Lee Child, Tom Cruise and the knight errant

Lee Child, Tom Cruise and the knight errant

Ed Wood: First things first, congratulations on the award.
Lee Child: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure to get it.
EW: Everyone says they’re surprised, but not everyone says “Oh bloody hell” when they get up on stage. Why were you so surprised?
LC: [laughs] Well, looking at it completely dispassionately, these things tend to fall into a pattern where first of all you’re a debut novelist, then you’re a kind of mid-career novelist, and most of the prizes come when you’re mid-career… then if you survive to become a bestseller you’re a fixture, you’re part of the furniture. Being a bestseller obviously has other sorts of rewards, but typically you don’t get the actual awards.
EW: So you weren’t surprised because of anything to do with your work?
LC: No. It was a great shortlist – in particular, I think S.J. Bolton has exploded from nowhere with four novels. That’s the sort of peak time for this kind of attention, and I had read her book and I thought she would probably win and probably deserved to win.
EW: Do you think you won because people thought you had done something different with 61 Hours? It is very much a concept novel.
LC: [nodding] It is very much a coherent novel from beginning to end and has a very distinctive identity. In a sense it is just another Reacher novel, but it also has a very particular shape to it that I think made it stand out.
EW: It also struck me that this is the second year in a row that a British crime novelist who’s writing about America won, after R.J. Ellory last year. That’s been written about a lot, but do you think that’s becoming less unusual?
LC: Clearly it’s not unusual because he’s doing it, lots of people are doing it, people are doing it in reverse – Americans writing about Britain – so it’s all the English language, it’s basically the same culture. I think British and American crime fiction feed off one another. It’s more or less the same river.
EW: Do you feel after writing 16 Reacher novels you can still surprise yourself? Does Reacher still surprise you?
LC: Absolutely. The decision I made at the beginning was to have it not location based or employment based and therefore the scope is infinite. Every novel feels completely new and fresh to me.
EW: Yes, in fact The Affair is a completely different pace than 61 Hours, slower, more like a classic private-eye novel.
LC: The Affair is set in Mississippi and is a prequel, so it has a distinctive voice to the series that I haven’t done before, looking back, the narration of events that happened a long time ago. It’s got plenty of action in it, but it’s somewhat contemplative and I tried to let the languor of Mississippi inform the pace.
EW: That setting clearly defines the tone of the novel as South Dakota did for 61 Hours, where you felt chilly throughout. Did you do that partly to make it distinct?
LC: 61 Hours was unusual because it was so cold. Theoretically, Reacher can go wherever he wants to be, so why would he go somewhere cold? So most of the books have quite pleasant weather. Without wanting to be pretentious about it, there’s an integrated feel to a book which is a bit like the key that a composer will write music in. If a composer has an idea for a piece, one of the very early decisions is what key it will be in, and musical keys sound very different from one another. So you create a tone by putting together the pace, the setting, the weather, the landscape, and that sets the parameters for the book.
EW: And by making Reacher this outsider who is always on the move, that plays into that noir feeling, the guy that everyone’s suspicious of and he’s suspicious of them. Do you see him, especially in The Affair, in that classic noir mode?
LC: I do. You’ve got to then analyse where that came from. It wasn’t an invention out of the blue in the twentieth century; it was a continuation of the western themes, the mysterious stranger who shows up, for either good or ill – Shane or the Lone Ranger. And that wasn’t an invention from the nineteenth century either: it dates back to the middle ages in Europe where you had the knight errant, which in itself dates back to Scandinavian sagas and the Anglo Saxon poems, even going back to religious stories, Sabian myths. So I see it as a continuation of something that’s always been around in human narrative. I think that’s a very powerful theme and that the popularity of characters such as Reacher is explained by the fact that we’ve always wanted these characters. We’ve invented them over and over for thousands of years.
EW: That existence does something to those characters’ outlook on life, doesn’t it? Reacher has this strange utilitarian rationality because wherever he is, is his home. So in The Affair, there’s a bit where he buys a shirt because he can roll his sleeves up or down depending on how warm it is. That reminded me of Philip Marlowe sitting in a car trying to decide when to eat.
LC: It’s an extension of the no location and no employment thing: he is a purely rational force with no ideology, no dogma, no preconceptions, he just does what the sensible thing is according to his terms.
EW: The Affair has this other noir aspect, a policewoman femme fatale.
LC: She’s almost like a mirror image or a counterpart. He has problems with the investigation and, right from the start, she’s predicting every move because she knows the moves as well as he does.
EW: She has the same background.
LC: Exactly. He says, “She’s been digging the same ditch that we have for all her life, so she knows what we’re doing.”
EW: Why did you choose to go back to an earlier time with Reacher? You’ve done it before with The Enemy, but this is explicitly a pre-9/11 novel.
LC: When you have a series readers become interested in certain thing, and one of the main question has always been, “Why did he leave the army? How did he leave the army?” So sooner or later you have to write a book that answers that question. In a serious structural sense, The Affair loops right round – the last line is just a few months before the first line of Killing Floor.
EW: There’s a strong conspiracy element to The Affair, which seems incredibly current after first the Wikileaks revelations and then the phone hacking scandal. Are you a conspiracy theorist?
LC: I’m not a conspiracy theorist in the sense of grand conspiracies where someone’s sitting inside a volcano stronger a white cat while controlling the world, but I think it’s absolutely and utterly self-evident that if you have a large organisation, whether it’s News International or the US Army, they will close ranks and try to cover it up. A lot of readers, especially in America, are optimistic and somewhat naïve and think, “They wouldn’t do that.” Some of my books have had minor aspects of FBI corruption, for instance, where the FBI will manipulate something for their own benefit, and readers think they would never do that. To me it’s blatantly obviously that of course they would do that.
EW: Do you find that the more these things are exposed, they push you to go further because the truth is almost always worse or stranger than reality?
LC: Yeah, in a sense it’s a parallel track and you generally have to ignore it because, you’re right, the truth is much stranger, messier and weirder, and in a sense much more irrational, than we could get away with in fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
EW: Talking of controversy, the film of One Shot is now going ahead with Tom Cruise in it. Tell me about that casting, because you’ve said before that you picture Reacher as looking like Lawrence Dallaglio, a huge figure of a man, and there’s one of the shortest stars in the world going to play him.
LC: It came about because Cruise is a fan of the books and has been tracking this for six years now. You’re right, in the book he’s described very differently, and a lot of people are saying, “you should have got someone closer to the description in the book,” but what people forget is I’ve actually spent more years on the other side of this divide than on the book side of it. I’ve been doing books for 15 years, but I was doing television and movies for 18 years, and it is completely impossible to translate from the page to the screen. Ironically, if you want to preserve the feel that’s on the page, you’ve got to alter practically every choice. So yes, in my head, in the books, Reach looks a bit like Lawrence Dallaglio, but no actor does. Every single actor with a Screen Actors Guild card …
EW: Unless you get The Rock. And you wouldn’t want to do that.
AC: Even he isn’t. So whichever actor you got, it’s going to fall short. So then you’re just arguing about to what degree they fall short, which is a pointless argument. What you have to do is make fundamental decisions. I thought that if I want a movie, I want a movie star in it. I want a movie in the old-fashioned sense, with a halo to it and a star in it, which straightaway limits you to about five people, five global male movie stars. So you ask, which one of those is the best actor? Cruise is a fantastic actor technically. I’ve been with actors all my life; Laurence Olivier was still in his sixties the first time I worked with him. I know who’s good and who’s not, and Cruise is capable of stunning performances, so it was really a question of assembling the team around him that would produce the best result – that’s what took so long. It’s a bit like your fantasy football team: at every position you want to pick the best player. We have and everything is now in place.
EW: When’s it coming out?
LC: It’s shooting in September through January, so my guess is it will be ready for release at he beginning of next summer in the US, probably the 4 July weekend.
EW: And are there likely to be films of the other books?
LC: That’s always on Hollywood’s mind. Franchises are the things that they want. In fact, that was one of the final components of the negotiation, nailing down the sequel possibilities. If it works, yeah, absolutely, there’ll be more.
EW: And a final question: what are you reading at the moment?
LC: I read everything I possibly can. I just read a book called The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller, which is a post-World War I story, a kind of blend of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd and Robert Goddard.
EW: Thank you, is there anything you’d like to add?
LC: Just, as always, thanks to the Reacher Creatures for reading and buying the books.