conclusive. It seems unhinged. It is unhinged. It raises the ante. People talk about bringing a gun to a knife fight. If you’re in a brawl and you use a head butt, it’s like bringing a sawed-off shotgun to a knife fight.
PLAYBOY: Is there an art to the head butt?
CHILD: To do it correctly you use the arch of your forehead, which is thick bone. And an arch is an incredibly strong structure. If you head butt a concrete post, you might do yourself damage, but if you head butt another human, you’re not going to do yourself any harm. It’s best delivered with a downward motion. If you do it in an upward direction you can drive bone fragments into your opponent’s brain, which can be lethal. A head butt that arcs downward breaks the nose and cheeks, driving bone fragments toward the jaw. It doesn’t go any further than you intended it to, but it can be devastating.
PLAYBOY: For all of Reacher’s macho, he’s a smart guy, really more brains than brawn.
CHILD: Yes. He would much rather solve a crime by figuring it out than beating it out of somebody. You know the Sherlock Holmes line that when you’ve eliminated all the possibilities, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth? That’s how Reacher operates. In Killing Floor, the key clue is the difference between the plural possessive apostrophe and the singular possessive apostrophe. In other words, does the apostrophe go after the s or before? The books are cerebral. A recurring line, of course, is “Reacher said nothing.” He’s thinking. Given that the books emphasize the physical, there’s a quietness that is reassuring. It’s comforting that this giant is capable of rational thought. He’s like a dancing bear.
PLAYBOY: How are you like Reacher?
CHILD: We’re both rational. I’m not in any way a spiritual person. If I can’t see it and it can’t be proved, I don’t believe it. We’re both observant. I notice a lot of things, and I try to explain them to myself.
PLAYBOY: Do you share Reacher’s willingness to insert yourself into dicey situations?
CHILD: I would like to be that person who doesn’t walk by. Most of the time I do, but if there’s something egregious, I try to help. One night I was walking on Broadway, and a cab had stopped. The driver was a skinny Sikh, and he was trying to eject his passenger, a fleshy, frat-boy type. The driver was worried this kid was drunk and was going to throw up in his cab, so the driver was throwing him out. But the guy wouldn’t leave. It was a mismatch, this little driver who’s paying $150 a shift to lease a cab and this boorish frat boy threatening to screw up his night. So I crossed the street and helped the driver out, because I think at some point you can’t just walk past.
PLAYBOY: Did the frat boy tell you to fuck off?
CHILD: He was aggressive, but he was too drunk to be a threat unless we fell and he rolled on top of me. He sort of stumbled, and I held him up by the collar. He was probably 24 and had a job on Wall Street or something. I mean, these guys are not tough. I was brought up in a different time, in a place where the physical was more serious than it is now.
PLAYBOY: You were raised in Birmingham, in England’s Midlands. Was it really that hard-core?
CHILD: Birmingham is the New Jersey of Great Britain. It was a sort of inarticulate society where if you had problems the only recourse was violence.
PLAYBOY: What was your first fight?
CHILD: My elder brother, Richard, was a spindly kid, and I was big for my age. Family legend has it that when I was three and he was six, someone was pulling his ears, and I waded in and fought off this kid. A few years later my parents explicitly said to me, “You have to look after him.” We went to Cherry Orchard County Primary School, which was in this blighted industrial landscape and had the stump of a dead cherry tree in one corner. My first duty at recess was to make sure Richard was all right before I could go play with my friends.
PLAYBOY: What made the Birmingham of your youth such a war zone?
CHILD: There was a tremendous tribalism, which supported a bullying culture. If your parents were more aspirational than somebody else’s parents, you were marked out. If you were doing well in class, you were marked out. At the age of 10 or 11, when you switched from elementary to high school, if you got into a good school, it grew worse. I got a scholarship to the best high school, King Edward’s, founded in 1552. J.R.R. Tolkien went there, as did Kenneth Tynan. The old building is a beautiful Gothic brick structure designed by the guy who designed the houses of Parliament. I had to get in and out of my inner-city neighborhood twice a day. I wore the school uniform—a blue blazer with a purple and yellow tie—and it was a badge of shame that essentially got me attacked. I had to fight because I was acting above myself.
PLAYBOY: Every week?
CHILD: I would say every day, more or less.
PLAYBOY: A fight in which a punch was thrown?
CHILD: Pretty much, yeah. Every day I got off the bus and walked the last half-mile home, which took me down a border road, in terms of territory. In Birmingham some streets were yours and others were not. There was a definite demarcation. To get home, I walked down this road. There would always be two or three kids there waiting to give me trouble. Routinely, we’d have a fight. I wouldn’t wait for them to start anything. I knew why they were there. I walked up and hit them, and they hit back.
PLAYBOY: Is this when you learned how to head butt?
CHILD: I saw somebody do it, and I imitated it. For a while I head butted someone once a week. I also had a knife, and typically you’d have a bicycle chain, which you’d swing or wrap around your fist as a knuckle-duster. Once or twice some kids, including me, got double-edged Gillette razor blades and sewed them under our lapels. If anybody grabbed us, they’d shred their fingers. It was serious shit. I finally got to the point where I didn’t want to be hassled anymore. I said, “If you pull a knife on me, I’ll break your arm.” That happened twice. I turned the guys’ wrists inside out, forcing the elbows. This sort of mayhem was expected. No one was arrested. The most the police would do was come by and clip you on the ear.
PLAYBOY: What did your parents say?
CHILD: There was a gigantic gap between us. My father worked for the Inland Revenue, the British equivalent of the IRS. He’s a Northern Irish Protestant, hates Catholics and has an imperial stance about the superiority of the white man and the inferiority of colored people. My mother clung to the middle-class dream of seeing me and my three brothers become pillars of some kind. I don’t want to disparage them. They were doing their best with no overt malice and certainly no negligence. But it was dour and negative. There was no basis for communication.
PLAYBOY: How long did your head-butting period last?
CHILD: By my late teens most of the aggression was petering out. My teenage years overall were fantastic. It really started happening for me in the spring of 1969, when I lost my virginity at the age of 14 and a half. Somebody’s parents were always away, and there’d be a party at that house. The entire purpose was sex—sex, drugs and rock and roll. It was a Friday night. There were a bunch of boys, a bunch of girls. There was snogging. Then it went a little further. Then I went to bed with this blonde 14-year-old. The next thing I knew her 16-year-old sister was in there with me too.
PLAYBOY: That sounds better than brawling.
CHILD: It was. The late 1960s and early 1970s were wonderful. Everybody was in a band. It didn’t matter whether you had talent. If you took the entire male population of Britain between the ages of 14 and 20 and divided it by four, that’s the number of bands you had. I was in one called Dark Tower. I played guitar, badly. We did covers of Steppenwolf, Cream—derivative, blues-based music. We played Digbeth Civic Hall one New Year’s Eve. It was a genuine gig. We got paid.
PLAYBOY: Was there a great music scene in Birmingham?
CHILD: Yes. One time I remember rehearsing, and this well-spoken older boy—he was 19, which when you’re 14 seems totally grown-up—came in to check out the facility because his new band was rehearsing the next night. Sure enough, the next night he showed up. He helped us shove our equipment off; we helped him shove his on. This well-spoken young man from the area was Robert Plant, and his new band was Led Zeppelin. This was their second rehearsal. We heard them play their first song.
PLAYBOY: How fully did you experience the Age of Aquarius?
CHILD: In 1969 I went to the Isle of Wight Festival; in 1970, the Bath Festival. It was a great era, especially because my parents were so backward looking. They were worried about the kind of dangers you might encounter in the 1950s. The dangers of the 1960s and 1970s were not on their radar. They did not know what drugs were. They were only concerned that I might get drunk. One time my mom found a cube of hash wrapped in silver paper in my pocket and gave it back to me. I think she thought I was saving metal for the war effort, as they did in the 1940s. She had no clue. It was the same as having totally permissive parents. I was uncontrolled and unmolested.
PLAYBOY: Yet all the while you were getting a superb education.
CHILD: It was odd. King Edward’s embodied an old-fashioned model that was already going out of date by the time I was there. For a kid like me, British society was structured—the class system. For 100 years, this had been the way out. You went to this school and then to a good university, and you might become a solicitor or a doctor. That was my parents’ hope. But the system was dying on its feet. King Edward’s was all Latin and Greek. I possessed a pragmatic intelligence rather than an academic one. I didn’t struggle intellectually, but I felt parallel to the place. I didn’t understand it. What was the point? Give me a problem, and I’ll solve it. Give me a task, and I’ll do it. Tell me to study Virgil and Homer, and I’m asking why.
PLAYBOY: You might have chafed, but you didn’t rebel. You ended up going to law school. Was that to please your parents?
CHILD: It did please my folks, but that was not my reason. It was just that after having been to a school like King Edward’s, you were on a track where you had to go to university. In the British system, you do the pinnacle of exams at secondary school. Based on your grades, this says which university you’re going to. I did these exams in June, and then I traveled around Europe with friends. I got back, and the exam results were there, and they were decent. But I’d basically forgotten I’d taken them, and school was about to start. So I went to the library in Birmingham. In the reference section there were university prospectuses. I found one that, by the pictures, looked good: the University of Sheffield in Yorkshire. It had a vacancy in law, which in Britain is an undergraduate degree. I thought about it a minute and decided, Great. I didn’t want to be a lawyer, so there would be no professional imperative—I would not have to graduate at the top of my class. But law was an amalgam of things I was interested in: history, language, economics and politics. If you don’t want to be a lawyer, it’s a fabulous degree.
PLAYBOY: What did you want to do?
CHILD: I wanted to be in theater. It dated back to elementary school. The principal was a woman obsessed with American musicals. Twice a year she put on shows, and I loved them. I went out for one, and it was one of those awful moments when you learn something important about yourself. They said, “Okay, sing this.” I started, never having been told that I can’t sing. I didn’t understand why everybody was looking away. Finally, I realized. I became a spear carrier, then migrated backstage and stayed there during high school. When I got to university, I worked in the student theater to the point I neglected everything else. I should have graduated in 1976, but I spent all my time on productions and was held back.
PLAYBOY: It’s 1977. You’re a young lawyer with theatrical ambitions. What sort of career does that qualify you for?
CHILD: I went to work for Granada TV in Manchester, in the northwest. It’s one of England’s five major stations. We did dramas that everybody remembers: Brideshead Revisited, Cracker and The Jewel in the Crown. It was a thrill to be part of that institution. I was there 18 years.
PLAYBOY: What was your job?
CHILD: Most of my career I was a presentation director, working in what in America is called master control. There were five of us on staff, one of us there at any time, night or day. We were responsible for the composite output of the station. What passed through our control room went into people’s living rooms. We assembled the broadcast. We had legal and editorial responsibility for its content. If something was wrong or if there was an emergency, we dealt with it. We dealt with regulatory issues, which at that time in Great Britain were extensive. If there was a news report about famine, we couldn’t air food commercials. It was a complex job on multiple levels and therefore well paid. We were union workers, but we received enormous salaries. As a rule of thumb, we felt good if our salary surpassed that of the prime minister. It always did.
PLAYBOY: Why did you leave?
CHILD: I was fired. But it was not a case of being called into the office. It was a drawn-out process. Thanks to Thatcherism, the TV regulatory system was being dismantled. It stood in the way of profit. The only way for management to achieve this dismantling was to break the union. There was a long-standing shop steward due to retire. Word came down that anybody who stood for the vacancy would never work in the industry again. Management thought the union would be leaderless and an easier target. I felt that was wrong. This was my real-life Reacher moment. I put myself forward as shop steward. I was elected unopposed, obviously. But it was worth doing, because the union employees at Granada were decent people who’d worked in an insular business and had no chance in the competitive market. It was the end for a lot of them. Someone had to make sure they were outplaced properly. I started naive. Quickly management pulled some illegal stunt. I thought, All right, if you want to play dirty, I will too. For a couple of years it was guerrilla war. Management left the building at five, and as soon as they were gone a team I put together went to work. The cleaners searched their trash, bringing me torn-up memos. We taped them back together. The engineers hacked into their computers. We steamed open their mail. We won loads of battles, but we lost the war, and for me it was desperate.
PLAYBOY: So you’re unemployed, 40 years old, and you decide to write a novel. That’s crazy.
CHILD: It was. But I’d been a big reader all my life. Five years earlier, I’d read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. I loved the series as entertainment, and I began to see how the books worked. When I was let go, I thought, I’m going to write books. It was clear as day to me. I was playing a trick on myself. I felt if I contemplated how unlikely it was, I would never get it done. On a Friday I bought legal pads and pencils, and I started writing on Monday. I was angry and in a hurry, and you see that in the first book—the urgency and the fury. I had only seven months of living expenses in the bank.
PLAYBOY: Did your family help?
CHILD: They were great. My wife is American. We met at Sheffield, where she was also a student. She was gorgeous and exotic. I was totally smitten, and we’ve been together ever since. At the time I lost my job, she was working part-time in a government tourist-information bureau. She stepped up to five days a week. My daughter Ruth, who was then 14, went out and got a waitressing job at a local tea room.
PLAYBOY: Why did you change your name?
CHILD: In show biz in Britain it’s common for people to work under names that are not their own. The stage management union, which is the same thing as Actors’ Equity, has a rule that you cannot use a name if it’s similar to an existing member’s. When I started, there was a character actor with the same name as mine. This was routine for me, but the decision was also about reinvention.
PLAYBOY: Why did you choose the name Lee Child?
CHILD: In our household wordplay is rampant. My wife and I were once riding a train out of Grand Central. A seatmate, noticing my accent, tried to establish kinship by telling us he drove a foreign car, a Renault Le Car. But he pronounced it “Lee Car,” which immediately entered our lexicon as an all-purpose definite article. It was “Lee this” and “Lee that” forever, including “Lee Baby” when our daughter was born, which became “Lee Child” as she grew up and which I adopted as my moniker.
PLAYBOY: Do you still think of yourself as Jim Grant?
CHILD: If I’m doing a Jim Grant type of thing, like licensing my car. My passport says James Grant. But almost all of what I do now is based on the books. I generally think of myself as Lee Child.
PLAYBOY: Your most radical decision may have been to set your books in America and build them around an American hero. Don’t writing teachers always tell students to write what they know?
CHILD: In my head, I was in America, and I’d been there a long time. As a kid I was obsessed by it. Britain’s postwar economy was exhausted, but America had Buicks with large fins and loose suspensions. It was reckless excess, and it looked wonderful. There was so much joy. There were no inhibitions.
PLAYBOY: It’s one thing to be fascinated by America. It’s another to claim it as your literary territory.
CHILD: The Reacher books had to be set in America. To write about a knight errant has certain requirements, one of which is a large and dangerous landscape. Long ago Europe was exactly that—the Black Forest. In the Middle Ages Europe was the right place for a knight errant. But Europe became built-up, and that whole string of myths died. It had to migrate to where there was a frontier.
PLAYBOY: Was there also a commercial consideration?
CHILD: It’s like John Lennon said: If you lived at the time of the Roman Empire, you should have been in Rome. In our time, you should be in America.
PLAYBOY: The Reacher books typically convey a love of America. Are you patriotic about the country?
CHILD: Being an immigrant, I’m intensely patriotic about America. First of all, I love the diversity of the people. This is a mongrel race, and you find tremendous vitality in that. I like the vivid features people have. Even if somebody’s not beautiful, they tend to be vivid—dark skin or big, dramatic eyes. Americans are much more vital than the inbred, pasty-faced people of Britain. But most of all what I love about America is that there’s a strand of decency and normality in almost everyone. Generally speaking, Americans are full of kindness and generosity and goodwill.
PLAYBOY: Reacher is an anomaly—a crime-fighting ex–military officer who, despite his penchant for violence, is a lefty. In The Enemy, your eighth book, he takes on an unnamed but identifiable conservative icon.
CHILD: It’s Dick Cheney, who at the time that novel is set was secretary of defense. The Cold War has ended, and the established order is going to be shaken up within the Army. The issue is the armored divisions, these magnificent spearheads designed to fight the Red Army. Reacher gets involved, and I show Cheney being corrupt and incompetent. People regard him as some kind of Svengali. He is good at political infighting, but otherwise he’s a man of no distinction. I think he did us irrefutable harm.
PLAYBOY: People know about the Reacher Creatures. Are there Reacher Bashers?
CHILD: The one time I got an absolute shit storm—terrible hate mail—followed the publication of Nothing to Lose, the 12th Reacher novel. The book is critical of the Iraq war, and it contains a brief disquisition on how loyalty in the military is a two-way street. If the men and women serving are to obey government orders, then the government owes it to them to make correct decisions. The offending passage concludes that if the government has let our men and women down, then desertion is not a terrible thing. It’s just 19 lines, yet it drove the Rush Limbaugh types crazy. A day would not go by when I would not get a package containing these pages torn out of the book and torn up or, several times, used as toilet paper. The irony is that the lines are taken word for word from e-mails I received from soldiers in the Middle East. The reality of military service is that soldiers are in trouble some of the time, but most of the time it’s boring. They’re inside their compounds with nothing to do. They watch DVDs and play video games. When they run out of these, they read books. Mine are some of the books they read, and because they’ve got all this time and they’re in this sealed-off world, they go online and e-mail me. At first it’s conventional fan mail. Then they start bantering. Delta Force e-mails from Afghanistan: “We could kick Reacher’s ass.” I write back: “No, he’d kick your ass.” Then it goes into a strange phase when they have this imagined intimacy with me because they have nobody else to tell their fears and thoughts. They’re not going to tell senior people in the chain of command, and no soldier tells his family. That’s where I got the passage about desertion—soldiers’ e-mails. I put it word for word in Nothing to Lose because it’s authentic and because, in an oblique way, it gives voice to people who have none.
PLAYBOY: Do most armed forces members like your novels?
CHILD: It’s dependent on rank. Reacher, as you know, was a major, and majors on down love him. They see the potential. Lieutenant colonels and above hate him. They feel it would be a nightmare to have him in their unit.
PLAYBOY: You’re a rarity—a popular novelist who is taken seriously. How do you think of yourself?
CHILD: I think of myself as primarily an entertainer. I never think of myself as a literary figure. That said, I expect good reviews. If a restaurant serves quality food at affordable prices with good service and decent surroundings, it should get good reviews. And that’s what I’m doing—supplying a diligently made product.
PLAYBOY: What writers in your genre do you admire?
CHILD: John Grisham. I think he’s a sophisticated and intelligent writer and that each of his books interrogates the art, experiments to see what fiction really requires. The Runaway Jury has no pleasant characters. You don’t care about any of them. All you’ve got is a central question—what will the verdict be?—and it carries you through. I also like Michael Connelly. He passes what I call the three-minute airport test. If you’re changing planes and have three minutes at the bookstore, grab a Connelly. He never lets you down.
PLAYBOY: What writers in your genre do you dislike?
CHILD: Vince Flynn and Brad Thor. They are essentially contributors to a kind of right-wing bubble. They play to the enthusiasms of the pro-torture audience. Glenn Beck has featured them on his shows. I also don’t like David Baldacci. He’s just overrated.
PLAYBOY: How have your parents responded to your success?
CHILD: My father disapproves of practically everything I do. I’m not Calvinist enough. I buy luxury items. I don’t work in a middle-class job. He’s 88 now and probably won’t make it to 89. He’s part of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.” At the age when I was in college having a good time, he was fighting across Europe as an engineer repairing tanks on the front lines. But it was also a bizarre generation—pinched and unsuited for postwar prosperity.
PLAYBOY: Have you developed expensive tastes?
CHILD: For me, money buys convenience. If I want to go somewhere and there’s an expensive flight I want at 10 o’clock, I’ll take that flight even though I might get one for half the price at one o’clock. And I’ll have a limo at the other end waiting for me. I travel trouble free and first class.
PLAYBOY: Where do you shop for clothes?
CHILD: Lands’ End mail order. You can get a suit there for a couple hundred bucks. And that’s what I wear. I’m not saying I look good, but I guarantee I would not look any better if I went to Armani.
PLAYBOY: Do you throw your clothes away after they get dirty?
CHILD: I take them to the laundry. I don’t live like Reacher. We just got our country house in East Sussex in England and are having it fixed up. It’s in the arts and crafts style, built in the 1920s. We bought a beautiful Renoir painted in 1912. I have a supercharged Jaguar. I have my guitar collection. I actually could afford an even grander life. I err on the side of having less rather than more.
PLAYBOY: How do you relax?
CHILD: In this I am a lot like Reacher. He enjoys his solitude, and I do too. I don’t have that group of male friends that seems to be the American ideal; I don’t have five or six buddies I go to a bar with. I finish work at six p.m. Then I watch baseball on TV. I’m a Yankees fan. If the game finishes at 10, I’ll walk down to the Village to hear what’s playing in the clubs.
PLAYBOY: If you were in distress, do you have a male friend you’d call?
CHILD: Actually, no. Apart from my wife, who by default is my close friend, I’m a fairly isolated person, and I feel fine about it. If I have an emotional wound, I instantly say, “Fuck that,” and it’s gone. It’s probably not a healthy way to deal with things, but I have these imagined ideals against which I measure myself. The heroes for boys of my generation were the RAF bombing crews who faced life with a stiff upper lip. That was very English, and it completely disappeared in the 1990s. When Princess Diana was killed, there was a sea change in Britain. There was this outpouring of cheap emotion that has never stopped. My center of gravity is tied to an earlier time when the masculine thing was to just take it.
PLAYBOY: That sounds like your father. Other than your occasional high-end purchase, have you made no concessions to our fallen time?
CHILD: If I’m feeling stressed, I’ll smoke some weed at night.
PLAYBOY: How often do you smoke?
CHILD: Maybe five nights out of seven. It depends on what I’m doing. I’m a contemplative person, and weed helps me cut through the membranes of daily cares. It simplifies things and allows me to identify the important strands. If I’m struggling on a book, I’ll light a pipe and the answer will sometimes come to me.
PLAYBOY: You must be the world’s most productive pothead.
CHILD: There are others.
PLAYBOY: With the September publication of A Wanted Man, you’re on track to write 20 books in two decades. That’s a lot of work. How many more will you do?
CHILD: Initially I was planning on 21. I wanted to match but, as a matter of respect, not exceed John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels. He did 21. That’s one of the best series we have. I mean, I think Cal Ripken should not have exceeded Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak. Gehrig’s streak terminated because he had a mortal illness. John MacDonald stopped writing because he died. For all we know, he could’ve written many more. So I feel I should do 21 Reacher novels and stop.
PLAYBOY: You’re almost there.
CHILD: Exactly. But in a human sense this will be incredibly difficult to do because you get seduced by the attention. And you’ve got to have nerves of steel to turn down the money. I do four-book contracts. To walk away from the next one would probably cost me $30 million or $40 million globally. So I’m not sure, but I think I’ll be done sooner than later.
PLAYBOY: Do you know how the series will conclude?
CHILD: I have the title: Die Lonely. I believe Reacher is a noble old warhorse and deserves a spectacular end. I don’t think I should just let him peter out. I have it in my mind to maneuver him into some situation where he must decide either to give up the person he’s protecting or to give up himself. He’ll face a villain he can’t beat, and he’ll choose to sacrifice himself. He will drag himself back to a filthy motel bathroom and bleed to death on the floor.
PLAYBOY: Maybe Reacher will live on in the movies.
CHILD: I have a cameo in Jack Reacher in which I essentially hand Hollywood the baton. In the scene, Reacher has been arrested and is in jail overnight. He’s sprung the next morning by his lawyer. He stops at the front desk of the police station to retrieve his possessions, and a sergeant returns his toothbrush. I play the sergeant.