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.