Lee Child is the creative genius behind the Jack Reacher thrillers. Reacher is a loner who constantly finds himself in bad situations. Actor Tom Cruise turned two of Child’s novels into movies. Child’s struggle to publish his first novel differs greatly from most authors.
About five years before he wrote his first novel, Killing Floor, Lee Child began to think seriously about writing. At the time he worked as a presentation director for Granada Television in Manchester, England—an “air traffic controller for the broadcast airways” is how he describes it. He did a little bit of everything, from writing and directing to, of course, traffic management—anything, he says, to avoid the dreaded black screen.
It was part of British television’s golden age. During his tenure Granada produced “Brideshead Revisited,” “The Jewel in the Crown,” “Prime Suspect” and “Cracker.” But still there was a sense at the company that things were changing as management was pondering a corporate restructuring. So in the back of his mind, he began to consider a different career. Just in case.
“I’d always been a huge reader. It was my main enthusiasm. I just read constantly, hundreds of books a year,” he says. “But I had never really stopped to think where they came from. I had never really examined the process. I never really thought about it.”
As he read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, “I began to see how he was doing it. I could almost see the skeleton under the skin. I said, ‘Yeah, I could do this.’ Genre books are not really all that different from a television show or a movie. But that was on the backburner because I was still working. But it was always a ‘Plan B.’”
A few years later he figured he seriously needed to consider a Plan B when he agreed to take on the role of shop steward for the staff. He immediately clashed with management over corporate restructuring proposals that would result in layoffs and firings and consume much of his final two years with the company.
“I was very aware that the two-year struggle with management was dooming me for any future employment with the industry. I would be blacklisted. It was a very conscious choice. Over those two years the importance of Plan B became paramount.”
On September 1, 1995, he was fired. But he had already mentally prepared for the upheaval in his life. The next day, he went to the store and purchased six dollars worth of paper and pencils to begin working on his first novel.
“It was a very deliberate process…This was a fork in the road. I was starting a new phase of my life…I didn’t have a computer. I felt I had to earn a computer with a new career.” So he borrowed his daughter’s laptop to begin his writing.
It took him nearly five months of long hours at the keyboard. “I looked forward to starting every morning. There was one Friday evening—I was really looking forward to writing the next scene on Saturday morning—when my wife said we had to go shopping the next morning. I felt very disappointed.”
That Saturday Jack Reacher was born. At the grocery store, a short elderly woman asked Child if he could reach something on the top shelf for her. Because he stands well over six feet tall, he was accustomed to such requests. After he helped the lady, his wife turned to him and told him if his novel didn’t pan out, he could always become a “reacher” at the grocery store. The name stuck.
How did Jack Reacher become a 6 ft., 5 inch, 250-pound, muscled behemoth?
Child stands at 6 ft. 4 inches. So he did what most writers do, he says. “Most men make their heroes an inch taller and more muscular. Women write them with better hair and thinner thighs.”
Like every writer, he wanted to create a unique protagonist. Child’s was a retired military policeman, a major. He decided Reacher would have a “voice of a rather solitary and inarticulate person.” Child has refined Reacher slightly over the years since his first novel, giving him “a little more self awareness.” But otherwise, Reacher has remained a loner and a drifter, which allows Child the freedom to put his protagonist in virtually any role and in any setting and still continue the series.
So in the fall of 1995 Child threw himself into the task, understanding only too well the importance of first impressions. “Unless you put everything in the first book, there won’t be a second. It wasn’t difficult to write. It was quick. I wrote with a great deal of passion. I still regard it with a great deal of pride.”
A key to his writing success, he says, is that he read books constantly. So at age 39, motivated by his jobless status, he figured he was more than prepared. “A lot of people 40 years old say they want to be a writer. I ask them ‘How many books have you read?’”
As he proceeded, he realized, “I was kind of misinformed about the publishing side of things. I didn’t know any literary agents. I’d heard publishing is very slow. I bought a copy of The Writers Handbook” (The British version of Writers Digest in the U.S.) and began the search for an agent. Darley Anderson, the brains behind the Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film Agency in London, appeared to be a good prospect, so Child read up on his query requirements and mailed off his first chapters. Child received a reply almost immediately asking for more of the manuscript. He hadn’t counted on that.
“I couldn’t deliver because it wasn’t written,” Child says. “I wrote like crazy for the next five or six weeks and then sent it to him. He liked it and wanted to rep it. We worked together on a couple of more drafts. By then it was late July and we submitted it in September to a publisher.”
Anderson was seeking both British and U.S. rights. It took only three months to interest British publisher Transworld. In the U.S., he first tried to sell the manuscript to Hollywood, but found Tinsel Town wouldn’t look at it without some previous domestic validation. Then Putnam “made a really good offer and we accepted it.”
For his first novel, he chose the author’s pseudonym Lee Child, which was an inside joke. He overhead a Texan on a train one time talking about the Renault hatchback Le Car, and mispronounced it Lee Car. It became a running gag between Grant and his wife Jane, who began prefacing everything in the household as “Lee.” There was Lee Table, Lee Door—everything was game for lighthearted ridicule. Even their daughter, Ruth, became “Lee Child.” So when he was searching for a pen name for his first novel, the moniker Lee Child stuck to him instead of his daughter.
And why the need for a pen name?
“I really didn’t think of doing it any other way. I’d been in show business since I was 17. Everybody used endless different names. It seemed to me a no brainer. It’s the sixth or seventh name I’ve been paid under.”
Was it confusing to adopt a new name at age 40?
“Anybody who knew me prior still calls me Jim. People who know me through writing call me Lee. We all call each other in the business by our published names.”
There was also another name to consider. The title of his first novel was slow to emerge. “Bad Luck and Trouble,” was the original, “but my agent had a theory you shouldn’t have negative words in a title, especially two negative words like ‘bad’ and ‘trouble.’ Eventually I came up with Killing Floor.”
His U.S. publisher was happy with the title but his British publisher worried it would alienate female readers, who make up the majority of fiction readers. But eventually, Transworld went with it.
Then there was the cover, which he described as “Beautifully designed jacked. It just made an impact. You just need all the help you can get in the beginning.”
The moment the book was published on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1997 by Putnam, the film rights sold (as did the book—in the U.S. and around the world). The first printing was 18,000 in hardcover. Today, Child jokes, “I get that many shoplifted” each year.
His was every writer’s dream. His novel sold well. “It was an okay living from the first day,” he said. But, he adds, “I was not an immediate success. I was an immediate cult hit. It was really 10 years before I was what you would call a real success. People mis-remember it. They think it happened overnight. It didn’t. Within the genre, yes I was known and became a best selling author. But it took 10 years to really make it.”
Getting his first novel published took just over 18 months from pencil and paper pad, to flipping through pages of a hardback copy of Killing Floor in his neighborhood bookstore. The speed with which he accomplished this makes Lee Child the exception to every rule of authorship. And while he notes it took him a decade to reach his phenomenal success, he still made enough money on his first novel to support his family so he could continue writing.
His success preceded this century’s upheaval in publishing with the explosion of digital publishing. Yet it wasn’t until he moved from Putnam to Random House that his novel sales reached a new level. That’s when then-Random House CEO Peter Olson took an interest in Child’s novels and decided to put the full weight of the publishing house behind his brand.
“Could that trajectory happen again? My guess is no,” says Child. “I don’t think anyone would get that process again. I may be the last author to go through that 10-year quest that used to be routine in publishing.”
Time also brought him another kind of pleasure. Years later he ran into his former boss back at Granada Television—the one who fired him. “I bumped into him in an art gallery. That was quite a sweet moment. By that point I was doing much better than he was.”
Child remembered many verbal jousts with management back at Granada Television, but in the surroundings of the gallery, his former boss “was forced to have a polite conversation.” Success was the ultimate revenge. But, he adds, he will “never forgive and never forget” what management did to the station staff. “It was a very stupid policy and trashed a good institution.”
And while Child may be strong willed, he has a reputation in literary circles—especially among thriller and mystery writers—as one of the kindest authors in the business, always willing to help a fellow writer. He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences, relaying his knowledge to help others.
“Nice guy? Not really,” he says. “I just like writers. I like readers. It’s really self interest.”
There are a lot of writers out there who have benefited from his benevolence who would dispute that notion.
Start to Finish: 18 ½ months
I want to be a writer: Age 35. Began writing first novel at 39
Experience: Presentation Director, Grenada Television
Writing Time: 5 months
Agents Contacted: 1
Agent Responses: 1
Agent Search: 1 week
First Submission to Publisher: 1996
Time to Sell Novel: 3 months
First Novel Agent: Darley Anderson, on a handshake
First Novel Editor: David Highfill (Putnam)
First Novel Publisher: Putnam (U.S.), Transworld (Great Britain)
Inspiration: Alistair MacLean and John D. MacDonald
Advice to Writers: Ignore all advice because you’ve got to imagine here’s your book and that book is going to be competing with several others. The only way it stands a chance is if it has a heartbeat of its own. Otherwise you’re writing by committee. So close your eyes and write the book you want. Then it stands a chance. There’s no guarantee.
Like this? Read the chapter on Steve Berry.