Lee Child on Yorkshire, Jack Reacher and why it was time to pass his fictional hero on to someone else

There are any number of ways you could start a biography about superstar author Lee Child.

Lee Child is one of the world's bestselling authors.
Lee Child is one of the world's bestselling authors.

It could be with him hanging out with Tom Cruise, who played Jack Reacher in the big screen adaptation of Child’s novels, or it could be Lee raising a glass the moment his global book sales reached the 100 million mark.

But Dr Heather Martin begins the story in Otley, which turns out to have played a significant part in Child’s formative years. “Otley is where Lee’s paternal grandparents lived and where Lee used to spend school holidays as a boy,” explains Martin. “And it was an important place for me in the process of writing the biography because it was fairly early on that he told me about his grandfather’s smoking habits and his grandmother taking him to the local library.”

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Child himself has fond memories of the West Yorkshire market town. “I remember going down to Otley market with my grandma and there were many fabric stalls run by Indian people with broad Yorkshire accents,” he says.

Dr Heather Martin and Lee Child are doing an online 'in conversation' event next month as part of Off The Shelf.

It’s not the only link Child has with the county having studied law at Sheffield University. “When I started at Sheffield it was similar to Birmingham where I grew up, in that it was an industrial city where people made things that were useful and substantial. There was quiet pride in the craftsmanship and there was an allergy to taking yourself seriously, and that instilled in me the idea that you get on with the work and you do it as well as you can and you don’t boast about it. That’s what I took away from Yorkshire common sense.”

Martin’s authorised biography, The Reacher Guy, comes out at the end of the month and both she and Child will kick off this year’s Off The Shelf Festival in Sheffield with an online ‘in conversation’ event.

The book charts Child’s story from his childhood in the Midlands and how he became one of the biggest brands in publishing, culminating in the dramatic moment this year when, having written 24 Jack Reacher books, he finally floated free of his fictional creation.

It’s perhaps strange for an author not to pen their biography, but Child says it wasn’t something he was interested in doing. “I was not going to write my own because that would be horrendously pretentious, but equally I’m interested in the concept of memory,” he says. “Quite often we have a firm memory and then you later realise it can’t be right. So it makes you question how much of one’s life is accurately remembered and how much is made up, so I was fascinated by the idea of having a third party perspective on it.”

Which is where Heather, a long-time Reacher fan, comes in. As someone who read Languages at Cambridge and has held teaching and research positions at Cambridge and City University in New York, she had the requisite skills to write a compelling biography. They met socially in New York and from there a professional friendship grew. “We talked about his books and storytelling and the idea of writing a biography grew organically,” says Heather.

Literary fame came to Child later in life. He was in his early 40s when The Killing Floor, the first of his Reacher novels, was published and it came when he was at a low ebb having lost his job as a presentation director at Granada two years earlier.

The book did well, picking up several awards, and since then the hulking detective has become one of the literary world’s most bankable characters.

Child says the character of Reacher was pretty much fully formed in his mind from the beginning. “He just sprung into my head. Nothing about him really changed. When you get down to it, Reacher is a permanent paradigm, he’s a historic character – the knight errant, the mysterious stranger, the noble loner.”

Not that he is a flawless hero. “As a writer you have to be more critical of the character than the reader is going to be. I aim to like him less than you do. Too many characters in books are idealised, they’re what the author secretly wants to be and they won’t let the character do anything bad. I think that’s a cop out, you have to present an honest portrayal of the character.”

He is still surprised and grateful that his books have become such a phenomenon. “At the beginning, if you say to yourself ‘I’ve written my first book and 24 years from now I’m going to be one of the world’s bestselling authors and I’m gonna have all kinds of people on my speed-dial,’ the men with in white coats would come and take you away, because it’s totally unpredictable.

“It makes me feel very humble and a little sad that when I started there were probably a hundred other first novels in the same week as mine, and 99 of them fell by the wayside and only one of them continued into the future, and it happened to be mine but it could have been any of those others.”

Child admits he thought about killing off Reacher but changed his mind. “The readers love him too much, they would be genuinely upset if Reacher were to die and don’t want to do that to them, they want more stories.”

But at the age of 65 he felt he was running out of gas. “The audience wants another 10 or 20 books and I felt I could do another two or three but that’s it.”

So he approached his younger brother Andrew Child, already a suspense and thriller writer under his birth name Andrew Grant, about taking over. “It seemed a risky experiment partly, but also a common sense solution. I think the result is pretty good and we’ll see what the readers have to say in October {when the latest book comes out].”

He’s pleased to have passed on the baton and happy, too, with Heather’s biography which captures his own remarkable story. “When I was a kid, Britain was grey and exhausted and there seemed to be no horizons and few possibilities for what a person like me could do.

"I was terrified of being mediocre, I didn’t want that Midlands life that I saw all around me and I had no idea how to escape it. But partly the world helped me, and partly I did it on my own. Looking back now I feel like I got out from under and I feel really happy about that.”

Lee Child in Conversation online with his biographer Dr Heather Martin, is the opening event of Off The Shelf Festival of Words; Sheffield, October 9 at 7.30pm. As well as paid for live events and digital tickets, around 80 per cent of the festival is free with people encouraged to make a donation on the website. For more information go to www.offtheshelf.org.uk

The Reacher Guy: The Authorised Biography of Lee Child, published by Constable, is out on September 29.

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James Mitchinson