He loved stories. He’d always loved them, ever since he was a little boy. One day he would grow up to write them. But the one story Lee Child didn’t want to write was his own. He knew too much about it. He might get bored. He wanted new stories. There were too many unread books in the world to go back over old ones.
It was something the author of the bestselling Jack Reacher novels had become famous for - not planning his writing in advance. Mainly this was down to his preoccupation with authenticity. He didn’t want to mess with the instinctive narrative voice that had served him so well from the start, and anyway, once he’d set Reacher up, it was up to Reacher to ‘sort things out’. But it was partly to save his own sanity. It was already a monumental challenge to write book after book about the same character, to keep the series going for upwards of twenty years. If he knew the ending before he started out, he wouldn’t be able to summon the necessary energy and enthusiasm. He wanted to experience as a writer the joys of the reader: the same twists and turns, the nail-biting suspense, the righteous passion, the pursuit of justice, and the satisfaction of resolution.
So no, he wasn’t going to write his own story. It wasn’t that he’d never thought about it. He had a title, ‘Always Lucky’, which I stole for chapter 13 of my biography The Reacher Guy, a title that Lee had likewise served up on a plate in countless interviews across the globe. Still, he’d done a few rough sketches, three of which are included in my book.
The first dates from 2014, when on the one hundredth anniversary of the declaration of war, Lee wrote a letter to his late Irish grandfather (wounded at Suvla Bay), reassuring him that he would survive to father a son, who in turn would father another, who would be born into ‘a different world’. ‘It comes out well in the end,’ he signs off. ‘I promise.’ It’s precisely the promise Lee makes to his readers, and so reliably keeps (hence in the same year Forbes magazine pronounced him the strongest brand in publishing, commanding the greatest loyalty among returning readers). At 277 words, this is the longest of the mini-autobiographies, informed not only by his big-picture view of history, but his warmth and humanity too.
The second dates from 2017, when Lee reestablished contact with his best friend from Sixth Form at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. ‘Not much to report . . . 18 years at Granada TV, which was a fun job, but it all fell apart in the upheavals of the 1990s, and I became a writer as a desperation move, but fortunately it worked out OK.’ Only forty words, but eloquently conveying the lack of self-importance that so endears Lee to his millions of fans both in and beyond the book-writing world.
‘I learned to write in my Physics class,’ Lee said. ‘The teacher was an absolute tyrant, but he taught me how to be brief and concise.’
He wrote the third in 2017, for me. It started well: After ten years as Aston Villa’s top scorer and a brief marriage to Charlize Theron ... But he never got beyond those 15 gem-like words.
Therein lies the problem. This is a guy who loves making things up, not least about his own life. In The Reacher Guy I’ve tried to stick to the facts - and to be fair, Lee did his best to help.
There are a few ways I tested his memory. One of the most instructive was by sifting through the 22 boxes of his literary archive, held at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia. Another was by interviewing witnesses at the scene. I spoke to old school friends, and teachers, and colleagues from Granada Television, and sometimes I would go back to Lee with what they’d said, setting up a dialogue between past and present in the hope of locating the truth somewhere in between.
‘I don’t want to be remembered,’ Lee told me. But I doubted others would feel the same way. ‘No one will want to read about me,’ he said. ‘No one will be interested.’ In writing The Reacher Guy, I hope just for once to prove him wrong.
The Reacher Guy by Heather Martin is out from Constable at Little, Brown on 29 September.
Jack Reacher is only the second of Jim Grant's great fictional characters: the first is Lee Child himself. Heather Martin's biography tells the story of all three. Lee Child is the enigmatic powerhouse behind the bestselling Jack Reacher novels. With millions of devoted fans across the globe, and over a hundred million copies of his books sold in more than forty languages, he is that rarity, a writer who is lauded by critics and revered by readers. And yet curiously little has been written about the man himself. The Reacher Guy is a compelling and authoritative portrait of the artist as a young man, refracted through the life of his fictional avatar, Jack Reacher. Through parallels drawn between Child and his literary creation, it tells the story of how a boy from Birmingham with a ferocious appetite for reading grew up to become a high-flying TV executive, before coming full circle and establishing himself as the strongest brand in publishing. Heather Martin explores Child's lifelong fascination with America, and shows how the Reacher novels fed and fuelled this obsession, shedding light on the opaque process of publishing a novel along the way. Drawing on her conversations and correspondence with Child over a number of years, as well as interviews with his friends, teachers and colleagues, she forensically pieces together his life, traversing back through the generations to Northern Ireland and County Durham, and following the trajectory of his extraordinary career via New York and Hollywood until the climactic moment when, in 2020, having written a continuous series of twenty-four books, he finally breaks free of his fictional creation.