Wednesday, April 07, 2010

An Hour with Lee Child

Another year, another Jack Reacher novel from author Lee Child, right? Except that 2010 will bring fans of Child’s fictional former military cop two of his adventures, not just one. The first book, titled 61 Hours, is already on sale in Britain, and is rapidly climbing the sales charts. The U.S. edition is set for release in mid-May, and a listing on The New York Times bestseller rundown seems inevitable. Then, in the fall, another, as-yet-untitled Reacher story is due for publication on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing the British-born Child (né Jim Grant) more renown and, of course, a fatter wallet.

I have been following Child’s career for many years now, and by tradition we meet annually at the Waterstones Deansgate bookstore in Manchester, where he always begins his UK publicity tours. Over dinner, we catch up on our respective lives, and during each encounter I learn a little more about his craft and what to expect from his Reacher series. Child has proved to be one of best ambassadors for the crime/thriller genre. He never forgets his oldest fans and those who supported him back in his early writing days, after he changed careers from TV production to penning fiction.

This year we were unable to dine after the Deansgate event; Child had to rush off to London, while I was heading to Brighton for the 2010 World Horror Convention, an event that was held for the first time in Great Britain this year. Nonetheless, we managed to carve out some coffee-and-chat time in advance of his speaking at Waterstones. During our conversation, I asked him about the importance of weather in his new novel, his views on book piracy, and why there’s no sibling rivalry between him and his author brother, Andrew Grant.

Ali Karim: What came first when you embarked upon writing 61 Hours? Was it the expansive plot that ultimately had to be spread over two novels? Were you feeling pressured by your publishers? Or was it purely an idea that came into your mind?

Lee Child: You mean about the end of 61 Hours?

AK: Yes ...

LC: I see the end of 61 Hours a little differently from many who have read it. It’s about something I have been trying to develop over the last few books--basically to trust the reader a little bit more, inasmuch as in previous books I’d lay out the problem and then provide the solution. In 61 Hours, what I’ve done is lay out the problem, but trust the reader to uncover the solution.

There is no mystery to the solution, or the ending. Everything is there, the closure, the evidence is there, anyone can work out what must have happened, and it’s up to the reader to work it out. It’s all completely transparent.

AK: Even so, all of us are going to have to wait to read your next book, coming out later this year.

LC: The next one comes out in September in the UK and October in the United States.

AK: And do you have a working title for that yet?

LC: Not yet. It’s something that we’re working on currently, and we hope to have it soon.

AK: Location is always important to you in the Jack Reacher series. So why send your man off to South Dakota?

LC: Well, it’s not so much about South Dakota, but more about temperature. I was thinking about one of my earlier books--Echo Burning [2001], set in West Texas, where it was incredibly hot. The heat becomes essentially a character in that book, and I thought I’d like to do a book where unbelievably cold weather becomes the same type of character. Writing about the cold is something I’ve wanted to do for many years, but I’ve always been a little inhibited by Alistair MacLean, a big hero of mine and a thriller writer who was pre-eminent at writing about cold weather. Novels such as Night Without End [and] Ice Station Zebra, set up above the Arctic Circle where the cold weather is a real factor--he did [them] so well. I often wondered if I could write a novel set against the cold. I decided eventually to give it a go, setting a book against an icy backdrop--hence, 61 Hours is set in a cold winter in South Dakota.

AK: You have also contributed a piece to another book coming out this summer, the International Thriller Writers project, Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner. Could you tell us a little bit about that volume?

LC: Sure. The project stemmed from a question ITW is interested in answering: “What is a thriller?” It is a very difficult question to answer, so one way is to lay out 100 books and say, “This is what a thriller is,” using great thriller novels to define the genre. My contribution went way, way back [to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur], as there is always a secondary question: “What was the first thriller or the earliest thriller?” Many people sometimes look back 100 years to what was then referred to as “a novel of sensation,” or perhaps Wilkie Collins, John Buchan, or Erskine Childers. But in my opinion, you need to look much further back, and yes, there will be work[s] lost in prehistory. But for my money the first thriller that we know about was Theseus and the Minotaur, which is 3,500 years old and in fact is an identical story to Ian Fleming’s Dr. No, so therefore the prototype of the thriller novel.

AK: Something we talked about earlier is that my particular contribution to the ITW book is an essay about Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios (aka The Mask of Dimitrios), and I understand you actually have a link to author Ambler.

LC: Yes, indeed. I went to the same high school as Ambler, not of course in the same year ... [Laughs] He was a little older than me ...

AK: While doing some research earlier today, I was alarmed to discover that 61 Hours is available as an E-book on a BitTorrent Web site for illegal download. What is your perspective on the piracy of books via the Internet and the issues surrounding E-books, the iPod, the iPad, and digital rights management?

LC: Well, we have two major problems. Firstly, we have this irrational expectation from the customer about price: There seems be this bizarre logic that because an item is delivered electronically, it should be free. Electronic delivery eliminates the physical book that needs to be manufactured, stored, delivered, stocked, etc., [but] the manufacture and supply [of creative works still] comes with a cost. So if you take as an “over the thumb” average cost of an average book [ignoring heavily discounted bestsellers] ... [and] say that manufacture and supply chain cost is £4 [$7 U.S.] per book, then the rest is £10 [$18]. That makes the book on a shelf cost of £14 [$25]. So, if you had an electronic book, and you strip out the manufacture and supply chain cost, the item would cost, say £10. Some [members] of the public, however, feel that an electronic book should be priced at £0.99 [$1.85], which is crazy logic.

Problem two is that digital distribution is not as cheap as people think it is, because the service costs are high as well as the [cost of] piracy protection, which is very expensive and complex. We are suffering piracy in the same way that physical bookstores suffer shoplifting. There will always be a proportion of books suffering “shrinkage,” as they refer to it in the retail world. Authors like me, and my peers and contemporaries are getting their books pirated several hundred times a week. Therefore, this problem needs to be addressed by some form of digital rights management, which is very expensive to do. So, this whole idea that digital distribution is cost-free is totally wrong--in fact, delusional.

AK: The Rap Sheet reported last month that you made a rather interesting appearance at this year’s Left Coast Crime convention in Los Angeles. Care to tell us about it?

LC: I remember nothing about that interview. [Laughs] It was done by Gregg Hurwitz, so it was completely off-the-wall. Seriously, it was a great convention, and as the title LCC suggests, it was on the far Left Coast of America, and therefore tends to be a smaller convention, more relaxed, more chilled. I had a tremendous time.

AK: There’s another book landing shortly, called Die Twice, by somebody you know particularly well, Andrew Grant. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

LC: Yes, sure, it is by my younger brother, his second book that I read a little while ago--and I was impressed. In fact, that reminds me of a question Gregg asked me at LCC 2010: “How’d I feel if Die Twice was the next Da Vinci Code?” I would feel great, there is no sibling rivalry between Andrew and I, due to the age difference. I had basically left home around the time he was out of his crib. In fact, he’s closer in age terms to my daughter than me.

You’ve got kids, Ali, so how would you feel if any of your kids were amazingly successful?

AK: I’d be delighted!

LC: Exactly! And that’s how I feel about Andrew. If he becomes the next Dan Brown, I’d feel terrific.

AK: Andrew’s writing style is very different from yours, and he tends to focus on the espionage angle. But he’s a fine thriller writer. Has that at all to do with shared reading tastes?

LC: Yes, I think you’re right; he read similar books to me. But where we diverge is that he’s had much more exposure to the corporate world, in the nooks and crannies, a bit like you, where you see some “dodgy” dealings and government interventions--he knows that stuff for real. Interview him some time, and ask him about the job he was offered straight out of university. I don’t have that government background or insight, so my work is very different.

AK: And does all of this fame for you and Andrew put pressure on your other brother?

LC: I actually have two other brothers, but they’re illiterate, so there’s no worry there. [Laughs]

Editor’s note: The Rap Sheet would like to thank Nick Lewis, the events coordinator at Waterstones Deansgate, for the use of his office to record this interview.

READ MORE:Is American Fiction Killing the Tough Guy?” by David Granger (Esquire).

1 comment:

L.J. Sellers said...

What a fun interview. Thanks for sharing. Left Coast Crime was a terrific event too. All the panelists and guests of honor seemed to be having a good time.