To start, a confession: until yesterday, I’d never read a Lee Child story. And—here’s another, perhaps a more damning one—after watching both movies this week on Netflix, I was primed to not particularly like Reacher, either.
After all, this event was advertised as an evening with Lee Child and Jack Reacher. Reacher doesn’t form the backbone, but the entirety of Child’s writing work. And in the first Reacher movie (named simply Jack Reacher) there’s a scene in a bar that really prickled me. Reacher is approached by a woman, Sandy. And after a brief exchange, he tells her he’s not interested—by implying that she’s a prostitute (Reacher: I’m on a budget, Sandy. I can’t afford you. Sandy: I’m not a hooker. Reacher: Oh, well I really can’t afford you Sandy: Seriously, I work at the auto parts store. Reacher: What I mean is, the cheapest women tends to be the one you pay for.) Things escalate, Sandy gets mad and calls in reinforcements to beat Reacher up, and it ends in this little exchange: Sandy: I don’t mind the sight of blood. Reacher: When it means you’re not pregnant, anyway. So, you know, it was just one of those pop-culture moments that made the feminist in me squirm, recoil, and lose a little faith in humanity.
Perhaps not the introduction to Jack Reacher that the author intended. These gender-based reservations being said, there’s no doubt that Lee Child is a binge-worthy writer. He’s rare, too, in that he has written a character who has become so iconic in pop-culture that Reacher lives outside the page. In fact, Reacher boasts many famous fans—from Stephen King to Bill Clinton—and according to Child, Reacher has even made it to New Zealand parliament. (He mentioned a New Zealand politician was quoted quoting Reacher himself: “We must hope for the best and plan for the worst.”)
Child’s work is accessible, and Reacher is snarky enough to satisfy both people who like thrillers, and people who like thrillers ironically. And from the moment he stepped on stage at the Bruce Mason theatre, I knew it was going to be hard to love to hate him.
Perhaps because he’s well-versed in author events by now, or perhaps because he started his career with an eighteen-year stint as a presentation director for Granada Televison; either way, Lee Child has a very likeable way of being around people. He’s charming and funny, in a relaxed kind of way, and it was impossible not to get sucked in by his genuine concern for his readers.
After talking a little about his story—about how he was inspired to work in entertainment by the utter joy of Beatles mania (he talks about postwar Britain being horribly depressing for a child, up until the Beatles); his firing at 40 and the 7-mortgage payment severance payment period that he had to make that first book work; after that, he talked about the responsibility he has to serve his readers—and that was something that resonated with me.
Readers are the ones who create story, he said, a book doesn’t exist until it has been read. And it’s this audience-serving perspective that came through in almost everything he had to say; in his way of being. He didn’t mince words, or his feelings on literary fiction. When asked if he was interested in writing the next great novel—the next Moby Dick—Child replied “Sure, but did anyone read Moby Dick?” And it’s this attitude—of a book not truly existing until it’s been read; of a book not truly being great unless it is read—that could well be the secret sauce that has made him so successful.
It’s certainly his connection to his readers that inspired him to recently walk way from a lucrative movie deal. Talking about moving Reacher from film to TV, Child said that initially for him at least, the movies were peripheral—it was the books that mattered. But that seemed to change when he realized how unhappy his readers were that the hands-the-size-of-dinnerplates Reacher was portrayed by the normal, human-sized action movie actor of our generation, Tom Cruise. ‘I just felt I let the readers down. Readers wanted to see something closer to the books.’ And as to why he keeps writing a Reacher novel a year? He says it’s because he has an emotional contract with his readers. ‘I’m their servant.’
So, would I ever read a full Reacher novel? Well, I’m not going to be the first in the queue on release day to pick up the next one in the series. At least not yet. But—surprisingly, even to me—I will be adding Child to the top end of my holiday reading list. Partly because Child’s work is removed from the spheres of what I’d usually read (so wouldn’t in the slightest feel like work), but also because of how nice it was to see so many people engaged, enthusiastic and asking questions at an author event; how tempting the ultimate freedom fantasy of Jack Reacher is, and—most importantly—how genuine Child is with his audience.
Event attended and voluntarily reviewed by Emma Bryson
The latest in the Jack Reacher series is:
by Lee Child
Published by Penguin NZ