Jack Reacher. Six foot five, 250-pounds, ex-military. In the mid-90s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Reacher is fired from his job; dislocated from his world, he struggles with the tension between his need for solitude and his loneliness. For some reason, he’s unable to commit to another job — or a woman. He walks from one small town to another, with only his toothbrush in his pocket, his extraordinary skills and intuition at his core, and sets injustice straight…
Author Joanne Hichens spoke via Zoom to Lee Child and Andrew Child about their collaboration on the latest Jack Reacher novel, No Plan B, and about what Jack means to them as a character. This is not her first interview with Lee, whom she spoke to after Night School was released in 2016. She says, “What a privilege to pick up on the conversation with one of the world’s most famous crime writers, and his brother, now partner in crime, Andrew.”
Joanne Hichens: Interestingly, you mentioned in our last interview, Lee, that you, the writer, attempt to keep Jack largely a mystery man to yourself. You don’t know where he went to school. You don’t know his favourite colour. Does anyone truly know Jack Reacher?
Lee Child: That question really goes to the heart of a lot of literary theory, or at least my reaction to having been a reader all my life. I made a couple of decisions early on, which was to leave some room for the reader to fill in the gaps. That was important to me, to sketch Jack Reacher lightly. I think if he was completely one 100% specified in every respect, there’d be no space for others to inhabit, to invest in. The fact that there are blank spaces automatically filled in as his story unfolds builds the bond between Reacher and his fans. The reader owns him that little bit faster if he is co-created, so to speak.
I felt too, that having read hundreds and hundreds of series over my life, there’s a severe danger in the writer — especially if the series becomes successful and the writer literally invests in a certain character because the character earns a living for the writer — becoming too close, too protective, too eager to show the character always in a good light. Right from the beginning, I thought, I’m going to keep Reacher at arm’s length so he’ll stay honest. I will not be tempted to show only the good parts. He has a life that’s not about me, the writer, trying to project good things into the marketplace.
Joanne Hichens: Andrew, what is your approach to Jack since you’ve been brought in? Do you know more about Jack than your brother does? Do you bring something new to the mix or do you write as closely as you can to the Lee Child vision?
Andrew Child: Our understanding of Jack is pretty similar because we’ve lived with him as an imaginary extra brother for nearly 30 years now. We would always get together, we’d chat about Reacher. We’d speculate about the kind of things he might do, ways he might react in certain situations. So really, writing the books together is a natural extension of what we were doing anyway. I think if there is a difference, it’s that I have, for many years, before it even crossed my mind that we might ever write together, enjoyed Jack as my favourite fictional character. I’d look forward to reading the next instalment of his story. I didn’t think as technically as Lee did in terms of the theories about how close to get to your character, how definitively to fill in the descriptions.
As a result, we’ve wound up in the same place because I absolutely agree that you don’t want to define every element. Every reader has a slightly different interpretation. If you say that a character is ugly or a character is beautiful, everyone’s idea of what is ugly/beautiful is slightly different. The fun part, the magic, is imagining what Reacher is going to be doing next and getting that down on the page.
Joanne Hichens: Lee, even though you keep Reacher at arm’s length, you’ve been together, extensions of one another one might say, for decades. You mentioned in our last discussion, that writing the series would remain a solo experience. At that stage, you didn’t see yourself able to accommodate a co-writer. What led you to at least think of sharing Jack?
Lee Child: It really started out of curiosity. Do you remember Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and so on? Larsson famously died and we were left with only those three books. A fourth book was ghost-written by Swedish journalist David Lagercrantz and I read that book with great interest. I was trying to figure out to what extent it’s possible for an “outside” author to inhabit a character, a really iconic character like Lisbeth Salander. My conclusion was it can be done, about 95% of the way, but then there’s that little margin, that 5% that can’t be replicated. Writers get very close to it, but not quite close enough. Is it then possible to reproduce the ragged edges, the madness in the author’s head that completes the character? A lot of Robert Ludlum books are the same. Robert B Parker was given the same treatment. My idea was simply to let Reacher fade away when I ran out of gas. That would be the end of Reacher.
Joanne Hichens: We’re so glad that didn’t happen. The world would certainly hanker after Reacher. At what point did you turn to Andrew as co-writer?
Lee Child: I became aware that the 5% of author madness necessary to complete the character could be complemented by my brother. We’re very similar. We share 50% of our DNA. We share life experience in day to day normality. We react the same, we tell the same jokes, we find the same things annoying. Clearly, Andrew was not merely a third party. He has a personality similar to mine, and I wondered if it could work. I didn’t think of suggesting it at first, as he was working on a series, but then I thought — I’ll ask him, I’ll see what he thinks of the idea. Happily, he thought it was a good idea, so we’re doing it and I’m really enjoying it.
Joanne Hichens: What is it about the brother-brother relationship that is so special for you both?
Lee Child: For me, I think in comparison with my other brothers and also in comparison with stories I hear from other people, we have all the advantages and none of the disadvantages, because the age gap is so big, a decade, we never really lived together under the same roof as siblings. Not in that traditional way where there’s a couple of years between you and you’re intensely annoyed with each other, or are competitive with each other, or you’re fighting and squabbling every day. He’s breaking your toys, I’m breaking his toys. There was none of that, so we were just left with the benefits, which are we’re similar people, we think the same. We instinctively understand each other without any of that annoying childhood stuff, so it was very much a trouble-free decision. We’re friends really. Obviously, I’ve known Andrew all his life — literally since he was born.
Both of us separately in our family were suffering the same thing. We are reckless, careless people. All we want to do is have fun and do what we want to do and we grew up in this dour, repressed household where duty came first, and I understood none of it and felt like a total fish out of water. Then many years later when Andrew was born and started to develop his own identity, I saw exactly the same thing was happening to him, so it gave us a common bond. I’m comfortable with the fact that we’re an authentic team because Andrew is just as bonkers as I am.
Joanne Hichens: And Reacher in turn is bonkers, in the nicest possible way. The tough guy who does whatever is necessary to dish out justice. So this brings me to ask, did your childhood inform Reacher as the quintessential hero who for many, many years now goes out of his way to save those who need saving? Did your childhood experiences inspire you, in the writing, to want to repeatedly punish bullies?
Lee Child: Yeah. Historically, Reacher is a version of a character that has been around in storytelling over and over and over again for thousands of years. The mysterious stranger who suddenly comes to town and fixes the problem and then moves on. That’s a paradigm that has always existed. What fascinates me more is that my childhood was the end of the 50s and the 1960s, whereas Andrew’s comparable period would be the end of the 70s into the 80s, when the world was quite different. But we still came up with the same eternal human reaction: there are people that need looking after because other people will prey on them. As children, in various circumstances, that tended to be reasonably benign. Nobody was getting killed or anything, but there was violence, certainly when I was a kid, it was a primitive society compared with today, very emotionally inarticulate.
Nothing could ever be solved by talking. Everything was a fight. I saw it was similar for Andrew when he reached that age as well many years later. One of my great pleasures in life is watching anybody try to bully Andrew. It’s not going to end well for them and if a situation like that occurs, I just sit back like I’m watching a TV show. It’s fantastic.
Andrew Child: Our father was relatively old, and old-school. He was from Northern Ireland, which was a very different society. I think of all the situations that have been going on in Northern Ireland over the years, it’s clear that violence is the go-to mode, so it’s no surprise. He’d been a soldier and had fought in the war. I remember once back in the days in England, we were having breakfast and my dad fetched the post and there was a letter from my school complaining that I’d been in a fight. My father used to have these half-moon reading glasses, so he glared at me over the top of his glasses and with his Northern Irish accent, he said, “Andrew, it says here, you’ve been fighting. Is this true?” So I said, “Yes Dad, it is.” And he said, “Did you win?”
Joanne Hichens: In other words, you’re bringing this personal fighting spirit, this no-nonsense attitude to bullies, right into the Reacher character.
Andrew Child: It’s something that’s hardwired in us. It’s in our DNA. There’s nothing we can do about it. If we see a bully, if we encounter bullying behaviour, it’s like a chemical reaction. If you drop a match into a bucket of petrol, there’s no choice about whether it sets on fire or not. For us, there is just no choice. We stand up for people.
I think you see some of that in Reacher too, but there’s another aspect. Some of this stuff took place outside of the house, but the environment that we lived in, our home, was oppressive. Yes, we felt like fish out of water, like foreigners in our own home. I think that informs Reacher too, because Reacher is constantly wandering, going from place to place, he’s constantly, essentially lacking a home, isn’t he? There’s no place he automatically fits in and I’m sure that comes from our experiences as kids too.
Joanne Hichens: Perhaps this is what brings such authenticity to Reacher as a character. We read the Reacher series because of the page-turning action and violence, knowing the baddies will get their comeuppance, but we are really more interested in Reacher himself. We want to know more about Reacher. Is he going to settle down? Is he going to find someone who’ll alleviate his loneliness? Which never quite happens.
Here’s a practical consideration for you. Reacher has no car. He has no driver’s license. We suspend our disbelief, but at what stage will Reacher be forced to face technology? When will he try out the latest Apple or Samsung smartphone?
Lee Child: Before the first book we did together, The Sentinel, we seriously deliberated on this. In your words, should Reacher have a smartphone? In other words, to what extent should we move him into the present day in terms of technology and the relationship therefore that we all have with it. My theory was that the reader finds it attractive and reassuring if the character is a little bit behind the curve in terms of technology, because then every reader thinks along with Reacher. Every reader can at least do what Reacher does and none is intimidated by a super hi-tech character.
Andrew Child: That said, we agreed that he was falling so far behind the curve, it was getting a bit grotesque. Our task in The Sentinel was to nudge him forward into the future so that technology was not automatically a problem for him. There are other issues though. He doesn’t have an address. This would make it bureaucratically difficult to set up the account. And he certainly doesn’t have email.
Lee Child: Why would he? Who would email him? Reacher is ruthlessly pragmatic. Somebody says he should have a phone. He says, why? Who’s going to call me? Who do I want to call?
Joanne Hichens: Doesn’t Reacher ever want to just relax and watch Netflix? or YouTube? Or Google things for himself?
Andrew Child: We can’t ever see Reacher getting his own smartphone, but what we have done in the last couple of books, is recognise the fact that there’s no reason why he can’t learn the technology. He’s thoughtful, questioning, but also a ruthless investigator. If at some point in the story it becomes necessary for him to take somebody’s phone and get some information out of it or use it for some reason, of course he’ll do that because he’s not going to turn his back on the thing that could help him to catch the bad guys or to solve the puzzle more quickly, just because it happens to be a piece of technology rather than an analogue clue.
Lee Child: The fact that Reacher would not want to watch Netflix or YouTube says a lot about not only the character, but also about how this access eats away our time. Reacher is a critical voice particularly about our obsession with social media. We waste a fantastic amount of time on social media and Reacher’s not a guy who would do this purely out of enthusiasm. He’d want to see a reason for it.
Andrew Child: If there’s a reason for him to use it, if it’ll help him, if it’ll help someone else, then he will. But can you imagine trying to explain to Reacher why he might want to be on Twitter? Maybe it would be a fun scene. But I don’t think Reacher would understand the point of Twitter.
Lee Child: Twitter is a bit loquacious for Reacher, I think.
Joanne Hichens: Does keeping Reacher in this mould of enigmatic, archetypal hero – without technology to back him – appeal to newer, younger audiences? Are you concerned about this at all?
Andrew Child: The short answer is we don’t worry about it. We can’t cater for a specific audience without being patronising and ridiculous and so we just hope for the best.
Lee Child: In principle, you can’t worry about the market. You can’t worry about trying to capture this demographic or that demographic, because you’ll go down a rabbit hole that makes the whole thing too difficult. All you can do is write the best book you can and hope that lots of different people read it. There is that hole in the market for younger readers, but storytelling and reading is an addiction for the human race. Of course, stories are delivered in lots of different ways now, but reading is always there, it’s a skill. It’ll never disappear. People will turn to reading for pleasure, eventually. We hope our fans keep returning for Reacher.
Joanne Hichens: To go back to Reacher, in the very first book, The Killing Floor, published in 1997, Jack was just 37. We have no real gauge now of his “book age”. His “timelessness”, I would say, is part of his appeal. I’m also wondering about the timeline? There’ve been a number of prequels written as part of the 26-book oeuvre so far, and I’m wondering where you’ve placed this new one, No Plan B, in time? And is the time period a little like Reacher himself? Time is not an issue?
Lee Child: With a long-running series, how do you date it? Should you date it? Should you locate it into a particular period? One of the questions we get asked all the time is how old is Reacher in the present day? If you were to work it out logistically I’m not sure how old he is now, we don’t set an age. The point is he is a mature adult now and we’re not going to worry too much about what year the story is set or what that implies about Reacher’s age, because pretty soon he’d be a hundred and we can’t let that happen.
Joanne Hichens: Getting to No Plan B, the thriller has a fascinating premise. Without saying too much, a private prison is in fact a front for organised crime, housing cherry-picked inmates who run a range of illegal activities. I was wondering — how did the story arise? Which of you is interested in prisons, bearing in mind the whole hard world of prisons in the US bears scrutiny?
Lee Child: We both have an interest in criminal justice. Prisons are obviously the end of the criminal justice process. You imagine that prisons are a governmental responsibility. We assume the government runs these places because the government decides that you’re guilty and that you require imprisonment. But of course in the States what we’re seeing is this blend of social penalty with private business. A lot of these prisons are run as private corporations. And so immediately you start to think, is that a good idea or a bad idea?
Andrew Child: We didn’t set out to do a social justice piece, but we’re both curious people. Years ago I remember reading about the prison system in the US, and there are certainly questions about what happens when a prison or a government aims to make a profit out of incarcerating people. We took it a step further and asked, if your goal is to make a profit and what you actually have is a very large building — in this case Minerva Prison, headed by the infamous Hix and Brockman — full of people with particular criminal skills, might it be that you could or would take advantage of those skills? Essentially, the justice system is like a conveyor belt sending criminals to an environment in which those skills can be put to money-making use.
Joanne Hichens: No Plan B has a riveting opening scene. A woman lands, falls or is pushed under a bus. Which is it?
Lee Child: For me, the opening scene was important as I’m particularly interested in, as part of the justice system, eyewitness testimony. In this case, yes, a woman falls under a bus. But the eyewitness testimony is unreliable. You can have a situation where nine people see one thing and they’re totally convinced about it and the tenth person sees something different. The nine people are wrong and the tenth person is right. It’s a great way to start a story.
Andrew Child: Reacher, who just happens to arrive in the small Colorado town of Gerrardsville, sees the true version. The action and suspense follow on from there. Reacher is the reliable witness who goes on to pursue justice for the victim.
Joanne Hichens: What else would one expect? Thank you gentlemen, for your generosity with your time and your patience and for the pleasure of your conversation. DM/ ML
The gracious pair have promised to visit us here in South Africa, and we Jack Reacher fans look forward to it.
About No Plan B: When your name is Jack Reacher, the truth is always worth doing time for. Gerrardsville, Colorado. One tragic event. Two witnesses. Two conflicting accounts. One witness sees a woman throw herself in front of a bus — clearly suicide. The other witness is Jack Reacher. And he sees what really happened — a man in grey hoodie and jeans, swift and silent as a shadow, pushing the victim to her death, before grabbing her bag and sauntering away. Reacher follows the killer, not knowing that this was no random act of violence. It is part of something much bigger…a sinister, secret conspiracy, with powerful people on the take, enmeshed in an elaborate plot that leaves no room for error.
Lee Child, the creator of the iconic character Jack Reacher, has written 27 Jack Reacher novels, the latest few in collaboration with his brother, Andrew Child.
Andrew Child is the writer of a number of crime-fiction series, featuring respectively David Trevellyan, Detective Cooper Devereaux and Paul McGrath.
Joanne Hichens is the author and editor of two thrillers, Divine Justice and Sweet Paradise, featuring the intrepid handicapped, ex-addict, promotional speaker-turned-PI, Rae Valentine. Joanne’s latest non-fiction book is Death and the After Parties, a memoir on death and dying.