Friday, April 2, 2010

My feature on Lee Child in NZLawyer

Yesterday an article based on my recent interview with bestselling thriller writer Lee Child was published in the print issue of NZLawyer magazine (issue 133, 1 April 2010). NZLawyer is the independent magazine of the New Zealand legal profession - distributed to thousands of lawyers, judges, law professors and politicians around New Zealand every fortnight. It normally comes out every second Friday, but this week it was released a day early because of the Easter holiday.

I am reprinting the interview-based feature here for your information (since unless you are a Kiwi lawyer, judge or politician, you're unlikely to have access to the print version of NZLawyer magazine - and the review section articles generally aren't placed online).

Lee Child actually studied law at University - hence the interest or relevance for NZLawyer readers (well, let's be honest, given Child's popularity many of them would be interested anyway). Accordingly, I've taken a slightly different angle with this article, given the readership, than I would for an interview-based author profile for a lifestyle magazine or weekend newspaper. So it's really written for a New Zealand audience, of lawyers and those involved in the profession. I hope you enjoy it regardless.

In addition, as I spoke to Child about a number of topics for an hour, this article only reflects about 15% of our interview. Hopefully I will also be writing a more general article on him for another publication, that uses some of his other answers. I will keep you informed.

From redundancy to writing royaltyOn the eve of his New Zealand tour, Lee Child talks to Craig Sisterson about studying law, old-school heroes, and how being made redundant led him to best-seller status

Do you remember those hazy, crazy law student days, sitting in a lecture theatre, wondering what type of law you might end up practising? What type of legal job you might end up with, once all the essays and exams had passed into the rear-view mirror?

Best-selling thriller writer Lee Child doesn’t. Not because he was never a law student – he was, at the University of Sheffield in the mid 1970s. But because he started law school knowing he never wanted to practice law. “When it was time to go to University… I was interested in a whole lot of different things, you know – politics, history, economics, sociology, everything,” he says, his voice reverberating down the phone line from his Manhattan home. “And it struck me that the law is a kind of snapshot of all those things. A law made in say 1930, is a result of the history, economics, politics, and sociology of 1930. Law was a compendium. It was a way of learning everything at once, in a sense.”

Child says he enjoyed studying law, particularly subjects like Jurisprudence (“because overall that was the most generalised, and philosophical, part of it”) and Legal History (“fascinating, because that’s really the history of society”), but his true passion has always been entertainment.

He fell in love with theatre as a schoolboy growing up in Birmingham. “I can reminder way back in primary school seeing all the school shows and just thinking, ‘Wow, this is great, they’re all having such fun’… I just always found it intoxicating – the idea of an audience sitting there and enjoying what you’re doing.” He confesses he never had much onstage talent, “just enough” to get through primary school productions before heading backstage. “But the proposition is still the same, even with a book – the book is the ultimate backstage proposition, because it is really the book that is out there in the marketplace instead of the author. But it still for me has the same appeal, because you’ve got this big audience who are ready for the product.”

For more than a decade, Child has entertained millions around the world with his series of best-selling thrillers starring transient loner Jack Reacher. He’s visiting New Zealand this month as part of an international tour in support of the fourteenth Reacher novel, 61 Hours, and is looking forward to arriving on our shores. “You know it’s terrific for me, New Zealand, because in a way it was probably the first country that really went for Reacher in a big, big way… and I’m very grateful for that.”

Child has visited twice before, in 2000 and 2005. And although his hectic schedule doesn’t give him much time off, he still manages to squeeze in some sightseeing. “I remember during the first visit seeing the magnificent scenery in the South Island, and they were actually making The Lord of the Rings at the time. We were just driving past, and we saw this magnificent fantasy village built high on the mountainside. It was pretty amazing.”

Years later, New Zealand still goes for Child (and Reacher) in a “big, big way”. 61 Hours immediately shot to the top of our best-sellers list last month, even leapfrogging the ‘Millennium trilogy’ juggernaut. In 61 Hours, Reacher finds himself marooned in a snow-swept South Dakota small town, after the bus he hitched a ride on ends up in a ditch. But this is no ordinary small town: the population has swelled after a federal prison opened close by; drug-running bikers are squatting by a mysterious stone building on the prairie; and a hitman is targeting a witness under police protection. And fate has dumped Reacher in the middle of it all.

Although Reacher is in some ways the epitome of the all-action hero, the strong-but-silent type, Child also imbues the ex-military policeman with compassion and some complexity. In a way, Reacher is an ‘old-fashioned’ hero. Rather than the modern tendency towards dysfunctional but overly self-aware detectives battling alcoholism, divorce, or both, Reacher harkens back to the days of the maverick cowboy, riding from town to town, righting wrongs, and then moving on. Or even further back, the knight errant, or ronin Samurai. In hindsight, Child agrees Reacher follows in that tradition. “Some kind of noble person who for some situation, a transgression usually, was banished from the court to just wander the land… Clearly [Reacher] is related to that thousand-year-old narrative form. And you know, that doesn’t hurt – it’s been market-tested for a thousand years, and it still works.”

But although Child is now a fiction-writing megastar, with international sales approaching 20 million, he didn’t actually turn to novel writing until he was made redundant in the mid-1990s from his long-time job helping broadcast iconic British TV shows like Brideshead Revisited, Prime Suspect, and Cracker. Jobless, but still passionate about providing entertainment, Child decided to attempt a novel. He settled on the thriller ‘genre’, he says, because it was what he’d always enjoyed reading, and because tales of excitement and danger have always been at the heart of storytelling.

“Shortly after we developed language, we must have then started to tell stories,” he says. “And those first stories must have been about danger and surviving it, in order to make people feel a little bit more empowered, or a little more brave, in order to get them through the next day. That idea of the danger, the peril, the struggle, and then the success at the end of it, must have been the first kind of stories. What I’m doing is really continuing that tradition. All these other traditions, all these other genres, have really grown out of and up around that central mainstream. And so, I felt not only was it my preferred genre, it was THE genre. It was the centre of storytelling, and that’s where I wanted to be.”

So Lee Child found his place, and millions around the world are very glad he did.

International mega star author Lee Child is visiting five New Zealand cities from 11-16 April. You can see his full schedule of events and book signings at:

What do you think of the article? Of Child's comments about thriller writing? Thoughts and comments welcome.

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