Lee Child in Manchester :
Here I am again at Waterstones in Deansgate, Manchester to listen to Lee Child as he returns for his annual visit to the bookstores of the UK. I had been coming every year to Deansgate since 2000 to listen to Lee Child. Back then he had around thirty fans who had braved the rain to hear him speak about The Visitor. Each year the number has grown, and last night (15th April 2004), I estimated around 120 had arrived to hear about his 8th book, The Enemy. With standing room only, Lee Child took the podium and even he was surprised at the turnout, thanking everyone for coming despite the Manchester rain.
Firstly Lee pointed out that he came to Deansgate each year because Manchester was where he had worked for many years with Granada studios. He told everyone that the Waterstones store held fond memories for him, as the building used to be the furniture department for Kendalls before Waterstones took it over, and he actually bought a sofa here; in fact it was the most comfortable sofa he ever bought! He then held a frivolous market survey as to (a) who had already bought The Enemy? (b) who was going to buy The Enemy? And (c) who was not going to buy The Enemy? He’d been taught by his new US Publisher (Dell) that he had to be more serious when he looked at his market and face the people who hadn’t bought his work. Because everyone had either bought or were going to buy The Enemy, the pressure was off and he did not have to be so serious!
To introduce The Enemy he recounted a tip his colleague and friend, the excellent crime writer Mike Connelly, had once told him. When you have a detective or PI, it is often more interesting to let the case work on the detective than the detective work on the case. Lee had stored up that nugget so when he started writing The Enemy, he realised he’d let the case of the dead General work on Reacher. This was an interesting springboard as it allowed the reader to watch a young Jack Reacher in action.
Lee Child also recounted the time when he was in production at Granada Studios, and the trauma of losing his job, a job he truly loved and why that period provided the backdrop for Killing Floor. In his debut novel we have the loner Jack Reacher jettisoned from his post as an MP due to the military cutbacks following the end of the cold war. Looking back I realised that the anger in Killing Floor and his subsequent books reflected Child’s own trauma in losing his job. Despite being cauterised by his success as a novelist, the rejection still lingers in his psyche as a nagging memory. In some ways he uses Jack Reacher as way of confronting that pain. When Jack Reacher hits back at injustice, this in my opinion is Lee Child’s catharsis, because in the so-called civilised corporate world, you really cannot hit back with a fist. Lee Child described tense meetings with certain Granada executives (when he knew he was on the way out) being the type of confrontations that made you wish that you could take the suits outside, and give them a damned good spanking.
Lee Child was very patient answering the audiences questions; questions that he must have been asked a zillion times before, but his responses were as fresh and as personal as if they were new queries. Lee with his tongue firmly in-cheek told everyone he planned to end the Reacher series at book 21 provisionally entitled Die Lonely, but this did not rest well with his anxious publishers. Naturally there were questions regarding film rights, and he informed the crowd that he’d read the script for Killing Floor and had been impressed. Casting for Reacher had been continuing with Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen being recently mooted, but as yet nothing concrete. Lee also told the assembled fans about how critical it was to get the ‘gun-facts’ right, as he had fans from the NRA, who would complain passionately if he got any technical fact wrong. He was pleased to report that in Persuader (just out in paperback), he had not got a single letter correcting him about the technical aspects of guns.
After an hour and half, the crowd got up and made a huge snake-like queue to get their books signed. I noticed that most people had multiple copies of The Enemy and that these were what I term ‘word-of-mouth’ copies for friends and family.
After the signing, Lee Child, Prue Jefferys (from publisher Transworld), Jude Davis (former crime-buyer), a representative from Waterstones and the Liverpool-based crime writer Ron Ellis and I went for a drink and some food. During dinner we talked about Bouchercon Las Vegas, books, films, life and how we were all getting older.
A serious aspect that I discussed with Lee was if he were concerned about the political liberalism that his work is peppered with. His books may be wrapped up in the mould of a right wing action tale (so some of his readers probably had right-wing leanings). In The Enemy we have a military tale which features Reacher’s partner being a black American Lieutenant as well as the book tackling issues such as homosexuality in the US army. Strong stuff. Lee considered that these issues made his work more interesting, as well as making people questions their own belief and value systems, because while captivated by a bruiser type hero such as Reacher, we find Reacher standing up to injustice in all its shapes and forms. One time that he did have problems was with readers writing to him about Echo Burning, which has a sub-plot featuring a group of illegal immigrants in Texas caught up in real injustice. This tale provoked a strong reaction in some of his readers who could not get their heads around why Reacher would help illegal immigrants; when in reality the question was why wouldn’t Reacher help these people who got themselves caught up in trouble not of their doing? This is one aspect of Lee Child’s work that elevates him above the standard action-genre. His work is peppered with subtle social commentary and he’s not afraid to confront the issues that exist in the real world, even if it is in the guise of a thriller.
Lee also talked humorously about how he got roped into hammering out a tale for Karin Slaughter’s collection Like a Charm at the eleventh hour. It happened because Val McDermid got caught behind a deadline and had to pull out of the collection at very short notice. Karin Slaughter (with help from Mark Billingham and John Connolly) knocked on Lee’s door for help. He was given 24 hours to provide a story of 6,000 words - which despite his own deadlines he agreed to do. Although not a fan of the short story format (having only done one previously James Penney's New Identity in 1999), he reluctantly agreed. The following day after he emailed the story over, a FedEx man arrived with a case of beer from Atlanta - sent by Karin Slaughter with thanks.
Over dinner we talked about the importance of cover design as Ron Ellis showed his artwork for the paperback of Single Shot - his latest Johnny Ace thriller set on the mean streets of Merseyside. Lee Child’s UK paperbacks are currently having a makeover by Transworld and I moaned about the fact that ‘completists’ like myself would have to shell out money to buy the books again, because the new covers are magnificent.
Then we shared our war stories about Vegas last October and how much hard work it was for Lee Child being the Toastmaster. ‘Remember the Peppermill,’ I said and we laughed. We also talked about Maggie Griffin’s hard work in organising the Reacher Creatures event as well as her hard work at www.leechild.com
We talked about Ron Ellis’s work, as well as my upcoming book Black Operations with Lee and Prue giving us their insights into the world of publishing. His enthusiasm for publishing is a real jolt and gave me another push to get the final draft completed.
Then while we sipped coffee, we talked about life and the way age creeps on us all like a stalking shadow. Jude told us about the changes in her life, and then we talked about music. Lee Child is a big Pink Floyd fan and we talked about Dark Side of The Moon, now in its thirtieth year (released in 1973), as well as how important The Beatles were to Lee and Ron when they were growing up under the grey skies of post-war England. With Pink Floyd on our minds we talked about melancholic thoughts and how to cope when we hit a highpoint in life and the realisation that the rest of our lives could be downhill. Coffee and deep metaphysics indeed.
To lighten the mood, Lee told us a strange fact, ‘My big highpoint was having David Beckham wash my car, and since that day, my life has been downhill all the way,’ he said with a wink in his eye.
He then told us his story.
‘Back when I worked for Granada Studios in Manchester, my daughter Ruth and her teenage friends had asked me to take them to see the Manchester United team train. Like a diligent father, I agreed and drove them to their training ground. When we got there, the security guy saw I had a Granada Studios sticker on my Vauxhall Astra windscreen and waved me into the private car-park. In those days there was a big link between Granada and Man United. I parked next to a Jaguar and a big Land Rover (the cars of two big name players) and off we went to watch the team train.
The girls were captivated seeing their team kick the ball around, but as I’m an Aston Villa fan, I hung back and got talking to one of a gang of old boys. These are the real devoted Man United fans; the guys who really only live for Manchester United. You know the type. Anyway as we chatted, I saw from the corner of my eye a young guy carrying a bucket and a sponge walk to the car park. I asked who he was. One of the old boys told me that he was a promising new signing from Leytonstone (East London), by the name of David Beckham. I watched as he washed the Land Rover with his bucket and sponge, and then he worked on the Jaguar. Then I saw him look around furtively, darting his head back and forward with confusion. He then shrugged his shoulders and then went to work washing my old Vauxhall Astra.’
‘That was the high point in my life - though I didn’t realise it at the time, so after David Beckham washed my car, my life has been downhill ever since.’
We laughed again.
When Jack Reacher arrived on the bookshelves, then Lee Child’s life really did change. ‘The funny thing is,’ he continued, generously picking up the tab for dinner ‘Jack Reacher is not mine anymore - he belongs to the readers.’
I guess if someone asked a selection of his readers whether they would like to spend an evening with either Jack Reacher or the football legend David Beckham, a few would plump for the imaginary action hero, because while David Beckham plays a good game of football, his other claim to fame would be that he once cleaned Lee Childs’ car.
If you’ve not read Lee Child, here’s a guide.
Lee Child Bibliography
Jack Reacher Novels
Short Story Work
My previous interviews with Lee Child are archived: -
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