Lee Child Interview: Talking "Life & Life," Reacher and Cruise
Image attributed to Lee Child
Lee Child is one of the most prolific thriller writers of our time. He is the author of more than two dozen New York Times bestselling Jack Reacher books, with most having reached the #1 position and the #1 bestselling complete Jack Reacher story collection, No Middle Name. Foreign rights in the Reacher series have sold in one hundred territories. The next gripping Jack Reacher thriller, No Plan B, will be out October 25, 2022, and is from both of the bestselling authors Lee Child and his brother, Andrew Child.
The first season of Reacher, the crime thriller TV series based on Child’s 1997 debut novel Killing Floor, can be seen on Amazon Prime Video. It stars Alan Ritchson and Malcolm Goodwin. A second season has been ordered and will be based on Bad Luck and Trouble.
"If you think about the damage that’s been done with this obsession with possession of small amounts of stuff, it is ruinous. It has been one of the worst things ever to happen."
Child is the executive producer of the documentary Life & Life, which probes questions of violent crime and punishment through the story of Reggie Austin, a likable, surprisingly honest musician who spent 35 years behind bars and was denied parole time and time again despite many recommendations that he be released. The film also focuses on pressing criminal justice issues in America like the consequences of unjust sentencing and parole practices and the interplay of racism, drug addition, mass incarceration and rehabilitation.
A native of England and a former television director, Child lives in New York City and Wyoming.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Lee, how did you become involved in Life & Life, the story of Reggie Austin’s personal journey from a drug addicted convicted murderer to a free man some 35 years later?
Lee Child: The director, NC Heikin, and I have been friends for a long time. It could be 20 years. As you know, she’s a documentary filmmaker, and I’m a novelist. So really, for both of us, story is meat and drink. So when we bump into each other, which is relatively frequently, we’ll do 30 seconds of small talk. Then inevitably, either she or I will say, “I heard about this guy,” and within seconds, we’re deep in somebody else’s story. A couple of years ago, NC said, “I heard about Reggie Austin and met him at San Quentin.” She told me the story, and I found it really fascinating because it was challenging. It was a challenging story. I’m a novelist and deal with fiction, but years ago when I was a student, I got a law degree and have always been interested in jurisprudence, criminology, criminal justice policy and so on.
But previously, any kind of non-fiction involvement I’ve had has always been about wrongful convictions with various innocence projects or exoneration projects. As a moral conundrum, it’s obvious wrongful conviction is a terrible thing , must be corrected if possible, must be avoided in the future if possible. It’s super important and super worthwhile, and everybody should be paying attention to it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: However, Reggie Austin’s story was different.
Lee Child: That was challenging because this was not wrongful conviction. This was a correct conviction. The guy did the crime. He did the time, and the crime was pretty bad. As a druggie in his 20s, Austin murdered somebody. So then, it makes you say, “Okay. What is prison policy about?” Obviously, it’s about protecting the public by sequestering the bad guy. Obviously, to a certain extent, it’s about punishment. Society is punishing somebody for doing a bad thing. But also, it’s about rehabilitation. However academically immaculate or liberal you think you are, late at night when you’re lying in bed in the dark, do you truly believe in rehabilitation?
Do you believe that a guy who committed a heinous crime some decades ago can now be a different person, a better person? Do you believe that? Do you really trust it? We pay lip service to rehabilitation. Are we prepared to actually act it out, bring these people back into society and trust them? That was really what caught my attention at first. Then, of course, I met Reggie Austin. I met him after he’d been released while he was trying to restart his life. He’s a terrific guy, a really nice man with depth, with character, with intelligence, a tremendously accomplished musician. So yeah. Here is a guy who has readily admitted what he did. He faced up to it. He’s conquered all his demons. He’s turned into a really thoroughly nice guy, somebody anybody would be glad to have as a neighbor, somebody anybody would to to a jazz club to listen to. It looks to me the rehabilitation works.
Then along the way, the film really almost became something else because the process of getting paroled and being let out of jail is all obviously about the Parole Board. Mr. Austin applied 12 times for parole, but he was turned down every single time. So that’s something else we better look at. Is the parole system fair? We were just tackling that question right during that summer of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin, and the astonishing thing we found out was that these parole boards usually are three-person boards, and two of them are retired cops. Two of those guys on these boards could be Derek Chauvin, and that’s something we need to look at because if we believe in rehabilitation, and if we trust it, then we have to make sure that the Parole Board is on the same wavelength that we are and not reflexively negative all the time. They’ve got to believe in it, too. They’ve got to be ready to see the good in people. So to a certain extent, we’ve now got to look at who is on these boards. I think that’s the really interesting side issue that came up out of the movie.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I agree. Another interesting aspect of the documentary was how California’s three strikes law came into play and the hardships that Reggie Austin faced on the outside when he was finally paroled.
Lee Child: I agree. The three strikes thing is kind of an easy sell to the voters because it sounds tough. Of course, citizens are sick of crime, quite rightly, and the idea that you’ve been slapped down twice and you’d do it again a third time, is dumb. I completely understand the appeal. But it does produce this enormous logjam of people that are effectively serving life sentences for nothing really. Three minor offenses can send you down for a disproportionate amount of time. So that’s something that needs to be worked on.
The other point you made, absolutely! If we’re going to take this seriously, if we believe in rehabilitation, then we’ve got to provide an easier glide path out of prison back into society, which is rudimentary at the moment and a little bit of investment here can produce positive results. It can produce productive members of society. Just give them a little help for a year or two as they transition. But that is an incredibly difficult sell to the voters spending money on these people. So it’s going to take political courage everywhere really. When it comes to prison policy, there is not much political courage. We really need to have more examples like Reggie Austin. He was a bad guy in his 20s. Thirty-five years later, he is a super guy. If we can make people believe that and trust it as a possibility, then I think we might get a more courageous and more realistic policy to deal with if we look at it ideally as a conveyor belt they go on as bad and somehow expect them to come out as good. But that brings me back to that original question. Do we really believe in rehabilitation? We have to decide that as a society.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Exactly. Overcrowding is also a huge problem, much of it caused by mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted many years ago for men and women convicted of low-level drug offenses.
Lee Child: Sooner or later, we’ve got to look back and face the fact that the so-called war on drugs has been a complete and utter failure. It has cost trillions of dollars. It has ruined hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives, and it has gone absolutely nowhere. If you could just imagine for a second the prisons emptied out of everybody who’s there on a minor possession charge, you’d have only one-third of the population left. I personally have been a marijuana user for 54 years, and I have never had a problem at all because I’m white, and I’m middle class. Disproportionately, the load falls on people of color and people of low class. Mathematically alone, that is patently unfair. There should be a clue there.
We saw that tremendously 30 or 40 years ago with the crack cocaine thing. People using crack tended to be poor Black people who went straight to jail. People using powdered cocaine would be rich and white, and nobody laid a glove on them. It is grossly grotesque, not even-handed, and sooner or later, we’ve just got to say that it was a failure, that we’re going to scrap it and start over with some more realistic and human laws because if you think about the damage that’s been done with this obsession with possession of small amounts of stuff, it is ruinous. It has been one of the worst things ever to happen.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Life & Life was very well done, Lee, and I wish you much success with the film. You mentioned earlier that you studied law, but you didn’t have any intention on becoming a lawyer?
Lee Child: No. I never wanted to be a lawyer, but I did want to understand how the world works. As far as law degrees, I think everybody should do it. Even if you know for sure you’re not going to be a lawyer, you should still study it because it gives you a framework. It gives you an education in how things work in real life, the political, economic, all of those concerns, to understand it and have a familiarity with it. Of course, you’re immediately out of date the day after you graduate because laws change all the time. But you retain the principals all your life, and it gives you a kind of super-charged bullshit meter. You can sort of tell what’s likely to be true and what’s likely not to be true.
I think it’s a great degree to do as general knowledge because it’s like an amalgam of everything, history, politics, economics, language. All that stuff is present in the law. It tells you more about how the world works than a history course, I think, or even a politics course or current affairs. All the clues are in the laws.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So very true. When you began your writing career, why did you decide to use a pen name?
Lee Child: I’d been in television and theater before that, so I was fundamentally a showbiz person where practically everybody works under a pseudonym for one reason or another, particularly as you take on a new project. If you want to be a new entrant to something and get rid of your old track record, you would do it under a different name. So it was natural to me. I never thought of ever doing it under my real name. It was just a question of what new identity I would choose.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Usually, actors change their names from something unusual, but Grant is a fairly common name (laughs).
Lee Child: (laughs) Jim Grant is the same number of letters as Lee Child. Child is earlier in the alphabet, which is a good thing for people who browse for someone alphabetically. But it’s also easier to say, easier to hear, easier to remember because it’s a word-of-mouth business. If somebody you meet is enthusing about a book, and the next day, you’ve forgotten the name, it’s no good. If you remember the name, maybe you’ll go to the bookstore.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What are the dynamics like between you and your brother (Andrew) writing together, especially since you’re the oldest?
Lee Child: (laughs) It’s very fascinating about the brother thing because, not only is he my little brother, he’s way my baby brother. He’s 15 years younger than me. So all our lives, we realize we’ve had this kind of assumed hierarchy, you know. I’m the big brother. He does what I tell him. But when you’re working together as equal collaborators, you’ve got to get past that. Fortunately, I had an experience with my daughter. We wrote a television pilot together, and that was the same kind of thing. It took us a few days, even a week or so, to get over that deference and politeness that the relationship implies. But we did, and it was actually one of the most rewarding things I ever did with my daughter.
Writing with my brother is the same thing. We just regard ourselves as complete equals. We are very similar people except there are differences. He’s a little more organized than I am, so it’s real easy working with him. If I had to work with an exact replica of myself, I don’t think we’d ever get anything done.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you write together?
Lee Child: Less and less, partly because the idea is a transition over a four-book period, and then he’s going to take over solo. So the idea is that I step back each time. It’s also because we write in a very improvised fashion with no outline, no notes and therefore, if it’s going well, there’s no need to interrupt him. He’ll just carry on for days or weeks on a particular trajectory, and I’m very happy about that because if he’s not getting in contact with me, I know it’s going well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there a certain formula that makes a story so compelling that you’re glued to every page and just can’t put it down?
Lee Child: You know, I’m sure there is. But I don’t know what it is. The old joke is, a successful book needs two things only. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are. So if I knew that, I’d bottle it up and sell it. Each book is the same struggle. That’s the only thing that ever disappointed me about it. I assumed it would get easier or more natural, at least, as you went along. But, no. Each book is the same challenge. I think that Andrew feels the same thing. Every time, it’s where do we start? So we start somewhere, then it’s what’s next? All the way through the book until it’s finished.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was it just as difficult for No Plan B?
Lee Child: Actually, I think it’s the best of the three we’ve done so far, and I think it’s great. It’s proof that the process is working. His problem is he’s a little more organized than I am, as I said. But the only way that a Reacher book really works is if it’s chaotic. It’s just this thing and this thing, and you make it up as you go along. It took him a little while to trust that process because it’s like walking a high wire with no safety net. But he really took it on this time, and that’s how we worked. In No Plan B, I’ll bet that nobody could really tell who’s written what or nobody could tell if this was all written by me, for instance.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What makes No Plan B different from the previous books you and Andrew have written together?
Lee Child: The narrative momentum. It just starts, and you just keep on going. Nobody’s going to put that book down. You keep on going, and it has that very basic element of suspense which is at the very beginning. The reader wonders, ‘What is going on here?” And they do not find out until the end. That is what powers people through the book. They want to know, “What is going on here?” You don’t get a chance to put it down because you don’t answer that question until the end.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was Tom Cruise’s reaction when he was dropped from the role of Jack Reacher when the television series began? I know some fans were upset that he didn’t match up to the physical description (6 feet, 5 inches and 250 pounds) of Jack Reacher in the books.
Lee Child: The way it worked out was it did not present itself as dropping him because it was really about a switch from feature films to television, specifically long-form streaming television. The movie deal that he was involved with dated back to 2005. That’s when we did that deal, and then it took a number of years for the development process. But back in 2005, streaming television had not yet been invented. It wasn’t a thing. If it had’ve been, not just me but every single writer would’ve chosen streaming television over traditional feature films simply because of the luxury of the running time. You have eight to 10 hours to tell a story instead of 19 minutes.
So the migration was essentially away from the big screen to television, and Tom is a movie star. He’s very clear about that. It’s about movies for him. It’s about the cinema experience. With his most recent one, Top Gun: Maverick, it was ready a couple of years ago, but because of the pandemic, the cinemas were closed. Therefore, it would’ve made 100% total sense for them to release that on streaming or On Demand TV. But Tom said that he is not a TV actor. He is a movie actor.
So it wasn’t a question of firing him or getting rid of him, it was that the project moved on to television, and he would not go with it. He could not go with it because he’s 100% committed to the cinema. So that gave us not only the opportunity but also the necessity of finding a new actor. Obviously, it’s about talent and ability, but also we wanted to correct that physical thing that people had been unhappy about. So we thought, “Well, we’ll get the best guy we can, but we’ll make sure he’s huge.” And that’s what we did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I imagine the fans were receptive to Alan Ritchson playing their hero on television.
Lee Child: Very much so. Yeah.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there a tentative date for the release of Reacher season two?
Lee Child: I think it’s going to start shooting any day now. The way they work it’ll probably be six months beginning to end; therefore, I would be looking for it around about late spring or early summer next year.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: If there had been streaming platforms years ago when you worked in television, do you think you would’ve stayed in that medium?
Lee Child: That’s a great question because it’s a fundamental reinvention of television really. There must be some kind of magical ingredient in streaming because it’s available to you immediately, one after the other after the other. What is it that makes you press the button for the next episode, then the next and the next? What is that magic factor? I’m not sure really that I understand it. I’m more of an old school person, and therefore, I’m really glad to be involved in it, but I am also really respectful of the fact that it has moved on without me to the point where I’m very happy to leave it to other writers to find that magic ingredient. It’s a mystery to me. Why is it so addictive and compelling that you sit there for hours and hours? What is the feature there?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It’s fascinating that there are so many choices on streaming platforms, and I was apprehensive at first but have thoroughly enjoyed it over the past several years.
Lee Child: I know how you feel. I’m always the last to change to anything. I’ve still got DVDs. My family laughs at me because I think streaming is new and weird.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What are your other interests, Lee?
Lee Child: I love reading. That is why I became a writer. You can never become a writer unless you’re a reader first. So that’s my number one recreation. Then probably number two would be music. I just love listening to music of my old favorites or finding new favorites. I find that great.
All my hobbies are completely passive and involve me just lying down in a chair. I don’t do anything physical. I don’t do any exercise. I don’t play any sports. I don’t do golf or any of this stuff. Anything that involves me, a sofa and some kind of entertainment, that’s all I need.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But the question is, have you learned how to binge-watch streaming shows? (laughs)
Lee Child: (laughs) That’s interesting because when I was fired from television, it sort of soured me a little bit. So for a long, long time, I didn’t pay any attention to it. But then, during the lockdown that we had periodically over the last couple of years, my daughter was sheltering with us, and she loves TV. She knows everything about TV. So she would suggest stuff to binge, and I totally got into it.
Every night, we’d gather after dinner, and the three of us would watch three episodes of something and then do the same thing the next night. So I really got back into it all these years later, and I’ve got to say that it’s really good. There’s so much good stuff now. It’s very distributed because you have to hear about it or somehow find out about it. There are so many options. But it’s a golden age in a way.
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