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.