Best-selling author Lee Child talks about the phenomenon that is Jack Reacher and why it is important that he puts back in to the Birmingham school that gave him so much
September 1st is the date that best-selling author Lee Child looks to each year. That’s the day, without fail, when he sits down at his desk to begin work on his next book. It’s a routine that works pretty well. He’s written 21 Jack Reacher novels this way, the first being on 1 September 1995 – the day he was fired from his job in television, invested in paper and pencil and created the tough, nomadic American ex-military cop that millions of readers have grown to love. “I always begin the same way, it never changes,” says Lee. “I haven’t even thought about Jack Reacher prior to sitting down. It’s a blank piece of paper, nothing planned, no plot prepared or anything like that. If you spend all your time thinking about it you get too close to the character, and then it can become very difficult to write.”
Apart from writing Book No 22, this September will have extra significance for the Birmingham-educated author. Just a few weeks later will see the premiere of the second Jack Reacher movie, starring Tom Cruise, and when Lee and I chatted this month he was already getting excited at the prospect of the new film, entitled Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. He was due to fly to Hollywood to see the final cut, the next day. “While the film is based on my book, I never get involved in the scripting – it never works if the author is the person trying to adapt their book for the screen. I am on set all the time watching what goes on, but that’s about it until I see the finished movie.” Lee was born by the name of Jim Grant in October 1954 in Coventry (he adopted the pen name Lee Child when he wrote his first book). The son of a civil servant, his parents moved him and his three brothers – the youngest is also a thriller writer – to Handsworth Wood when he was aged four to get a better education. He attended Cherry Orchard Primary School before passing the entrance exam for King Edward’s School which at that time was a direct grant school funded by the Government. Lee never forgets how lucky he was to go to King Edward’s. “If you passed the entrance exam back then, that was it, you were in and it was free,” he said. Since the end of the Direct Grant system, the school has been independent but continued to offer a number of assisted places.
Lee has been at the forefront of a campaign by the school to hugely increase the assisted places scheme. As one of 12 alumni ambassadors he has contributed and promoted King Edwards AP100 project which has just completed the target of raising £10million over the past six years to fund 100 assisted places at the school, doubling the current number. Lee returned to King Edward’s to join chief master John Claughton and the staff in celebrating the achievement. “A lot of money was raised and it will have a huge impact on some children’s lives. You want every kid to have the chance of the same opportunities you had growing up. What I have done to help means that I have paid for one kid to go through the school, which is great. Although I spend a lot of time at my home in New York, my roots are very much in Birmingham and the place means a lot to me.” Lee recalls the city of his childhood was “very industrial and very prosperous”. He said: “There was lots of money around. I remember my gran coming down to visit from Yorkshire and she saw people in Birmingham using £5 notes – she’d never seen one before!” While the demographic of the city has changed since those days, Lee says Brum’s unique DNA is still apparent. “Birmingham has always been about energy, talent and creativity and that hasn’t changed even though the place feels very different now.
“Birmingham has suffered from a poor PR image. In the past you could call it the silicon valley of its time, and then it underwent huge changes. As a result it became very defensive as a city when it has no need to be. It is a wonderful place today.” While the author spends a lot of his time in his apartment in Manhattan, he also has a home in Sussex which entitled him to vote in last month’s EU referendum. While not revealing if he was a Remainer or Brexiter, he said: “If you have the right to vote, you have to use it.” He’s also a mad football fan, watching all the England games in Euro 2016, and following the difficulties of his beloved Aston Villa. In another nod to his Midlands roots, he also owns and drives a supercharged Jaguar which was built at the Brown’s Lane plant, just 30 yards from the hospital in which he was born. We’re sure Jack Reacher would approve…
- According to Lee, readers love Jack Reacher “because he represents all that we would like to be but are prevented from doing in real life. He doesn’t live anywhere and he doesn’t own anything. He isn’t tied down”.
- The first Jack Reacher book, Killing Floor, won awards for being the best first novel by an author. Since then the 21 books in the series have clocked up hundreds of millions of sales and been best-sellers around the world.
- The first Jack Reacher film starring Tom Cruise was a box office hit, grossing more than $200million.
- The name Jack Reacher came as a result of Lee’s wife asking him to reach goods on top shelves. At 6ft 5ins, she told him he could “always become a reacher in a supermarket if the writing didn’t pan out”.
- As an Aston Villa fan, Lee has been known to include the names of players in his books.
- Lee makes Hitchcock-like brief cameo appearances in the movies. He appeared as a desk sergeant in the first film and will be seen again in Never Go Back.